West Side Story takes place in the 1950’s, and is the story of two battling gangs and a love which seeks to defy their bounds. The two gangs are the Jets, a group of white americans, and the Sharks, a group of Puerto Rican immigrants. The two groups are battling for turf in the upper west side of New York City. While all this is happening, Tony, a former member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of one of the Sharks fall in love. The star-crossed lovers plan to marry, but everything changes when, in a fight between the Jets and the Sharks, Tony kills Maria’s brother. The two lovers then plan to run away together, but their plan is soon ruined when Tony is killed out of revenge by another member of the Sharks, to whom Maria is supposed to be getting married. The story ends with the two gangs parting ways respectfully, realizing that their hatred is the thing that truly killed their friends. This musical explores widespread issues dealing with race and socioeconomic standing, as well as gender. It is my opinion that while West Side Story deploys stereotypical masculine and feminine roles through dance and dialogue, these roles are also challenged by an overlooked, but important character, Anybodys.
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The baseline of definition of the male and female roles in this musical is through movement. Throughout the film, the movement of the male characters is commanding, and demands attention, while the movement of the female characters is more submissive, sexualized, and objectifying. While the male characters still employ a lot of spinning and leaping, many of their movements are sharp and demanding. They are stone faced as they dance. These elements add a sense of masculine aggression to the dancing. The choreography also includes a lot of gymnastic and acrobatic moves, as if to prove that these are still strong and masculine men, even though they are dancing in jazz and ballet styles. The women however, portray a more sensual and submissive tone through their movement. Their movements are very fluid and there is a lot of gliding. This conveys elegance and grace, stereotypical feminine traits. There is also an aspect of sexuality in their movement. In the scene where both groups of kids are at a social dance event, the women’s movements are focused on the hip areas, and their costumes consist of flowy skirts that accentuate these movements. The choreography also includes a lot of high kicking and showing off of the legs. This focus on hips and legs adds an aspect of objectification of the women, as their movement is used as a spectacle to add to the aesthetic of the scene, rather than as a method of conveying the emotions and the story.
Roles of masculinity and femininity are also portrayed through the dialogue and actions of the characters in the film. This movie is very male-centric, an intentional or maybe even unintentional reflection of society at the time in which the movie takes place. The first few scenes feature only men, and the only mention of women is in a sexual manner. Throughout the film, there are also many comments made about women staying in their place, and knowing to follow orders of men. There is also an idea of purity and innocence of women, embodied by Maria. She is first seen wearing all white and talking of her hopes and dreams in America, where she was brought to marry Chino. Throughout the film, Maria continues to think of nothing but love, and have no ambitions of her own other than to get married to the man she loves, Tony. Maria’s depiction is the definition of the stereotypical women at the time. Roles of masculinity and femininity are further enforced by her brother’s overprotective nature and tendency to try to control everything she does.
While there is much stereotypical depiction of masculine and feminine roles throughout the film, one character seeks to defy them. Anybodys is a spunky tomboy who longs to be a member of the Jets gang. She dresses and acts like all of the other boys in the gang, and tries to fit in, even though she is younger and smaller than all of them. Throughout the film, she is picked on by the guys in the gang, as they constantly try to enforce female stereotypes on her. Telling her to dress and act like a girl. Making comments about how she only wants to join the gang because it is the only way a guy will touch her, and other offensive and stereotypical things. Throughout the film she continues to stay true to herself and by the end wins the respect of the gang, when they realize that she is a valuable member and can help them out. In my eyes, Anybodys is the true hero of the film, as she defies female stereotypes and works harder than any other to gain the respect of her peers in a male-centric society.