This post is part of our Summer Slowdown revisiting of the blog archives, and was originally published on 3rd October, 2008.
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.
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.