Oklahoma! and the missing stair.


Oklahoma! and the missing stair.


Image from PBS.

So, excit­ing thing: I final­ly got a library card. And what made it even more excit­ing was the library had my pre­ferred ver­sion of Okla­homa!, from 1999 with Hugh Jack­man as Curly.

I mean. Just look at him. swoon

If you’re unfa­mil­iar with the sto­ry, it’s set in the ter­ri­to­ry of Okla­homa short­ly before it becomes a state. The main fac­tions in town are cow­boys and farm­ers, and there’s con­sid­er­able ten­sion between the two. The sto­ry cen­ters around a box social in which the men ask women to go with them, and the women make bas­ket lunch­es that are bid upon in an auc­tion as a show of affec­tion from their love inter­ests. Curly, a cow­boy, is in love with Lau­rey, a farm girl who goes to the social with the hired help on the farm, Jud, to make Curly jeal­ous. Of course, Curly and Lau­rey end up togeth­er and thus unite the com­mu­ni­ty as they hur­tle towards state­hood.

The first time I watched it, I was 19 years old and still a pret­ty fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian, buy­ing deeply into puri­ty cul­ture and gen­der roles. I saw noth­ing wrong with much of the movie’s depic­tion of the nature of men & women and how they inter­act with one anoth­er.

But even back then, I was incred­i­bly dis­turbed by the char­ac­ter of Jud Fry.

Today, when we start­ed out with the “Mak­ing of ” fea­turette, I was incred­i­bly uneasy with how the writ­ers and actors described him. They said they were excit­ed to get a chance to devel­op his char­ac­ter a lit­tle bit more, that he was an every-man. That he was nor­mal. That any­one could be him.

Watch­ing it now, I’m notic­ing a lot of prob­lem­at­ic things sewn into the sto­ry — things I didn’t notice as a 19-year-old reli­gious con­ser­v­a­tive — and it’s incred­i­bly frus­trat­ing.

Will Park­er repeat­ed­ly ignores Ado Annie’s rejec­tion of his advances upon his return from “sow­ing his last wild oat.” (There’s also a stark dou­ble stan­dard in the behav­ior he expects to be allowed to get away with and what he’s will­ing to put up with from her.) She even­tu­al­ly suc­cumbs to his charms with enthu­si­asm, clear­ly writ­ten to show that she real­ly want­ed him all along. (I’ve touched on how this is prob­lem­at­ic before.)

To be fair, I always liked Ado Annie’s char­ac­ter. She seemed to show sex­u­al agency and desire, and I’d nev­er seen a woman on screen show that kind of desire with­out being shown as a vil­lain. It val­i­dat­ed that hav­ing sex­u­al desire as a woman didn’t make me an aber­ra­tion.

Ali Hakim, oth­er than being a pret­ty hor­ri­ble racist stereo­type, is also as misog­y­nis­tic as they come. Along those lines, all the men (with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of Curly) are shown to only see women as means to an end, as if that’s just how men are.

These are all things (among many oth­ers) that I nev­er noticed before today, and they’re so bla­tant I won­der how I missed them.

They’re also par­en­thet­i­cal to the main sto­ry.

The main sto­ry is how an abu­sive man ter­ror­izes a woman, and an entire com­mu­ni­ty treats him like the prover­bial miss­ing stair.

(If you’re unfa­mil­iar with Cliff Pervocracy’s miss­ing stair anal­o­gy and don’t want to click the link above, he basi­cal­ly out­lines that often com­mu­ni­ties gloss over abusers in their midst the way that some­one who lives in a house with a miss­ing stair just becomes accus­tomed to skip­ping that step rather than fix­ing it.)

At first, Jud Fry is shown as a bit of a mis­un­der­stood lon­er. He’s depict­ed as qui­et, gruff, not some­one any­one is real­ly friends with but also not some­one any­one real­ly wants to cross. Peo­ple talk about him like he just doesn’t under­stand social graces, so they accept behav­ior from him that they nor­mal­ly wouldn’t.

Lau­rey ini­tial­ly says that she accept­ed his invi­ta­tion to the auc­tion only to make Curly jeal­ous. But lat­er, when it’s clear that she real­ly wants to go with Curly (who is hurt and angry that she chose some­one else), she drops the act and reveals what’s real­ly been going on.

Aunt Eller asks her why she doesn’t just tell Jud she doesn’t want to go with him. She admits, timid­ly and anx­ious­ly, that she’s afraid to tell him such a thing, that she knows he’ll do some­thing “ter­ri­ble.” She talks about how he’s been stalk­ing her, and it’s clear it’s been going on for quite some time. She’s appar­ent­ly just now been able to work up the courage to con­fide in some­one about it.

So Aunt Eller is sup­port­ive, right? Well…not exact­ly.

