Sunday, February 15, 2015

all right, boys and girls

I argued the other day, every movie is about gender. Or, at least, every movie tells us something about gender. West Side Story mostly upholds the usual gender binary. Men are men (or boys are boys) and Women are women (or girls are girls). Anita is quite... what's the polite way to call her pushy? She can hold her own against Bernardo. (She also justifies the boys fighting as them having "Too much feeling." The fact that Baby John cries is highlighted, but then again, his name is Baby John. Not the most manly name.

One character that exists on a sort of brink between male and female is Anybodys. She dresses like the other boys, but the Jets mostly dismiss her because she's a girl. I think it's Action who responds to her request to be in the gang, "How else is she gonna get a guy to touch her?" It's also Action who later calls her a "freak." And Graziella calls here "an American tragedy." But, it's actually quite progressive that Anybodys remains in the story right along the Jets, not as a girlfriend like the other girls (except, arguably, Anita and Maria, who are clearly more than just that), and even directly interacting with and progressing the plot. It's Anybodys who tells Tony that Chino is looking for him, for example. Ice tells Anybodys, "Ya done good, buddy boy." And, that gender-twisting compliment is exactly what she wants to hear. And, the film doesn't judge her for it. In media theory, we've talked about the imagined narrator of a given film, and the imagined narrator of this film definitely has something to say about race relations and the hatred we form over surface differences. But, the film allows Anybodys to not only exist alongside the Jets but also to be integral to the plot.

Of course, she has to go and ruin it by being there for the "taunting" scene--

(And, just now, she was dancing along with two other guys at the dance. Until one of them kicked her and told her to get out of there.)

--and doing nothing to protect Anita. In fact, it is Anybodys who refers to Anita as "Bernardo's girl" as if Anita belonged to him...

But, that use of "taunting" brings me to another note that tangentially relates to the gender thing. I read about it being called the "taunting" scene and was a little surprised. Essentially, it is staged as if the Jets are going to rape Anita. I found a bit at Gender Across Borders, rather aptly titled "When You're a Jet You're a Rapist?" and the author argues that the more the scene is staged as a potential rape scene (potential, because no matter how it's staged, Doc interrupts), the more it showcases just how actually powerless the Jets are. Apparently, in the recent Broadway revival, A-Rab unzips his pants and gets on top of her while the original stage directions have the other Jets lifting Baby John onto her. Aphra Behn, the author of the piece, asks, "Why does everyone from Broadway to High School stage this scene as a fully realized rape scene?" Her answer is accurate but, I think, incomplete. Her answer:

Because rape culture does not allow us to see it as anything but such a scene. A lower class woman of color is only one thing to a gang of boys--a sexual object. Rape is a logical and expected release for pent up racial hatred. The shame and fear that the Jets are so good at provoking is sidetracked by directors thinking that staging a "real" rape will show the underlying racism. It doesn't work. Anita isn't a sexual object she's just an object--a vile and disgusting object that the Jets want to rub in the mud.

Yes, it's simplistic to stage the scene as a rape scene--even though the original stage directions do point that direction, Behn's point could be backtracked to the original director just as much as those since--but isn't that the point to a fictional story, especially a musical? To simplify, to break down big ideas and shove them into scenes that convey a great deal. Look at the "America" for example; with one song, staged in the film as a debate mostly between the Puerto Rican males, who probably have a lot less power in New York than in Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican females, who probably have a lot more power in New York than in Puerto Rico. There is a gendered aspect to the song, and there is a whole lot of history and social commentary fitting into that same single song. That is how musicals work. The taunting scene does not contain a song, but I think it actually comes across more powerfully because of that. The Jets went to the rumble to win and finally be rid of the PR cockroaches, and while the Sharks' leader is dead, so is the Jets'. Their head has been cut off and they have been proven powerless. It may be simplistic to suggest that these boys, backed into a corner, their leader dead, their lieutenant on the run (and, they've just learned, hunted by not only the cops but a Shark with a gun), would turn to assaulting a woman, and it's simplistic to have that assault turn sexual, but it is not unrealistic. Particularly, because rape is not about sex but power. The Jets' power has been challenged. They are on the verge of emasculation, so they have to prove their manhood.

And, that is why Anybodys is there and doesn't stop them. She, too, is proving herself as a "man." The point to a gang like the Sharks is patriarchy, hegemony, power, us over them, whoever they may be. In that taunting scene, Anita is the enemy in more ways than one; she is Puerto Rican and she's a woman. If she can come in there and tell them, in any way, what to do, then they are failing once again to be the "men" they pretend to be. Behn is correct in referring to the Jets as "a bunch of small minded rapists unable to see beyond their own little worlds." Think about this: do any of them go to school? I mean, maybe it's summer, but the film never tells us that (even if Schrank walks around without his coat late at night, and looking a little sweaty). And, it's fairly obvious that the only Jet with a job is Tony--Action asks, "How come he takes a lousy, stinkin' job?"

Is it "rape culture" that tells us that men sublimate their feelings when powerless into sexual assault? Or is it reality?

We live in a world--and West Side Story takes place in that same world--in which men are on top and women are on the bottom. Exceptions are just that--exceptions, anomalys. That's why Riff rejects Anybodys' offer of helping at the rumble. That's why Action calls her "freak" and Graziella calls her "an American tragedy." Anybodys is a freak. I wouldn't go so far as to call her "an American tragedy" because I don't subscribe to the same gender binary that our society is still trying its darnedest to cling to, but she is a freak. The great bit here is that she seems to be okay with that. And, the film seems to be okay with that. If not for the taunting scene going as it goes, and Anita lying and telling everyone that Maria is dead, Anybodys would have saved the day. While the Jets are lingering at Doc's doing pretty much nothing, she has been sneaking around and she alone knows that Chino is coming. Masculine display of power ruins everything. Anybodys does better than any of them.

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