Writing by Isi Williams. Illustration by Isi Williams.
For all purposes, Hamilton seems like a production I would absolutely adore. It’s historical but woke, it’s funny but political, it’s got an absolutely amazing soundtrack - but there is one thing that stopped me from enjoying this witty broadway show: the treatment and representation of the female characters. Hamilton is a musical set in the late-18th/early-19th century about founding father Alexander Hamilton. It tracks his life from the time his mum died to his death in 1804 and examines the political climate and his influence on it. All the characters but one are people of colour. I so badly wanted to enjoy this musical, and for the most part I did, but the way the women were represented left me with a very bitter taste in my mouth and prevented me from fully engaging.
If you’re looking at the representation of women in film, TV or theatre, the first thing to reference is the Bechdel test, sometimes called the Bechdel Rule or the Mo Movie Measure.(1) It lists three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. Unfortunately Hamilton only passes number 1 and 2, as the women are discussing men in any song they sing together. This test isn’t something that puts women as 50/50 equals either; it is the absolute bare minimum a show should do to have any kind of claim about gender representation.
The women in Hamilton take up 4 roles. The three main female characters of the play are Angelica Schuyler (played by Renée Elise Goldsberry), Eliza Shuyler (played by Phillipa Soo) and Maria Reynolds (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones) and these three character can be perfectly put into three female stereotypes: The Muse, The Wife and The Whore. They are mostly viewed in the context of Hamilton (which many of the male characters aren’t) and other than ‘The Schuyler Sisters,’ they are almost always singing about or to Hamilton.
Angelica: The Muse
Angelica is seen as the muse in this musical. She is Hamilton’s intellectual equal and is shown to have strong political views and a wealth of knowledge about current affairs. At the time Hamilton met Angelica she was already married, although in the musical she is single and decides not to pursue a relationship because her sister loves him. It is also made clear that she can’t marry him because he is penniless and her role as the eldest sister is to marry someone affluent, as was demanded of women at the time.
Angelica is arguably the best female role model in the play; she is kind, outspoken, political, intellectual, funny and beautiful. And as Brigid Slipka writes in her blog post ‘On the Women of Hamilton,’ ‘Angelica’s few verses are the candle that make you hyper aware of the darkness everywhere else.’(2) She is allowed a couple of songs, but then the men take up the rest of the show.
Eliza: The Wife
Eliza is from the outset presented with less intelligence than her older sister, as she sings ‘Angelica, remind me what we're looking for…’ She plays the endearing ingénue (often a young naïve female character, similar to the ‘girl-next-door’) and complies with every stereotype that goes along with that - loyal, virginal, beautiful, gentle and innocent. She sings ‘I’m helpless’ 22 times and it’s said by or in connection to Eliza 27 times throughout the musical.(3) I disagree with the idea that when a woman sees the man of her dreams, she instantly becomes helpless and weak, and this song perpetuates the idea that a woman being helpless is desirable (something I’ll go into detail about later).
Despite Eliza being represented as a naïve, ‘helpless’ girl, she was in fact an incredibly resilient and intelligent woman. When Hamilton died in 1804 she was ‘left impoverished, and her youngest child was only two-years old.’(4) She was a single mother who had given birth to 8 children and had fostered one, and she spent the next 50 years improving the lives of children. As stated in the song ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,’ she ‘established the first private orphanage in New York City’ (which still helps children to this day) and she was involved in the organisation until her 90s.
Although her resilient, intelligent nature is somewhat shown at the end of the musical, her representation as the ingénue seeks to undermine this. In real life she would’ve been incredibly brave - she married a poor immigrant because she believed in his message; she fought hard to support her family when they were left with nothing; she raised nine children and supported hundreds more with her orphanage. She was not an innocent girl who fell in love with a politician; she was an incredible woman who handled her own affairs and just happened to be married to Alexander Hamilton.
Maria: The Whore
The way Maria Reynolds is presented was the nail in this musical’s coffin. She is the femme fatale in Hamilton. A femme fatale, as described by Wikipedia, is ‘a mysterious, beautiful, and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, deadly traps.’ She is introduced in the song ‘Say No To This’ where she is depicted as a seductress. In reality, Maria wasn’t a scheming seductress but a woman who was forced to marry a much older man when she was 15. James Reynolds was reported to beat, verbally abuse and rape Maria, something she mentions when she comes to Hamilton asking for money.
The song ‘Say No To This’ opens with Burr, the narrator, setting the scene. He sings, ‘there’s trouble in the air, you can smell it’ as he walks past Reynolds who wears red - a colour associated with passion, seduction and sin. Then Hamilton chimes in, listing excuses before he's even done anything wrong, setting himself up as a victim of the situation:
“I hadn't slept in a week
I was weak, I was awake
You've never seen a bastard orphan more in need of a break
Longing for Angelica
Missing my wife.”
