The Gendered Borders of the Millennial Musical

by Matthew Ari Elfenbein


A single note emanates from the piano by a lonely player at the helm of the ivory keys, while the accompanied female is whisked away into her successful life.  Not only does this description summarize the finale to Damian Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), but assists in categorizing the mood and tone of narrative in other works that share elements in the contemporary musical’s bordering of gender.  This idea of gender dichotomy is not new, since it has been evident in the construction of musical narrative; however, the treatment of the individual characters has changed, most notably increasing the presence of failed masculinity through romance and livelihood.  This shift has come through in the form of domesticity and the shifting boundaries of the home, as well as society’s ideals of nonchalance surrounding the disposable relationship. These musicals operate in the terms of “romantic fatalism,” which explains why the romantic couples are torn apart and cannot consummate their lives together.  Furthermore, the musical aesthetics of fragmentation assist in the execution of this pessimistic ideology, by figuratively and literally creating a void between the pieces of the romantic bond.

The guidelines in creating a corpus for this study include two criteria.  First, the films are produced after September 11, 2001 and second, they are not adaptations of Broadway shows.  The corpus includes, but is not limited to La La Land, Moulin Rouge (2001), and Across the Universe (2007).  The space in which these musicals primarily take place, where the romance thrives and dies, is within the private domestic milieu of an apartment or dilapidated house.  This setting is familiar to many millennials who flock to large cities like New York or Los Angeles, looking for their big break in their respective industry, only to find that the visions of grandeur are not viable in a realistic lifestyle.  The romance between the characters in these films correlate to the ideologies that emanate from fictionalized and unrealistic lifestyles, which have been promulgated through musicals since their inception; however, in contemporary times these illusions are being revealed to act simply as dreams.  The films in question support these ideas because they are primarily set within these landscapes and landmarks. The veil of the lifestyle’s glamor is removed leaving these cities to tear apart dreams and romantic coupling. Utilizing Martin Scorsese’s film, New York, New York (1977), to differentiate the musicals of the seventies and modern contemporary films can demonstrate this exact instance of the city landscape and the shifting gender ideologies leading to the end of the relationship.  The disparity with contemporary films is that seventies cinema never showed the glamor of the narrative milieu, whereas today’s films attempt to make the audience fall in love with the ideals and encompassing expressions of romance.  This is evidenced with the gritty reality within the sets and locations of New York, whereas contemporary musicals attempt to showcase the beauty of a setting as an extension of the budding romance in La La Land’s scenic California backdrop.

In Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), Christian (Ewan McGregor) first appears in his dilapidated apartment, writing about his love that was torn apart and had passed away.  Here the apartment becomes the place of seclusion allowing the character’s emotions to run rampant, exemplifying the gritty aesthetic with unsuccessful relationships.  This perspective, from the domestic and private sphere, drives the relationship dynamics that help create the home and also represent how society deals with these issues.  Fatalism occurs prompting the combination of the fairy tale and folk subgenres, but with the addition of modern critical theory and thought, the female becomes more powerful and successful than the male counterpart.  In La La Land, the music and ego are the force of separation between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), ultimately fragmenting the romantic coupling.  The differentiating ideologies grow in this vacuum, demonstrated by the final fantasy dance sequence, where the constructed environment acts as the unrealistic imagination that their romance exists in, before returning to their ultimate separation in reality.

As the new millennium is studied, the depiction and treatment of gender with special attention is illustrated along with an intersection with the fatalism that permeates films from this time, further supporting the argument that the alpha male exists as the flawed character.  We look towards the father in Sing Street and all the males in Across the Universe as examples of this concept.  In Darren Lynn Bousman’s 2008 film, Repo! The Genetic Opera, there are elements of failed masculinity with Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head) attempting to rectify past mistakes with his departed wife to protect his rebellious daughter.  Working as a genetically modified organ repo man, Nathan is attempting to grasp his masculinity while gaining control of his family, and manipulating his daughter’s body to achieve longevity.  Here the musical environment attempts to push for masculine success and control over love, but in doing this, results in death and unnatural reformations.

Machismo has been reversed from the outmoded definition of the early musicals, and as a countermeasure, female ideology is prevalent.  This pessimistic image of the society is a remnant of the 1970s, the era of the complex and critical film and a predecessor for this current era.   Females are reaching their goals without the help of man, who is seen as impeding and a nuisance. The management of the female image is the big difference between these two time periods; in the 1970s femininity gets pitiful treatment, unlike in the current era where masculinity is constantly questioned.  Transitioning to modern musicals, this treatment of the feminine figure shifts to the point where the female seems to be the subject in control of her own destiny, although still opposite to a male. We witness this in La La Land, where Mia has success within the female framework of family and career and Sebastian with his intangible passions.  After the dream-like and ironic dance, which mirrors An American in Paris, Sebastian is left there alone only to reminisce, while Mia is swept away in her new, married, swift moving life.  The music in this scene is stagnant, reminiscent of the past love they once shared, in contrast to a depiction of family, the driving force to move on with life.  Mia is no longer concerned about the past, which is evident through her dialogue with her husband, but we still find her emotional. Here femininity clashes with masculinity, thus reinforcing the sexual dichotomy, but also creating a sense of identification within today’s society of a strong female lead.  We witness characters going beyond the conglomeration of differences to reversing in opposition once again, leading to the destruction of the relationship. During the final dance scene, spectators witness the dream while operating in the reality of the fatal association.

Fatalism as here described should not be seen as a condition, but as many instances of expression.  This attribute is supported through the constant clashing of gender against the backdrop of reality.  The concept that sound and image expression are so closely connected demonstrates that they inherently “leave their impact on the construction of the spectator’s subjectivity and bodily self-presence.”  The musical’s sense of fatalism as reflexive of the bleak treatment of the genre, actively translates over to the audience that perceives the film and embodies its ideals.  This can be conceptualized most clearly with the contemporary musicals’ affinity to fragment the blocking and filming of the characters, creating a lack of meaning. The character’s body acts as an entity of symbols and signifiers, but when the film begins to tear apart the body’s pieces and romance, then a void is created and these films start to become areas of abject theory, they become the repulsion to grandeur and spectacle that is envisioned within the musical.  The dancing and singing body perpetuates specific meaning about the love and feelings that are overcoming the being in that instance, but if this aspect of the musical genre cannot accomplish its goal, then the genre begins to adapt to a parasitic ideology.

The musical has come back into prominence to allow people to immerse themselves in another world; however, while escapism is apparent, there are also many occurrences of the films conjoining and commenting on society and its inhabitants, which can be seen as antithetical to the initial purpose of the genre.  With a new generation of filmgoers and filmmakers emerging, there seems to be a divergence from the optimistic and romantic ideals of the musical genre, although the industry is entering an era of passive criticism. Not only are the couples in the film losing their shining light with their romance, but also the romantic demeanor of the cinema is shifting as well with the bordering and separation of gendered ideologies.


Matthew Ari Elfenbein holds a Master of Arts in Cinema Studies from New York University and a Bachelor of Arts from Florida Atlantic University.  His current interests include the contemporary musical and alternative readings of theory.