Christine Daaé may not be the title character of the musical The Phantom of the Opera, but she is the one with the most stage time and arguably goes through the most visible character arc. Despite these two facts, however, she’s not looked on too favorably by critics. She’s often thought of as flat, boring, and a character whose plot is in service of others’. Is there any truth to these claims? If so, is it possible to still consider Christine a worthwhile character from a feminist standpoint?
“Christine is a child at the beginning and unqualified adult at the end.” Though this quote actually comes from a favorable review of the actress playing Christine, it shows a popular belief about the character: that she is juvenile and doesn’t change much by the time the show ends. Fans and critics have often found this to be an issue with Christine Daaé, but I tend to disagree.
When Christine is introduced, she is a member of the Corps de Ballet at the Paris Opera House. She is described as one who “always has her head in the clouds”, but when Carlotta, the Prima Donna of the company, storms off, it is Christine who is offered up to replace her. Christine is nervous, but she proves herself and gives a wildly successful performance. This act thrusts her into the action of the story where she makes an enemy of Carlotta, becomes a concern of the managers, catches the eye of potential suitor Raoul, and becomes even more involved with the mysterious Phantom who has been training her.
One of the complaints lodged against Christine is that she’s flat and uninteresting. There’s so much going on in Christine’s life that it’s hard to consider her uninteresting. Christine is the center of all the drama of the play, and without her it all falls apart: the Phantom would have no need to interfere if he weren’t doing it on her behalf, Carlotta wouldn’t be in any danger of losing her job, Raoul would have just gone home after the gala, etc. Things would be business as usual at the opera house if not for Christine and as such, “boring” isn’t a legitimate remark one can make against her.
One of the legitimate arguments, however, is that Christine serves other people’s plots to the detriment of her own. In this respect I very much agree, because her role was rather underwritten. Finding Christine’s character requires a good bit of attention be paid to somewhat small moments. Unless an audience member is really hanging on her words, it’s easy to miss what makes her tick. One of the particular moments that shows us the most of Christine’s personality is a line she sings in the Act II song “Twisted Every Way”, in which Raoul and the managers plan a trap for the Phantom which requires Christine’s participation. Christine sings “Can I betray the man who once inspired my voice? Do I become his prey? Do I have any choice?”
When Christine hesitates to go along with the plan to trap the Phantom because he “inspired” her in the past, it shows me how seriously she takes her singing. She’s afraid of letting him live but has bonded with him over their music and values his tutelage so much that it almost outweighs the fact that he’s a murderer. She doesn’t hesitate because she cares about the Phantom or thinks of him as a friend, but only because he helped form her into the singer she is today. Combined with the joy Christine expresses earlier in the show after her triumphant debut and how faithfully we’ve seen her follow the Phantom’s instructions as her teacher, we can see that she is incredibly passionate about and dedicated to her art. It takes some extra thought to piece these fragments together as a driving motivation, however, and the writing makes it much easier to just think she’s under the Phantom’s thrall because that aspect of her character is much more emphasized.
We also get to see Christine go through some extreme character growth from the beginning of the show to the end. When we first meet her she is timid and tries to keep from making a fuss. Later we get to see her stand up for herself to those around her, including the Phantom. All throughout the show she grows, gaining confidence first as a performer and then as a person. Seeing her become such a strong individual really makes the show worth watching.
The character of Christine has a lot of potential. Even though the script doesn’t do her too many favors, individual actresses have been able to do wonders with the role. There’s enough in the script that a performer can make her into a dynamic character, but the writing is unfortunately thin enough that another performer working with the same songs and dialogue can end up being a wallflower. As such, it’s difficult to say definitively where Christine stands as a feminist character. On the one hand she has a lot of admirable qualities, such as her dedication, kindness, and tenacity, but on the other hand she is constantly under pressure from various men in her life who are all making plans for what they think is best for her without much of Christine’s input. By the end of the show, however, Christine is the one who chooses her fate.
At the climax of the show, Christine is kidnapped by the Phantom and taken to his lair. Raoul follows the two and ends up captured by the Phantom who gives Christine an impossible choice: leave without Raoul and let the Phantom kill him, or stay with the Phantom and let Raoul go free. Christine doesn’t really play into the game however, and instead takes pity on the Phantom and kisses him. This show of kindness breaks the Phantom and he lets both Raoul and Christine leave. This is another moment where an actress’s performance can really influence the interpretation though. Does Christine’s kiss mean that she’s chosen the Phantom, and if so, did she do it because she loved him or just to save Raoul? Does her kiss mean that she’s forgiven him of what he’s done or is it just an act of desperation? There’s no definitive answer but her lines immediately preceding the kiss: “Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? God give me courage to show you, you are not alone” seem to imply that this kiss means that she’s showing the Phantom another way to find companionship. He doesn’t need to force people to love him; Christine has seen his darkness and rather than running away, she is saying that there is still hope. Hope for him as a person and hope for them as friends.
It’s after this moment that the Phantom lets Christine and Raoul go and. In fact, he shouts at them to leave. Christine goes with Raoul, but to interpret her leaving as anything other than her own choice doesn’t make sense based on what we’ve seen. Christine has stood up to the Phantom and challenged him throughout the previous scene and if she wanted to stay and send Raoul off on his own she would have done so.
It’s hard to pin down any of these moments as solid evidence for Christine’s agency, and the nature of theatre makes it even more difficult. I may see Actress A and find Christine to be emotionally immature, while someone else may see Actress B and find Christine to be the most dynamic character in the show. While it may not be possible to place her firmly in either category as a “good” or “bad” feminist character, I think watching her grow and become so confident in herself makes her an interesting and admirable character.