Always the Understudy, Never the Star : The Role of Women in NBC’s New Show “Smash”

It’s no secret that I am a huge Broadway buff. However most people are unaware of the fact that I used to want be a Broadway star. Though my parents discouraged this because of its competitiveness, they were not the sole culprits in extinguishing this dream. I had an acting coach who told me that I was “too skinny” (or was it scrawny?) to make it big and needed more “oomph.” Apparently, the charming naiveté of an adolescent ingénue didn’t impress her. I was crushed and quit.

Naturally, I tuned in to see the highly anticipated show “Smash” on NBC. My hopes weren’t too high, but I instantly clicked with the show’s struggling heroine, Karen Cartwright, played by Katharine McPhee. She plays the role of an endearingly cute, slender brunette who is strongly evocative of Audrey Hepburn. Working as a waitress, she dreams of making it big on Broadway. The pilot episode opens with her belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” until she is interrupted and told that her audition is over. Seconds later, the busty, sensual, blond Ivy Lynn walks in and starts her audition.

The next scene consists of Karen lamenting to her boyfriend that she was called “too light” and didn’t know what that meant. Her boyfriend (although he is a pretty good guy) remarks that she may be “too thin” for the director’s taste. Karen then goes on to state that she “is not sexy enough and is only a girl next door.” The show’s low point is when Karen says she would have less problems if she was “a fat girl.” And I quote her verbatim: “Why can’t I just be fat?!” Despite that nasty phrase, I completely sympathized with Karen. I felt like I had found my TV twin.

The show explores different roles of women and the battle of the sexes in the theater business. Some of its explorations are nauseatingly cliché, others are insightful. For example, the show does illuminate and emphasize the value placed on beauty and sexuality when it comes to Broadway. More importantly, “Smash” shows that women constantly feel the need to shift between different roles imposed upon them. This phenomenon is exaggerated in the theater world, but men impose their fantasies on women and women try to comply to them every day.

Karen, feeling the need to compete with Ivy, is compelled to watch “Some Like it Hot” to learn some sex appeal. I think we need to stop throwing phrases like “girl next door” and “sex bomb” around so much. These are stereotypes, and women should not feel the need to be caged in them.

Speaking of stereotypes, “Smash” is full of them. I think the show’s biggest downfall is its perpetuation of theater stereotypes: Tom and Julia are the writers of a musical about Marilyn Monroe and Tom is a gay writer who happens to also have a perky gay assistant. I feel having the association between theater and homosexual men is cliché and stereotypical. These men are caricatures, demonstrating that “Smash” is regressive in depicting theater culture and gay men. Tom’s writing partner, Julia, is struggling to be a mother, wife, and writer. She is currently adopting a baby, but her husband keeps giving her slack for focusing too much on work and “never being at home.” Thus, we have a cliché of the overworked career woman who ignores her family. Julia is nearly ostracized for her theatrical passions.

The strong point of “Smash,” however, is its focus on women. This is a show not only about musicals, but about women. The show features female powerful, career-oriented writers and ambitious producers, and also includes the problems plaguing budding starlets. “Smash” accentuates the fact that theater is a man’s world and women have to try their best to navigate within it. I think the show adds a nice touch in making a musical about Marilyn Monroe. The presence of the troubled Marilyn in the show underscores the tensions between fame, beauty and sexuality that haunt talented women.

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