These lines seek to justify what happens next. Maria comes to Hamilton and asks him to help her, as her abusive husband has left her with no money. Hamilton agrees to give her a loan, walks her home and then has sex with her. In the song, she is depicted as a temptress, as he sings ‘she turned red, she led me to her bed, let her legs spread and said stay.’
There are a few things that are uncomfortable about this scene - the first is the obvious imbalance of power in this relationship. As he is now in charge of her financial future, he could easily take back the offer of his loan and leave her penniless, which possibly put pressure on her to say yes to any sexual advances. The second is that he consistently sings ‘I don’t know how to say no to this,’ which seeks to uphold rape culture by suggesting that it isn’t his fault as he just didn’t no how to say no. Poor him, he’s been left alone in New York by his wife and he just can’t seem to control himself when presented with a woman who has been abused and is seeking help. And that leads us to the third issue, which is the continued theme that women being ‘helpless’ is sexy. Hamilton sings that he can’t say no to having sex with her because ‘my god, she looks so helpless.’ This also upholds rape culture by showing vulnerable, helpless women as sexually appealing.
Later in this scene Hamilton is blackmailed by Maria’s husband James, and Maria is then essentially pimped out as Hamilton pays a fee to continue seeing her. But before he decides to do that, he goes to her house and screams ‘how could you?’ in her face before calling her pathetic. Not once considering that her abusive husband might have literally forced her hand on that one. And in the end Maria doesn't even get any kind of redeeming storyline; as Stacey Wolf writes, ‘the show doesn’t even give Maria the power of a villain, as she is ultimately the pawn in her husband’s blackmail scheme.’(5)
One More Woman To Mention
Before I conclude, there is one more woman who is important for me to mention: Rachel Faucette Buck. If you’ve watched Hamilton and don’t know much about his history then you might not know which character I’m referring to, as she isn’t mentioned by name once. Rachel Faucette, described as ‘a whore’ in the opening line of the musical, was Hamilton’s mother.
I think it’s important to mention Rachel. Alongside the other women in Hamilton, she is an incredibly resilient woman who suffered greatly at the hands of men and who has been let down by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Before meeting Hamilton’s father James, Rachel was coerced into marrying a man called Johann Michael Lavien when she was only 16.(6) She was unhappy in the marriage, but when she tried to leave him, he put her in jail for several months for challenging his authority. When she was released she fled to St Kitts, and Lavien filed for divorce, claiming she was a whore, which meant the ‘divorce settlement decreed that he could remarry but that Rachel could not.’(7) That was the reason that both her sons with James Hamilton were seen as illegitimate and Alexander is described as a ‘bastard’ repeatedly in the musical.
Rachel is isn't even given a name, but is cursed to be remembered by everyone who watches Hamilton as simply ‘a whore’ when there is absolutely no evidence that she was a sex worker or even that she slept around. It is simply a sexist slur that has no place being used in reference to her.
I’d like to conclude by saying that although Hamilton is brilliantly innovative in its use of hip-hop as a musical medium, and incredibly supportive of actors of colour in a way that no hit musical ever has been, it still manages to let down the women in the room. Especially, in this case, the women of colour who are forced to play archetypal, stereotypical female characters, and the historical legacy of the actual women depicted, who each faced huge obstacles because of their gender. I urge people to take a more critical look at the media we are consuming - it is not simply enough to have women as characters, we must look at the way these characters are presented and how that plays into society's views on women as a whole. We must demand better.
1. Bechdel Test, 2016
2. Slipka, 2016
3. Visualizations: Frequency of Phrases, 2020
4. Mazzeo and Weiss, 2016
5. Wolf, 2016
6. Briggs, 2020
7. Briggs, 2020
- Bechdeltest.com. 2016. Bechdel Test. [online] Available at: <https://bechdeltest.com>
- Briggs, A., 2020. They Lived, They Died, But 'Hamilton' Didn't Tell Their Story. [online] National Geographic. Available at: <https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2020/06/they-lived-they-died-but-hamilton-didnt-tell-their-story>
- Mazzeo, T. and Weiss, L., 2016. What Eliza Hamilton Left Behind. [online] The New York Public Library. Available at: <https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/11/08/what-eliza-hamilton-left-behind>
- Schulman, M., 2015. The Women Of “Hamilton”. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: <https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-women-of-hamilton>
- Slipka, B., 2016. On The Women Of “Hamilton”. [online] Medium. Available at: <https://medium.com/@brigidslipka/dear-lin-manuel-d14010943c84>
- Newtfire.org. 2020. Visualizations: Frequency Of Phrases. [online] Available at: <https://newtfire.org/hamilton/vis_Phrases.html>
- Wolf, S., 2016. Hamilton. [online] The Feminist Spectator. Available at: <http://feministspectator.princeton.edu/2016/02/24/hamilton/>