Last week, I found this fabulous article on The Toast: Wicked, haters to the left, please. In it, writer Sarah James recalls her teenage self’s obsession with the musical, and then her about-face to superior loathing, based on the idea that real Broadway fans don’t like musicals that are so teenage girl-y. She then explores how this “grown up” view on Wicked reveals the idea that teenage girls’ needs and emotions are inferior.
But saying Wicked is not a legitimate work of art for a particular audience is saying that the particular audience is not legitimate. Teenage women deserve to see stories about characters with whom they identify onstage. They are not “brainless” for enjoying having a language with which to talk about themselves. I’m not saying the show should exist above criticism; just that “too much spectacle” can’t be code for “too much spectacle for a trivial subject like women’s emotions.”
This article is perfectly timed for me. I doubt that I would count as a “real Broadway fan,” based on the comments on the article, because I’ve loved every cliched “teenage girl” musical there is: Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Spring Awakening. Eponine is my favorite Les Mis character and I’ve melodramatically sung On My Own a little too often. And of course, I sang along to Wicked every morning as a teenager, and actually cried when I saw Idina Menzel play Elphaba on the West End. And although Wicked has been tucked deep into my iTunes, completely unheard for a few years, my newfound obsession with Frozen put it back on my playlist this week, leading to me singing along to it every night as I cook dinner and wash the dishes.
I don’t think I can say much about the “appeals to teenage girls” aspect of Wicked without rehashing what the article on The Toast has already said better. But I want to go further into the idea that it’s only for teenage girls. The idea of Elphaba as the ugly outsider dreaming of recognition and love is a powerful one, and the focus on female ambition and female friendship makes for an inspiring and emotional show for any teenager struggling with her own friendships and ambitions and difficulty finding her place in the world. But the dismissal of Wicked as a spectacle for brainless, over-emotional teenage girls also includes the harmful idea that “grown up women” don’t have these struggles.
Movies, novels, TV shows and I’m sure “grown up, serious” musicals are full of the themes and questions in Wicked, but with serious, male characters. Male friendship (or “bromance”) that transcends all difficulties and all other relationships. Guys pursuing their ambitions despite being outsiders. Men fighting against the system. And of course all that “spectacle” of car chases and gun fights and explosions that no real human being would ever survive. But when female characters develop close friendships and struggle to find meaning, with some spectacle and romance thrown in, it’s only for silly teenage girls.
Perhaps I’m just trying to excuse my ugly crying last night while singing along to For Good, but at twenty five, my close female friends are still as important to me as at fifteen. And although the emotions aren’t quite as raw, I don’t think women stop feeling like they’re outsiders, like they’re not pretty or good enough, or stop having intense ambition once they stop being in high school. Friends still have disagreements. Dreams still turn out to have been empty. Ambition still drives people forwards. And it’s still powerful and moving to see those struggles portrayed by female characters (and, yes, to sing along to Defying Gravity as though you can actually hit those high notes). Wicked is definitely a family-friendly musical, and teenage girls are definitely the ones most influential in driving its popularity, as they are for almost anything that reaches insane-popularity-status, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be shunned by anybody in any other category, or that “grown up” women shouldn’t be able to find an emotional connection with it as well. After all, grown up men aren’t expected to stop enjoying movies about superheroes or playing Grand Theft Auto or other things that teenage boys stereotypically enjoy. But silly things like emotional connection and representation of your friendships and struggles? Those things need to be put away with boy bands, braces and highschool rivalry, as elements of our immature, girlish younger selves.