Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Gendered Aspect of Religion in Musicals

Nonnberg Convent
Flickr Credit: Rhiannon Boyle
(The actual abbey from the musical and everything.)
My dad and I popped downtown on Saturday to see The Sound of Music! It was great. The music, the humor, and the spirituality were all a big draw for me—in the case of the last one, I really liked the portrayal of a female aspect of God.

Maria, the main character, begins her story as a nun-in-training. The musical opens on her life at the abbey and her relationship with the nuns, which lasts maybe half an hour into the show. To put it another way, it takes half an hour for the first male character to hit the stage.

I can think of musicals that open with just men and with both men and women, but it isn’t very often that it’s just women who open the show. That’s a cool way to start.

The nuns and the abbey matter beyond the opening. This is a musical about Maria’s ability to love others as a result of God’s presence in her life. Since the abbey is the source from which Maria “receives godliness,” or whatever you want to call it, God is presented in a very female way.

It starts with the Mother Abbess. Though Maria doesn’t quite fit in at the abbey, the Mother Abbess speaks to her as a person. She offers her support through beginning, middle, and end, not just as a religious leader but also a friend and mother. Even though Maria has no future as a nun, the Mother Abbess still wants the best possible life for her. There’s no doubt that Maria would not be the same person without that female guidance or holy authority in her life.

Though the other nuns are not characterized as much as the Mother Abbess, they also appear several times to support Maria. First, when Maria leaves the abbey, then when she returns, when she is married, and when she escapes Austria. There are always women of God around to build her up.

In contrast, the only male authority in the church appears when Maria and the Captain get married. A priest marries them and he says, like, two things and goes away. The true celebration is with the nuns, who are glad to see Maria spending her love in a family where she belongs.

Basically, the spiritual identity of the show is feminine by design. The greater masculine presence appears in the show’s other conflict: World War II. The Nazis who corral Maria’s husband towards serving the Third Reich are all men and have no religious association. Their aim is war, and so the Von Trapp family must choose between the heavily masculine entity of bloodshed and death against the heavily feminine presence of compassion and salvation. They choose God.

This fascinates me because I can’t think of many other musicals that make spirituality so feminine. There’s The Lion King, where all of the spirituality was conducted through Rafiki. There’s one scene where Sarabi, Nala, and Rafiki mourn together after Simba and Mufasa’s deaths—similarly giving the spiritual realm a more feminine identity. But, since the musical belongs to Simba, those moments don’t remain as constant a focus.

The Lion King is an exception. Though spirituality is an important theme in many musicals, most of the time they revolve around a male aspect of God. Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, Les Mis, Joseph—they’re spiritual dudefests, from the king’s appeal to Buddha to “Bring Him Home.” Spirituality is conducted by and through men.

Even in musicals with female main characters, if spirituality is a topic it is likewise under a masculine influence. Annie’s salvation comes in the form of a father figure. As does Christine’s in Phantom of the Opera. Dorothy has her Wizard. Eliza, Henry Higgins. Even if there isn’t any explicit religious message, many musicals are about how men (or masculine aspect spiritualities) empower women—or so they’d like you to think.

Maria’s story isn’t absent of men. She has her romance and even a love triangle. But as much as her story is about loving her family, it is also about being loved by a God of female aspect. It’s about rising to womanhood with the aid of mothers and sisters who leave something that will stick with her all the way to America.

I think that’s why Maria throws herself at the feet of the Mother Abbess at the end of the show. She is leaving so much behind, but she is also taking so much with her. And it is all thanks to those women—the Mother Abbess, the nuns, and God.

I love that.

Do you think a gendered presentation of religion in literature makes a difference? 


  1. Ooh, this is a great discussion. *nods* As someone who does call myself a fan of musicals it's always very interesting to read a new opinion about them. I suppose I hadn't thought about it much before...? But I can't think of another musical either where there's so much of a focus on women and female spirituality. Now I really want to watch The Sound of Music again!

    1. I hadn't thought about it much before, either, until I went and saw the musical and realized it did something I hadn't really seen before! It's just a weird, quirky thing I came up with, actually. Enjoy watching the story all over!

  2. This is really cool. I haven't seen The Sound of Music in a while, and I actually can't think of any other stories (musicals or otherwise) thayt present religion from a more feminine point of view--I'll need to think about this!

    1. It's weird, because you don't really notice it until it's there and then you start to notice where it isn't. And I think that is very curious indeed. It's definitely worth more thinking!


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