Stacy Wolf’s “A Problem Like Maria”

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The terms “woman,” “feminist,” and “lesbian,” are used somewhat interchangeably to underline this book’s primary concern with spectator’s uses of the musical, however they might identify themselves.”

There is not much I can take away from a book that frames itself like this. Up until this moment in the introduction, Wolf’s analysis of the American musical seemed compelling. Her two act structure and dual interpretation of musicals — “enormously popular sources of mainstream entertainment, sometimes containing liberal messages of tolerance, providing conservative representations of women and heterosexual couples; and […] as sources of pleasure and power for feminist and lesbian spectators.” – are convincing and intriguing. However, I lift my suspension of disbelief when she is quick to assume that all feminist analysis is a lesbian and women are both feminist and lesbian. In any case, Stacy Wolf’s “A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical” is an interesting book at best, providing interesting though sometimes far fetched readings of the American musical, specifically The Sound of Music, and four prominent actresses of the musical genre: Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand.

 

On her chapter on Julie Andrews, Wolf argues that Julie Andrews shares many of her character’s behavior: “On Broadway, television, and film and in “everyday life,” Andrews queers even the most blatant representations of heterosexuality, including her own marriage. In other words, she is undeniably feminine and thus, like many (lesbian) femmes, is mistaken for straight.” Already I want to stop reading. This analysis of an actress’ life, collapsed with her performances, and seen under the lens of feminist studies, using lesbian in parenthesis like it is a given, and interchanging woman, feminist and lesbian is too far fetched for me. Especially in the light of our recent reading of Judith Butler’s “Performative Arts and Gender Constitution,” Wolf’s homoerotic reading of Julie Andrews’ life, career, and her performance in The Sound of Music strike as sexist and narrow-minded. I appreciate the gender-conscious reading of The Sound of Music, and understand the value of introducing such themes in mainstream works like the American Musical, but this book is too invested in a theory and everything else seems bent to fit it.

 

Gender performance and performance art are concepts I am grappling with. Julie Andrews is not a performance artist, she is an actress most known for her roles in American musicals. Regardless of her sexual orientation, and whether or not her marriage was a façade, she is not performing herself in The Sound of Music. The main argument we have been discussing is the fact that performance art is about the artist, their body, and their exploration and sacrifice of that body of the audience. Implementing such readings onto earlier works that were not performance art seems futile. Although I am interested in “gender and sexuality in the American Musical,” this book seems to be describing lesbian reading of American female performers who happen to perform in musicals. And that leaves a lot to be desired. 

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