As I said yesterday, we went to see Calamity Jane. Watching it brought back childhood memories of going with my grandma to see the local operatic society’s production of Calamity Jane. My grandma is partly responsible for my affection for and vague familiarity with a random selection of musicals, because she used to take me to the annual production put on by the local operatic society. I also remember going to shows at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre (which is sadly no longer in existence, although it’s been replaced by the Curve Theatre, which looks very swish) on more than one occasion, although these trips may have been with my parents rather than my grandparents or maybe with all of them. I wish I could remember more about these bits of my childhood.
I was probably about ten years old when I went to see Calamity Jane with my grandma. Watching the show yesterday, the memories that came to me weren’t just of the songs and the story, but the recollection of how I felt when I was watching it. I had very clear memories of sympathising with Calamity because she was a girl who wanted to wear trousers and practical boots (i.e. men’s clothes) and Wild Bill Hickock (and everyone else) was always telling her to put on a “pretty” dress. I wore dresses as a child because I was a good girl and did what I was told, but really I was much happier in jeans and a t-shirt and jumper and I didn’t like being told what I should or should not be wearing.
Calamity Jane may well have been the first (albeit semi-fictitious) woman I’d come across who rebelled against the stereotype of dresses for girls, trousers for boys and was quite, well, subversive, I think. She wanted to behave in the way she wanted, not in the way society thought she should behave and, for the most part, she did. She certainly didn’t conform to the 1870s ideal of womanhood- she doesn’t even conform to the 2009 ideal of womanhood!
Of course, I was (and still am, really) most indignant when Calamity finally succumbs and wears a dress, thereby ‘winning’ the affections of Wild Bill. It is at this point that Calamity changes, in my eyes, from a forerunner of feminism to just one of a long litany of fictitious women who transform from perceived ugly ducklings to swans and get the leading man as their reward. Because, of course, the only way to get a decent man (which is, naturally, the only way a woman can possibly be happy) is to conform to society’s ideal of what a woman should be – pretty, submissive, charming and homely. This is a lesson we women all must learn, so it is still in 2009 shown to us at every opportunity; on television, in films and in theatres, and not just in musicals written in the 1950s (which at least have the ‘excuse’ of being written in the 1950s!).*
In fairness, Calamity doesn’t lose everything of herself – even after she gets together with Bill she’s still quite feisty, riding off to bring Katie back to Deadwood – but seeing her standing demurely in a wedding dress in the last scene felt a bit like a defeat. I hope she doesn’t let Bill change her too much.
*Having thought about this a bit more, I’m not sure that today’s society and media teaches the ideal of a homely and submissive woman (although she must still be beautiful and charming), but the idea that a woman can only find true happiness when she has a man is still what is portrayed, for the most part.