Once upon a time, if someone had asked me, what musical I thought was the most sexist and damaging to women I would have said, Grease. Grease, most people will agree has a terrible message, which is basically, “hey, ladies, compromise your morals and integrity in order to get this asshole guy, who doesn’t treat you right anyway, to like you and stay with you—then you’ll be happy!” But what I usually hear people say is, “Yeah, Grease has a terrible message, but at least it has good music.”
That’s a lame excuse for letting a musical get away with being horribly sexist, but I grudgingly admit that the music is good.
Now, if someone were to ask me what I think the most sexist and damaging musical is I could no longer say Grease. Grease now has the number two spot. And on top of being horribly sexist, this musical doesn’t even have the benefit of having decent music.
Ladies and Gentleman, I give you, The Devil’s Carnival!
The Devil’s Carnival is the most heinous pile of crap I have ever seen. It was written by Terrance Zdunich, who also wrote Repo! The Genetic Opera, which I actually love. I love dark gothic musicals, so I was excited to watch The Devil’s Carnival. I tried to like this musical, I really did, but on top of having terrible music, the musical claims everyone who is in hell was sent there by God, because they didn’t fit his idea of perfection, that grief is a sin, and that women who fall for bad guys and then get hurt (killed in this musical as well as implied rape) are sinning, because they trusted someone they shouldn’t. Yeah…
[Warning: Discussion of Rape, Murder, Victim-shaming, and Suicide below.]
Our story focuses on three characters John, Ms. Merrywood, and Tamara. These three humans die and then wake up in hell with envelopes containing a ticket to The Devil’s Carnival. The characters’ “sins” become apparent immediately; Ms. Merrywood’s sin is greed, John’s is grief, and Tamara is being too trusting.
Only one of these makes sense as being actually a sin. Ms. Merrywood’s greed is terrible and hurts others as well as herself. It makes sense to portray her as a bad person. But ‘having grief’ and ‘trusting people’ being considered as sins leads to a lot of problems.
This mainly happens because the musical tries to conform itself to Aesop’s Fables. Ms. Merrywood’s greed is a retelling of The Dog and It’s Reflection, John’s story retells Grief and His Due, and Tamara’s retells The Scorpion and the Frog. Aesop’s Fables were less morality tales and more cautionary tales. Don’t give yourself over to grief and be careful who you trust may all be lessons we’d tell children (or adults) to help them live better and be safe, but I doubt anyone would say that grieving too much is a sin or trusting too often is a sin. If The Devil’s Carnival hadn’t used Aesop’s Fables as its framework and simply came up with an original story, then maybe I wouldn’t have so many complaints over the heinous message this musical sends.
Though Ms. Merrywood is the only one who has committed an actual sin she actually gets the least face time and focus in the musical. Her story is quick, easy, and obvious. She loses a coin toss game trying to get a diamond and breaks the 666 rules of Hell by trying to steal it, and is publicly flogged. Of course during this scene she is stripped down to nothing but lacy underwear and heels, because we have to eroticize the torture of a woman. I wish this was my only complaint about how the show treats women, but I haven’t even gotten to Tamara yet.
But before we talk about Tamara, I should discuss John and the musical’s theology. Tamara gets a lot of focus in this musical, but the main focus seems to be on John who is grieving over his dead son and for some reason he is sent to hell for it. Throughout the musical he is attacked by demons as he tries to find his son, who he constantly sees running through the carnival but can never catch. He finally finds his son in Lucifer’s tent only to realize it was another trick. Lucifer reveals his son isn’t lost but dead and forces John to realize that John killed himself. Remember though, that suicide is not John’s sin; grief is. Now you could argue that suicide is a product of that grief, but the suicide is never once really focused on nor really mentioned by any of the demons.
(Side note: Even if his sin had been suicide that is still not really a sin in Christianity. Though it was once considered a sin, it no longer is, because if someone is suicidal they are severely depressed. Depression is not simply a feeling, but a chemical imbalance in the brain that can make someone mentally unstable, and thus not culpable for their actions. Therefore they cannot sin, because they don’t realize what they are doing is wrong. Just wanted to clear that up—back to the review.)
This turns out to all be a plot created by Lucifer. He was not supposed to let John into heaven. The next scene we see is John climbing out of a discarded bin of dolls, and the man making the dolls telling him that he’s not supposed to be here. Before the deaths of our three main characters the musical begins with a man working on a doll only to screw it up and toss it in the rubbish bin with the rest of the discarded ruined dolls. John climbing out of the bin implies that the rubbish bin is hell, but it also says something more: that certain human beings are fucked up because God screwed up when He made them, and since they aren’t perfect enough for heaven they are sent to hell. The devil lets John into heaven because letting one screwed-up person in apparently cracks the door to heaven or something, and now Satan and his demons can sneak up into heaven and try to take over.
