While perusing my grandmother’s bookshelf over the holidays, I came across a fading but familiar collection. It was filled to the brim with the Bible and assorted prayer books, the assemblage of a midwestern woman who was married straight out of high school and never allowed to do anything but raise children and tend to her husband. Of course, she was a good Christian woman. And of course, the one anomaly on her bookshelf was a copy of Little Women.
There’s a handful of totemic stories that get passed down, innocent enough not to draw attention but subversive enough to have meaning, slipped from a mother, grandmother or aunt just as the world’s roles are beginning to form around young girls. Baby’s first feminism works are not complicated stories but they are bound to be remembered, not just for their messaging but as ties to the people who passed them down. Little Women is one of them.
The Sound of Music is mine.
I don’t remember the first time I saw the brash, energetic musical. What I remember is being on the couch watching my mom sing along with Julie Andrews, a childhood moment of intense observation sorted and filed — where it’s stayed for over 30 years. Why it popped out and what it means I still can’t precisely say. My mom certainly didn’t need a movie musical to communicate that women should lead the life they want even if it means standing up to ornery men along the way. I watched her put on modern armament and go out the door every morning to her mysterious other life as a lawyer, which I watched with the same intensity. I distinctly remember the checklist she went through before leaving — a woman can’t have a missing earring or a run in her hose if she wants the guys to listen to her — and filed it right next to her belting “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” The Sound of Music isn’t as precise a lesson as what my mother showed me in real life, but there’s something in those bright songs that makes it a totem women pass down, its import going far beyond its pop-culture status.
I suppose its larger meaning is in that mountain-climbing song. Sung by Mother Abbess after Maria retreats to the abbey — heartbroken by the Baroness getting in the way of her budding romance with Captain von Trapp — the song basically shoves her back out the door. “Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til you find your dream?” That means get out of here, kid. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.
It’s kind but forceful, as the nuns are in The Sound of Music. Few films have the ability for casual nuns, so they’re usually trotted out to fulfill specific roles or embody a handful of recycled themes. Mother Abbess and her tittering flock clearly fall into the women supporting women category, operating as open representations of support networks that usually exist underground (like the one that funnels this bubblegum musical to the people who need it under the guise of lighthearted fun). I mean, they literally sabotage the Nazis’ cars so the von Trapps can escape. Never underestimate nuns.
This would be nice but familiar representation if that’s all The Sound of Music brought to the table, but there’s a subversion to these nuns and this movie that’s more complicated than entirely justifiable sins. The nuns kick Maria out at the beginning of the film, too, but not with malice or out of frustration. No, the nuns are doing it out of goodwill, recognizing Maria wouldn’t enjoy their life and setting her up with the dashing Captain von Trapp and his cadre of children to show her an alternative way of life.
Funny that, in this movie, the alternative lifestyle is marriage and kids, which is how the subversion slides by without anyone blinking an eye. Misunderstood feminism makes people think family life is suffocating to women when, in fact, it’s only suffocating if you don’t choose it for yourself. The Sound of Music’s swoony romance and gaggle of kids hanging on Maria’s every word makes it look like it reinforces traditional gender roles, but it’s the choice that proves it does no such thing. A role is handed to you. Mother Abbess shows Maria her options, and once it’s clear that this big, rambunctious family is her dream, she does everything in her power to let Maria have it. Giving her the choice? That’s women supporting women, and that’s what the elders are promising to give girls when they show them The Sound of Music.
The surface-level stuff most people recognize as a flirtation with feminism (Maria’s outspokenness and her refusal to follow the Captain’s orders) are window-dressing to that core message, little bits of fun that inject just the right energy to make people love it. The other thing these totems share? They aren’t stuffy lessons. Maria is a fun character, light on her feet and with a song in her heart, spending as much time on puppet shows as shouldering her own role as Liesl’s sly elder because none of us wants to be the downer lecturing the youth.
Those who get distracted by its lighthearted tone and dismiss The Sound of Music as fluff only prove they’ve entirely missed the point, perhaps an unconscious point of which the film itself is not fully aware. It is sugar-coated (as Pauline Kael said in a scathing review that, per lore, got her fired from McCall’s magazine), but through its concerns about saccharine romances with handsome men / boys, idolized child-rearing, and a parade of girls and women to connect with as you grow, it takes advantage of every ounce of cultural training we have to dismiss and disregard media for girls — as if to say, “Don’t mind me, I’m just being silly over here” and then sneaking in a vision of freedom.
If you’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid, there’s no way you’ll see it. But if you don’t have your noses turned upward, you’ll get the sweet, simple point that you don’t solve a problem like Maria because Maria is not a problem.