Typically, my plans for the 4th of July include hanging out with my family, eating hot dogs and hamburgers fresh off the grill, and making some kind of red, white, and blue dessert. But with COVID-19 raging, I was only able to do one of those three things, i.e., stick some strawberries and blueberries on a store-bought vanilla cupcake and call it a day. From my quarantined apartment, I called my family to wish them a happy Independence Day, ordered a pizza, and watched Hamilton on Disney +. It seemed like the most patriotic thing I could do.
Hamilton tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, who is most famous for co-authoring the Federalist papers, setting up a national bank, and dying in a senseless duel. In this musical play, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is an immigrant who is “young, scrappy, and hungry” and sees the America Revolution as a way to make a name for himself. Unlike his friend Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who advises him to “talk less, smile more,” Hamilton is vocal about his beliefs, and his gutsiness lands him a position under George Washington (Christopher Jackson). With his loyal wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) by his side and famous friends, Hamilton rises to the heights of political power--and starts to self-destruct. As his fateful death draws near, what will his story be and who will be the one to tell it?
I can’t deny Hamilton was well-done. The music, the dance, the spectacle--it is beautifully crafted, it is impressive, and it hits your emotions hard. But it hit me in a way I didn’t expect, and that’s really what I want to write about. After watching it, I raged, I cried, and now I am going to rant. This is your warning. I have strong opinions about the role of women in Hamilton, and I am going to express my opinions.
But first, I want to talk a little about what the play actually is. Hamilton is a big, splashy Broadway musical first and a historical fiction second. It’s not meant to be a critique of history; in fact, I would go so far as to label it a revisionist fantasy. It reinterprets American history through a modern lens, not unlike how certain Shakespeare productions reinterpret their source material. This makes history recognizable to a modern audience, and because we recognize it, we can relate and empathize. Although it includes some politics, Hamilton is, for the most part, about the men who struggled through impossible odds to create a new country. It is a personal story set amid an epic backdrop.
In other words, my kind of story. I enjoy a good epic. Hamilton makes a conscious choice to cast people of all colors and races in roles that are historically White. I find this refreshing and inclusionary. I know that some critics have said that, in this environment, simply re-casting the Founding Fathers doesn’t go far enough; we need to look more critically at American history. That may be, but I think I understand what the play’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was trying to do. I remember, in high school, I would grapple with history, trying to make sense of it and see myself in the people who changed the world. Lin-Manuel Miranda obviously saw himself in Hamilton, an immigrant, who, through ambition, intelligence, and hard work, was able to leave his mark on American culture.
I don't think there's anything wrong with this. This is, after all, art, and art does not always have to be accurate. It can be fun. Hamilton is trying to be fun. It’s like kids playing dress-up. It has that joyful feeling of imagination, the boundless possibility that you can do anything and be anyone you want. And I like that feeling. As the play progressed, I found myself getting swept up in a patriotic fervor. When the Battle of Yorktown raged and Americans toppled an Empire, I felt proud, I felt happy. I thought, I am this and this is me, and I am America. In this moment, I felt bonded with my country.
And then I glanced in the background of the stage and saw the women walking back and forth like ghosts. That’s when the sour feeling hit me. I realized not everyone is included; women don’t get to have fun. Yes, women are present in the play, but they’re all love interests, and moreover, love interests to Hamilton. A few background dancers are women, but they are not given names or songs. They are like the real women in history, I suppose, living and dying and doing their part to change the world with no name and no fame and no glory. “Who tells your story?” the music asks, but for women, the answer is, “No one.”
That may be the harsh reality we live in, but Hamilton is not, as I said, realistic. You cannot claim to be realistic when a Black Thomas Jefferson and a Latino Alexander Hamilton engage in a rap battle to decide national finance. This is a bombastic fantasy. Men of all colors get to play in the sandbox of glory and power. They get to sing about rising, they get to drink and contemplate changing the world, and they get to wave flags and shout their names into battle. Women get to sing about being “helpless,” because even in a progressive revisionist fantasy, women holding power is a step too far.
And it’s not like I’m negating the role of women in the household. I think that part of the reason that women don’t feature much in history books is that they were doing all the tedious work of keeping people alive. Raising children is hard. Keeping a house is hard. While the men were off gallivanting in wars, who do you think kept the farms running? I vaguely remember tales of women camp followers in the army, nursing the sick and doing laundry. There’s no glory in laundry, but it keeps things running.
But again, that’s reality. This is an epic fantasy about the creation of our country, and I wanted to feel included in it. I mean, why not have George Washington be played by a woman? That would have been fun. I’d have enjoyed that. Heck, I’d take one of Hamilton’s pub friends, even the one who’s name I can’t remember. I want to see a woman get to play with the boys, not be stuck at home, singing about how she’ll love her husband no matter what.
And that made me think: for all that Disney had advertised Hamilton as “America then, performed by America now” there’s something almost Victorian about the way the story is presented. In the late 1800s, there was a rigid separation taking place between “public” and “private.” Then men ruled public--work, government, politics. The women ruled private--home and children. It’s an attitude that has followed us into the 21st Century, and we can see it in Hamilton in the character of Eliza and the role she is forced to play.
Eliza Hamilton is the most prominent female character in the play, one of only two who have their own songs. She is loving and forgiving and classically feminine--and she is awesome. But her whole story is framed around Hamilton. She sings about falling in love with Hamilton, making sure Hamilton stays alive during the Revolutionary War, and raising Hamilton’s child. Even when Hamilton betrays her by sleeping with another woman, Eliza burns his old love letters not because she feels enraged, but so that history will never know the tender side of him. Her song, which should be about her feelings, is still all about his goals and his ambitions.
At the very end, when Hamilton is dead, and Eliza gets to step into the spotlight and sing about her own life for once. It’s actually pretty awesome. Not only did she preserve Alexander's legacy, she also helped build the Washington Monument and founded the first orphanage in the United States. That's impressive. And still, the blasted song is framed around him. All her deeds are about him, about extending his legacy, and still she wonders, “Is it enough?” Yes, it damn well is enough.
The question is, what exactly did he do for you, Eliza, because by my observation, he married you for your money, left you at home pregnant to fight in a war, neglected you to pursue his political ambitions, cheated on you, gave your son stupid advice that got him killed, and finally left you a widow because he had to fight a stupid duel. What did he do for you? Nothing. What did you do for him? Everything. And yet, even after he's dead, you can't even have one little song for yourself. Man, does it suck being the love interest.
(End of Spoilers)
You know what it's like? It’s like some kids saying, “Hey, we’re having a community baseball game, and everyone is invited to play, no matter what you look like.” And them turning to you and saying, “You’re a girl? Cool. You can get water for the players and keep score, okay?” And you’re like, “Why don’t I get to play? Why do I have to do the boring parts? Why don’t I get even the chance for glory?”
It was the 4th of July, and I just wanted to eat some pizza and relax, but instead, I found myself contemplating history, politics, art, and the ways in which women are excluded or given minimal roles. Yeah, that was fun. It was a play, it was a show, I sang the songs, I admired the choreography, but when it was all said and done, I still felt excluded and it hurt.
Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about who tells my story, because I am a fantasy writer and I intend to write my own stories, thank you very much. I’m frustrated by women’s exclusion, but it makes me more determined to write books with female characters who have their own goals and ambitions and can hold power and change the world. It also makes me want to re-look at American history, to find people who did awesome things, but whose stories were excluded or forgotten. Any recommendations?
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Writer. Critic. Dreamer.