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What Makes Les Mis Timeless


It's official: Les Miserables is a hit. Les Mis cleaned up at the Golden Globes last night and has hit over $100 million at the box office in the US alone. Considered one of the most popular Broadway productions of all time, Les Mis on screen continues to wet eyes and keep audiences coming back.

What is it about this story?

Well, according to a recent Washington Post writer, we love Les Mis because it's "familiar." She writes:

The female stereotypes in "Les Miz: are deeply embedded in our culture—the mother who sacrifices herself to the death, the two women who love the same man, and the woman who desires a man in a different class. These characters are readily available, always recognizable and appealing in their familiarity.

Come again? Honestly, nothing could be farther from my mind when watching Les Mis than female stereotypes. And I have a pretty sensitive radar.

This hunger-for-the-familiar-including-down-with-women point is more than a little stretch. It's like trying to force the stepsister's size-9 foot into Cinderella's size-6 shoe, the foot being this writer's deeply held outlook on female stereotypes and the shoe, Les Mis.

To be fair, what's most striking about Les Mis cannot be summed up in a short oped. It's a story of love—a love with many layers and many faces in our lives. It's a story of the human experience, with the backdrop of a turbulent time in France. Stereotypes for women exist, sure, but it's quite a stretch to say that Les Mis is at fault for perpetuating such messages as, say, that "women should sacrifice themselves for their children or for men’s careers."

Yes, Fantine died trying to support Cosette; and yes, Eponine died trying to help with Marius' cause. But this writer misses two things here: 1) these women were not the only characters in the story with miserable experiences (it's called Les Miserables for goodness' sake!), and 2) these women's stories are unarguably some of the most poignant and moving contributions to the story. Sacrifice, forgiveness, unselfish love—not to mention some of the most memorable and best-loved songs on Broadway, "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own"—show a depth to the women that should be applauded, not derided. Point being: What is she talking about!

I know this writer would reply that I'm drinking the kool-aid served by the patriarchal culture, and she's entitled to her opinion. But I'd say, rather, it's a real and raw story of human sacrifice—sacrifice on the parts of both women and men (Enjolras or Gavroche, anyone?)—in all its tragedy and depth and beauty.  I'll gladly drink that up. (And cry it out.)

Photograph via realdot on Flickr.