I recently read Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, the classic novel upon which the musical (and the movie musical) is based. I'd heard that the book was much darker, but in my opinion, the musical actually followed the novel quite well. The main difference, which leads me to prefer the movie musical, is that the musical focuses more on Christine's perspective, whereas the book focuses on Raoul's. In fact, the musical gives more focus and importance to all the female characters, compared to the novel.
It got me thinking, again, about how The Phantom of the Opera musical lends itself to a feminist interpretation. In fact, in watching the 2004 movie, I've always seen one of the central meanings as being focused on the difficult choice that women have faced throughout history, and many still face today: what role to play.
Both of these roles are also incredibly confining and ignore the fact that women have as many complexities, depths, and abilities as men. There's almost no better way to demonstrate sexism in the media than to identify the way women are pigeonholed into these two roles without consideration of their actual selves. Men have always been allowed their pick of the archetypal spectrum: the hero, the lover, the warrior, the mentor, the friend, the villain, etc., etc. As would be expected in a traditionally misogynistic society, men get to be their true full selves, imperfect and complex and human, while playing a variety of roles. Women do not.
The concept of the innocent vs. the seductress is a familiar one to all marginalized groups. In racial prejudice, it appears as the image of the "noble savage." In other words, those of non-white races are often treated either as glorious and wise people who exist to teach white men their ways or as brutal, uneducated savages who must be crushed and controlled. Similarly, women are either sweet, angelic innocents who exist to lift men up towards God, or they are vicious seductresses who tempt men down into hell. In a sexist world, there's no other option, no way for a woman to exist just as herself, seeking her own happiness and salvation.
The official term for this idea is "othering." Women and people of color and other marginalized groups are not "people." They are not "like you." There's no way to view them as equal human beings who you can and should empathize with, because they are always, intrinsically, fully good or fully evil. Unlike you, they have no grey areas, no depths. They cannot improve or develop, at least not without a great deal of help on the part of "real" people, and even then it will be a shallow kind of change.
You can see, I hope, why this idea is not okay.
(I will note that as social justice movements have swept across our culture, marginalized groups have taken on more and more roles in the media and in society. However, these groups are still forced to work with a much more limited spectrum of identities than privileged groups do--see my post about the "strong female character" for reference. Additionally, these roles often default into stereotypes rather than creating a full individual.)
Christine's choice between Raoul and Erik, the count and the phantom, is also a choice of whether she should take on the role of the innocent or the role of the seductress. Society in Paris in 1875, represented through these men, does not allow her to take another path; it will constantly force her to choose one over the other. Christine cannot be a successful opera singer on her own, and she cannot even hold onto that role forever. She has to become something in proximity to a man.
Raoul, though he admires Christine's singing, doesn't recognize her inherent musical talent or see it as a necessary part of her existence. To him, the singing is just another nice thing that she can do. An "angelic" kind of thing. Raoul has no understanding of the emotional depths, the passion and strength, that Christine carries. After all, a good innocent doesn't have strong feelings. A good innocent is pure and precious and very, very simple.
In Christine, Erik recognizes much of himself. Though he would never know enough to put it into words, he sees that she, too, is "othered." He knows that she possesses the same kind of musical talent and emotional depths that he does, that she has never been encouraged to express it, that no one else recognizes what she's capable of. For that reason, he seeks her out. He teaches her. He falls in love with her.
However, as those with intersectional identities know, the fact that one group is marginalized doesn't keep it from marginalizing other groups, too. For example, black women often face sexism from black men, racism from white women, and both from everyone else. Furthermore, holding a marginalized identity in a society that hates that identity will often cause you to hate that identity yourself. You will turn that hatred inward.
Erik does both of these things. He is obsessed with his ugliness, unable to find any true self-worth, driven to violence by his anger towards both himself and society. Because society expects him to be a monster, he becomes a monster. He uses violence to get others to do as he says. He murders multiple people throughout the span of just this story. And, having unknowingly accepted the sexism of his society as well, he places Christine in the role of seductress.
After all, Erik knows her abilities and her passion. He knows that she's not just an innocent, and therefore, she must be the seductress. That means she, like him, is evil, and evil people deserve cruelty. This justifies, then, both his horrific treatment of and his unnatural obsession with her. He can drug her, kidnap her, call her names like "lying Delilah" (referencing a well-known Biblical seductress), hit her, and even--there is some evidence--rape her. And his behavior further reinforces the stereotype: after all, seductresses make men do evil things, they force men to fall in love with them.
Because he already believes himself to be evil, Erik doesn't fully blame Christine for his behavior--but he does blame her a little. When he realizes that Christine has feelings for Raoul, too, that hatred becomes even more powerful.
This confusion comes to a head when Erik kidnaps Christine and tells her that she must choose him or Raoul will die. This is, again, more than a simple choice between innocent and seductress: whether she chooses him and the role of seductress or denies him for the role of innocent, someone will die, making her complicit in evil. This essentially forces her, either way, towards the seductress role.
But Christine manages to forge out a kind of third option. Instead of lashing out at Erik as he expects, or denying her previous choice of Raoul, she reaches out towards Erik with compassion. This action knocks both men off balance. Raoul is clearly unable to comprehend it, but Erik breaks down entirely. Shown at last the wrongness of the situation, realizing that Christine's not the seductress or the innocent and that he never had to be the monster he has become, Erik lets her and Raoul go.
So the choice is made. Christine and Raoul are married. Erik disappears.
The point is that, in the small way she could, Christine found a way to make her own choice, outside of the mandates of both men. Though she couldn't truly choose a third option, she couldn't be accepted by society as herself, she did maintain her self in the midst of the choice. Perhaps, for the rest of her life, she was never allowed to act in any other role but the innocent. Perhaps Raoul never recognized her true potential.
But Christine knew. Christine realized, in the moment she reached out to Erik, that she was both, and neither, whether she was allowed to act like it or not. Christine, unlike Erik, broke free from the internalized prejudice society had taught her. It's no good that the world wouldn't let her be herself, or that she had to choose between a man who didn't see her depths and a man who abused her for them, but in a time when that was all there was, she found freedom the one way she could. That's the first step, and that's what matters most: you have to accept yourself in all of your complexities. That's what I believe The Phantom of the Opera is about.