Featured image courtesy of Matthew Murphy
I’ve admired The New York Times for a long time now. For years, it’s been a dream of mine to write for them in any capacity, but preferably in an arts and culture setting. As such, I tend to pay particular attention to their Broadway reviews. It’s a chance for me to live vicariously through the critics, a chance for me to pretend as if I too saw the productions they were lucky enough to see with the original Broadway casts.
After seeing the national tour of Anastasia a couple weeks ago, I looked up various reviews from the Broadway production, one of those being from The New York Times. Needless to say, its misogyny made me uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that I read the reviews of several other female-led musicals and musicals geared towards inspiring women (especially young girls). There were some that were fair in their treatment of women, and there were some that made me outright cringe.
I wanted to point out some such quotes to make people aware of the fact that one of the highest-circulated newspapers in this country (headquartered in the heart of United States’ musical theatre scene) needs more young women writing Broadway reviews. While they do have women writing theatre reviews, they’re not writing about Broadway shows as much (or at all) as Ben Brantley and Jesse Green. From experience, I can say that people who don’t live in New York City generally read the Theatre section of the Times to read about the newest Broadway musical. Consequently, the greater American population is getting Broadway information from male critics who don’t always respect shows that are geared towards women. This isn’t okay.
Read on to see some key examples.
1. “So ‘Anastasia’ may well tap into the dewy-eyed demographic that made ‘Wicked’ such an indestructible favorite of female adolescents.” (Anastasia, 2017)
When I looked deeper into Brantley’s background, I noticed that he was 62 years-old when he wrote this review of Anastasia. As someone who discovered Wicked when she was a “female adolescent,” I think I feel justified in saying that it’s kind of unusual for a 62 year-old theatre critic to refer to young girls as “female adolescents.” This just reads as a creepy, roundabout way of writing “young girls”. It sounds like a scientist or an alien wrote it, not a theatre critic.
2. “Once she switches from her street-sweeper rags into Parisian haute couture (the costumes are by Linda Cho) you may discern a resemblance to that current fashion plate of American royalty, Ivanka Trump. I did anyway. Such are the little self-diverting games a constant theatergoer plays when the mind wanders.” (Anastasia, 2017 )
I can’t imagine what state of mind someone has to be in to compare Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia to…Ivanka Trump. Even if this is strictly regarding her clothing, it’s completely ridiculous to compare an early 20th-century Russian princess character to a Trump. It’s reducing of her character who, in the musical, embodies everything a Trump is not: honorable, caring, loving, and loyal.
My jaw dropped open when I came across this one.
3. “…in which the adversarial women learn from each other and which recalls sobfests about female friendships like the movie ‘Beaches.’ (You keep expecting Glinda to start singing, ‘Did you ever know you were my hero, Elphaba?’)” (Wicked, 2003)
Apparently, a musical that reflects the evolving friendship between two women over time can be simplified to a “sobfest.” Of course it’s comparable to Beaches, which is—wait for it—a movie that reflects the evolving friendship between two women over time. It seems like Brantley really has a peculiar distaste for media that focuses on female friendships.
Wicked’s themes, while perhaps not as “deep” or “artistic” as some Best Musical Tony winners, are so much more than “sobfests about female friendships.” It’s about what makes someone good, what makes someone evil, and the fine line between the two. It’s about how beauty isn’t all what’s on the outside. It’s about how women can overcome adversity by supporting each other.
If that’s what a sobfest is, sign me up.
4. “But our intrepid Ann is incapable of screaming in fear. Instead, she roars, and that’s what attracts her soul mate Kong to her. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear a lot of Katy Perry power in Ms. Pitts’s scream.” (King Kong, 2018)
Jesse Green and Brantley’s degrading, Facebook Messenger-esque review of King Kong is a whole discussion in itself of how not to write a respectful review. Every musical, including one that critics don’t like, deserves a real critique by critics willing to put in the work to write one.
That said, this quote from Brantley particularly irked me. It seems like such a trivial thing to criticize in a show that these critics found a lot to criticize. Going after Ann’s “roar” reads, to me, as just another reason to degrade a black female actress and character, point blank.
5. [BRANTLEY] And the other theme, would that be the equation of ape in captivity with the oppression of women? [GREEN] Yes. A feminist angle is attempted, not very convincingly…A car wreck of clichés like that simply can’t put a feminist story across meaningfully.” (King Kong, 2018)
I trust two male critics talking about how King Kong isn’t feminist exactly as much as I trust a preschooler to give lessons in AP Calculus.
I haven’t personally seen King Kong so I can’t comment on whether or not their comments are indeed true. However, I wish that The New York Times had trusted this review specifically to a woman, especially a black woman, who would have even more insight on how well-depicted a black female character is treated.
6. But the jokes, poses and put-downs that Regina delivers and inspires in others in this musical, adapted from the 2004 film, are a lot more entertaining than the more earnestly aspirational doings of the heroines of ‘Frozen,’ ‘Anastasia’ and, their deathless sorority founder, ‘Wicked.’” (Mean Girls, 2017)
There is something incredibly fishy about the fact that, of all the shows with female heroines to list in comparison to Mean Girls, Brantley chose three that primarily appeal to a female audience.
