No, I Can’t Stop Thinking about Gender Roles and Sexism, Even When I go to See The Nutcracker

I adore the music for the Nutcracker, though I haven’t seen the ballet in years, and I was excited to see the American Ballet Theater perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday night.

It started out so promising: the sets evocative, the costumes lush, the antics of the mice in the kitchens, before the main action opens, kid friendly and amusing. A few kids around me laughed out loud at the scurrying mice and floppy dancing of the life-sized dolls. I wiggled in my seat like a kid myself when I realized several dancers were black and more were Asian (the playbill tells me some were Latino). (This is the first ballet I’m seeing as an adult, so I don’t know if this is more common than it was when I was a kid, or if it’s because it’s NYC.)

I shrugged off the first discordant note, during the party scene, as you do. Because you don’t want to deal with the fail, with the crashing of expectations. From immersive, thrilling performance and evocation of childhood memories to tense and squirming in your seat for an entirely different reason.

It was a small moment, played for laughs, as so many gender stereotypes are. The adult male and female dancers have separated by sex. The men are at the forefront, drinking and partying it up. The women surround them and glare, arms crossed and chins up, until the men give in and ask the women to dance. How ludicrous is that — male ballet dancers pretending they don’t want to dance? Are they a token thrown to the men in the audience, who are presumed not to want to dance themselves, who have been dragged to the ballet by women and children? How stereotypical — white, middle class, Northeast, straight centric — can you get?

So that happened. But the snowflakes were beautiful in the confetti snow and the young dancers playing Clara and the nutcracker boy were full of verve and delight, and the older Clara and older nutcracker danced beautifully. The Mouse King’s costume was deliciously scary with five mouse heads attached to his shoulders and back and extra tails whirling around him as he fought the nutcracker.

In the second act, the curtain rises on a sliver of the stage. Four very little girls on the left are mirrored by four slightly bigger boys on the right, with the queen (sugar plum fairy? I’m not clear who this was) in the middle, anchoring and separating them. The girls, maybe six to eight years old, creep across the stage in these horrible mincing, stilted steps on their toes towards the boys. The boys take long, striding steps, looking like they enjoy the movement of their own bodies, towards the girls. I felt physically sick. These little girls moved like they were cobbled, magnified by the freedom of the boys stride. For no reason, except the choreographer (ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky) thought it looked beautiful.

This short scene colored the rest of the ballet for me. Objectively, I don’t know if the whole second act was WTFery on a large scale or if the individual shocks of WTF affected everything else.  But I was already unhappy when the “Arabian” dancers came on.

Tchaikovsky is problematic. He was composing at a time when exoticism and othering were acceptable and the height of culture (never mind he was from the exotic and othered Russia himself). Choreographers have to be mindful that the second act is sensitive culturally. Ratmansky apparently never got that memo. Not only did he step in it culturally, but he jumped up and down on it sexually.

The “Arabian” dancers were four women with veils in their hair (not over their faces) wearing tunics and loose trousers and one bare-chested man (the first man not to be entirely clothed in the ballet). The women physically fight each other for the man’s attention, pushing each other out of the way and kicking each other. They also pursue him back and forth across the stage while he runs away. This is played for laughs. People, including kids, laughed. I wanted to vomit. Hello, sexualized, exoticizing, othering of non-Western or non-white women. Hello, sexualized, exoticizing, othering of all things “Eastern.”

For context, I had just been reading a post about liking women as essential to being feminist/a decent human being (for men and women) on Shakesville (Feminism 101 for Dudes, part 8). The post and comments are about how we are all socially conditioned to not like women, for women to compete with each other, and for men not see women as human beings. And also 18 kindergarteners had just been murdered in Newton, CT, an unholy result of easily obtainable guns, difficult to obtain and stigmitized mental health care, and the morass of restrictive and violent gender roles assigned to masculinity and men. I wasn’t feeling very forgiving.

Turns out I shouldn’t need to feel forgiving. I came home and checked the 1986 Nutcracker: The Motion Picture for comparison (the only one I had access to because it’s available streaming on Netflix). Yes, it has issues with othering cultures, but not specifically in this section. The Arabian dance is performed by one woman who looks more like a giant bird than anything else and is utterly devoid of the sexualization of this performance.

The “Arabian” dance of the American Ballet Theater production was in no way redeemed by the reversal at the end of the segment, where the four women band together and ignore the man. Especially since they re-appear later, physically carrying him away by the arms and legs. Squick.

Towards the end, the choreographer added bees to the flower dancers. Adult men with bulbous googles and funny yellow heads. The kids liked them. I wanted to like them, but they did not evoke a sense of play and fun in me. I was still too busy thinking about sex and gender roles and stereotypes, while looking at the four male bees zooming around fifteen female flower dancers.

And then, WTF! The nutcracker prince proposes to Clara as princess and they snap a white wedding veil on her head! WHAT? Because every narrative involving a woman must end with marriage? Even if the woman is 12 (Clara as girl) and Clara as princess is very young looking? (If the dancer was Sarah Lane, she’s in her late 20s but looks younger.) Ditto for the guy. Because every young girl must dream of marriage above any other goal in her life? Again I checked the 1986 version. No hint of a wedding. I don’t remember any of the versions I saw as a kid including it. (I did look at the Wikipedia page for The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,  and it does involve a marriage proposal: to a seven year old girl! Written in 1816! Haven’t we progressed at all in the 200 years since?)

The show ends with Clara the girl in bed with her godfather peering in at her through a window. Maybe this was not meant to be creepy in a pedophilia kind of way, but that was certainly the vibe I got from the juxtaposition of Clara as child, the lingering overt sexualization of the Arabian dancers and Clara as a adult and of marriageable age. Oh wait, there was one more detail. Clara cradles, in the exaggerated rocking motion used to signal “here’s a baby,” the nutcracker doll in her arms. The doll just moments ago she agreed to marry. Squick.

I hate those “the production was so good except where it failed because of all those racist and sexist moments.” We shouldn’t give those things a pass, we shouldn’t have to squelch our aversion in order “just” enjoy the good parts. I feel sad and angry that all the wonderful parts suffered and didn’t get the reaction from me they, by themselves, deserved. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Alexei Ratmansky and I won’t be going to any more programs he choreographs. And next year I’ll see The Nutcracker again, but I’m going to try the New York City Ballet.


2 thoughts on “No, I Can’t Stop Thinking about Gender Roles and Sexism, Even When I go to See The Nutcracker

  1. I thought about that a lot while doing folk dance. Ironically 90% of the men who danced were gay, but had to fill in the macho roles, the courtship roles, or the warrior roles. The female parts were just as limited. (A bit of a generalization, since the parts were not always what you saw in the nutcracker which seems like a western idea of femininity/masculinity, but they were split by gender.)

    It always bugged me. On the other hand, how do you need to preserve for history’s sake, or understanding the cultural past? I have no answers.

    • Nicole Lisa says:

      I hadn’t even thought about that aspect — that many of the men who are dancers are gay and are required to play out the male roles that are used to marginalize and attack anyone who doesn’t conform to strict gender roles and ideas of masculinity.

      I think some forms of dance are much more open to continuous reinterpretation, so it’s all the more annoying when old forms are followed blindly. With something like folklore, where the explicit goal is to preserve a history… juxtaposition? conversations? gender role reversals? I don’t know.

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