Some Musicals Are More Feminist Than Others

While Les Misérables is not your typical musical–or, as this Guardian review puts it, “There’s no dancing, there are no jazz hands and there is next to no speech”–it is typical of the genre in that, like opera, it includes more female characters than do many plays, movies and novels. Regardless if this is due to the fondness for female voices or to the swoon-inducing love ballads adored by so many, this viewer is thankful for the diverse female characters so wonderfully played by Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfriend (Cosette), Samantha Barks (Éponine) and Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier).

The film adaptation, based on the musical (seen by over 60 million people), which is itself based on Victor Hugo’s novel, arguably heightens the proto-feminist elements of the original narrative as it allows for a more close-up, more harrowing depiction of the key female characters, all of whom are “miserable” for justifiable reasons.

Though the film has been referred to as a “lobotomized opera,” it can more aptly be described as an operatic musical that not only focuses on macro problems of human existence–morality, freedom, power, forgiveness–but also on how these problems play out at the micro level, particularly how the macro power of men effects women on a micro level. As noted at Democratic Underground, Victor Hugo gets

the plight of women in his society, especially the grisettes (working class young women) and prostitutes, and how they were helpless against not just men of power, but men in general, and how nice poor girls could so easily be discarded and have [their lives] ruined because of becoming pregnant or rebuffing sexual advances.

Fantine is the key character to have her life ruined in such a manner. Abandoned by the man who impregnates her, she is working in the 19th century version of a sweatshop when we first meet her in the film. She ultimately turns to sexual slavery so as to continue sending money to the unscrupulous caretakers (the Thénardiers) who, unbeknowst to her, are abusing and exploiting her young daughter, Cosette.

Fantine is portrayed sympathetically in the text and musical, but the film adaptation emphasizes the horrors of forced prostitution, something the musical renditions of the song “Lovely Ladies” frequently belie. Often performed in an upbeat, jokey manner, in the film the song instead becomes a battle cry against sexual slavery, with the costuming, make-up, sets and lighting bringing the horrors behind the lyrics to life as the sickly, starving, cold, tattered and abused women sing:

Lovely ladies
Ready for the call
Standing up or lying down
Or any way at all
Bargain prices up against the wall

After her hair has been cut, her teeth removed and sold, Fantine joins the song, singing,

Come on, Captain
You can wear your shoes
Don’t it make a change
To have a girl who can’t refuse
Easy money
Lying on a bed
Just as well they never see
The hate that’s in your head
Don’t they know they’re making love
To one already dead!

Widely lauded in the role (as here, here, and here), her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” further encapsulates the pathos and desperation of her character–something which is sometimes lost in more “Broadway” renditions of the song (a la Susan Boyle).

Of playing Fantine, Anne Hathaway notes,

What I did was I tried to get inside the reality of her story as it exists in our world. … I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of documentaries and news clips about sexual slavery. And for me, for this particular story, I came to the realization that I had been thinking about Fantine as someone who lived in the past, but she doesn’t. She’s living in New York City right now. She’s probably less than a block away. This injustice exists in our world, and so every day that I was her, I just thought—this isn’t an invention. This isn’t me acting. This is me honoring that this pain lives in this world and I hope that in all our lifetimes—like, today—we see it end.”

Regardless of what can be said about Hathaway’s weight loss for the role (critiqued here), her framing of Fantine as a sexual slave, NOT a prostitute, is key, as it refuses to glorify or joke about what is so often swept under the rug regarding sex work: that the majority of women do not “choose” it but are forced into it–a realization emphasized by Hugo but often lost in musical renditions. Hugo writes of Fantine,

What is the history of Fantine? It is society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. From hunger, from cold, from loneliness, from abandonment, from privation. Melancholy barter. A soul for a bit of bread. Misery makes the offer, society accepts … it is said that slavery has disappeared from the European civilization. This is a mistake. It still exists: but it weighs now only upon woman, and it is called prostitution.

The film, like Hugo’s novel, blames society for sexual slavery, rather than individual men or women. Each also portrays her “choice” as that between life and death for her and her daughter.

Hugo’s progressive view of sexual politics, as well as his critical attitude towards “polite society” (discussed here) imbue his work in other Les Mis plotlines as well–as with his depiction of the vengeful Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) and the valiant prisononer 24601, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman),  imprisoned 19 years for the crime of stealing bread. Though these two males are at the center of the story, the females are just as (if not more) memorable (and certainly outperform and out-sing Crowe in his bombastic version of Javert).

Cosette, both as the child abused by the Thénardiers and then as the adult who falls for the revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), is also a micro picture of a macro problem–the abuse of female children, especially those in foster care and/or poverty, and the fact that one of the few “escapes” offered to such women is love and romance. The same “escape” is the only one that similarly maltreated Eponine is forced into. As noted here, she is “Raised by sociopathic parents and then forced into a life of poverty and crime” and “only wants the man she loves to love her, and sacrifices all to prove her love.”

The Funny Feminist takes issue with this plotline in particular, noting that Eponine has sadly become “the international spokeswoman for girls crushing on their male best friends, who swoon over the richer, more popular girl.” Like a 19th century Bella Swan, Eponine is hopelessly devoted to her Edward, in the form of Marius, but he only has eyes for Cosette. If the musical falters in its quasi-feminist politics anywhere, it is here, with the strong , resilient Eponine belting out her song of unrequited love, “On My Own,” while the male revolutionaries prepare to fight for a more egalitarian France–or, as the Funny Feminist puts it “when the poor folk rally against the 1 percent and the Mitt Romneys,” Eponine is busy singing a  “pity me, my life is so sad” song. To be fair, while she is indeed lovestruck, she also disguises herself as a boy in order to join in the revolution, and ultimately gives her life to save Marius.