Further, I don’t see why it had to be heroines that compared to the ones in Mean Girls. Why couldn’t Brantley compare Regina’s comments to Jared’s snarky remarks in Dear Evan Hansen, or Alexander Hamilton’s witty put-downs in Hamilton? It’s a simple answer: Because if he had mentioned a male character from a critically-acclaimed musical, it would be one less chance to insult female-led musicals that weren’t so critically-acclaimed upon opening on Broadway. In addition, it would’ve also been a missed opportunity to pit female-led musicals against one another.
And another thing…there are definitely words to describe the misogyny behind the quote “deathless sorority founder, ‘Wicked,'” but I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s just gross and weird.
7. “You have, on the one hand, the designer-garbed despots of the title: Ms. Louderman’s Regina, Ms. Park’s terminally insecure Gretchen and Kate Rockwell’s terminally stupid Karen.” (Mean Girls, 2017)
I understand that Karen isn’t all that bright and Gretchen has a lot of work to do on her insecurity. However, high school students can’t be lumped into overarching adjectives like “stupid” and “insecure.” Specifically, calling a female high school student outright “terminally stupid” is just unnecessarily crude, especially coming from a 63 year-old man who hasn’t been in high school for more than 40 years. Just because the character is played by someone older than eighteen doesn’t change the fact that the character is supposed to be around seventeen years-old, and should be treated as such.
8. “This high-energy, empty-calories and expensive-looking hymn to the glories of girlishness, based on the 2001 film of the same title, approximates the experience of eating a jumbo box of Gummi Bears in one sitting. This may be common fare for the show’s apparent target audience — female ’tweens and teenagers who still believe in Barbie. But unless you’re used to such a diet, you wind up feeling jittery, glazed and determined to swear off sweets for at least a month.” (Legally Blonde, 2007)
I cannot comprehend Brantley’s obsession with mocking media that features and inspires young women. It’s disgusting, degrading, and downright exhausting. This review, which I will feature a few more times in this blog, simply cannot be written by someone who supports and uplifts women. It’s just not possible.
9. “This means that the weight of the show, directed with hyperkinetic effusiveness by Jerry Mitchell, shifts to its feel-good formula. And don’t underestimate the potency of that formula, which insists that a girl can be a powder puff and a power broker at the same time.” (Legally Blonde, 2007)
What I gather from this is that cisgender men think that women can only be one thing. A woman can either be a girly ditz, or a powerful and intelligent CEO. This quote seems to insinuate that a story line in which a woman is both feminine and intelligent is unrealistic. That’s incomprehensible to me.
Heads up: no one is “one” thing. Women (and in this case, female characters), can be feminine and smart at the very same time. They can also be masculine and ditzy, or androgynous and intelligent. Or the billions of other adjectives in the thesaurus. You can’t simplify people like that. (See quote #7.)
Also! Women don’t need to be invalidated by men who think the polar opposites can’t go together realistically. That’s why this review should’ve been written by someone other than a cisgender man.
10. “…’Legally Blonde’ is infused on every level with the message that it’s O.K. to be a princess. This is a show aimed at the girls who flocked to the fairy-tale blockbuster “Wicked,” but left feeling secretly disappointed that it was the dour, green-skinned Elphaba who got the guy, not the glittery, popular Glinda.” (Legally Blonde, 2007)
I have two main issues with this paragraph alone. Firstly, I don’t understand why Brantley is essentially inferring that it’s not okay to be a princess? If I (or any other woman on this planet) want to be a princess, I damn well will be and I’m not going to listen to a 60 year-old man who tells me I can’t. Irregardless, Legally Blonde is not a fairy tale. There are no princesses, and Elle Woods doesn’t really act like one. I’m really not sure where he got this comparison from; it feels like it came from some dark place in his mind along with the Anastasia-Ivanka Trump juxtaposition.
My second problem with this passage is: Why is Brantley self-inserting his own opinions into what he believes to be those of teenage girls? In my teenage-girl experience (which, let me remind you, Brantley never had), I found that most female audience members of Wicked end up relating more to either Glinda or Elphaba instead of rooting for one or another. I’ve never (let me repeat…never) heard from one of them that they’re disappointed that the “dour, green-skinned Elphaba” (an insulting, nonsensical jab) “got the guy.” If anything, teenage girls are disappointed that Elphaba ended up with Fiyero instead of Glinda.
To that point—who, in the 21st-century, still wants to perpetuate antiquated ideas that only “conventionally-attractive” people deserve love?
11. “The likable supporting cast includes…Orfeh, whose powerhouse voice seems a bit at odds with her hang-dog character, the love-bruised manicurist who becomes Elle’s best friend.” (Legally Blonde, 2007)
Once again, I cannot comprehend what Paulette’s love history and role in the show has to do with the “powerhouse voice” of the actress who plays her. Were the casting directors supposed to cast a weaker-voiced actress, were the writers supposed to write a less vocally-demanding score, or was Orfeh supposed to phone it in? This feels like a quote placed here to criticize something that doesn’t need to be criticized.
