Well another week has zipped by and here we are at Feminist Friday once again. I thought I’d have a turn this week because recently I went to see Starlight Express and thanks to my keen awareness of gender, I quickly noticed something that I wasn’t too happy about. That’s the thing with having studied gender for years, you can’t really switch it off and you notice it all the time. Like when you go to see a film with your editor boyfriend and he keeps pointing out the nice shots and things.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I went to see Starlight Express. For those of you who haven’t seen it/heard of it, I’ll give you a brief synopsis. Starlight Express is a musical about trains, so all of the actors are on roller skates and move like trains. The main plot centres around the world championship train race, featuring all different kinds of trains from different countries. These trains are the coaches. The coaches have to be paired up with a carriage for the race; trains like the buffet cart, the sleeper etc. There are also freight trains who are don’t seem to add much to the story unfortunately. That’s as much detail as you need really.
I would just like to say that this is absolutely no slight on the people involved in the production, who undoubtedly worked their socks off. They were amazing singers and actors and I really enjoyed the show, despite what I’m about to write about.
So, the show starts with an introduction to the coach trains, they are the ones that are going to be in the race. They all look a bit like this:
Then we get introduced to the carriage trains who all look a bit like this:
I think, if you know me at all, you may be able to tell where I’m going with this.
So I’m sitting there thinking that it’s a bit annoying that none of the race trains are girls, because there’s absolutely no reason why Electra (or any of the other racers) couldn’t be a girl. In fact, at one point I thought Electra had been cast as a girl only for the actress in question to shout “I’m Wrench, Electra’s Repair Assistant!” to be followed the actual Electra who was huge and muscly. Cue sighs and groans from me.
Not only are all of the race trains guys, the girl trains in the show all have serving jobs. They are there to ‘help’ the men win the race. There’s a first class carriage, a dining car, a sleeper car and a buffet car – all traditionally women’s roles where somebody is looked after by their services. On top of this, they are clearly there to be ogled over since they are wearing next to nothing. A male carriage train did actually appear in the show I saw but he was portrayed as overly camp so he just blended in with the more feminine characters rather than standing out at all.
At this point you might be thinking “oh she’s gotten a little bit too feminist here” and to be honest even I wondered if I was being overly-critical. However, that thought was put to rest when every song sung by the women was about finding a man. Case in point here, here and here. In comparison, the men’s songs were all about being tough and any other manly stereotype you can think of, see here and here. I did have brief hope when Dinah the Dining Car sings a song in which she talks about independent women, but that hope was quickly dashed when approximately five seconds later she decided to hook up with another guy.
The audience is also introduced to the freight trains, who are represented as lower than everyone else because they only carry cargo and not people. Some of them, “The Hip Hoppers”, look like this:
I don’t want to say much on this as I don’t feel as qualified to talk about it as I do with gender, but most of the freight songs are of the rap, hip hop or jazz genre which, to be honest, I was pretty uncomfortable with. There were some fairly obvious connotations with black history and culture, and the way the freight trains are positioned within the storyline and in relation to other characters. It was quite unpleasant and awkward to watch at times.
That’s not to say that the writers of Starlight Express, or the people who took control of this particular production are sexist or racist, they probably aren’t. At least, I hope they aren’t. They are most likely just accepting certain discourses, particularly gender discourse, as normative and they haven’t questioned the gender representations they are using. It’s the old stereotype that men are strong and women are weak, a dichotomy which is just so close at hand, so easy to use. I doubt whether many other people in the audience left feeling the way I did, because these kind of stereotypes are rarely noticed. We just accept them as normal and true as though “yes all the women should look girly, and wear skirts and show their skin and want to be with a man, that’s what women do” because we’ve been spoonfed these ideas for so damn long.
I realise that Starlight Express is by no means a modern production, however I refuse to let it off the hook with that excuse. The production I went to see had sections of 3D film in it for gods sake, which is somehow more reasonable in a musical than a woman playing the role that a man usually plays.
So, in my opinion, this is one reason why feminism is still relevant; we haven’t deconstructed the every day perspectives on gender enough. We still operate on dichotomies which just are not true, and we know they aren’t true yet we carry on saying “oh girls do x, y, z” or “oh he’s a boy, what do you expect?!” without even batting an eyelid.
I don’t want to have to ask that girls can be race trains, I want it to be plausible that a guy could be the dining carriage without being portrayed as gay, and I’m hoping you’ve realised that my concerns aren’t just related to Starlight Express, they are metaphorical examples that apply to the real world. I want everyone to start noticing gender more, and realise that it’s not just this fixed, unchanging, stereotypical entity. It’s fluid and shifting and interesting. I want everyone to realise that a girl can be a fucking race train if she wants to be.