I went on a musical binge recently and realized I clearly haven’t watched Oklahoma in a long time, because I didn’t realize how sexist the musical actually was until I watched it again as an adult. None of the women have any agency and the few that do are pretty well shamed for it. You could perhaps argue it’s a product of its time, but I hardly think that is an excuse. Just because some form of sexism was considered acceptable in its time doesn’t make it any less sexist.
Trigger warning for attempted rape after the jump.
Oklahoma’s sexism can largely be seen through two of its female characters, Laurey Williams and Ado Annie Carnes. First, let’s look at Laurey and Curly McLain, who are apparently in love with each other, but also seem to have something of a love-hate relationship. Laurey doesn’t like how Curly presumptuously assumes that she is going to go with him to the box social, an annual dance that is being used to raised money for the school. To spite him, Laurey agrees to go to the social with Jud Fry, a hired hand who works on her farm. Jud is obsessed with Laurey, and Laurey is frightened of how stalkerish he is, but she decides to go with him anyway. This is where we start getting into all the rape culture that surrounds Laurey’s whole storyline. Laurey never has any agency and is instead just trapped between two men who feel entitled to her.
Laurey can’t even get affirmation from the other women in her life. She eventually regrets her decision to accept Jud’s offer to go to the dance because of how obsessed and aggressive he is with her, and tries to explain to her Aunt Eller why she doesn’t want to be alone with Jud, but Aunt Eller dismisses Laurey and tells her that she is overreacting. She basically blames Laurey for deciding to go to the social with Jud. However, despite Aunt Eller’s earlier comment, she later helps Laurey spend less time with Jud at the social by working against him at an auction. The women all prepare picnic baskets that the men then bet money on. Whoever wins the women’s basket also gets a date with the woman during the social. Aunt Eller makes a big deal about Laurey overreacting about Jud, then does everything that she can to stop him winning the auction. It weirdly perpetuates rape culture and at the same time validates women’s fears about men who act entitled to them. Jud still manages to catch Laurey alone and attempts to force himself on her, but she pushes him away and fires him, kicking him out of her farm. Curly later finds Laurey crying and upset about what Jud did to her and instead of really comforting her, kisses her. This, for some reason, kicks off their relationship and the two become an item.
It’s clear from the beginning that Laurey will end up with Curly, despite his arrogance, and she is basically blamed and shamed for trying to make Curly jealous by agreeing to go out with Jud. It is also endlessly frustrating to me to see Laurey being told she is overreacting for being afraid of Jud and how he is stalking her. The musical seems to want to say that Laurey is at fault for leading Jud on, but simultaneously wants to validate Laurey’s fears and show how terrifying a villain he is. Curly isn’t much better; he does seem to care about Laurey but does so in very patronizing ways, and despite knowing how scary Jud is, he seems to like watching Laurey sweat over her decision not to go to the social with him. After Laurey is assaulted by Jud, Curly doesn’t try to help her but instead uses her moment of vulnerability to claim Laurey for himself. Laurey, despite being portrayed as a tough farm girl, is really a damsel who is attacked by one man and “saved” by another.
Our secondary plot features Ado Annie Carnes, Will Parker, Ali Hakim, and Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes. Ado Annie is a character who is extremely slut-shamed throughout the musical. While all the men talk about looking at porn or going to strip clubs, Annie is expected to be “better” than men and not as loose with her affections. The problem is that Annie is very loose with her affections. She sings a song called “I Cain’t Say No” where she describes how she knows right from wrong and if a man kisses her she should smack him, but she says that when she is actually with a guy she forgets everything she was taught and just wants to be with him. One of the main conflicts with Annie is that her father promised her to Will Parker if Will could give him fifty dollars. Will goes off to Kansas City and makes fifty dollars, but spends all of it on presents for Annie, so that he no longer has the money. He does eventually once again get the fifty dollars to get Annie back, but after securing Annie, Will chastises her for being too flirtatious with other men. Even though Will has gone to strip clubs in Kansas City, he claims to have only ever had eyes for Annie and demands that she focus just on him from now on. Annie at first doesn’t like it, but when she sees Will flirt with another woman, she fights that woman (and not Will for some reason) and then seems to understand where he is coming from.
I hate how slut-shamed Annie is despite the fact that she isn’t doing anything worse or any different than the men around her. She is seen as a little wild and too flirtatious by everyone and is constantly told that she needs to settle down and be a “good girl” who isn’t so free with her affections. Annie is also portrayed as naive, and thinks all the men she is with are in love with her. Hakim mentions that he wants to get a hotel room with her and she assumes he wouldn’t say such a thing unless he wanted to marry her. Her father never lets her choose who she wants to be with; though she does have trouble choosing who she likes in general, she is constantly being given to one man or another. She is told by everyone, but mostly men, who she should marry and what is appropriate in how she shows affection. Admittedly, despite Annie being portrayed as a “naïve lovesick teenage girl” she is definitely my favorite character. I like seeing a young girl who is free with her sexuality, but it’s upsetting how she is constantly shamed for it.
I think part of the issue with Oklahoma is it doesn’t have a very interesting plot to begin with and relies on horrible sexist tropes in order to create drama in the musical. The music is classic, but the story has certainly run its course.