I recently saw The Music Man for the first time. (I’ve lived in Des Moines for three years, and there seems to be an unspoken rule that you can’t really call yourself an Iowan until you’ve seen a community theater group sing “Iowa Stubborn.”) I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but it was reasonably enjoyable, even though I beat the median age of the audience by about 20 years. One of the things that really stood out for me was a short scene about 3/4 of the way through the show that’s pretty relevant to the modern debate about street harassment.
At this point in the show, a self-professed serial con artist, posing as a music teacher and band leader, has spent weeks deceiving the residents of a small town. He’s sold them uniforms and instruments, and promised to turn dozens of children with zero musical training into a marching band. Before the “professor” can cash in and skip town, a travelling salesman shows up with a case full of anvils, and a ream of evidence that will expose the scam and save the townspeople from being swindled.
This development poses a problem for the script. The writers have worked pretty hard to make the “professor” a sympathetic character. He’s charming and dashing and witty, and his budding relationship with the local librarian has given him a few minor pangs of conscience. Still, it’s really hard to ignore the fact that he’s moments away from pocketing his ill-gotten gains and grabbing the next train out of town, fully intending to pull the same scam at every stop down the line. The guy who shows up to put a stop to that should totally be the hero.
So what do you do when you’ve got less than five minutes of stage time to make it clear that the guy who’s going to save the town turns out to be a bigger scumbag that the guy who’s trying to swindle it? Have him obnoxiously hit on a woman he’s just met on the street. (Insulting her intelligence and giving her a demeaning nickname doesn’t hurt, either.)
The show was written in the 50s, and depicts small town life in the early 20th century, so its treatment of female characters isn’t always stellar. The librarian’s flirtation to distract the salesman, or the number that explicitly compares gossipy women to clucking hens, don’t portray women in the most respectful way. Still, it’s telling that a show that opened on Broadway in 1957 knew that an uninvited advance toward an unfamiliar woman was an effective way to signal creepiness, yet in 2014, we’re still arguing about why the ladies can’t shut up and take a compliment.
Also, I’ll save you the trouble of making this argument: #notalltravellingsalesmen