Can I find a feminist narrative (or at least bits of one) within The Sound of Music?
Superficially: The Sound of Music is the story of novice nun Maria, who is a “problem” to be solved, due to her lack of compliance with convent rules. She is not obedient enough to marry God, so she’s shuffled off to marry a mortal man. Maria is coerced, initially reluctantly, then willingly, into a domestic life and marriage, where her problematic and adventurous nature may be harnessed and contained if it can’t be completely eradicated – where she can be useful. Maria is the “magical nanny” (magical virgin?) who reunites the family and restores the Captain’s “proper place” at the head. The Baroness, who is engaged to Captain von Trapp, is cast aside with barely a moment’s thought, and she bows out gracefully when she loses the “competition”. (I think there’s more to talk about with the Baroness – perhaps in comments.) Liesl, on the verge of womanhood, falls for patronizing Hitler Youth Rolf, who betrays her and puts her entire family at risk. The film is, of course, relentlessly white, Catholic, and heteronormative (though there has been at least one queer reading); its primary academic reading seems to be as political allegory.
It’s not looking good for the Sound of Music so far.
But there are bits; there are always bits. A feminist narrative can be constructed, I think, even if it has to do its work within the constraints of a quite conventional romantic tale. Here are the top 10 reasons I think The Sound of Music has a place in a Hoyden’s video library:
10. The nuns are given real personalities, they’re not faceless cyphers. The Mother Superior guides the novices not purely with harshness and demands, but with love and understanding. No priests are seen within the Abbey (perhaps at the wedding scene?); it is a woman’s space, though the rules they follow are those of a patriarchal church.
9. I Have Confidence: this is where I fall in love with Maria, not when she’s trilling on the mountaintop. She is dancing gawkily through Salzburg in hideous clothes and carting a guitar and a carpet bag. Maria is completely unaware of any bystanders or stares, singing at the top of her lungs about her confidence. Maria is trying to convince herself more than she’s trying to convince anyone else, but she gets there in the end. We have the feeling that developing a sound, authentic self-confidence is Maria’s journey: confidence in her own judgement and decision-making as well as in her competence.
I Have Confidence
Strength doesn’t lie in numbers
Strength doesn’t lie in wealth
Strength lies in nights of peaceful slumbers
When you wake up — Wake Up!
It tells me all I trust I lead my heart to
All I trust becomes my own
I have confidence in confidence alone
Besides which you see I have confidence in me!
This song never fails to pick me up. I think it’s a joyful hoydenish moment.
8. We see women sticking together. Maria accepts that Liesl is falling in love, and helps her out when she’s in a bind, sheltering her from paternal wrath.
7. The children are painted as individuals, as the nuns are. The Captain attempts to treat them as cookie-cutter soldiers, but Maria immediately starts picking out their idiosyncratic traits and preferences and learning about them as human beings, later imploring the Captain to see them as humans also. Is this the point at which the Captain begins to see Maria as human?
6. Maria sees Brigitta’s bookish nature as a part of her to be accepted, not an aspect to be belittled, unlike the Captain who confiscates her book and gently spanks her with it. Brigitta is even allowed to feel her unsocial emotions honestly and publicly, in the “Goodbye” song at the party (“I’m glad to go/I cannot tell a lie…”). I think she might be a Hoyden in training.
5. Maria refuses to bow to the Captain’s authority, drawing her line in the sand early on:
“Oh, no, sir. I’m sorry, sir!
I could never answer to a whistle.
Whistles are for animals, not for children.
And definitely not for me.
It would be too humiliating.”
“Fräulein, were you this much trouble at the abbey?”
“Oh, much more, sir.”
4. Maria is impervious to the Captain’s notions of social class and appropriate behaviour. The children go tree-climbing and boating in their second-hand clothing homemade from drapes, prompting the Captain initially dismisses them as “just local urchins” when he spots them by chance.
Maria bluntly and cheerfully defends their right to play and explore – social conventions be damned:
“Are you telling me that my children have been roaming about Salzburg. . . dressed up in nothing but some old drapes?”
“And having a marvelous time!”
3. The Captain’s anger over this incident triggers the first major power battle and turning point in the Captain-Maria relationship. After the wet children are sent inside to change, and Maria implores him to truly see and love his children, he Captain concedes to her the power in the relationship, however briefly and Freudianly:
“I am not finished yet, Captain!”
“Oh, yes, you are, Captain! uh – Fräulein.”
2. It passes the Bechdel Test, right in the second scene.
1. Nazi-foiling nuns.
And a bonus: The Eisteddfodd scene with the crowd singing along to Edelweiss, a lamentation for a threatened nation, makes me cry.
Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, relationships
Yes… ‘though have you noticed that as Maria walks up the aisle, the background music is, “What do you do with a problem like Maria?”
Deborahs last blog post..Quotidian sexism
Deborah: yes, there’s a lot that is problematic about it. I was trying to focus on the positives with this post!
I think this is actually the most powerful feminist moment in the film. The male authority figure — Captain/Father/Hero — completely breaks down in the middle of the song, and it’s Maria who comes on and picks him up and carries him. And this in Austria of all places, where the little figures on the pedestrian crossings are wearing snappy Frank Sinatra hats, just in case here’s any doubt about who is and is not allowed to cross the road.
Apropos of which, all of the the points you make about female power and autonomy are played out against the background of the Nazi view of women.
Counterpoint: backslider marries authoritarian deserter. They live off the earnings of children.
Oh lauredhel, thank you for this post. I love, love Sound of Music.
Yes… sorry! That was a bit mean of me to leap in with a negative straight away. ‘Though I don’t see it so much as a negative as a ‘deeply ironic.’
No, Maria can be a feminist icon, for sure. She has integrity, she stands up for what she believes in, she runs rings around the Captain, she’s brave in an emergency and I’m sure she’d cope with anything life throws at her. What’s not to like?
Ooh, great post.
I saw a live dance performance this summer that was set to the soundtrack of The Sound of Music. Basically a reinterpretation of each of the songs in dance, with a sardonic, sharp, modern edge. (“I Have Confidence” was staged as a duet between an anxious Maria and a spunky Maria, for instance, and in several other songs Maria was played by a male dancer in a gender-bendy way.)
One thing that came through powerfully in the performance was that TSoM is about moving from innocence to experience, as much as it’s about anything. Maria starts as essentially a child (a child in a nunnery!), and winds up a mother. She and the captain and Liesl all awaken as sexual beings. The younger children find a sense of independence, and of self-determination. And under it all is the terrible inevitable confrontation with the fact of human evil.
The show was funny and sexy, which I expected it to be, but it was also strangely moving. I found myself crying more than once, even during scenes which on their surface were very light. A lot of that was the dance, but a lot of it was the original story, too.
Brooklynites last blog post..Today, all day, I had a feeling…
Ah, thanks for the comments! I think they really demonstrate the richness and resonance of this story: people are all drawing different themes out of it.
Julie Andrews was interviewed for the DVD and said that ‘I have confidence’ was written quickly as filler and she feels it is generally beneath the other music on the soundtrack.