Women, Sex, and Singing: What Musicals Can Tell Us About Sexual Empowerment

If all the Oscar nominations are anything to go by, there’s a lot of hype surrounding La La Land at the moment. In particular, people seem to love Emma Stone’s character, Mia – and it doesn’t surprise me. Aside from having a sharp sense of humour and a set of insecurities many artists can relate to (self-doubt is strangely endearing), Mia is extremely comfortable showing interest in Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in a few creative ways, e.g. requesting his band to play ‘I Ran’ by A Flock of Seagulls at a pool party as a way of mocking the serious musician.

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That being said, she’s definitely not the only woman in a musical to have an impressive amount of confidence when it comes to flirting. Whilst it might be a bit of a stretch to go ahead and say that Mia is sexually empowered, she’s giving La La Land‘s audience a little bit of an insight into the other empowered women you see a lot of in musicals. Not only do we get to see the high points of these women’s lives, but to get a well-rounded view of the situation, we see their low points, too.

So, Who Else Could Be Considered to Be a Sexually Empowered Woman?

To name a few of my personal favourites, we first have Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) in Cabaret, showing us the life of an independent women living in Germany during the interwar period. Working as a performer at the Kit Kat Klub, through her we’re given an insight into the changing role of women as a result of the First World War – Sally pays for her own accommodation in Berlin, has a job that she enjoys, and, like Mia in La La Land, has no trouble approaching men.

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Also during the interwar period, we have Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in Chicago; the two of them both end up in prison for murdering their partners and then use this situation, alongside their feminine sex appeal, as a way of boosting their success in an American culture obsessed with fame and celebrity. As a result of this, they then pave the way for their own independence in a male-dominated society.

Then there’s Betty Rizzo (Stockard Channing) from Grease. When placed next to Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John), they’re the embodiment of the conflicting attitudes to the role of women in 1950’s America, giving a little explanation as to why there’s such a rift between the two characters. Rizzo is willing to take part in scandalous activities such as pre-martial sex (!) in a car (!!!), depicting part of the precedent for the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

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Facing challenges from a controlling manager, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) eventually find a way to defy him in Dreamgirls. The sexual empowerment here isn’t as explicit as in the other examples, but there’s undertones of it in the film’s context of 1960’s and 70’s America, and in the problems they encounter with both Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) and Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early (Eddie Murphy).

Finally, we have the more recent example of Ali Rose (Christina Aguilera) in Burlesque – she makes a living through dancing around in skimpy outfits and singing along to catchy show tunes on a stage in front of a wealthy audience, and she loves it. Despite losing her way during the course of the musical, she learns her lesson and sets her priorities straight by the end.

What’s So Good About Being Sexually Empowered, Then?

The key word here: independence! All of the women named above, when living their lives outside of dependence on men to give them validation, are their best selves because they’re at their most confident.

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Sally and Ali have very similar stories: they’re both dancers, and become reliant on men to be their main financial aid. Sally seems to think that having a man pay her way for her will solve all her problems, but even when completely skint and in a casual relationship with an equally skint writer, Cabaret shows us that she’s in a better place there than when she finds herself in a relationship with a very rich married man. In Burlesque, Ali also finds herself in a crappy financial position, and although things seem to be on the up when she finds herself being looked after by Marcus (Eric Dane) and Jack (Cam Gigandet), it isn’t until she and Tess (Cher) find a way to save the burlesque club from being shut down that she’s truly found where she belongs.

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Also in not entirely dissimilar situations are Rizzo and Effie. Whilst Rizzo does discover she isn’t pregnant and does happily end up with Kenickie (Jeff Conaway), this doesn’t devalue her experience – arguably, Grease is telling us that the reason why she’s in such a good mood at the end is knowing that she won’t have to become dependent on him or any other man to provide financial support for her and her child, so she can enjoy her time with him without those concerns haunting them. In Effie’s case, it’s once both she and Deena are free from their relationships with Curtis that they can truly embrace the reward they deserve for their hard work as artists at the end of Dreamgirls – and Effie can give her daughter a better life.

