Hamilton: does the critically acclaimed musical have a problem with its female characters?

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Does Hamilton have a problem with its female characters? Stylist investigates.

Hamilton – aka Lin-Manuel Miranda’s spectacular hip-hop musical about American founding father Alexander Hamilton – is finally on Disney Plus, and everyone’s excited.

Why shouldn’t they be, quite frankly? The Pulitzer prize-winning stage production has been a huge hit on Broadway and the West End, capturing the imagination of the world in a very big way. As such, tickets have been hard to come by. Incredibly hard, actually.

Now, thanks to the streaming platform, theatre fans are able to make their way virtually to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, either for the first time or for a repeat visit. And they’ll be getting a front-row seat, too.

“No other artistic work in the last decade has had the cultural impact of Hamilton,” said Robert A. Iger, executive chairman of The Walt Disney Company.

“In light of the extraordinary challenges facing our world, this story about leadership, tenacity, hope, love, and the power of people to unite against the forces of adversity is both relevant and impactful.”

There’s no doubt whatsoever that Hamilton tells a brilliant story, and an empowering one at that. Indeed, Miranda – who wrote all of the production’s roles to be played by non-white actors specifically – has described it as “the story of America then, told by America now.”

As such, the show has done big things for representation, sparking a national dialogue about race in America. And, despite attracting some criticism for its avoidance of the topic of slavery, it makes frequent mention of Hamilton’s status as an immigrant.

“Immigrants,” note Marquis de Lafayette and Hamilton, as they reflect upon their accomplishments. “We get the job done.”

Some criticism, however, has been levelled at the show for its handling of its female characters.

This may come as a surprise to fans of the show, particularly as there are so many ostensibly standout ‘feminist’ moments. Early on in the production, for example, Angelica Schuyler samples the newly written Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – before rapping:

“And when I meet Thomas Jefferson …
I’m a compel him to include women in the sequel!”

To quote the Schuyler sisters: “Work!”

Then there’s Eliza Hamilton, who begins her character arc frustrated with her distance from the “action” of history (“Oh, let me be a part of the narrative”), only to wind up centre stage in the finale.

In this song, Eliza’s many achievements are listed off – she raised funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument, spoke out against slavery, and established the first private orphanage in New York City. She also worked with Angelica to sort through Hamilton’s thousands of pages of writing, in a bid to ensure his legacy.

“We tell your story,” they say, stepping forward as the embodied voice of history.

Hamilton on Disney Plus
The Schuyler sisters, as seen in Hamilton on Disney Plus

So far, so empowering. However, in a now-viral article for The Conversation, Hannah Robbins – assistant professor in popular music at the University of Nottingham – highlights the fact that, of the musical’s 46 songs, only 14 are sung by women.

“Not only do they feature less, but they are also defined by their romantic connection to Hamilton,” she adds, reminding us that Eliza is Hamilton’s wife, Angelica, and Peggy his sisters-in-law, and Maria Reynolds his mistress.

It’s a matter which is also addressed by Clare Chandler in her review of the Broadway show for Contemporary Theatre, in which she brands Hamilton as “almost feminist.”

“The fascinating realities of the Schuyler sisters are boiled down for musical theatre consumption to the muse (Angelica), the victim (Eliza), and Peggy, so unremarkable she disappears midway through the show with no further mention,” she writes.

“Indeed, there is much discussion of Peggy’s second-act absence on social media, inspiring a host of hashtags (#andpeggy #justiceforpeggy), memes, and gifs.”

Perhaps the most interesting complaint raised about the musical, though, is its handling of the so-called Reynolds Affair.

“Issues of consent in [Hamilton and Maria]’s affair are apparent,” writes Robbins. “When Maria appears in Hamilton’s office she asks for help because her husband is abusive, Hamilton lends her some money, walks her home and ends up in her bed.

“This is framed by Hamilton saying she looks helpless and the potential for sex is irresistible.”

Chandler, pointing out that Maria repeatedly refers to herself as “helpless”, adds: “Reynolds has no agency [and] we watch her husband effectively sell her to Hamilton.”

Listen to Say No To This, aka Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds’ duet, below:

Of course, it’s well worth remembering that – as a Broadway musical – Hamilton is limited by time restraints. Likewise, the source material Miranda was given to work with failed to offer much detail on the story’s women.

Indeed, this is something that Miranda himself alludes to in the lyrics of Eliza’s powerful song, Burn.

Listen to First Burn, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first draft of Burn, below:

Heartbroken and shattered over her husband’s affair, audiences watch as Eliza takes revenge on Hamilton by burning all of their correspondence.

“I’m erasing myself from the narrative,” she sings, touching each letter to the flames.

“Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.”

In presenting this dramatisation as a self-aware historical act, Miranda has reminded us that many women get written out of history. That the roles they play are often far greater than records allow. That, even though we don’t get taught about them in school, they deserve to be remembered.

And, in acknowledging Eliza’s role in Hamilton’s story, he has urged us to honour the women that history so often forgets, too.

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Images: Disney Plus

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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