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Many of the texts studied in this section of the module
have in some way drawn on earlier texts - myths, fantasies,
classic stories. Referring to any one text (or selection of
poetry written by one poet), discuss the extent to which the
modern work highlights changes in attitudes and perceptions
towards representations of women and men.
Write a critical appreciation of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet showing an awareness of Gender-based issues.
This essay will discuss Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and will focus on the representation of gender and its characterisation. The gender stereotypes presented will be detailed but further to this the events and images which counteract with and which challenge these stereotypes will be highlighted. In addition to the theme of gender, other relevant salient issues and film techniques will be considered. Largely, the essay will follow the action of the play although the discussion of theme will draw evidence from many scenes together.
Luhrmann introduces the characters using captions that describe the two gangs as “The Montague Boys” and “The Capulet Boys”. The use of the term “Boys” is deliberate in its statement about the sex and maturity of these characters that then proceed to scuffle. In the resulting opening scene there is an immediate clash between the rival family gangs. These gangs are exclusively male. The setting itself has male connotations, as it is a garage, traditionally a male dominated work place. Thus, already we are aware of gender stereotypes. The ensuing fight further instils the sense of male domination in the feud, the resulting atmosphere exudes testosterone. The stand off is highly reminiscent of the spaghetti western genre. This genre of film equates with machismo and the music and symbolic choice of costume and cheroot enforces this analogy. The only female representation in the fight involves a handbag emerging from the car that proceeds to beat a Montague around the head. This is treated as an annoyance and is almost comical within the scene suggesting that her actions are ineffectual because of her gender. Romeo is notably absent from the Montague gang while the typically destructive behaviour occurs. The Montague gang is white and comical in their boyish behaviour whereas the Capulets are Latin and much more hostile. This racial disparity is strongly resonant of modem American society in which gang culture is also male dominated.
At the culmination of the fight scene the depiction of women changes slightly and thus is not always weak, Lady Montague overrules her husband’s wish to participate in the feud, ‘Thou shalt not stir one foot to seek a foe’. However, her role remains feminine as she opposes the violence suggesting she wants peace. Her influence here adheres to a female stereotype and yet is effectual. By the same token we must remain aware that the men seem to be the controlling and dominant sex. We later see a woman performing in front of a man for money in the street, selling her body as an erotic object. This establishes a view of women as possessions.
Next, with our first meeting with Romeo he expresses his disapproval of the feud between the families explaining his absence from the fight. Subsequently, a scene between Romeo and his friend Mercutio is laden with gender-based imagery. Mercutio arrives, adorned in skimpy, overtly female clothing wearing a wig and bright red lipstick. The two are dressed for a masked ball that will occur that night at Capulet’s house but Mercutio’s choice of costume flouts the macho image that was so evident in the men in the opening scene. Yet, strapped to his shoulder is a holster containing a gun, a purely male (phallic) symbol. The juxtaposition and confusion of the feminine and masculine elements challenges the stereotypes of both sexes. This characters curious costume could be seen equally as a parody of women or as a method of ridiculing men and their macho image.
In the Capulets house the preparations for the ball are female dominated. We are introduced to Juliet and her mother. Lady Capulet is stereotypically vain and fussy and Juliet’s character appears to be quite the opposite. Her mother seems strong and forceful whilst Juliet is meek and subservient. The ball scene begins and we see Juliet’s costume with its angelic and pure white wings. These wings are suggestive of Juliet’s virginal nature, they also imply an ethereal quality with its connotations of being above all others. Religion has been presented many times already and it crosses the gender boundary in that both sexes are involved in the imagery. The image is strong in the film but the context appears to differ between the men and women. Compare Juliet’s angelic quality and the appearance of the cross, shaved in the head of one of the gang members in the fight scene. Romeo appears, earlier, in a church where the screen is filled with brightly-lit crosses and even though he seems far more saintly and peace loving than the other men Romeo chooses this time to take a drug. So the religious context increases the stereotypes of the heavenly woman and tough masculine men.
