Hamilton: Gender, Sexuality, and Race
Hamilton’s triumphant streaming debut was met with exuberant fanfare online as many were offered an opportunity to watch the professionally filmed stage production featuring most of the original Broadway cast. Waves of criticism have since spewed online accusing the show of historical inaccuracies, portrayal of slavery and the minimization of “cultural baggage” about founding fathers. While nothing can take away from the commitment and skill of all of the Hamilton performers and creatives in both the proshoot and any live performances before or after, it is irresponsible to engage with media that set out from the beginning to be political without examining the messages it sends. A piece that made its way so quick into the public consciousness plays a critical role in understanding the progress and stagnation throughout US history, both politically and in our minds and biases.
In addition to its divisive messaging about slavery, Hamilton also makes questionable statements about masculinity, gender, and sexuality. Hamilton is a cast of 13 men and 8 women. Of the women, 3 are named characters that play an active role in the story. There are no openly LGBTQIA+ characters. “Of course, this makes sense it was the late eighteenth century, of course there were few notable women and no LGBTQIA+ characters,” your father says, “it’s just how it was at the time.” At first you can accept this answer. Yes, the three primary female characters exist to showcase the desirability of the leading man and are shown to care little about anything other than how smart he is and how they love each other, but that was how it was back then. We can’t ask more of Hamilton.
And then you remember that Hamilton is portrayed as an abolitionist. That George Washington is a noble, calm leader, and not a man who bought slaves to make dentures out of. The cruelty and openness with which many of our founding fathers embraced slavery while simultaneously fighting for freedom and liberty is a challenge Americans must reckon with. It’s a deeply fraught intersection with no comfortable conclusion. Hamilton is afraid of that discomfort and refers to slavery primarily in passing. No mention is made of Hamilton’s involvement in the buying and selling of slaves. Jefferson’s inappropriate yet disturbingly common relationship with his young slave Sally Hemmings is treated with a throw-away line and a wink. Slavery is primarily brought up as a negative in the first cabinet battle as something Hamilton can own Jefferson with, not unlike the way people today dunk on other people’s posts for clout. A pithy quote tweet can garner more positive reactions than a practical plan for action to combat the injustices the post intends to mock. In Hamilton, just as in our social media fights with opponents, the controversial issue is brought up to use to win a debate but once the winner has won the issue is forgotten about and no change is made. Slavery and racism are backburner issues in Hamilton. These grotesque early American realities exist only when it is convenient for the narrative.
The issue with Hamilton is not that it is not 100% historically accurate, but the selective picking and choosing of norms to honor, which norms to ignore, and details selected to enshrine the male protagonists as virtuous heroes. Washington is a pillar of strength and nobility. No mention is made of his slaves. Hamilton’s weakness is not his white flight from the Caribbean to seek greater power after slave rebellions threatened the economic prospects on the island, or his buying and selling of slaves, but his admirable intensity. He’s too intense for his own good. He wants to do so much to help himself and his country, he hardly resembles the elitist founding father. These historical inaccuracies make the story more engaging. You want to revere Jackson’s Washington and empathize with Miranda‘a Hamilton. The same break with historical accuracy is not given to the women who remain trapped in historical confines.
If men who owned slaves don’t have to be defined by slavery why do the women have to be defined by the colonial expectations of women? Eliza, Angelica, Peggy, and Maria seem to process the world through the men in their lives. They worry what their father will think. They search for a man with ideals. They are immediately drawn to Hamilton and both Eliza and Angelica sing about their love for him. The romances between Hamilton and all three of his romantic connections focus on physical aspects or social status. There’s no deeper connection. Their romance is trapped within colonial gender roles and confines. While Angelica gets to rap, she raps about this man and the ways society won’t allow her to have this man. If there are hints of Schuyler’s idealism in her introductory number, they are all but gone now.
Angelica describes herself as “a girl in a world in which [her] only job is to marry rich”. If audiences can set aside racism and slavery for two hours, why can’t Hamilton set aside colonial gender roles? With so many historical accuracies, including the next line of this very song, one simply can’t argue the women in Hamilton have limited agency to preserve the historical accuracy of the piece. There’s no reason not to give the women of Hamilton, particularly Eliza in Act I, a greater emotional depth. Hamilton wants us to see the founding fathers as humans like us. Why can’t we see the women through that lens too? Why can’t they exist beyond the men in their lives?
Hamilton completely centers not just male characters, but masculinity. The characters beat their chest, drink like frat boys, and act with complete disregard for those around them. The ensemble is usually dressed in neutral garb, though when not explicitly playing background women in dresses, the women of the ensemble take on the roles of objects (such as “The Bullet”) or pseudo-men. The show is driven by aggressive masculinity: male bravado, the trope of irresistible sexual temptation, dueling over honor, and drunken revelry. The men dominate the public spaces.