This theology is terrible! It says that some people have no chance of heaven; it’s God’s fault, and on top that God is such an ass that He denies heaven to the people he screwed up, because they don’t fit His idea of perfection.
Now this could be a critique of religion and how certain religious people judge people based on their looks, or life experiences, or whatever, but it does it really poorly. There are so many other books, TV shows, movies, and musicals that do this so much better, using God or angels to say less about those actual beings and more about religion. But this doesn’t do that. It seems to be a critique of God and non-religious people with no sound theological basis.
But none of this is the main reason I hate this musical. I hate this musical because of how it deals with Tamara’s character. Tamara is the character that features in the only good song in this musical, though she doesn’t sing. The song is sung by Scorpion, the demon tempting and tricking Tamara.
This video and song drew me to the musical. On its own this song is fine. Gothic romances usually have some sort of tragedy. Either someone falls in love with a person they shouldn’t thus leading to a tragic end, or a couple tries to be together, and despite the evil nature of one of them, they struggle to be normal, but ultimately it’s not possible (this is how Twilight should have happened). And finally there is the couple that falls in love and has a horrible relationship; one partner tries to leave the other, which causes the other person to go crazy and either kill their partner, or attempt to kill their partner, only to change their mind at the last moment but forever lose the person they love (see: Phantom of the Opera).
If any of these scenarios happened, Scorpion and Tamara could have been an interesting gothic romance. Instead, what we get is shaming women for trusting the wrong people. That is Tamara’s entire sin: trusting the wrong people. She’s shot by her boyfriend at the beginning of the musical, seemingly because she refused to have sex with him and she tried to leave. This is somehow her fault and she is sent to hell, where she meets Scorpion and makes the same mistake with him. The song “Trust Me” wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t followed by “Prick! Goes the Scorpion’s Tale,” which is sung by Painted Doll (another female character there purely for objectification) and which heavily implies rape, but further says it’s okay, because in the end she likes it.
She blushed as she walked by the water
Having known him the evening before
She liked how he spoke, but aware of his poke
Prick, prick, prick! Goes the scorpion’s tail.
Oh love, it is fresh and green, my love
How quickly we forget the sting, my love
What a pretty and dangerous line, my love
What bitter yet delicious wine, my love
With a prick of his prick he surprised her
Shell red as the rose in his teeth
“Fair maiden, join me. Let us ride out to sea”
Prick, prick, prick! Goes the scorpion’s tail.
So the song begins by describing how the frog (Tamara) liked the scorpion (Scorpion/her previous boyfriend), but wasn’t aware of his “poke,” which he then “pricks” her with. She wasn’t expecting this. He surprised her with this. And since the character is both representing a scorpion and a man, it’s implied that the frog, again here being Tamara, is raped and killed—but wait, it’s okay, because she liked it.
She pondered if his love was poison
But he pricked her so gently she swooned
His words were like wine as their fates intertwined
Prick, prick, prick! Goes the scorpion’s tail.
As the frog is presumably being raped and killed, she starts to realize that the guy she thought loved is actually bad for her, but it’s “okay” because as she dies she starts to enjoy his sexual violence against her! Thanks to The Devil’s Carnival for this positive message to women everywhere!
I don’t care if one woman trusts a billion bad men; if those men hurt her she shouldn’t be fucking victim-shamed for trusting them, especially in the case of rape, sexual assault, or murder! And it is certainly NOT a sin! Furthermore, there are many women who start to feel arousal when they are being raped. It’s one of the things that make women feel such shame after being raped! To talk about it so casually as if this is a part if some tragic romance is utterly ridiculous!
Tamara has one other song with Lucifer, where Lucifer seduces her after she is confused and alone in hell.
This is the only other good song in the musical, but was actually not included in the musical, because it didn’t flow with the rest of the story. It was included in the credits, but further emphasizes Tamara’s “sin” of trusting people. So the only two good songs are ruined by any knowledge of the actual musical.
Basically, The Devil’s Carnival is not something I would want anyone to see. As I said earlier, there is a part of me that thinks these heinous messages would not be an issue if the musical didn’t try to fit itself to Aesop’s Fables and invented its own stories, but then again, maybe the author would have come up with an equally terrible original tale.
If you are looking for a good gothic musical, this isn’t it.