Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Rape Culture

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the first musical that I ever saw live and one of my favorite musicals that I was part of in high school. Because of this, the musical holds a lot of nostalgia for me. Now that I’m older and know my Bible a lot better than I did before, I have to say that the musical seems a lot darker to me than it used to, but it’s really, really not trying to be.

If you have never seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, let me explain. The musical is written like some very talented youth ministers decided that the Joseph story was what was going to revitalize their parish youth ministry. That’s not to say that it is bad at all; it’s just very simple. The story itself is the bare bones of the Joseph story with a variety of quirky and goofy songs and bright colors to keep the kids interested. There is even a narrator who tells the story and a kids choir in the show. So while the musical could appeal to anyone, it is definitely family-oriented and straightforward in its message. What makes this awkward (for me anyway) is the subject matter certainly is not! So we have several happy goofy songs that talk about Joseph’s brothers beating him within an inch of his life and selling him into slavery, and about Joseph being sexually assaulted and thrown into prison. Yep…

Joseph musicalTrigger warning for rape and rape culture after the jump.

For the purposes of this post I am only going to focus on the sexual violence portrayed in this musical and then delve a little deeper into the Biblical context of this particular story.

In this happy G-rated musical, we kick things off by having Joseph beaten by his jealous brothers and sold into slavery. He is bought by a wealthy Egyptian man named Potiphar, who actually really seems to like Joseph and gives Joseph a relatively good life. You know, despite the whole sold-into-slavery thing. Problem is, Potiphar’s wife likes Joseph quite a bit too. She becomes practically obsessed with Joseph and is constantly sexually harassing him, trying to get him to sleep with her. Potiphar’s wife, we are told, is already a pretty big adulterer and Potiphar seems to know it, but for whatever reason, he still stays with her.

(Narrator & Ensemble)
Potiphar was cool and so fine

(Potiphar)
But my wife would never toe the line

(Narrator & Ensemble)
It’s all there in chapter thirty-nine
Of Genesis

She was beautiful but

(Mrs. Potiphar)
Evil

(Narrator & Ensemble)
Saw a lot of men against his will
He would have to tell her that she still
Was his

(Potiphar)
You’re mine

The musical makes it seem like Potiphar thinks he can will his wife to stop cheating on him, which makes the next chain of events even more ridiculous. Potiphar’s wife eventually grows annoyed that Joseph keeps turning her down and just attacks him.

(Narrator)
Joseph wanted to resist her
‘Till one day she proved too eager
Joseph cried in vain

(Joseph)
Please stop
I don’t believe in free love

Potiphar's wifeAfter this, in the musical, there is usually some sexy dance, which eventually leads to Potiphar’s wife forcing Joseph into bed with her. Potiphar hears something happening in his wife’s chambers and he believes her when she acts like Joseph forced himself on her. While his wife’s past infidelity doesn’t mean that she can’t be raped, it does make it surprising that Potiphar wouldn’t at least hear Joseph out. The musical never has Potiphar’s wife explicitly accuse Joseph of raping her or attempting to rape her, but always heavily implies it by having her push Joseph out of bed and cower away from him, or having her immediately run to hide behind Potiphar when he storms in. Potiphar is appalled by what he thinks Joseph did and locks him away in prison where Joseph spends a great length of time before eventually being released by the Pharaoh. I mean, in the musical he is only in there for a song or two, but Joseph actually did stay in jail for almost two years before Pharaoh released him.

I could criticize the musical for giving us this false rape accusation, which, as we have discussed before, is actually extremely rare, and perpetuating the idea that this happens often is extremely harmful. However, given the context of the musical, that is not actually what we are seeing here. This musical gives us a rare example of male rape victim. We see Joseph constantly sexually harassed by his boss’s wife until finally she forces herself on him, after which he is then accused of raping her and sent to prison. Sadly, this is the reality of many male rape victims—not necessarily the false accusation, but the experience of sexual harassment and assault, the lack of belief about what actually happened to Joseph, and the lack of belief that men can even be raped. That’s some pretty heavy hitting shit for a musical so tame and child-oriented that it could practically be performed by the cast of Veggie Tales.

