Feminist Friday: Into The Woods

Yup, here it is again.  I find it interesting that the more I write about this particular musical the more I find to write about it – I fully anticipate such things will be true for other musicals that I start to dissect, so perhaps that will become a thing.

[Warning: There are spoilers in this… ]

There are other works out there that analyze Into The Woods from a feminist perspective, so I’m going to toss my two-bits into the conversation.  As is the case with many things I find it to be a mixed bag.  And, as with many many things a lot of the understanding depends on your interpretation.

I am going to focus (again) on the stage-production (as seen in the PBS broadcast), since this has more depth and character development than the movie (I’ve gone into my views on this matter before, so won’t rehash them here).

I often divide the show into two parts:  The first act is the relatively traditional fairy-tale telling of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Ridding Hood.  They are woven together with the created tale of the Baker and his Wife, out seeking the items they have been told will break the spell a witch has put on their family:

One: the cow as white as milk, Two: the cape as red as blood, Three: the hair as yellow as corn, Four: the slipper as pure as gold.

These tales in the first act follow a more traditional (Grimm-style) telling, not the more sanitized versions that have become better known, but the stories go as expected:

Little Red Ridding-Hood strays from the path and gets eaten by the wolf, she and her grandmother are rescued when the Baker sliced open the stomach of the wolf.

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Jack trades his cow for magic beans. His mother, upset at this, throws the beans from their farmhouse and they grown into a giant beanstalk.  He climbs to the land of the giants, steals some things from them, and kills the giant on his last escape.

Cinderella wishes to go to the ball that the prince is having – and her wish is granted.  She attends a few nights, the prince falls for her, and finally finds her thanks to a shoe that she leaves behind one night.

Rapunzel is locked in a tower by a witch. One day a prince finds her and begins to visit her in secret.  The witch discovers this, and in anger banishes them – cutting Rapunzel’s hair and throwing the prince from the tower (where he is blinded).  Rapunzel has twins, and one day finds her prince. Her tears restore his vision and they live together – happy ever after.

Happily Ever After.  The end of the first act shows the characters all getting their wishes (including the baker and his wife, who get all the pieces they need to break the spell).

As is the case with many fairy-tales these early stories have a lot of issues.  The stories of Rapunzel and Cinderella seem to revolve around them getting their prince.

In this act, though, there are female characters that stand for themselves, that take their own actions.  I find the Bakers Wife to be particularly interesting in this — she is the brains in the relationship, in many ways (not just being the one who can actually remember what they are supposed to get).  She also has a certain level of deviousness and willingness to bend the rules that I find interesting.  The Baker is the one that has trouble with the idea of lying to Jack (in what turns out to NOT be a lie), the Baker’s Wife is willing to do what it takes to lift the spell so that they can get the child they want.  I may not agree with her, but I find it refreshing to have a female character that makes up her own mind and sticks to her plans despite argument. She is going to help lift this spell, and she’ll do what it takes.

The second act, though, is all about what comes after the “Happily Ever After.”  It is where the consequences of actions come back to challenge the characters.

One of the primary points that divides those doing feminist critiques of Into The Woods seems to be the death of the Baker’s Wife following her fling with Cinderella’s Prince.  There are some who see her death as an example of “putting women in refrigerators” (a concept that Hannah explored in an earlier Feminist Friday post). They see her death happening solely to advance another character (The Baker’s) development.  Others see it as standing for the randomness of death, or as “a metaphorical release from the dictates of a too strict society.” (Natalie Wilson).

(Left to Right) Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason and Bernadette Peters in "Into the Woods" at the Martin Beck Theatre.
(Left to Right) Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason and Bernadette Peters in “Into the Woods” at the Martin Beck Theatre.

For me I think it is not supposed to be interpreted along gender lines.  I don’t think the Bakers Wife gets killed because she has had a fling with the prince and I don’t think she got killed just so that the Baker would have to face life on his own.  Her death is to help illustrate the randomness, to help move the plot and force the characters further towards decision. It does lend to a  nice little piece of parallelism between the Baker and his Father in the moments that follow — giving the Baker a chance to make a decision differently than his Father made.  One that would not have been able to occur if the Baker’s Wife had not been killed.  But I find it powerful in its own right.

The end of Into The Woods breaks and remakes the “Happily Ever After.”  It turns stories on their heads: Jack is restless to explore the world more; Little Red is struggling with understanding “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “bad”; Cinderella is trying to find her place in a world where everything has changed (as she says to her prince “My father’s house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something in-between”); Rapunzel… well Rapunzel is a mess. Traumatized, haunted, she is a character that deserves far  more unpacking than I am going to get into here. NONE of them make it out of the story unscathed – none of them make it without being touched by death and loss.  The death of the Baker’s Wife fits for me – she is a character able to roll with the punches (so to speak), adaptable, competent, and strong.  What is left with her gone, for all the remaining characters, is the need to really search for themselves. To find their own way through the woods.

What are your thoughts on Into The Woods, from a Feminist Perspective?  What stands out to you?

 

Some of the Articles I found looking at Into The Woods from a Feminist Perspective.  They do, primarily, focus on the movie version which, as I’ve noted before, has some character-development issues:

The refreshingly feminist heroines of “Into The Woods” by Tina Wargo.

Sorry Folks, Into the Woods Isn’t Feminist, by Jarrah Hodge.

Get Me Out of this Forest!: A Feminist Critique of Into The Woods, by Alex Ketchum.

The “Both/And” Celbration of “Into The Woods.” by Natalie Wilson.

Does Into The Woods Punish A Wife for Adultury and Not a Husband? By Eve Weston

 

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11 thoughts on “Feminist Friday: Into The Woods”

  1. Nothing from a feminist point of view, but I have to say I love, love Bernadette Peters’ witch in this production! I also like that they stick together so much that they sacrifice the narrator to save the boy, making the chaos even deeper…. I didn’t know there was a movie version and doubt if I’ll see it – it can’t be as good as the play.

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    1. She did such an amazing job as the witch!!
      You know, I never thought about the way they stuck together in sacrificing the narrator — that’s a good point — probably could write a fair amount about that.
      The movie was okay, but yes, it wasn’t as good as the play, they really cut a lot of the character development (and did away with a few songs… and changed a few endings!).

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  2. This is one of the issues I have with looking at things from a feminist perspective as it’s not clear what is right or wrong. Then again, Red Riding Hood is my favourite character and perhaps I relate to her struggles for understanding ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the same way. As you mentioned, some consider it to be an example of ‘putting women in refrigerators’ or release, while I’m with you in that I never interpreted it along gender lines. I agree with you however, that this event seems to open doors to allow some of the other character’s to grow, even though it is a bit of a shame for such an interesting and capable character to be killed off so suddenly.

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  3. I wasn’t aware of this musical. It’s fascinating that the HEA ends the first act and then it goes on and it isn’t so HEA anymore. Very realistic. Thanks for your viewpoint and insightful thoughts!

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    1. One of the things I love about the musical is how it really plays with the HEA… even as a kid I really liked the fact that it went “past” the ending of the story.. because I always wanted to know “what happens next?”

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  4. I’ve not seen Into the Woods yet, but I really need to!

    That said, the thing about feminist critiques of fiction is that fiction doesn’t necessarily “mean” one thing or another. It can be a fridging and also symbolize release. A choice that makes sense for the plot and development of the other characters can also indicate a wider trend of killing assertive female characters. I’d just have to do more in-depth reading and watching to see what’s up here…

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