While some reviews slam the film for not being political enough, as here (where the film is described as “a picturesque 19th-century version of Occupy Wall Street” lacking political context), I would counter that the film drips with politics, especially the micro politics captured in the feminist mantra “the personal is political.” From the tragic Fantine to the orphaned Cosette to the maltreated Eponine, the film depicts a story that is still all too true, and does so better than any musical version I’ve seen, showing that women–revolution or no–are all too often beaten, abused, exploited, raped and murdered. While it’s long ranked as one of my favorite musicals, it now holds the number one spot in this feminist heart for best musical film ever.










  1. I had absolutely no intention of seeing Les Misérables. In my mind, it was an overblown opera-singing costume drama. And it might just be that but also much more under the surface. Once again Natalie Wilson presents a review that makes me reconsider my obviously stubborn denial of possibilities contained in the cinematic presentation. I trust Wilson’s opinion and thoughts about the performance enough to take a chance on a couple of hours in a darkened theatre.

  2. Did Victor Hugo “get” that prostitution for women is sexual slavery? That depends on how we define ‘slavery’.

    If we are talking about making unpleasant choices out of material necessity, then ‘slavery’ applies to nearly EVERY working man or woman, period. Do people work at McDonalds because of the liberating essence of flipping hamburgers? I am a decently-paid computer programmer, but I find it alienating and boring frequently – I had to take the job to make ends meet. Since I don’t find it liberating, am I then a technology slave? Based on what Natalie Wilson argues, I guess would be.

    Black people were kidnapped from Africa to become slaves. That is the standard. Was Fantine kidnapped and thereby forced into prostitution? If so, then yes, she was a slave. But if, instead, she did a cost-benefit analysis in her head and MADE THE CHOICE to enter the sex trade, then she is not a slave at that point.

    Do we ever have debates over matters of choice for any other line of work? Unless I missed something, no.

    • There’s a difference between slaving away at a job you don’t like and having no other alternative but to work a job where you can’t say no when your client beats the living hell out of you. Are all people in sex work slaves? No. Are all women who can’t say no to sex work without dying in the street sex slaves? I’d say yes.

    • Okay. Fantine sold her hair and teeth before resorting to the sex trade. While your job may be boring, would you say that there are no other options for you? Fantine’s “choice” was put out or die. DIE. Not be homeless (she was) or not be able to pay her bills.

      Also, you do not have to be kidnapped to be a slave. It is being bound in servitude as property. Which means that you (as an employee) are probably not a slave, where someone who is forced (albeit, by society, not by gunpoint) to have her body treated as property is.

      • The reason I put up with my boring job is precisely because I have no other choice. If I quit that job with no other prospect in view, it would be a catastrophe, yes. My mind is treated as intellectual property – if I refuse an assignment, I will be fired. I am forced to accept all assignments.

        Fantine’s option was to ‘put out’ as a prostitute, or not be one and starve. But she made the initial choice to become a prostitute (yes, I saw the movie) knowing what the conditions of her labor would be. She wasn’t tricked or kidnapped, terms that come up a lot in discussions of trafficking.

      • Anastasia says:

        To add to the previous responses,

        Goldmarx, the difference between working at McDonald’s or Walmart (arguably exploitative and demeaning jobs) and being a sex worker is that as the latter, you (the person) are the object that is being sold for money; you are the property; the commodity. That is dehumanizing, which is the essence of several forms of slavery; that you are less than a human being.

        Furthermore, sex workers often “belong” to someone (a pimp) who physically, sexually, and psychologically abuses them. In fact, sex workers face a high risk of victimization (not to mention that a large number of them are child abuse survivors).

        Last, if working at McDonald’s is similar to working as a prostitute, then how come there are so very few men who sell their bodies (with the exception of homosexual men)? Why is prostitution only “chosen” by women or those who share their “feminine” status? Last time I checked, you see a fairly equal number of men and women at the drive through…

        • Sex workers ‘bodies’ are not “sold” – it is their sexual services that are sold, on a contractual basis.

          My intellectual services are being sold as a computer programmer; said services are performed with partsd of my body. I “belong” to management which can abuse me until I choose to quit. The degree of abuse management can get away with inflicting depends on the legal status of the trade in question – since prostitution is in most countries illegal, more abuse can be inflicted by management. But the working structure is comparable to that of most workers.

          There would be more male prostitutes if there were more female customers. Not enough male sex workers for you? Well, don’t just sit there and bitch – get off your duffs and demand more! Fight for decriminalization. Join your local chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

          • Mar Iguana says:

            To compare your wage slavery to sexual slavery is beyond offensive. You are being obtuse and willfully ignorant.

          • Tyler Moore says:

            Representing the non ignorant section of the human species I agree with you one hundred and ten percent Mar

  3. This article frequently uses the concept of Opera-like. I know we refer to Les Mis as a musical but how is it *not* an opera? Almost nothing is spoken.

    • I had a music major explain this to me once. Along with some other minor differences I do not understand, it is about the type of music. They also said that opera music is written before the words and a story is added whereas Les Mis’s music and lyrics were written in tandem.

      • Where is the proof that in opera, the music is written before the words? Mozart and his librettist, daPonte, worked very closely together, as did Verdi and his librettist, Boito.

  4. This is kind of a big deal for folks in musical theatre, so bear with me with the tone, but: you just insulted about 2 decades of Fontines by referring to Susan Boyle’s acting skills some sort of standard. yikes.
    susan boyle a random woman singing, not a trained a “broadway” actress.
    Try Patti Lupone:
    Lea Solonga (usually played eponine in the US, but: )
    or hear is a good vocal interpretation by Rose Laurens from the original london cast:


  5. Sunning sole by Anne Hathaways’ an amazing work of art of integration of song and the performance…so good it made the rest of the film unwatchable, at least for me.

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