Re-Seeing The Phantom of the Opera from a Feminist Perspective

15 02 2009

I grew up on Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.  I could sing every part and play both scores through on the piano.  I saw both plays as a kid, the latter several times.  I also saw the movie version of the former once in college, but I wasn’t paying much attention.  It happened to be on sale at Amazon for $5, so I bought a copy and watched it last night.

It’s not that I’m exactly surprised that the plot is sexist and has a ridiculously portrayed female lead.  That I knew even without being a feminist.  However, I noticed that with this new lens (and also not having watched or thought about Phantom since developing a lesbian identity) there are certain things I read differently.  

For example, I always thought Christine should end up with the Phantom, not Raoul (I think everyone thinks that).  But whereas before I thought that she was just an annoying, fickle little bitch, and I was annoyed at her for screwing the Phantom over, now I read it a bit differently.  First, it’s ridiculous that the disfigurement is so played up, but of course I can see how living in isolation and without love due to your appearance could make you pretty crazy.  Also, though, it’s interesting how before it didn’t really occur to me that a choice might be to go with neither of them.  I mean, Raoul’s still an annoying little twit who just assumes that things haven’t changed in the past ten years, and the Phantom admittedly isn’t a great choice after he starts indiscriminately killing people.  But in previous viewings, I fully bought into the idea that Christine did need a man to protect her – I just thought she was choosing the wrong one.

If you listen to the score, you’ll notice an awful lot of possessive language.  Both characters use the term “guide,” and “Master” is used for the Phantom.  Christine pretty much goes along with this entirely – she needs someone to guide her, a strong male figure.  And no surprise after all, having been raised by her father, then basically put in the Phantom’s care as a teacher, then grasping for another male figure in Raoul when the Phantom starts to get creepy.  I don’t necessarily think there would be a better choice for her in the context of this plot, but it is something I notice, that Christine is in no way created in a way that she could feasibly say “hey guys, let’s talk about this, things kind of crazy here…”  For example, in the film version, there are several clear moments of hesitancy where she shows real care for the Phantom (which I like) and those are completely obliterated by the presence of Raoul.  She really has no chance to speak on her hesitation or express emotion towards the Phantom.  

This problem also emerges in the dramatic graveyard scene.  I can’t remember how this plays out in the stage version, so this is based entirely on how the film version is done.  In the film, this is the one moment where Christine does get to emerge somewhat as an independent character.  She sneaks past Raoul, going to the graveyard alone (well, so she thinks).  Though she probably is trying to get herself out of this cycle of male dependence so that she can marry Raoul, since she deliberately sneaks away from him you could also read it that she’s trying to escape both men, and that she only goes back with Raoul because, well, there he is, on a fucking white horse no less.  The point is, she’s actually doing some independent thought here, recognizing that she’s been living in the past and trying to replace her father.  At the same time I always thought in that song that she was also singing in a way about the Phantom himself, before he went batshit insane.  In other words, I miss these two figures, but I realize that neither are available to me, and so I’m letting both go.  When the Phantom then appears, she moves towards the grave with intention, clearly realizing that this is the Phantom and not the ghost of her father (I mean come on, she knows his voice), and even saying that her mind is warning her that this is a bad idea, but her soul is saying otherwise.  Whether or not that’s necessarily the world’s wisest decision, it’s her decision, which gets cut off when Raoul appears, misunderstanding what’s going on, completely not understanding that hey, the lady might actually be capable of making an informed decision, and then proceeding to take part in the final ridiculous manly sword fight.  So the one time Christine does emerge as something more than property, her boy-toy gets in the way and decides her fate for her.

Similarly, this jealousy plot between the two men is unsurprising but very shallow when you look at it in a critical light.  Christine is pretty clearly treated as property, from Raoul’s assumption that she will be his because they were childhood sweethearts to the Phantom’s outrage every five seconds that she has betrayed him without ever clearly voicing his expectations.  And of course there’s the whole idea that he basically wants her to be one of his objects in the vaults in the first place.  In the scene on the rooftop, the Phantom expresses no realization that Raoul is doing all the pushing with this relationship – she keeps hesitating, while he pours out declarations of love, and eventually she goes with it, but still while expressing reservation.  On the other hand, the Phantom just predictably cringes when Raoul touches “his woman.”  In the end, the jealousy plot subsumes Raoul’s romance with Christine when he uses her as bait, basically saying “yeah yeah I know you’re upset but I’ve really got to get rid of this guy, so, see ya,” just like the way it subsumes Christine’s attempt to make an independent choice in the graveyard.

It got me thinking about the male jealousy plot in general, and how silly it is, but also how much a reflection of our culture.  Men feel this rage when another man touches the object of their affection exactly for that reason – she is an object.  Men are encouraged to view women as property, and thus any sort of expression of desire going in another direction, from or to her, is a betrayal or a slight upon the “owner.”  How often do you see a literary work or a film that depicts a relationship where the characters discuss their desires or their crushes, where a man who sees a woman in a physical embrace with another man asks questions rather than jumping to conclusion?  You don’t.  And if you did, I’d be willing to bet that the criticism would immediately label the female character as a slut, and that the film would be framed as one about weird, kinky, open relationships.  

As a woman, I’m only just starting to realize how huge this thing we casually dismiss as “society” is.  The reason its so hard to change is that we are taught that “women’s” issues are limited to things like fair pay and it takes us a while to realize that societal expectations consist of thousands of layers, heaped up on us by pop culture and often well-meaning, unknowing authority figures (along with the more malicious ones).  I bought into that “need a man to protect me” trope for an awfully long time, and it’s part of why it took a while to believe that I could identify as gay.  I’m not totally over it (the idea of a woman as protector is still somewhat appealing), but I’m starting to recognize it, and the idea of being fought over by two people and pushed back and forth like a sack of beans is not longer sexy.

(But I still like the music.)

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