This is especially insulting when you think about his earlier quote about how the show insists that women can be both powerful and feminine. Brantley doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that a woman can have a powerful voice in spite of her unfortunate circumstances, not despite of them.
12. “And Andy Karl is a hilarious walking sight gag as a hunky delivery man in tight shorts, on hand to demonstrate that women, too, have the right to be wolf whistlers.” (Legally Blonde, 2007)
This quote insinuates that men have the right to wolf whistlers, something most women in modern-day society would strongly disagree with.
13. “Mr. Fontana probably strikes the best balance between earnestness and archness. The silver-voiced Ms. Osnes seems to believe unequivocally in her character, which is winning in its own way but doesn’t quite match up with Mr. Fontana.” (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, 2013)
This is another one that completely baffles me. Brantley criticizes that Laura Osnes doesn’t quite match up with Santino Fontana in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, but he doesn’t actually bother to explain why.
Similar to his critique of Christiani Pitts’ “scream” in King Kong, Brantley’s critique of Osnes just seems nitpicky for no reason. This just feels like an easy way for him to put down a woman’s performance in favor of the man she’s playing alongside. This quote wouldn’t bother me as much if he had explained in just a few words why her portrayal of Cinderella is inferior to Fontana’s portrayal of Prince Topher, or on the other hand, why his performance was superior.
Furthermore, I didn’t see the Broadway cast of Cinderella, but I did see the tour twice in 2015. Let me tell you one thing: I still remember Paige Faure’s outstanding performance four years later, but I couldn’t even tell you who played Prince Topher in the two performances I saw. If the Broadway cast was anything like the tour cast, this review makes no sense to me.
14. “Nicholas Christopher as Chris’s best friend and Rachelle Ann Go as a whore on the move have a bit more individuality.” (Miss Saigon, 2017)
I understand that the beginning of Miss Saigon is centered around a brothel in war-ravished Vietnam. However, I’m not sure that the phrase “whore on the move” was the best way to describe the character that Rachelle Ann Go played in the 2017 Broadway revival. It feels over-the-top and antiquitated, especially due to the fact that “whore” has begun to gather a negative connotation with how men describe a woman.
15. “Aglow with feminine competence, Ms. Lindsay looks as if she came from a later era and genre…but she sings agreeably and convincingly pretends that we haven’t met her character a few hundred times before.” (Newsies, 2012)
How many female journalists have been lead characters in Broadway musicals?
Regardless, Brantley had no trouble comparing the heroines in female-led musicals to Regina George in Mean Girls. Suddenly, when it comes to a heroine in a male-led musical, he can’t name another character that we’ve met “a few hundred times before.” It’s an backhanded compliment that degrades the character more than it helps the actress.
16. “The other principal female role, Ned’s harpy girlfriend, Patty, is a downer that flirts with misogyny, but it’s not the fault of Mamie Parris, the actress who portrays her.” (School of Rock, 2015)
I’ll be honest—I don’t have much to say about this quote. I thought it was mostly worth mentioning because I have no idea what Brantley means here by “flirts with misogyny.” It reminds me of his and Green’s critique of King Kong. I don’t think he’s qualified to comment on whether or not an element of a musical is misogynistic.
Despite all of the above, it seems that The New York Times‘ theatre critiques aren’t misogynistic on the whole. I read the reviews for other female-led musicals such as Waitress, Frozen, Chicago, Mamma Mia, and even shows that got pretty great reviews like Hairspray, Fun Home, and Next to Normal. There wasn’t anything significantly offensive in those reviews, I will admit. However, many of the quotes above were too egregious for me to completely ignore. Fact of the matter is, The New York Times needs some additional reviewers other than two white, cisgender men writing reviews about popular Broadway musicals about and for young women. Or, in other words, “female adolescents.”
BONUS: “These assorted role reversals are overseen by the wise oracle Pythio (Peppermint, a contestant on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ described in the program as “the first transgender woman to create a principal role” on Broadway). Pythio identifies as ‘nonbinary plural.’ Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), the King’s viceroy and father of Mopsa, finds himself strangely drawn to her — I mean them.“ (Head Over Heels, 2018)
Edit – August 18, 2019: I initially didn’t include this one because they have since edited the review after receiving significant criticisms, but it’s definitely worth mentioning.
In one sentence Brantley acknowledges that Pythio is “nonbinary plural,” and in the next sentence he misgenders them on purpose. Not only is this offensive toward Peppermint’s character, but it’s also offensive toward Peppermint herself as the first trans woman to originate a role on Broadway. You might be thinking, they’re a fictional character, let it go. However, art is usually reflective of life. There are millions of people around the world (just like Pythio) who identify as nonbinary. If one of the top newspapers in the United States can’t even respect the pronouns of a fictional character, it further spreads the binary gender myth (as well as an invitation to openly disrespect trans and nonbinary people’s pronouns) to a worldwide audience who should know about the significance of nonbinary pronouns.
Thoughts? Questions? Want to rage about how I was too harsh in my criticisms? Leave a comment below.