West Side Story is characterised as a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet love storty and they both contain motifs of sexuality and racial overtones. By modernising the story, the audience can sympathise with the characters and perceive how their bodies are portrayed through the themes of race, gender and sexuality. These themes create a dualism of story and character, which infuses the film and play with artistic discipline. Through music, the film represents the emotions and inner thoughts of the characters through different cinematic techniques such as flashbacks and close-ups. As argued by Swain , the film becomes ‘more social tragedy than Romeo and Juliet’ as discrimination replaces fate. Although there are many significant changes from the original play, the film ‘provides dramatically credible and musical equivalents of Shakespeare’s literary techniques’ and successfully ‘captures his central themes.
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The problem of gender is closely interlinked with the concept of race in West Side Story. The film serves as a social commentary on racial issues in 1950s America. The film downplays the Puerto Rican characters as opposed to their white American counterparts. For example, there is a lack of musical scenes that portray them and instead, there is a greater focus on the white Jets at the beginning of the film. The Puerto Rican males are created as opponents to the Jets and for this reason, they ‘are used as a metaphor too denominate the immigrant Latino otherness coming from the Caribbean’.
Throughout the film, Bernardo can be seen as a complex Latino and a protective brother over Maria and Anita. However, his deep hatred of Americans surfaces when he complains that ‘Chino makes half of what the Polack makes.’ In this heightened discourse, it is apparent that Bernardo is enraged and anxious for the safety of his community and so this forces the audience to question what the ‘American dream’ is for ‘foreigners.’ The camera and male characters influence the way the audience perceives the female characters, Maria and Anita, as they both reinforce stereotypes that are established in the film. Both of them are Puerto Rican which means that the way they speak, sing, dance and dress symbolises their ethnicity as Puerto Rican women. Like Shakespeare’s Juliet, Maria arrives only after the audience is introduced to Tony in the song ‘Something’s Coming.’ Maria seems to burst into a song whenever she sees Tony. For example, in the bridal shop, she sings ‘I Feel Pretty’ and so the audience is fixated on her physical looks and her body. Negrón-Muntanerpoints out that ‘Maria only feels pretty when a white man, Tony, sees her.’ This suggests that Maria’s happiness comes from a white ‘American’ man as she desires to become a ‘young lady of America.’ The film indicates that cultural identity is one factor that restricts the character’s physical bodies. For example, the dance scene in the gymnasium displays the illusion of similarities and differences.
The Puerto Ricans might ‘look alike’ but they are identical to the Anglos because of their dress and skin colour. Yet this is not obvious to the audience, so they must be frequently characterised. However, the ‘perfect’ Maria is an exception of this as her character and costume signify that she is a ‘virgin’ who is unaffected by the margins of American culture and prejudice. Although the film forces the Puerto Ricans to stick with their kind, this scene shows that the white bodies can’t stop themselves from dancing to Latin music, even though their physical bodies differ. Like Maria and Anita, many questions are surrounding Juliet’s ethnicity. Nineteenth-century critics labelled ‘foreign’ characters as one of the play’s issues. The English would stereotype Italians for their infatuation of sexual gratification and as Elliott observes, ‘racial and ethnic stereotyping took place in the period, and Italians were noted for their hot blood and lack of control.’ Juliet’s ‘fondness’ might resemble the sexual predilection of a lascivious Italian for an Elizabethan audience. Thus, the restrictions of the characters physical bodies are portrayed through the theme of race because the musical examines the ‘racist hostilities between cultures’ and studies ‘the patriarchal oppression of women within the individual cultures’ (Smith, 2005: 50). This means that the concept of race and gender are interlinked and are depicted through the Anybodys and Anita, who both resist abuse.
The adaption from stage to film influences the portrayal of gender in West Side Story. In the musical, the gangs are gendered as the Jets are threatened by gender divisions and the presence of homosexuality. The Anybodys epitomises the gender conflict that permeates throughout the film. This gender interloper is one of the few characters who does not have a Shakespearean precursor in the play. One reading of Anybodys is that her gender role becomes the theme of laughter throughout the film because she is confined to a world where white women are simply ‘accessories’ . On the other hand, Anita’s character emerges as a strong and ambitious woman in the bridal shop scene. Smith suggests that Anita symbolises the ‘women’s resistance to the patriarchal structures of control’ as she confronts Bernardo’s ‘sexist’ assumptions. This is further supported by Sandoval who indicates that Bernardo’s ‘comments are subordinated and silenced,’ whenever he tries to ‘discredit and demystify Anita’s exaltation of the American Dream.’ Ironically, Anita promotes ‘racial and ethnic segregation’ as she warns Maria to disregard Tony and ‘stick to her own kind’. Thus, it is clear that Anita’s outrage and hate against Tony are racially motivated. The film challenges gendered and ethnic stereotypes, which ultimately leads to the marginalisation of Maria and Anita.