Rape of Dinah

Dinah

The thing I find interesting, though, is when we look at the story about Joseph from the Bible. Before Joseph’s story begins, we learn about another traumatizing sexual assault. Before Joseph and his brothers, we learn about their sister. Yep, the twelve brothers had one sister, Dinah. And later in the middle of Joseph’s story we learn about Tamar, the wife of one of Joseph’s nephews. Each woman experiences sexual assault. Dinah is raped by a leader from another tribe, and Tamar is denied a child by first the death of her husband and then her brother-in-law, whose duty it was to sleep with her and give her children. Without a husband or child, Tamar, as a woman, would basically be left with no rights or freedom. We eventually learn that Dinah’s rapist wants to marry her, but he is tricked by her brothers, who convince her rapist that if all the men in his city are circumcised then he can marry Dinah. He agrees and when he and the other men in the city are incapacitated, Dinah’s brothers sneak in, kill everyone, and the whole city is destroyed. Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself and then goes to see Judah, Joseph’s brother and Tamar’s father-in-law, but he mistakes her for a prostitute and asks to sleep with her. She agrees and finally gets the child owed to her.

So before Joseph’s story begins, we learn about Dinah, and right before we hear about what happened to Joseph while being owned by Potiphar, we learn about Tamar. It should come as no surprise, then, that when something similar happens to Joseph, the authors of Genesis seem to be setting us up for it. Interestingly enough, it seems like both Dinah and Tamar’s stories are told to be a reference point for Joseph’s own sexual assault. At the end of Dinah’s story, the Bible states that Jacob was actually pissed at his sons for killing those who hurt Dinah. He seems utterly unconcerned about his daughter, but Dinah’s brothers stand up for her and Jacob doesn’t have any sort of response. While the narrative does condemn Dinah’s brothers for behaving too violently, their desire to seek justice for their sister is held up as being right. A similar situation happened with Tamar. After she is found to be pregnant she is brought before Judah by people who claim she should be killed for acting like a “whore”. But Judah realizes what happened and vindicates her. He states that everything was his fault and that Tamar was in the right.

So twice we see two women who were victims of some sort of sexual assault before the judah and Tamarsame happens to Joseph. Now, unlike in the musical, in the Bible, Joseph was not actually raped by Potiphar’s wife; she steals his clothing and claims that he did. While the false accusation is problematic, Joseph is still constantly sexually harassed by Potiphar’s wife, so even without Joseph being raped like he is in the musical, I do think he is still very much a victim of sexual assault. While the reader knows Joseph is innocent from the get-go, I think it can also be argued that the Bible critiques rape culture here. Joseph, unlike Dinah and Tamar, is separated from anyone who would stand up for him. The story sets us up to know that like Dinah and Tamar, he is a victim whose pain is ignored and who is shamed for his actions despite the fact that he did nothing wrong. So if you really think about it, the whole first half of Joseph’s story can be interpreted as being about sexual assault and rape culture.

I find it extremely interesting, however, that Dinah and Tamar received justice while Joseph did not. Now, this could be because the Bible is treating male rape victims differently, but I don’t think that is it. Joseph might have gotten justice, but if he did, we’ll never know. The musical tells us that Potiphar “made a fortune buying shares in pyramids”. Obviously, this is not the case in the Bible, where Potiphar is an officer of Pharaoh. Joseph is eventually made Pharaoh’s second in command and has authority over everyone in Egypt other than Pharaoh himself. It’s conceivable, then, that Joseph could have gotten justice, but it’s never stated. What Joseph does gain, however, is autonomy and control over his life once again. Joseph, a man who was sold into slavery, sexually assaulted, and wrongfully thrown into jail, becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt and even marries and has two children. Yes, Joseph never gained justice against his assaulter, but what he does gain is a feeling of autonomy, and he’s able to overcome the pain of being a victim with the help of God. Joseph too seems to credit God with helping him deal with what happened and that is made clear when he names his sons.

Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” The second he named Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” (Gen 41: 51–52)

So sue me I like the Donny Osmond version.

So sue me, I like the Donny Osmond version.

Joseph’s faith and gifts from God help him overcome the pain of all that has happened to him since entering Egypt. So even if Joseph does not gain any justice like Tamar and Dinah did, he’s still able to gain some sense of closure. Tamar and Dinah have someone who stands up for them and they are able to get justice. The only person who stands up for Joseph is God. Maybe the Joseph story is supposed to invoke empathy from those hearing it to stand up for rape victims and against rape culture. There is some assurance there that God will stand for you no matter what, but the message seems to be asking people to do God’s work in the world and stand up for victims of rape and sexual assault, no matter their gender.

The musical, obviously attempting to be more family friendly, and to stick with one cohesive story instead of jumping around to Dinah’s and Tamar’s, doesn’t include all of the idiosyncrasies that are explored in the Bible. But it does do a surprisingly good job at discussing Joseph’s assault and victim-blaming without traumatizing any of the poor families who just wanted to take their kids to a happy musical. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat may be a tamed and pared-down version of the Bible, but so are most biblical adaptations. And this musical surprisingly actually does pretty well conveying some really adult themes, while still managing to be family friendly.


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