When I was 15 years old, I shimmied into a sequined leotard and balanced a feathered headpiece on my head for my high school production of George M! I distinctly recall claiming a private changing space in our closet-sized dressing room during our first dress rehearsal, only to have it dawn on me that there was no point in being modest: I’d be wearing virtually nothing onstage, so why bother hiding now?
I didn’t have any lines, certainly no character name; I had no motivation, no direction other than to strut and smile (I don’t even remember if I was harmonizing in that ensemble scene). This wasn’t surprising or unusual: anonymity is part of the ensemble experience, after all, a small sacrifice performers make to be part of the magical experience that is theater-making. The role of the Chorus Girl, in particular, is one of Be-Seen-And-Not-Heard: she is a longstanding tradition in entertainment that neither performers nor audiences are trained to question.
A recent review of a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, however, left me wondering about this status quo. Among the production’s other problematic sins, the critic attests the following: “Costuming the entire women’s ensemble in hyper-sexualized outfits because the play is set in Las Vegas is sexist.”
I have always that the practice of Vegas showgirls is inherently sexist: by nature, these women are put on display for the consumption of the male gaze and nothing more, so regardless of how entrenched a tradition it is, I’ve always considered it by nature wrong. But for my entire professional career, I have for some reason given theatre a pass. In retrospect, I suppose I’ve given directors and creators the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the presentation of women as feathered objects is artistic and therefore excusable.
But why should it be? Shouldn’t I in fact be holding theater artists to a higher standard than Vegas producers?
Naturally, responses to the aforementioned article were mixed. Many commented that there’s nothing sexist about dressing women as showgirls if that’s what the artistic concept or time period calls for; others questioned whether musicals like Chicago and Cabaret, well known for their lingerie-styled costuming, should now be considered sexist.
In response to these comments, and to a production I recently saw of The Will Rogers Follies which literally has a character named Ziegfeld’s Favorite whose sole job is to be ogled by the audience and male characters, I present a few guidelines to directors grappling with this challenge. Showgirls aren’t going anywhere, particularly if you’re mounting an established musical that’s about 20th century show business (of which there are oh, so many). For directors, choreographers, and costumers working on such musicals, perhaps these suggestions will at the very least make your production more nuanced and give your woman performers some semblance of agency.
1. Admit that Your Show is Sexist
The objectification of women, whether via beauty pageants, Playboy parties, Vegas shows, or Broadway musicals, is sexist. There’s no way around the fact that having showgirls in your production inherently sexualizes your performers via the male gaze. Full stop.
And let me clarify: when I say showgirls, I mean the nonspeaking chorus parts that are used as ornamentation. I don’t mean the characters in Follies, Chicago, Cabaret – although many directors hyper-sexualize these oft-sequined/lingerie-clad women characters, they have lines, agency, and at the very least names. Directors should still make every attempt to not steamroll such women characters under the male gaze, but their existence and proclivity to wear risque costumes is not by nature sexist.
But if your musical has showgirls for the sheer sake of showgirls – Guys and Dolls, The Producers, Spamalot, Will Rogers Follies, Catch Me If You Can, to name just a handful – it’s imperative that you admit that you have a problem. Such musicals may have innumerable redeemable qualities, but they are also sexist – and it’s your job as a director to deal with that.
2. Talk (and Listen) to Your Women Performers
This starts by establishing an collaborative, comfortable rehearsal room where your women performers feel comfortable contributing to the artistic process – and hopefully, following suggestion #1 will contribute to this sense of openness. Invite them to share their experiences, worries, frustrations, and suggestions as you dive into conversations about gender and identity. Be open to having difficult conversations, and take your women performers seriously.
3. Cast Diverse Bodies
To ensure that your production is subversive on some level at least, push against traditional notions of what defines a traditional showgirl – that is, a thin, cis-gendered, and white.
You should, as a director or producer, be seeking broad representation in all of your casting, but it has particular importance here. By casting the same bodies for your slew of showgirls, you are positing two notions: 1) that women are interchangeable, and 2) that only certain types of women’s bodies are worthy of being glorified. Cast large bodies. Cast brown bodies. Cast trans bodies. Pay them a salary, listen to them, and do better.
4. Treat Your Showgirls Like Human Beings
And by showgirls in this instance, I mean the characters themselves. Most stories with showgirls are metatheatrical to some degree: in the world of the play, the women wearing those feathered headdresses are not literally showgirls but performers. They have lives, motivations, frustrations – just like any other ensemble character. It just so happens that the only part of the world we witness takes place in a show-within-a-show.
You know the opening scene in Beauty and the Beast in which every member of Belle’s hometown has some silly quirk and gets a fun solo that reveals something about their world? And how in Cabaret all of the women who perform alongside Sally at the Kit Kat Klub have names and identities? Who’s to say your production can’t have this level of depth for your otherwise sexually objectified showgirls?
Encourage your performers and designers to think about these characters as human beings; give them names, inner lives, motivations; remember that in the world of this play and after their featured scene, they take off their sequined leotards and presumably return home to some other world. Respect these women as humans and watch their worlds, and your musical, flourish.
5. Be Creative
Regardless of how one-dimensional the showgirls are written in the text of your musical-of-choice, there is always room to subvert. To cite a recent example, a production of The Will Rogers Follies at Goodspeed Musicals, while largely unimaginative in terms of its portrayal of its women ensemble members, played with gender norms in one notable, patriotic musical number: all chorus members, men and women, were costumed in the same pantsuits – tight-fitting and low-cut and traditionally Follies-esque, but gender-neutral – with the women even wearing Uncle Sam goatees. This was an effective satirizataion of vaudevillian tropes: it leaned into the showiness of traditional costuming while putting men and women on the same playing field.
You as a director or designer have a creative, imaginative perspective. Use it.
6. Hire Women/Non-Male Directors and Designers
The easiest way to subvert the male gaze is to replace it. Bring in as many non-male perspectives as possible. If you’re a male artistic director, hand your sexist musical over to a woman (I’m looking at you, Broadway’s Carousel, My Fair Lady, and Kiss Me Kate). At the very least, crowd your team with as many diverse perspectives as possible. Give them room to speak. Pay them. Listen to them. Take their advice.
7. Pick a Different Musical
There are lots of musicals out there. Many of them aren’t sexist. Many of them aren’t written by cis white men. Many of them are very good. Many of them are unproduced. Produce them.
I don’t have a definite solution when it comes to reinventing the showgirl trope. I doubt there’s a perfect answer out there at all, and I certainly don’t know what I would say to my 15-year-old self in that dressing room if I had the chance.
But I do know that we as theatre artists are better than Vegas producers, or at least we should be. We at the very least can treat our women like human beings, regardless of the scripts we’re given.