I am a fan of Hamilton. This post comes from a place of love of the musical, as well as a place of frustration for not seeing myself reflected in art. I can be both a fan and a critic. In fact, I think the best criticism often comes out of love for an art.
Hamilton is wildly successful at so many things. It challenges the view of history in which our founding fathers are on a pedestal and lack human motivations. It shows that most people in power in the USA now, are of immigrant descent. It brings forward the value of ambition, of intelligence, and of drive. And it shows why Hamilton’s death was nothing but is own fault when his ambition drove him to an Ichorus-like fall. It re-writes history to be relevant to today’s landscape through racial representation and beautifully blended musical styles.
It utterly fails to represent women. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it passes the Bechdel test. For those who don’t know what that it is, it is a requirement in which two named female characters in a movie talk to each other about something other than a man. This seems like a really basic thing, but is shockingly rare to see in media. I don’t think Rogue 1 passes, I don’t think Guardians of the Galaxy passes, and I don’t think Hamilton passes, yet all of these were lauded as being hugely representative of minority and women. (Coming rant on women as heroes and lack of female heroic tropes.) (Internet research tells me that there are three lines in ‘Schyluer Sisters’ in which the sisters might be talking about the war, not the men. I find this insufficient.)
So, though Hamilton does many things very well, Hamilton fails to represent women. In a story that is rich in characterization and brings dusty, be-wigged characters out of history and makes their stories real, the representation of women is stereotypical and falls back on two-dimensional tropes.
SPOILERS AHEAD! (The musical came out in like, 2015. Get your shit together and listen to it.)
There are three women in the show. (I’m discounting Peggy, because she has like 2 lines.) The roles are: Wife/Mother, Unattainable Woman, and Harlot.
Of these, Angelica has the most real character. In some ways, she actually acts as a foil to Hamilton’s success. In ‘Satisfied’ both of them agree that their ambition is enormous, but she acknowledges that her only option for social climbing is to “marry rich.” Where Hamilton can use his brains, his status as a soldier, and his marriage to improve his station in society, Angelica can only marry up. Her mind, her abilities, her skills, are useless because society has made them so. Because of her role as a foil to show the status of women, she is interesting. In addition to that, she also has the richest inner life and the most fleshed out character. Her open ambition is part of that, but it isn’t the only place in which she is given interesting conflicts. She has a personal conflict when she realizes she loves Hamilton and she loves her sister, who loves Hamilton. She chooses to step aside and give the Wife role over to her younger sister. She does this partly because of her ambition, which really is her defining feature. And even this internal conflict is driven by a man, namely Hamilton. Other than that, she is only on stage when Hamilton messes up his marriage, and at the end of his life.
Mariah Reynolds is the second most real of the women. She starts as a victim of circumstance when, according to her, her husband abuses and abandons her. She gets interesting when her husband starts to blackmail Hamilton. Though on stage, she is begging forgiveness and begging to continue the relationship, the listener is asking questions about what she knew and if this was an intentional set up. In an interesting storytelling twist, this is the only place in the entire musical in which we see Hamilton’s actions through only his own eyes. Everywhere else, another character acts as a foil and gives us a perspective on what he is really doing, not just what he believes he is doing. This makes this section, and his relationship with Mariah both more questionable and more intense. We, the listener, don’t know if she is in on the extortion, if she is an innocent victim, or somewhere in between. This leaves her with at least some motivation. Despite that she as a character disappears as quickly as she came. Within about three songs, she is relegated to a bit of Hamilton’s past that can be used as blackmail.
Lastly, we have Eliza. Eliza who has the most songs (beautifully executed by Phillipa Soo), is also the least developed character. She is there to make Hamilton loveable. Nothing makes an audience like a character more than to see someone else love them. Eilza loves Hamilton, therefore we love Hamilton. Hamilton is an asshole, but Eilza loves him, so we can find his good characteristics. Eliza has basically no emotional arc. (One might argue that her rejection of Hamilton after his affair is an emotional arc, but because she ends in the same point that she started, I reject the “arc” part of that. She has an emotional loop, one which, if we watched our friends go through, we’d tell them to get out of that relationship.) The emotional arc she does have is based mostly around her son, another male character who she loves absolutely, and his untimely death.
This is a story about the revolutionary war. This was a time of major social upheaval, a war, and the restructuring of society (kind of). Women spoke to each other about these things. Women had opinions about how the new country should run, about the war, about their roles in society. And there are a million places these women could have spoken about them. They could have discussed how the war was going before ‘Stay Alive,’ they could have offered thoughts on supporting France’s revolution (a war famous for its involvement of women), they could have engaged in planning how to assist the troops. Women’s comments on the Fedralist Papers could have created the context that section lacked. In every song, there were places Eliza and Angelica could have had thoughts and opinions about something other than Hamilton. Instead, they are relegated to paper-thin humans with a single collective thought: Hamilton.
Missing from this story are Hamilton’s daughter, the wives of George Washington (except one line about a feral tom cat), Theodosia (Burr’s invisible love interest), the posse’s wives and lovers, and any woman with independent emotion and thought. Though this is a story centered around a man, erasing the women in his life implies that women in history did nothing. It perpetuates the idea that women sat at home and knitted scarves for troops in times of war, not the truth of war, which is that every resource is precious. And it perpetuates the media myth that women’s primary function is based around a man. A myth that I wish would die a thousand terrible deaths.
Hamilton is brilliant and catchy and a cultural evolution for portrayal of men. But it still fails to portray women as human.