At first, she tells Lau­rey that she’s talk­ing non­sense. When she hears about the stalk­ing, she angri­ly shuts the con­ver­sa­tion down. She doesn’t say Laurey’s wrong about Jud. It’s just that she doesn’t want to lose a good hired hand. It’s eas­i­er for her to believe that her niece is just a hys­ter­i­cal woman than it is for her to accept that Jud’s behav­ior is a prob­lem.

At this point in the sto­ry, both Jud and Curly have been talk­ing about and treat­ing Lau­rey as if she’s noth­ing more than a tro­phy to be won to val­i­date their mas­culin­i­ty and dom­i­nance. So when she reluc­tant­ly tells Curly she can’t go to the social with him, he angri­ly stalks off to Jud’s shack to “see what Jud has that I don’t.”

For a bit, Curly clear­ly just sees Jud as the social­ly quirky lon­er the town nar­ra­tive dic­tates, and is thus con­fused as to how such a per­son can be a threat to him. It thank­ful­ly doesn’t take long for him to rec­og­nize Jud for what he real­ly is: an enti­tled, dan­ger­ous preda­tor.

At least we get a pret­ty amus­ing-though-mor­bid song out of this oth­er­wise scary-as-hell scene.

Jud, in true preda­tor fash­ion, gloats about the vio­lence he’s enact­ed on the fam­i­lies of women who have scorned him, using the old “I know a guy who did this, and isn’t it the best thing ever?!” ploy. It hasn’t occured to him that a woman doesn’t owe him affec­tion just because he wants her, or that it’s not nor­mal for men to ter­ror­ize women who reject them. He clear­ly expects Curly to join in his fun and val­i­date his belief that all men are like him.

Curly, repulsed by Jud’s vio­lent misog­y­ny, firm­ly lets him know that such behav­ior is despi­ca­ble. (And that, gen­tle­men, is the only accept­able use of “not all men”: to let abusers know they don’t have blan­ket sup­port among their fel­low men.)

Jud instan­ta­neous­ly tries to intim­i­date and manip­u­late Curly into accep­tance of his enti­tle­ment, or at least silence about it. When this doesn’t work, he quick­ly esca­lates to death threats. He’s met a peer with con­sid­er­able influ­ence who isn’t will­ing to nav­i­gate around the miss­ing stair any­more, and his mask is unveiled.

I so appre­ci­ate Hugh Jackman’s act­ing in this scene. You can see the slow real­iza­tion that Jud isn’t just a social mis­fit, the sus­pi­cion that he’s much more sin­is­ter. And the moment Jud vio­lent­ly reveals who he is, Curly isn’t amused any­more — he’s dead seri­ous. All thoughts of his pride fall to the way­side as he real­izes Lau­rey is in grave dan­ger. She’s sud­den­ly not a prize, but a per­son, and her safe­ty becomes num­ber one pri­or­i­ty. Now that is how you ally.

At this point, I think it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to make the case that Jud is still just a mis­un­der­stood social­ly inept every-man. Espe­cial­ly giv­en what hap­pens the next time he iso­lates Lau­rey.

Jud men­tions how she act­ed when they were leav­ing for the box social and deduces that she doesn’t want to be alone with him.  He clear­ly rec­og­nizes her social cues for what they are — and instead of accept­ing them, he tries to manip­u­late and coerce her into a roman­tic and phys­i­cal rela­tion­ship. And, just like he did with Curly, he resorts to threats and vio­lence when he doesn’t get his way.

In gen­er­al at this point, it seems the town accepts Lau­rey and Curly’s asser­tion that Jud’s a men­ace. I have to won­der if it’s because now the word of a respectable man is behind it. And yet, when Jud arrives at Lau­rey and Curly’s wed­ding, no one asks him to leave. The entire com­mu­ni­ty is far too accus­tomed to skip­ping the miss­ing stair. Rather than force him to leave, they actu­al­ly allow him to pub­licly sex­u­al­ly assault Lau­rey at her own wed­ding under the guise of social oblig­a­tion.

It’s this act, this pub­lic vio­la­tion of some­one (who just so hap­pens to now be con­sid­ered anoth­er man’s prop­er­ty), that is con­sid­ered the tip­ping point at which the town is no longer will­ing to accept him.

We haven’t real­ly come very far in the 70 years since the orig­i­nal musi­cal was released. We as a cul­ture still give more pref­er­ence to preda­tors than to their vic­tims. We still val­ue the appear­ance of uni­ty and com­mu­ni­ty more than we do safe­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly if it means believ­ing the word of a woman or a child over the word of some­one who has more to offer us. This is seen again and again in instances of domes­tic vio­lence, child abuse, sex­u­al harass­ment and assault. We would rather silence vic­tims and thus sub­ju­gate them to vio­lence and ter­ror than do the hard work of hold­ing pow­er­ful abusers account­able for their vio­lence.

I wish this weren’t case. Maybe, in anoth­er 70 years, we’ll have made some progress in our media and our world.

Posted in Fat Girl,