Oklahoma! and Maintaining the Social Standard
Oklahoma! is most often expressed as a light hearted, dark tinted ‘romp in the field’ American classic. It is exactly because of this that I chose to analyze this film and its idyllic fundamentals for society. The film is set in Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before the state was made the 46th in the union. Throughout the film, a general feeling of playfulness, carelessness and ignorance of the looming truths of reality weave the viewer into either a blissful sing-a-long or a teeth-clenching rage. Unfortunately for the sing song types, “it’s just a movie, lighten up” won´t take away the classist, sexist and minority absent elements of this film for me.
Firstly, to approach the film on a cultural note, Oklahoma got its film worthy start by thwarting the attempts to make an all-Indian state of the same name(Various, Wiki). The location offered the promise of oil and farming fortunes for ambitious white Americans, reason enough to leave American Indians with not even so much as a single reservation in the state to this day. Oklahoma at the time also had a fairly large population of black settlers as well as several black towns. There were even appeals made that Teddy Roosevelt should officially call Oklahoma a majority-black state(Various, Wiki). Although a majority white settlement at that time would have likely had a low population of black or American Indian residents, the film in its idyllic fantasy portrays the absence as a part of their perfect, conflict-free society, not as reality. The film showed an extremely one sided win for the “moral and upstanding” settler and complete avoidance of the topic of “the other”. Aside from the absence of minorities, the film was not completely without cultural variety. A Persian man, Ali Hakim, played the part of a sexually immoral traveling salesman. From the beginning of this characters development, the stereotype of both a charismatic gypsy and untrustworthy peddler were without doubt present. Contrary to this unjust representation, Ali was overall represented as a man of decent human character. He was given a major part in the ruin of Jed’s first attempt at murdering Curly and shared in the towns suspicious of Jed’s outcast characteristics. Ali was not a minority in the same right as black Americans and American Indians, he was an immigrant played by a white American actor. Perhaps Roger and Hammerstein’s roots played a part in this characters role or possibly it was an attempt at appeasing the overall lack of diversity.
The portrayal of women’s role in society did no one any favors in Oklahoma!. This film was made before women could vote in the United States but while Europe was making leaps and bounds in the suffragette movement and women’s rights. This is not to say that the film was not accurate on that note either, but that doesn´t make it any less offensive. What is most offensive about the way women are portrayed is how joyfully it’s done. There was not one character who was against the intensely patriarchal way of thinking, as was (to an extent) the well educated Marian in The Music Man. The female characters were flighty and giggling throughout the film; many were portrayed as poor speakers, under educated, materialistic and overall shared one main goal in life, marriage. The concept of female ownership is reinforced by the role of Ado Annie’s father who basically auctions his daughter off to the highest bidder. Ado Annie herself is a frightful stereotype of a mindless, flirty, cheating , untrustworthy girl. At one point in the film the girls are rated on their cooking abilities in a charity event. Throughout the film, no one mentions any other quality the girls may have that would put them of use anywhere but a kitchen. Releasing the film in 1955 was an ideal time for its success. With cold war, segregation and women’s traditional place in the home, it´s no wonder this film was a hit. Society in 50’s America was hooked on the ideal of its white picket fences, nuclear family and “outsider-free” society. Something I´m sure the studio was well aware of before its release. Sadly even after WWI, when many women replaced men in the workplace, and after 1920 when they were granted the ability to vote, the 1950’s held as true to the old song and dance as Oklahoma!.
Aunt Eller was the only female character who showed any independence from the hormone driven men and submissive women of Oklahoma!. As an older woman, she was not “attractive” anymore so she no longer bore the burden of a woman subject to man´s rule, sexually. She was still under the rule of a male driven society but had ownership over her own property, although depending on Jud for working the land. Her character brings up the issue of age discrimination in the film. Although a much less prominent issue than the gender, race and class issues it is none the less unfair. She has won the right to speak out and be “herself” only because of her age and growing uselessness to society, not because she is a human being. She is referred to as a “silly old woman” Although she is a different character than the other women in the film, she is no less committed to the importance of marriage and has fully accepted the role of women and men in her society.
