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. 

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