A lot of old movies are sadly misogynistic and out of date. And of course, it’s a cliché to complain about the dis-empowerment of women in Disney movies. But every now and then I watch a classic movie and am struck by the pro-woman messaging in it. The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews is one of these movies.
First let’s look at the romantic subplot of Liesl, the eldest Von Trapp daughter. She is 16 (going on 17), and in love with the telegram delivery boy, an adorable 17 year old named Rolf. In typical Disney fashion, he declares his affection for her in song and offers her his wisdom and protection.
“You need someone / older and wiser / telling you what to do. / I am 17 going on 18 / I’ll take care of you.”
Liesl ecstatically agrees to this arrangement and gives over her self reliance to Rolf. “You are 17 going on 18 / I’ll depend on you.”
But then the love story is inverted, as Rolf chooses politics and career over relationship and betrays the entire Von Trapp family, including Liesl. While this is not normal in movie love, it is sadly all too normal in every day life.
What I like about my 5 year old daughter seeing this in a movie is that it presents the possibility of relationship failure in a realistic and neutral way. Rolf isn’t a horrible guy. I mean, he IS a literal Nazi, but he’s not an abusive brute who set out to deceive Liesl. He’s a boy who chose career over love. That happens. I like that she can enjoy a movie, see that a romance can be fun and sweet and innocent and yet still end in heartbreak. Again, real life. And an important lesson: sometimes, we choose to depend on people who let us down.
Which brings us to the more overt feminist message of The Sound of Music: Maria. Maria is an empowered woman, who creates her own destiny without any reliance on another person, male or female. First, she chooses the convent, which for hundreds of years was an actual career option for women who didn’t want to get married. Ironically, a woman could be far more empowered and independent as a nun than a wife in Western civilization. When Maria is sent out of the convent to serve as a governess for the Von Trapps, she is apprehensive, and sings I Have Confidence in Me to herself.
“I have confidence they’ll put me to the test / But I’ll make them see I have confidence in me.”
She believes that she is capable, she asserts her own opinions without apology, and she faces challenges by choosing confidence and optimism. And what happens? She succeeds. She earns the trust and admiration of the seven children. She earns the respect of their father, not by being tactful or polite or successful, but by standing up to him without apology.
I love that my 5 year old daughter gets to hear an optimistic empowered song like “I Have Confidence in Me” and then see the singer be justified in her self-confidence. I love that she sees a woman assert herself to her male employer without being a “bitch.” I love that she sees a woman staying true to her ideals and also finding ways to overcome obstacles (the children’s pranks, the lack of fabric for play clothes, etc.).
If you’re looking for a great family movie that can start some interesting conversations with your daughters, The Sound of Music is the way to go!