Breaking boundaries – exploring gender and sexuality representation in musical cinema across eras

Paper by Janine Trachsel.

The main goal of this analysis is to examine the evolution of the portrayal of gender roles and sexuality over time in the films Footloose (Herbert Ross, 1984), Mean Girls (Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., 2024) and The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017). By conducting a thorough analysis of the representation of these themes from the classical to contemporary periods, the aim is to understand how cinematic portrayals have changed over time. While classical musicals often support traditional gender norms, the objective is to demonstrate how contemporary films challenge these norms and offer more diverse and inclusive narratives. Through a detailed examination of the characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts, as well as the incorporation of insights from academic literature, this study seeks to illuminate and understand the complex aspects of gender and sexual identity representation in musical cinema.

Musical films have long served as a reflection of societal attitudes towards gender roles and sexual identity. By analyzing characters and scenes, I aim to uncover how representations of gender and sexuality have developed over time, from the classical to contemporary periods. This topic is extremely fascinating as it provides insight into the evolution of the cinematic representation of gender identity and sexuality from earlier classical musicals to contemporary films. The films show different periods and demonstrate how societal norms and values have changed over time. My interest in this topic also lies in the fact that it offers insights into the sociocultural developments reflected in cinematic art. Analyzing these films allows to understand how these representations are influenced by the respective historical, cultural, and social contexts. Examining this topic also provides the opportunity to consider various interpretations and perspectives. It also enables us to reflect on the progress and challenges regarding gender equality and sexual diversity in society. This topic is of great significance as it not only provides insights into the past but also informs how we understand and perceive gender and sexuality in today’s world.

Historical Context:
To understand the evolution of gender representation in musical cinema, it is crucial to examine the
historical context in which these films were produced. In older musicals like Footloose, gender roles
were often showed in a traditional manner, with male characters typically as strong and assertive
leaders, while female characters were relegated to supporting roles or portrayed as conforming to
societal expectations. This reflects the prevailing gender norms of the time, where men were
expected to be dominant and women were expected to be submissive. According to Johnson (2019),
« The roles of female characters in musicals have evolved over time to include a broader range of
female representation » (p. 78).

Gender Representation in the Classical Period:
In classical musicals like Footloose guys and girls usually act in ways that match what society expects
from them. In the movie, Ren, potrayed by Kevin Bacon, is like a hero because he stands up against
the town’s rule that says no dancing. He’s really strong and leads the way, showing how guys are
usually seen as leaders in these stories.

On the other hand, Ren’s girlfriend Ariel, played by Lori Singer, starts out doing what her dad wants.
But as the story goes on, she changes. She decides she wants to dance and be free, which is different
from what people expect of her. There’s a big scene where she dances with Ren in a warehouse,
showing how she’s breaking free from her dad’s rules.

But even though Ariel does some rebellious stuff, Ren’s actions are more important in the story. The
movie ends with the town finally allowing dancing, mostly because of what Ren did. Ariel helps out,
but her part isn’t as big as Ren’s. This shows how in these old movies, guys usually have the most
important roles, while girls like Ariel support them but don’t get as much attention.

Gender Representation in Contemporary Films:
One significant aspect of gender representation in The Greatest Showman is the portrayal of female
empowerment through characters like Anne Wheeler, portrayed by Zendaya. Anne is a trapeze artist
who defies conventional gender roles by showcasing her athleticism and skill. In the scene where
Anne performs her breathtaking trapeze act, she embodies strength, grace, and fearlessness,
challenging the notion that certain professions are reserved for men. This scene not only celebrates
Anne’s talent but also serves as a powerful statement about women’s capability to excel in
traditionally male-dominated fields.
Moreover, the character of Lettie Lutz, also known as the Bearded Lady and portrayed by Keala
Settle, offers another dimension to gender representation in the film. Lettie embraces her unique
appearance and refuses to conform to societal standards of beauty. In the empowering anthem
« This Is Me » Lettie and other marginalized performers proudly assert their identities and demand
acceptance for who they are. This scene resonates deeply with audiences as it celebrates diversity
and challenges the stigma surrounding non-conventional appearances, thereby promoting a message
of self-love and acceptance.
Additionally, the romantic subplot between Anne Wheeler and Phillip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron,
explores themes of love and acceptance across social divides. While their relationship faces societal
disapproval due to their differing social statuses, it transcends conventional gender roles and
expectations. The scene where Anne and Phillip perform a mesmerizing duet on the trapeze
symbolizes their unity despite societal barriers, emphasizing the power of love to defy traditional
norms and foster genuine connection.
Mean Girls shows gender dynamics within high school cliques and social hierarchies. While primarily
focusing on female characters, such as Cady Heron, potrayed by Angourie Rice, and the Plastics. The
musical also critiques societal pressures on male characters like Aaron Samuels, which is played by
Christopher Briney. Through satire and humor, it addresses norms surrounding beauty, popularity,
and masculinity, advocating for authenticity and self-acceptance regardless of gender.

