Thursday, 18 June 2020

Heroine Fix: Praising Difficult Women (Phantom of the Opera)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been dealing with a lot of personal challenges.  One of my coping mechanisms is music.  And drama.  Which is how I ended up watching three different versions of The Phantom of the Opera.  And listening to one more (because not listening to Colm Wilkenson's Phantom is just wrong).  Now, I adore the interplay of music and tragi-romance that Andrew Lloyd Webber created.  When I'm depressed, the melodrama can be cathartic.

When I was a kid, I empathized with the character of Christine.  I admired her beauty and the beauty of her voice.  I was thrilled with the adventure of being lured beneath the opera house by a mysterious masked man with a gorgeous voice.  And I thought it was wonderful that her childhood sweetheart (a viscount, no less!) was in love with her and would risk everything to be with her.

But this time, as I watched the various versions, I found myself more sympathetic toward the character Carlotta, the prima donna soprano of the Paris Opera house and the woman who is Christine's professional obstacle.  She's usually portrayed as unpleasantly demanding and wracked with petty jealousy toward Christine.  The audience is supposed to want Christine to replace her.

It's a fairly typical dyad.  Christine, the virginal, humble, sweet, and pure, is "not like other girls" with that specific role being played by Carlotta, who is worldly, wealthy, and aware of her own talent.  Christine is the Madonna.  Carlotta, it is implied, is the whore.

I found myself asking: why are Carlotta's attributes so easily portrayed as bad?

There's actually a fair bit to admire in the character.  She is an independent woman, which is a rarity in 1898 Paris.  She is a professional, which is even rarer.  She's been the prima donna of the Paris Opera House for five years when the story begins.  Which means she's quite good at her job, since performing women have always faced the frequent churn of being replaced by younger performers.  Based on what we see, she's quite wealthy.  She has her own home, at least two servants, and very expensive custom clothing.  So she is a successful, skilled, and resourceful woman.

To be fair, there's no doubt that she's pretty unpleasant toward her coworkers, both the other performers and the stagehands.  She orders them about and expects to be catered to, not to mention throwing a tantrum and walking away from a performance.

However, there may be some unexplored justification for her attitude.

One of the first scenes we see with Carlotta is when she's performing the aria "Think of Me" for the new Opera managers.  During her performance, she is knocked down by a heavy canvas backdrop.  The managers dismiss the incident, saying "These things do happen..."

This is the last straw for our diva.  She screams at them that these things have been happening to her for the last three years and until they stop happening, she won't be performing at the Paris Opera.  It's a single line that's quickly passed over and not mentioned again.  The narrative focus shifts to giving Christine her big break.

Still, the line made me think.  If it's true, then for the last three years, the Phantom has been making the Paris Opera increasingly unpleasant for Carlotta in the hopes that she will quit and provide an opportunity to Christine.  It doesn't take much imagination to realize how unpleasant it would be to be unpredictably subjected to sabotage and disruption.  Especially since any plea for a fix has clearly been dismissed.  She's being gaslit by those in authority around her, which would make anyone irritable and demanding even without the Phantom's attacks.

Carlotta's jealousy and irritability can be explained by the situation she's in.  She's jealous of Christine because she's very aware that her career and livelihood are dependent on being able to perform.  She doesn't want to give up the position she's worked so hard to achieve.

And I have to admit, I don't find being demanding and being aware of one's own talents to be negative traits.  These are usually only portrayed as undesirable in women.  Masculine characters are allowed to be difficult, rude, and arrogant.  They're even admired for it.

Carlotta is villainized because the audience needs to feel better about Christine taking over her job.  If we see Carlotta as unworthy and unlikable, then we don't have to question whether Christine should have any moral concerns about accepting the results of the Phantom's harassment.  It also allows Christine to be passive, reinforcing her purity.  It's a narrative choice and one that many authors have made over the years.

But it's not an inevitable one.  Feminine characters don't have to be pitted against one another.  One doesn't have to lose in order for the audience to feel good about the other winning.

I would greatly love to see a version where Christine is ambitious instead of passive.  Where she recognizes Carlotta's talent and the two have a mentor-mentee relationship.  That would be a refreshing switch.  Heck, I'd love it if the two of them would pair up against the Phantom because Christine realizes he's been manipulating her and that what he's doing to Carlotta is wrong.

Difficult women shouldn't be automatically dismissed as unworthy of a happy ending.  They should be celebrated for daring to take up space that society says they shouldn't.  We should all be more willing to take up space.

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