Contrastingly, the play demonstrates how the female and male characters share the main title, as they diverge from the common female audience and male actor standard. However, the issue of gender politics is important in this play because it involves a blood feud that authorises men to justify their masculinity by violence. The minor characters in the play entrench common beliefs such as, ‘women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall’ as men splendour in their ‘naked weapon’ . The sexualisation of violence is further developed through sexual innuendos, and this brings out an element of ‘phallic violence’ which is expressed in sexual imagery . The predicament of masculinity is revealed in the opening exchange between Sampson and Gregory, in which acts of physical brutality towards Montague’s men become indivisible from their acts of sexual violence towards the women. For example, Sampson’s troubling scheme to ‘push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall’ reveals that the rape of women becomes emblematic of men’s dominance over women, which is similar to the rape culture in the film. Mahmood suggests that the play’s bawdy dramatic function is to create ‘a brutal male dominance that is expressed in sadistic quibbles’ . Shakespeare’s choice of starting the play on a note of bawdy is significant in signalling the thematic influence of violence and sex in the play. Although the play displays ‘phallic violence’ and dynamic heterosexism as imperative aspects of masculinity, it does not overlook it. According to Kahn, the play is about the accomplishment of the mature masculine and feminine ‘identities’. The feud fosters phallic violence which might have evoked denunciation from an Elizabethan audience. Furthermore, Juliet is revived as a quintessential heroine because of her flourishing maturity, amiable character and purity. In the nineteenth century, it was common for women to praise Juliet as a paragon of womanhood. For example, Faucit homogenised Juliet as displaying ‘true’ womanhood and her maturity has allowed her to be ‘transfigured into the heroic woman’ . Therefore both the film and play portray the concept of gender through the representation of women. However, the film vindicates these stereotypes but this succumbs to the ostracisation of women.
In the musical, the ethnic community is viewed as more beneficial than the heterosexual marriages between Puerto Ricans and the Whites. This is because it leads to the deaths of Bernardo who dies while protecting Maria’s dignity and Riff who dies whilst defending Tony. The film clearly shows that Puerto Rican women endure disgrace and humiliation, yet it is only the men who suffer the consequences of death and this suggests that heterosexuality is dangerous for men. Moreover, Anita surfaces as an independent sensual being but this characteristic is stripped away from her when the Jet gang attempt to rape her. As the camera moves around the room, Anita is presented as a victimised woman who seeks vengeance for the death of Bernardo. Another reading is the concept of homosexuality in the film. For example, the relationship between the characters Tony and Riff suggests that they are more than friends. Mordden suggests that their relationship is similar to Romeo and Mercutio’s relationship who were secret lovers. This is demonstrated through their physical intimacy and their soothing voices in the scene where Riff persuades Tony to attend the dance. Thus, this indicates that the audience views Tony’s relationship with Riff as affectionate while his relationship with Maria is more romantic and sensual. This tension builds up to the denouement as Riff’s death furiously provokes Tony to kill Bernardo.
Similarly, the restriction of women’s bodies in the play is demonstrated in Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech. He states that the Fairy Queen influences the dreams of women as the ‘maids lie on their backs,/That presses them and learns them first to bear’ (. This indicates that Mab permeates women’s dreams and implements pressure on their bodies, which makes them ‘women of good carriage’ and changes their demeanour. The term ‘carriage’ might refer to women carrying their lover and the way they carry themselves. Furthermore, the lyrical diction of nature is distinctly absent in the play. Instead, Shakespeare uses the image of a flower as a floral metaphor to scrutinise the ‘contingent and constructed nature of normal bodies’. Both the male and female sexualised body reflects the life process of a flower but the sexual liberation in this tragedy is obstructed by their deaths. Friar Laurence predicts Juilet’s deathly outward appearance when she drinks the poisonous drink, ‘the roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade’. This rosy description embodies her physical budding and the rose becomes an allegory for Juliet’s affection and physical attractiveness. Additionally, the limitations of Juliet’s body causes Romeo to bloviate at the view of her body as ‘the brightness of her cheek would shame those stars’ . The impudence of the rhetorical speech is evident, as Cavel argues that Juliet can't be perceived or ‘acknowledged’ through the sonnet as a subject or speaker of words . This is why Romeo is forced to end his rhapsody and notice that Juliet is a free force as ‘she speaks:-/O, speak again, bright angel’ . As he confronts her thinking and questioning, he starts to apprehend her freedom instead of her restricted physical body. Juliet condemns her legal marriage to the County Paris as it pressures her to become a ‘label to another deed’ and she fears that her body will become nothing but a certificate. By revealing her defiance to this systemization of her body, she appeals to be covered ‘with dead men’s rattling bones’ . This allusive language is what causes the lovers to dispute when they meet each other and share the lines of a love sonnet. Thus, the theme of sexuality is used as a device to amplify the film and play’s latent sexuality whilst portraying the restrictions of men and women’s bodies.
Overall, this study shows that the restrictions of the character's physical bodies are portrayed through the themes of race, gender and sexuality, in the film and the play. The representation of these themes challenges the stereotypes and addresses contemporary issues in the film. West Side Story adapts Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as it revives the theatre genres to create new interpretations that develop the meanings of the play. Shakespeare’s recognised moral force integrates an ethnic lexicon in the allegorical structure of the interpretation. However, at times, the film’s audience seems to struggle in differentiating the Puerto Ricans and relating to them emotionally. This is because the Puerto Ricans embody musical and performative characteristics whilst wearing their sexualised identity for a white audience and so this gives the audience a spectacle to recognise and appreciate the film’s interracial temptation. The film remains an innovative adaptation in criticising racial prejudice but at the same time, it appropriates racial and gender stereotypes.