Men are also subject to their own share of stereotyping in the film. They are portrayed as masculine, macho, dominating, poorly educated, sexually obsessed and inherently risk taking. Although many of these ideals are so accepted that people rarely questions them, they are no less fair than stereotypes about women. Jud is one character who falls victim to numerous gender stereotypes as well as stereotypes directed to the poor and/or working class. When Jud is first introduced to us, he is carrying a pile of wood with muscles abound, his shirt is open and he is covered in dirt and sweat. This does not necessarily mean he is a negative character but in the film that is what we are meant to feel when everyone else is picture perfect and clean. The film actually depends on us to discriminate against him based on nothing else but the way he looks. Curly brings his opinion of Jud to our attention by calling him a “bullord colored rally hire hand”. This is thwarted by Aunt Eller saying Jud is the “best hired hand I ever had…two woman couldn´t do it”. Although Aunt Eller is defending Jud and doesn´t judge him herself (to begin with) her opinion is likely dismissed because of her age and gender. Laury is also guilt of senseless judgment of Jud’s character in this first scene. When she changes her mind about going to the dance and attempts to tell him, her seemingly senseless fear of him makes her hold her tongue. His mannerisms and polite statement about picking her up for the dance reveal that he is completely unaware of her cruel intentions.
The entire character development of Jud and the surrounding plot refers to a critical social issue that this film unfortunately does not approach comprehensively. Jud is considered a “social misfit” and one that is lower class/working class at that. He is, from the beginning, “not one of the community” and therefore does not have the right to “its women” or even friendships within it. People who express any behavior that deviates from the group norm are easily singled out. Whether the person is shy, aggressive, has underdeveloped social skills or is only seemingly different because of class or culture, are all common reasons for rejection. People who are rejected usually withdraw; withdrawal causes more social rejection and a cycle continues. When Curly approaches Jud to talk about Laury and the dance, he chooses to take an approach of rejection and machismo by telling him to commit suicide. During the song “Jud is Daid”, Curly mocks Jud by saying he “Loved the beasts of the field, loves his fellow man, loved the little children” etc, while Jud appears to honestly believe this of himself. He slowly comes to realization that he will probably never fit in with the other characters. When Curly blatantly asks Jud, “how’d you get to be the way you are anyhow? sitting in here in this filthy hole”. Curly makes the classic assumption that the poor choose to be poor and the misfit, outcast. He has initiated the cycle, to no fault of Jud’s, and causes Jud to react with anger (Wever-Rabehl). Thus his sudden search for a weapon and an aggressive “she better not change her mind”, referring to Laury going to the dance. It’s heartbreaking to see his character and future in the film degrade so quickly at the joy of others, especially ones so hypocritical and unwelcoming.
Given the roll of Jud, his lines and aggravation to turning “misfit”, it seems at first confusing as to whether we are to pity or loathe Jud. It seems so harsh to assume the writer wants us to believe that Curly merely brought out the true personality of Jud, not the other way around. Curly, although fitting into society quite well, is the true misfit and a wholly horrible and unsavory character. Laury as well is hardly better than Curly by the end of the film. Her “vision” of Jud´s “true nature” cause her to act fearfully and reject Jud after agreeing to go to the dance. She never had a conversation with Jud as a person or got to know better his intentions, which as shown are good, as he tells her on the ride to the dance “I remember everything you´ve ever done”. Up to the point of the dance itself Jud never fully realized how different he was. He may have forgotten completely about ever killing anyone had he not got his heart so brutally stepped on. In many films a heartbroken man who tries to kill the girl’s “winner” is seen as a villain but the “winner” who kills the heartbroken man (even in an equal duel), is a hero. It seems that the winner of love is always the winner in life, and those who are rejected, just as in society, are losers, and sometimes losers who don´t deserve justice
Oklahoma! although colorful and comedic does not represent an ideal society we should be proud of. It contains numerous overtones and undertones of social injustice and even legal injustice. It’s movies like this that reinforce so many of the worst wrongs in society. After all is said, “it´s just a movie” still doesn´t ring true. A movie, a book, a sexist remark, are never just that, they are the reflections and models of our culture and should be approached critically as if our futures depended on it.