Get Me out of this Forest!: A Feminist Critique of Into the Woods

Guest Blogger Bio: Alex Ketchum is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of feminist restaurants in the United States and Canada during the 1970s and 1980s at McGill University. She has an MA in history with the Option in Women’s and Gender Studies, also from McGill, and a BA in Feminist, Gender and Sexual Diversity Studies from Wesleyan University. She is a regular writer and editor for The Historical Cooking Project.

Declared a “surprise hit,” Into the Woods has bested box office records for a Broadway-inspired movie, earning $31 million its first weekend.  It has garnered three Golden Globe nominations and has a hot-selling soundtrack.  Audiences and critics alike appear enamored with director Rob Marshall’s cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical. However, no one seems to be talking about the misogyny within its plot.

In Sondheim and Jame Lapine’s screenplay a journey through the woods represents pursuing one’s wishes.  This modern twist on the Brothers Grimm classic fairy tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, is woven together within an original story involving a baker and his wife, their wish to begin a family, and the witch who has put a curse on them.  Through the course of the plot, all of the characters venture into the woods to confront their desires. The general lesson of the story is to be careful what you wish for. However, going into the woods seems no different than the world in which we live—where women are punished more harshly for following their dreams.

Although all of the characters suffer for pursuing their desires, with one exception, when the female characters go for their goals they are either raped, molested, or killed whereas the punishment for the male characters is that they lose their women. Furthermore, the female characters are depicted as readily replaceable within the men’s lives so that their loss is made more temporary. Sondheim has, to use Gail Simone’s terminology, put the women in refrigerators. The death of the women serves to advance the male character’s moral development and acts as a stepping stone whereas their death serves as a warning to the other female characters and female audience members. In this way, women are discouraged more strongly for taking risks.

The women’s deaths are overwhelmingly sexualized. The giantess tramples the baker’s immediately after she experiments sexually with the prince in the woods: kissing him in the movie and having intercourse in the stage production.  In the film version, although the sexual violence is only alluded to, in the play the violation of Red Riding Hood is more explicit. The wolf sexually assaults her and then eats her. Though she is brought back to life, she is still temporarily killed, alongside her grandmother, for leaving the “normal path for girls.” It is unclear as to whether the witch dies or just disappears. Either way, this older woman is punished for trying to attain physical beauty with her spell. Rapunzel is crushed after escaping the tower to attempt an independent life in which she decides who her lover will be. While the Disney version, lets her ride off to an unknown future, Sondheim has publically remarked on his disgust at this choice, stating that the change is due to puritanical ethics. He made no comment about how Disney letting her live might have to due with the preponderance of violence against women in his screenplay.

The women’s deaths serve to make the men first suffer but then develop into better people. The Baker’s loss is that his wife dies. This change forces him to confront his fears about being a father, gain self confidence, and quickly return to his new child. Furthermore, he readily replaces his wife with Cinderella. Cinderella is the one female character in the play that doesn’t die or disappear. Sondheim seems to only spare her in order be the Baker’s helpmate and replacement mother. She forsook her dreams earlier in the play, wanting to return to the “proper” role for a woman as a homemaker and caregiver, rather than be an ambitious princess, so perhaps Sondheim felt that she only had to suffer to the lesser level of the male characters, by losing an important female figure in her life: her mother’s spirit within the tree that the giantess knocks over. Jack’s mother dies but her death is portrayed more as Jack’s loss than her own. She is not mourned as an individual but rather Sondheim’s score emphasizes how much more difficult Jack’s life with be without a mother. Jack does not have to mourn for long as the Baker and Cinderella serve as his replacement parents. Even the Lady Giant is killed for venturing into the woods as she seeks justice for her husband’s murder. Her murder also emboldens the Baker and Jack, helping them recover faster.

Sondheim and Lapine have chosen to inflict direct violence on the female characters and only punish the male characters with indirect suffering. Men thus, while warned to be careful what they wish for, are not punished to the degree as the women for following their dreams. Into the Woods tells men that their wishes might come at a cost, but women will likely lose everything, including their lives, for taking risks. Please, get me out of these woods!

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2 comments for “Get Me out of this Forest!: A Feminist Critique of Into the Woods

  1. Marissa
    January 9, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    While I can definitely appreciate this critique, I can also see some flaws in its arguments. For one, I’ve always interpreted the death of the women in Into the Woods to be purposely playing into the tropes mentioned in order to point out that more is expected of women and that women tend to suffer more in a patriarchal society, exaggerated by the fairytale setting. Sondheim is pretty big on using subtle commentary and satire to get his point across, and I think the author took it more literally without seeing the underlying message about women’s losses. For example, in the song “Your Fault/Last Midnight” it’s very clearly pointed out that the witch is not at fault and how bullshit it is that she’s being blamed and punished. Similarly, after the Baker’s Wife strays, she sings “Moments In the Woods” where it shows that she has learned her lesson and made her decision. This makes her death much more affecting, as we can see how unfair it is for her to be punished.

    Also, Cinderella arguably makes a very feminist decision in leaving the prince. Being married to the prince isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She finds that instead of being an “ambitious princess” (author’s words) like she wanted, she’s confined to a life of boredom and staying quiet while her husband has affairs (a plot line they mostly cut out of the Disney version). She gives up a so-called perfect life as a pretty pretty princess and leaves her husband because she’s not appreciated and he’s not treating her fairly. Pretty fucking badass.

    The song “Agony” shows how ridiculous it is to think of women as prizes to be chased after. It portrays the princes as being comical in their thinking that women are interchangeable and only attractive so long as they remain non-fully developed characters. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, this is a plot that was mostly cut out of the Disney version.

    And the point about Jack’s Mother’s death only being framed in how it affects Jack? Duh. Jack is a main character. Jack’s Mother isn’t. Of course you’re going to examine how it affects one of your main characters instead of concentrate on a side character that has not built up a lot of empathy with the audience.

    Cinderella is in no way replacing the Baker’s Wife. That’s made pretty clear in the reprise of “No One is Alone” that the Baker’s Wife sings to her husband after her death. She’s still with them and always will be. Will Cinderella help in the new found community that they’ve forged of people who have suffered together? Of course. But it doesn’t emotionally feel like a simple “wife swap” like the author makes it out to be.

  2. Athenia
    January 21, 2015 at 10:06 am

    I co-sign all of this.

    I did read Lapine did say they let Rapunzel live because the “body count was too high.” Yeah. The female body count.

    Also, people kept telling me that Into the Woods was just so subversive and after seeing the film, I just didn’t see how it was *that* subversive. Sure, it has some moments, (“It’s not nice, but it’s right.”), but overrall, killing The Baker’s Wife, Jack’s mom, didn’t strike me as subversive at all.

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