Hamilton is homophobic as well. King George III, played by the openly gay Jonathan Groff, is portrayed as effeminate and therefore weak. He is the comedic relief, garnering laughs for the king’s effeminate behavior. He is weak because he’s effeminate. He poses no real threat to the characters, often appearing alone, and thus the ferocity of his lyrics are overlooked. While an effeminate comic character is not inherently problematic on its own, the stark divide between the effeminate king and the rest of the hyper-masculine male characters makes it so in Hamilton. The king is not worthy of respect because he is less of a man than the revolutionaries, not because he is a tyrant. Another instance of the disrespect of male femininity comes when Hercules Mulligan serves as the flower girl in Hamilton’s wedding and it is treated as a joke. The audience laughs at a large Black man with flowers. Men who deviate from the norms of masculinity are treated as punchlines in Hamilton.
Much was made online, particularly in younger fan groups, of Laurens and Hamilton’s real life connection, and how they shared a deep and close friendship that their descendants were ashamed of. For LGBTQIA+ kids who are used to getting scraps of representation in high profile entertainment, this was enough for them to feign some kind of relationship that does not play out on stage. While with just the album it is easy to imagine fleeting looks or longing glances between verses about redcoats and legacies, the professionally filmed stage version doesn’t have anything to feed this theory. Both Hamilton and Laurens are macho, and happily straight. Nothing in their body language or dialogue suggests otherwise. Could the Hamilton team have offered audiences a bit of suggestion, given fans a few more crumbs to keep their theory alive? Of course, but they made a conscious choice to interpret the letters as a correspondence between two heterosexual men. I’m not here to argue whether or where their real life counterparts fell on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. The letters themselves that do still exist display a gentleness and femininity neither character is allowed to portray in the show. While these letters don’t absolve either man of wrongdoing on other fronts, it is notable that this bond and the gentleness of the letters were erased from the narrative when so many other historical facts were changed with less of a historical basis. Hamilton changes what it finds convenient to make its statement while ignoring different marginalized communities to make his statement.
Hamilton is deeply a 2015 piece that doesn’t work as well today given the state of America. It’s a deeply misogynistic, homophobic piece that tries to justify itself with colorblind casting that puts those that would have been enslaved in the shoes of slave owners. It’s self-congratulating propaganda perfect for white liberals who don’t actually want things to change but want to feel good that there’s been progress. “You couldn’t have a Black Thomas Jefferson twenty years ago?” they say as they pat themselves on the back, walking to their luxury hotel rooms or taking the train to their houses in the suburbs. Do we want a Black Thomas Jefferson if it means downplaying his treatment of Black people? Similarly, twenty years ago we did have female characters who defined themselves solely by the men they were with. Eliza, Angelica, Peggy, and Maria have less independence from the men in their lives than Anna Leonowens of The King and I (another musical not without flaws in its portrayal of race), Lena Younger of A Raisin in the Sun, or Alice Murphy of Bright Star (a musical about legacy from the same Broadway season as Hamilton), all older works not considered as revolutionary as Hamilton has been. These women get to have flaws and thoughts of something other than their love interest. Angelica gets applause when she says she wants Jefferson to “include women in the sequel” of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps Miranda and company thought merely including women was enough.
Hamilton considers itself “America then told by America now”. That itself is telling. It tells us that straight men who find themselves in a position of power will not take risks to help those that are not like them. It highlights the ways American individualism has festered over the years where everyone is only interested in seeing things through their perspective, things that suit them. Hamilton’s predominately straight male creative team sees straight masculine men as the default human, and diversity is just the color of their skin. Hamilton is very much a show about race. While there are different opinions about how effectively or appropriately the show handles the subject, there is no question that the creators did not feel the need to consider the subtle messages it sends about gender and sexuality.
I don’t believe the piece is intentionally misogynistic or homophobic. I believe the primarily straight male creative team that put painstaking thought into every movement on stage was completely ignorant of the subtle misogyny and homophobia that exudes from the show. Yet it is this misogyny and homophobia that allows many to find Hamilton comforting: they only have to allow space in their brain for the revised race relations. Women and the LGBTQIA+ community are still marginalized so the world of Hamilton is not completely upside down. Perhaps I give them too much credit and these biases were intentional. Either way, these messages are being transmitted on a massive scale to people of all ages, but most importantly children. No doubt many well meaning parents have watched or planned to watch the program with their children, perhaps because of the catchy soundtrack, perhaps to inspire them about history, to show them a story of an underdog that overcame. While these kids may soak in the many things Hamilton wants to say that are helpful, they won’t need parental guidance to confirm the biases against women and the LGBTQIA+ community in the recording because they are so subtle and natural to our culture that you may not notice them at the first glance.
Hamilton is excellent in many ways. The performances and technical skill behind the scenes are commendable. The music is catchy, the lyrics intelligent, the surface messages encouraging. Like many culturally significant pieces, Hamilton must be viewed with a critical eye and it’s subtle but dangerous messages examined, discussed, and measured alongside its technical impressiveness.