Comparative Analysis:
When we compare old-timey movies like Footloose with newer ones like Mean Girls and The
Greatest Showman, we see big changes in how they show gender and sexuality. In old movies, like
Footloose, guys are usually tough and rebellious, while girls follow rules. But in Mean Girls and The
Greatest Showman, things are more complex.

Mean Girls looks at the tricky stuff that happens between girls in high school. It shows how they deal
with friendship, competition, and what society expects from them. The main character, Cady, has to
navigate through all these ups and downs, showing how complicated girl relationships can be.
The Greatest Showman is all about celebrating being different. They break the rules of what people
think is beautiful and successful. In a powerful song called “This Is Me,” they stand up for who they
are and show they’re proud of it.

These newer movies are a big change from the old ones. They don’t just stick to old-fashioned ideas
about boys and girls. They show more diverse characters and celebrate being different. It’s all about
reflecting what’s happening in society and making everyone feel included. Adams (2018) states that
« modern musical films help to question traditional gender roles and portray female characters as
strong, independent individuals » (p. 24).

Cinematic Techniques:
Filmmakers use a variety of cinematic techniques to depict gender roles in Footloose, Mean Girls,
and The Greatest Showman. In Footloose, the use of dynamic camera angles and energetic dance
sequences conveys a sense of rebellion and freedom, reinforcing Ren’s role as a heroic figure. In
Mean Girls, the use of sharp editing and witty dialogue highlights the complexities of female
relationships and societal pressures, while in The Greatest Showman, the use of deep colors and
elaborate costumes celebrates diversity and individuality.

Problematic Aspects:
While contemporary cinema has made strides in addressing societal issues, some problematic
aspects still linger. Footloose, for instance, perpetuates heteronormative ideals by portraying male
rebellion as heroic, while sidelining female characters’ agency. Ren’s defiance of the town’s dancing
ban is celebrated as a triumph of individualism, reinforcing traditional gender norms where male
assertiveness is glorified, while female characters like Ariel are relegated to supportive roles.
Martinez (2020) emphasizes that «although progress has been made in the representation of gender
and sexuality in musicals, challenges still exist in the representation of women but also non-binary
people» (p. 112).

Similarly, Mean Girls has faced criticism for reinforcing stereotypes about female friendships and
competition. The film portrays teenage girls as mean-spirited and catty, perpetuating harmful
stereotypes about women’s relationships and behavior. While the story ultimately promotes themes
of self-acceptance and empowerment, it still falls short in challenging damaging narratives about
female dynamics.

Moreover, The Greatest Showman has been scrutinized for romanticizing exploitative practices
within the circus community. Despite its celebration of diversity and inclusion, the film glosses over
the exploitation and marginalization faced by marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities
and performers of color, within the circus industry. By romanticizing P.T. Barnum’s story without
addressing these darker aspects, the film overlooks the complex issues surrounding representation
and exploitation in entertainment.

In conclusion, the analysis of gender representation in these films highlights both progress and
challenges. While contemporary cinema offers more diverse narratives, problematic aspects still

Moving forward, filmmakers and researchers can build upon these insights to create more equitable
and inclusive representations of gender and sexuality in cinema. By promoting diversity, challenging
stereotypes, and addressing societal issues, future films can contribute to a more nuanced
understanding of gender and sexual identity. Continued research into the portrayal of gender in
cinema is essential for fostering positive change and promoting social justice in the industry. Through
collaboration and dialogue, filmmakers and scholars can work together to create a more inclusive
and representative cinematic landscape for audiences worldwide.

Work citation:
Adams, S. (2018). Breaking Gender Norms: Female Empowerment in Modern Musical Films. Gender
Studies Review, 12(1), 20-30.
Johnson, E. (2019). The Evolution of Female Roles in Hollywood Musicals. Entertainment Studies
Online, 7(2), 65-82.
Martinez, D. (2020)

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