Sexism Onstage and Off: Why I Am Glad “Smash” is Cancelled

smash-newsblogI am one of the biggest musical theater geeks in the world, but even I am glad Smash is being cancelled.

The NBC drama about putting on a Broadway show, starring Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty, as well as Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston, Christian Borle and numerous guest stars, ran for two seasons before it was cancelled. The slow had faced a slew of criticism regarding its storyline, its characters and even its costumes, before NBC pulled the plug.

The decision to cancel Smash was disappointing for numerous reasons. The show brought attention to the arts, which are severely underfunded. It showed how wonderful and exciting the New York theater community can be. It featured the songwriting talents of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, whose songs for the musical Bombshell were outstanding, as well as the ample talents of Hilty and Borle. Additionally, numerous episodes included Huston throwing a cocktail in someone’s face.

But even though there were numerous aspects of Smash I did enjoy, why I am glad the show was cancelled has nothing to do with the previously mentioned reasons. I am relieved that Smash is off the air because of the disappointing ways it portrayed women throughout its two seasons.

The potential for strong female characters in Smash was ample. Anjelica Huston played a Broadway producer seeking to establish herself independently. Debra Messing played a successful playwright. Megan Hilty played an established Broadway chorus girl looking for a role that would make her a star. And Katharine McPhee played an newcomer to the theater community competing with Hilty for the leading role. Both of the younger characters were unmarried and attempting to create their own careers.

But despite the opportunity to develop strong, independent characters, the writers of Smash created banal, pedestrian women whose entire lives revolved around men in some way. It was clear by watching the excellent acting talents of Huston, Hilty and Messing that they deserved more.

Smash opened with Huston’s character, recently divorced, attempting to mount a Broadway show to prove she could do it on her own, without the help of her ex-husband. The first season revolved mainly around Hilty’s character, Ivy, having a relationship with her director, while McPhee’s character, Karen, refused his advances and eventually landed the leading role in the show. Messing’s character, Julia, engaged in an affair with an actor who manipulated and threatened her with exposing their relationship. After the story got out, she desperately tried to save her marriage, frequently expressing remorse for her actions. In the second season, she struggled with choosing between working with her best friend, Tom (Borle), and working with her new boyfriend Scott (Jesse Martin). Despite the talented women playing these characters, they were not engaging, and none of them stood on their own. All of their conflicts and the resulting decisions were based around men.

Smash clearly portrayed the Madonna/whore complex in the disparity with which it depicted the characters Karen and Ivy. Karen, with wholesome-looking brown hair and delicate features, played the pure muse to the character of the director Derek (Jack Davenport), while the curvaceous Ivy played his lover. Karen rejected Derek when he asked her to sleep with him, but Ivy quickly began a relationship with him. Karen remained faithful to her boyfriend, who eventually cheated on her with Ivy. It was not a surprise to me that in the season’s conclusion Karen was triumphantly cast in the leading role in the musical while Ivy remained in the chorus.

When Ivy “cleaned up her act,” for lack of a better term, she began to get what she wanted: a featured role in one musical and then the leading role in Bombshell. But the ridiculous idea of having to be a a “good girl” still followed her; she was told she might not win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical simply because of her off-stage behavior. In order to win, she was told she had to be “Marilyn” onstage and “Norma Jean” offstage. People wouldn’t vote for her unless she was a “good girl.” One of the most frustrating aspects of the show’s conclusion is that in the second-to-last episode, Ivy finds out she is pregnant. She has been sleeping with her previous director, Derek, in what appeared to be a consensual romantic relationship. But apparently in Smash’s world, that isn’t acceptable, and she has to “face the consequences.”

Not only did Smash portray this archaic and sexist theme in its show regarding its female characters, it did not apply the same standards to the male ones. Derek did face a potential lawsuit from several actresses who accused him of sexual harassment, but when one of them began to blackmail him, he is portrayed as a victim of someone else’s manipulation. The troubled songwriter Jimmy (played by Jeremy Jordan) began a relationship with Karen, in a classic example of a “good girl” trying to save a “bad boy.” He even told her, “I haven’t been a good person, but since I met you, it’s all I want to be,” and asks her to tell him what he has to do to be the person she saw in him. But when Jimmy and Karen’s relationship ended and he saw her with another man, he was furious with her and she was apologetic, even though she had seen him with numerous other women after they broke up. Another example of hypocrisy took place when Kyle (Andy Mientus) cheated on his boyfriend with Tom and kept it a secret. After he was killed in a car accident, the show played flashbacks of him with Tom like it was a great romance, and everyone treated him like he was a saint or a martyr. Yes, his death was a tragedy, but the sanctifying of the character, given that he was cheating on his boyfriend, was not understandable.

The disparity with which the sex lives of the male and female characters was portrayed on Smash was disappointing, to say the least. I had hoped that a show about an artistic community would portray a more understanding and progressive environment. Homosexuality was treated with respect on Smash, which was a wonderful step forward for mainstream television and, given the recent hate crimes in New York, extremely necessary. But the archaic and old-fashioned ideas of male and female sexuality was extremely disappointing. I hope the next show to premiere on NBC will be written with a greater focus on equality.

Comments are closed.