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Behind the Masquerade: Is Phantom of the Opera sexist?

There are no images either for her or of her.”  — Mary Ann Doane 

While Mary Ann Doane has written “Film and the Masquerade” in regards to film spectatorship, I could not help but think of my own spectator experience every time I watched The Phantom of the Opera. Though I absolutely adore this musical and I've watched it five times (four times in London), I will admit that it can be very uncomfortable to watch as a female spectator. 

In contrast to film, theatre often prides itself as a more inclusive space, with most musicals featuring a diverse cast, tackling social issues ala Hamilton style. However, many classic musicals, especially those produced during the “Golden Age of Broadway” (1940s to 1950s) feature some problematic themes, like orientalism (King and I, Miss Saigon) and good ole’ sexism.

The plot of this Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical is as follows: Christine Daae is a dancer at the Paris Opera but is soon discovered to have a god-given voice by the new theatre managers, at the huffy exit of the opera’s Prima Donna, Carlotta. She sings at the opera’s opening night and her childhood friend, Raoul, who is now a Count, recognises her and everything appears to be rosy for her. Sadly all is not well because it’s soon revealed that her voice is not god-given but phantom-given, as her “angel of music” has been giving her lessons and has been the cause of much mischief at the theatre. The Phantom is a character who is an outcast due to his scarred face and lives in the catacombs of the theatre, composing music. Both the Phantom and Raoul claim to love Christine and fights ensue.

Even though Phantom of the Opera follows Christine, the “struggle” of both men to “win” Christine dwarfs her rags to riches story. Both characters are created for the male gaze - the dashing Raoul who has to fight for his love and the outcasted, “pitiful” phantom who can never get any girl no matter how he tries... Both men seek to possess her, and seek to shape her into their image of her. 

The Phantom grooms her to be his “angel” and bride from the start, and seeks to mould her image to his liking, as shown by the “mirror bride” (a life-sized Christine doll wearing a wedding dress). The doll is placed in a frame/case, signifying his control of her image and containment of her. In the scene where Christine looks at the doll, the doll suddenly reaches out towards her, causing her to faint. Beyond the obvious creep-factor of this doll abomination, this scene also signifies Christine’s proximity to her own image “too close to herself, entangled in her own enigma.” While female spectators of the musical may feel discomfort at this scene, Christine becomes a narcissistic spectator as well. She becomes the spectator to her own creation and understands how she is looked at by men, especially the Phantom. 

At the end of the musical, the Phantom has Raoul in a noose and threatens to kill him if Christine does not marry him. In spite of her pleas, Christine only manages to save them both by kissing the phantom. Arguably the only time when she shows agency, she employs the masquerade strategy as a way to convince the Phantom to listen to her. 

Doane describes masquerading as “disarticulating male systems of viewing,” in which man stops looking at woman as an object, but as a person instead. Christine uses her femininity to not only distract the phantom from his own anger but his image of her. He has created this image of her —  as exemplified by the the mirror bride — and her actions destabilise that image by showing him who the actual woman is. She is dressed in the gown of the mirror bride and doing what a bride is supposed to do but her actions reflect an agency that the mirror bride lacks. Her kiss combines his construction of Christine with the actual woman and “[destabilizes] the image the masquerade confounds this masculine structure of the look. It results in a defamiliarization of female iconography.” 

The Phantom realises, then, that the real Christine is not just an animated doll but much more complex than he thinks, and releases them out of realization that he will never know her.

Although there are other female characters and they all challenge the male gaze at various points of the musical, it is not enough to counteract the overarching male gaze which follows the musical. While there is no camera to guide the “gaze”, I would argue that the very last scene makes us sympathetic towards the Phantom and excuses his actions. Christine creeps back to return the Phantom his ring (which he put on her violently) and he sings “Christine, I love you”. The audience is meant to pity the poor, loveless Phantom and is seduced to excuse his previous actions as someone who has been hurt by the world. It almost seems like an exaltation to forgive those men who have scared women in the pursuit of love because it is a woman’s fault, either a mother (the Phantom sings about his face which "earned a mother's fear and loathing”) or lover, who has wronged them.