When Romeo and Juliet meet and gaze into each other’s eyes through the aquarium Juliet still appears coy and very feminine. Although Romeo is wearing a costume of armour, highly masculine attire, his behaviour is strongly reminiscent of gentle and loving femininity. The actor himself has a distinct boy-next-door look. Romeo challenges the masculine stereotype that the other characters display so strongly. Whilst she is dancing with Paris, Juliet is seen through Romeo’s eyes. The choice to see her character through male eyes is an expression of Juliet’s sexuality in that she is seen as an object of desire. Still Juliet’s character is stereotypically female. Soon after, when the lovers are in private conversation, Juliet challenges our view of her character. She shows herself to be much stronger than we had seen before. Juliet demands a romantic commitment from Romeo the night she meets him showing she does not always take a subservient role. Her firm opposition to her father confirms this stronger, more independent side to her character. When he tries to make her marry another man, Paris, Juliet vocally resists. Further, she insults her father’s wishes by being strong enough to adhere to her own feelings and marries Romeo, her true love.
During the marriage scene, Romeo and Juliet commit to each other saying their vows with Juliet’s nurse as the only compassionate attendant at the ceremony. Though she is being allegiant to Juliet the nurse is risking a lot by knowingly disobeying her employer, Capulet’s, wishes. This disobedience challenges the typical submissive female characterisation and therefore there is another strong female character. It is portentous that the scene immediately changes to show imminent grey skies, the sound of thunder and the noise of gunshot. This brings about a foreboding feeling about the future of the marriage.
The Capulet Tybalt goads Romeo, challenging the Montague to a dual. Romeo does not wish to participate in the family dual any longer because of his union with Juliet. Therefore, Mercutio steps in defending Romeo, which angers Tybalt. Mercutio is still strangely feminine in his teasing of Tybalt, despite his manly attire. However he still gets drawn into the macho display that is the fight and is killed in the dual. The stereotypical male Tybalt nevertheless is not victorious as he too dies. Thus, adhering to the stereotype is characterised as an unsuccessful pursuit in this instance. Romeo, who challenges masculinity, does not perish. Good triumphs over evil, and good is represented by Romeo which is important in that his character is not reflective of male dominance.
Later, in order to feign death (such that they can be together), Juliet takes a potion but Romeo does not learn of this plan and hears of Juliet’s death. The scene in which he approaches the seemingly dead Juliet in church is reminiscent of Romeo’s earlier scene in the church before the romance began, when the brightly lit crosses filled the screen. This very much indicates that the romance that began earlier has come full circle and is now ending. Even though Juliet is really alive we sense the affair is over. It is the religious icon of a cross that denotes this dramatic scene highlighting the importance of creed in the film, whether it be religious or familial.
Juliet’s supine position is implicative of typically feminine helplessness and thus it appears that she reverts to being the defenceless female. Romeo, however, continues in his characterisation a man in touch with his femininity. His death scene is very dramatic in his profession of undying love for Juliet. Even in death he complements Juliet on her beauty and displays none of the macho image that the other men in the film emit. Romeo poisons himself because of his love for her. Upon Juliet’s awakening she discovers Romeo’s suicide. Her behaviour maintains the faithful and doting, stereotypical female character by killing herself, after a symbolic kiss upon Romeo’s poisoned lips. Juliet’s sudden death is achieved by shooting herself. It is ironic that, in this now very feminine role, she chooses a gun because of its Freudian connotations of the phallus and thus its symbolisation of man’s power. This is particularly so in the context of Romeo’s powerlessness to reverse his deadly actions.
Baz Luhrmann has brought this version of Romeo and Juliet to a modern day audience, he makes use of actions and imagery to convey Shakespeare’s play to a wider audience by not relying solely on the dialogue. In his production of the film he shows an awareness of both cultural and gender based issues. However it still seems evident that the film has been directed and produced by a man. Luhrmann’s characterisation of both men and women’s roles make his sex apparent. It seems that we still see the men as having the power and the women as the weaker sex despite his challenges of these stereotypes. Gender is a key issue in Luhrmann’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and his representation of men and women reflect this.