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In Chicago, Roxie and Velma find a way to suppress their undying hatred for each other and use the positive public image they built up from their trials as a way of creating an extremely successful vaudeville double act, resulting in them having prosperous post-prison lives. The message here? Murder your disrespectful partner and use that as an excuse to become an adored celebrity. It’s a foolproof plan. But, it also demonstrates how the two men they relied upon to make them successful – Velma’s husband and Roxie’s lover – couldn’t actually help them, and in the end they had to find their own way of doing things.

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What does this all have to do with sexual empowerment, then? Like I said before, the women learn not to receive all their validation from men. They’re all led to believe that their lives will be better if they do as their partner says, because they think that’s the only way they can achieve their goals – this then causes them to become objectified. When they realise the problem with this mindset, they can then move onto independence from their partners, and become empowered by the fact that they act in the sexually suggestive ways that they do because they enjoy it, and not for the sole pleasure of others.

But What Kind of Limitations Do the Women Face on the Road to Empowerment?

A lot of the issues the women are faced with are constraints set out by the societies they live in. The problem itself isn’t men being greedy, misogynistic pigs – in fact, in a fair few of the films mentioned the men within them are a great aid to female protagonists seeking empowerment. The problem is the expectations set out for women regarding their gender role and the negative preconceptions surrounding openly sexual women at the different time periods our protagonists are in.

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Burlesque shows us from the start that Ali is an extremely feisty character, which is actually her greatest asset throughout the film, as it’s that assertive nature that allows her to rise up in the ranks at the burlesque club. But, it can be interpreted that when she becomes more submissive to the men she’s in relationships with – Marcus and Jack – things begin to go wrong for her. It’s these mistakes that make her character a lot more human, and we see her friends – Tess and Sean (Stanley Tucci) – help her resolve these problems and grow as a person. Because she’s living in a modern day environment, she has more freedom to be sexually empowered than the other women on this list living in different points throughout the 20th century. But, this doesn’t mean that she encounters absolutely no obstacles on her journey to becoming more empowered.

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Chicago and Cabaret give us two different perspectives on sexual promiscuity during the interwar period. Both depict their female protagonists as majorly flawed individuals, causing us to question morality in the western world during the 1920’s and 30’s, but I’d say that Chicago has a far happier ending than Cabaret does. Roxie and Velma struggle to be taken seriously during their time in the public eye without having Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) orchestrate their every move for the press to publicise, but actually with his help eventually find a way to gain independence from him by the end of the film.

Sally becomes so absorbed in her decadent lifestyle with Brian (Michael York) and Maximilian (Helmut Griem) that she forgets about the practicalities that are vital to remember when being sexually promiscuous, which is what forces her to make a tough decision at the end of the film. With the musical being set during the rise of the Nazis, a contributing issue would be the lack of support available for women within Sally’s situation.

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Not unlike Sally, Rizzo finds herself encountering the same limitations in Grease, again demonstrating the need for the sexual revolution of the 1960’s at that time. Leading on from this, in Dreamgirls Effie struggles to survive as a working class black woman when she’s left to look after herself and her daughter when Curtis leaves her for a relationship with Deena; Deena’s also limited in her success as an artist because Curtis is in control of The Dreams’ management.

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In a time when women were meant to be gaining more independence from the second wave feminist movement, it was still limited in how it addressed the issues in the lives of women of colour. Furthermore, the fact that Dreamgirls is the only film on this list with women of colour as its protagonists highlights the even bigger problem of the lack of diversity that is still present within musical cinema today.

What Exactly Does This All Mean?

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Musicals can give us a cinematic representation of the lives of sexually empowered women throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century – we can see the benefits of their lifestyles played out before us, and how this kind of empowerment improves their well-being, but also see how society limits them, causing them to encounter relationship problems at best and major moral conflicts at worst.

The most fantastic part of all these characters is their complexity. They’re not inherently good or bad, because they’re all extremely flawed individuals, but still have redeeming features that cause us to sympathise with them. As a result of this, we want them to be successful in their journey to empowerment – if they’re not, then we feel a little bit of anger at the world they live in for limiting them in such a way.

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The message we can take from these musicals is to be proud of what we’ve achieved over the past 100 years in terms of empowering women and giving them a far greater breadth of opportunities in life – but we also need to acknowledge what we haven’t achieved in that time, and how we can improve upon that.

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