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What Les Miserables Reveals about Modern Women

What Les Miserables Reveals about Modern Women


Jan 9 2013
The plight that befalls Fantine still affects millions of women today.

There is a story about Les Miserables that approaches legend in the Ortberg family. We saw stage productions of Les Mis several times when we lived in Los Angeles and then, when we moved to Chicago, we saw it again every time it came through town. I'm pretty sure my younger brother is still scarred by how many times he had to wear long pants and suit jackets in order to attend.

One time, after seeing Les Mis early in their marriage, my parents got into an argument. My mom, you see, loved the line that Fantine and Jean Valjean sing at the end, as Valjean is about to die: "Remember the truth that once was spoken / To love another person is to see the face of God!" She loved it so much that she wanted it added to the Bible. She got angry with God that, in his infinite wisdom, he hadn't thought to include that sentiment. Dad thought this was a touch blasphemous, but he had the last laugh when he brought Genesis 33:10 to her attention: When Jacob and his brother Esau are reunited in the desert after Jacob's betrayal, Jacob says this to Esau: "For to see your face is like seeing the face of God."

The film version of Les Miserables, released to the second-largest Christmas Day opening of all time, has equal emotional resonance. Even before its release, a great deal of Oscar buzz surrounded the cast—Hugh Jackman! Anne Hathaway! Russell Crowe!—and the critics can't stay silent. Many have praised the "Persistent Greatness of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables," while others have panned it on all manner of grounds from cinematic to political to feminist.

In her Washington Post review, Stacy Wolf writes, "Les Miserables should have feminists like me up in arms." The women in the film, she says, "exist not to drive the plot but to sacrifice for the men, the real stars of the show."

I won't argue with that. But as a feminist myself, I went as quickly as I could to see Les Mis. At its heart—both the book and its various adaptations—is the promise made by one man to one woman to care for another woman. It's true that the protagonist is a man, and that most people advancing the action during the French Revolution were men as well. But acknowledging former cultural realities is entirely different from writing with a misogynistic agenda.

In her article, Wolf cites characters from Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as signs of how far female protagonists have come. She is right, to a point. Those characters have been given prominence largely by appropriating culturally male behavior—making poop jokes, displaying proficiency in violent tactics, able to live a largely solitary life in isolation from relationships.

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