So my parents came to visit this weekend, and as part of their visit, we stopped by TKTS and got some half-price tickets to Newsies.
For those who don’t follow Broadway, Newsies is a stage adaptation of the 1992 Disney film of the same name, both of which are based on the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899. It’s a great show, and I’d like to make it the subject of this Friday’s Horizon Review (sorry, Tremors is going to have to wait another week), but first I’d like to get something out of the way that I think is very important, but that I don’t think belongs in the review proper. Two somethings actually. And as the title indicates, both are about sex:
1) The show has two main protagonists: the primary one is Jack Kelly, the 17-year-old leader of the newsies. The other goes by the name of Katherine Plumber. She’s actually a combination of two characters from the movie, the pretty sister of another important character who was pretty much there for Jack to crush on, and a crusading reporter. Katherine is trying to break into the newspaper business in 1899, and she’s tired of doing flower shows. She wants something meaty, and the Newsboys’ Strike is made to order for the purpose. They follow the usual arc for such things. They start out by annoying each other:
Then, thrown together by events, they grow closer. Then to prevent things from going too smoothly, something goes terribly wrong – often, it’s a Dreadful Misunderstanding of some kind, but in this case it’s a simple Dramatic Reveal (spoiler alert): Katherine (who, to be fair, admitted up-front that “Katherine Plumber” was a nom de plume) is actually the daughter of Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate against whom Jack is striking. There is a temporary rift between them, but Katherine follows Jack to his rooftop refuge and tells him her true feelings:
After that, they are united against the greater enemy until the end, at which point it becomes clear that they’re going to be Together Forever. Like I said, pretty standard as such things go. Still, I couldn’t help but think as I watched: they’re from vastly different social classes and backgrounds. She’s well-educated, while he spent his youth trying not to starve. He’s working for her father (both as a newsie and in a new job as a political cartoonist that he takes on at the end of the show). He’s going to go from abject poverty to mind-numbing wealth when he marries her – but it’s going to be wealth that came from her and which her father will control until his death.
To be fair, to the extent they know each other, they like each other for the right reasons: he admires her toughness and intelligence; she admires his courage, his care for the other children of the street, and his artistic talent. But it’s more than clear that a lot of their “love at first sight” is physical attraction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a big component of the early period of any love affair. Still, I couldn’t help but think, as I was watching them up on Jack’s rooftop:
I wanted to say to them: “Katherine? Honey? Just hike up that skirt and bend over that railing. You know that’s what you both really want.”
Some would respond that people – especially girls of Katherine’s social class – didn’t do that back then. Of course, they did. People, even girls of Katherine’s social class, have always done that. For about the first 190,000 years of the 200,000-year existence of our species, “Hey, you’re cute/I like you, do you want to have sex?” was a pretty uncontroversial thing to say. It was only when we figured out where babies come from that people started caring who had sex with who.
The difference between then and now is that now, Katherine could just hike up her skirt and bend over the railing safely. She and Jack could have the sex they so clearly want to have, then go on to a relationship where they learn if they really do love each other, and love each other enough to overcome their rather gaping issues, or if they both just wanted to get Jack into Katherine’s skirts.
This is why this country needs to get over its hypocrisy about birth control, where everyone uses it but imagines that everyone else who uses it is a dirty slut who shouldn’t be allowed to have it.
And perhaps more important, we need to get over our idea that sluts are dirty and sex – specifically, women having sex – is bad.
It is perfectly normal and okay that Katherine wanted to throw Jack down on the roof and mount him. It’s important that real people in that situation get to explore what they want without ruining their lives. Once they get past the horny, they can see if they can make the rest of the relationship work.
This benefits everybody.
2) Watch this clip:
Yes, that’s some awesome dancing on everyone’s part. That’s not what I want you to look at. Focus your attention on Katherine in particular. I know, most of you want to watch the boys – you can go back to them in a minute.
The way that Katherine is dancing would be extremely risque at the time this show is set. Showing her ankles at all would be naughty, but pulling up her skirt like that? High kicks? The flying kicks that we see in the stage show that didn’t make it to that clip? Why, she’s practically an exotic dancer.
(The newsies themselves were appropriately grateful for the show they were given, appreciating the artistry as well as the titillation, not getting unduly raucous.)
And here’s the thing: despite the fact that she’s wearing opaque stockings, and her overall costume was considerably more modest than what most people were wearing outside on the winter streets of Manhattan, I found myself responding as if her dance was the sexual display that it would have been in context. The simple knowledge that it was a sexual display in context, made it so to me as well.
I don’t think I’m unique in this. I remember a survey that came out a few years ago where a bunch of fundamentalist Christian teenage boys were asked how teenage girls could avoid being a “stumbling block” for the boys. The answers, varied and contradictory as the Bible itself, amounted to: don’t be a teenage girl.
(Me and some of my other online feminist friends thought the answers espousing long, flowing skirts over tight pants, shorts, or skirts are particularly funny: having sex in a long, flowing skirt is much easier than a pair of tight jeans.)
Here’s my point: ever heard someone say “dress like a whore and you’ll be treated like one”? Here’s the trick with that: there is no absolute criteria for what clothes are sexually provocative. “Sexually provocative” is about context. In many African tribes, women go bare-breasted and both sexes think that the rest of the world’s fixation on breasts makes them like babies. In Katherine’s time, her dance was racy because it showed her ankles, while the modern streets of Manhattan were full of women wearing trousers. And of course, plenty of people judge this or that woman as dressing like a whore and deserving to be treated like a whore because of their personal value systems.
The key is this: to value the body of the person – almost always the woman – more than the clothes she wears.
Clothes can be ugly. Clothes can be attractive in a variety of ways. Clothes can be inappropriate for a situation. Clothes can be inappropriate for the weather. But no one deserves to be treated like a whore because you feel they’re dressed like a whore.
PS – if you think “treating someone like a whore” should equate to treating them badly, you’re an asshole and quite possibly a monster. Sex workers don’t do any harm, at least not by virtue of being sex workers, and they don’t deserve your shit. Just thought you should know that.