Side by Side by Stereotype

Stephen Sondheim passed away last weekend. He wrote enduring and transformative Broadway musicals, including Sweeny Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. He also wrote lyrics for West Side Story, a classic retelling of Romeo and Juliet that uses tensions between whites and Puerto Ricans as a context for star-crossed lovers and and an illustration of the utter fruitlessness of racial enmity.

Watching West Side Story in 2021 can seem cringy. Male characters feel no qualms about the idea that women belong at home raising children, and female characters embrace that stereotype. The play and film depict all the Puerto Rican men as violent gang members. The Puerto Rican women are either piously Roman Catholic or festishized as passionate and wild because of their darker skin. Although stage and film productions launched actress Rita Moreno into international stardom, she was the only Latin American performer in the original cast. The other “Puerto Ricans” had their skin darkened for performances.

Nonetheless, many people of Puerto Rican descent, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Hamilton composer Lin Manuel-Miranda, see important truths beyond the stereotypes. Sondheim and Manuel-Miranda also counted each other as friends.

West Side Story won more Oscars than any other Broadway musical adaptation. Its choreography and themes merit attention even in the 21st century. How would you advise 21st century audiences to watch it? At what point does our revulsion to old stereotypes prevent us from seeing artistic merit?

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14 Responses to Side by Side by Stereotype

  1. Nora Courtney says:

    West Side Story is a particular art piece that redefined aspects of musical theatre and films. Obviously, what was socially acceptable when it was originally written is much different than today. I think that it is important to still talk about West Side Story and appreciate it as an art form, but recognize and acknowledge the seriousness and harm that the stereotypes presented can have on society. Letting art die out and become forgotten seems wrong, so it seems like a better solution to use conflicted art forms as teaching tools to help the progression of society. Many people across the country still believe in the stereotypes presented in the story, but if we use West Side Story to show the incorrect assumptions it presents, it could help ultimately letting those stereotypes die out and allow society to move on.

  2. West Side Story is an example of the widely accepted racism of the past. When watching it today, the primary focus should be the misportrayal of Puerto Rican’s and women. It can be an important lesson on how prejudice can disguise itself as progression. West Side Story should be viewed as an art form only after interpreting the stereotypes embodied by the play, or else ignorance could arise from what should have been education.

  3. Bill Arnoldus says:

    I advise 21st century viewers to be racist and sexist when watching West Side Story. The play is racist toward Puerto-Ricans and sexist toward women. Already being racist and sexist allows you to not be bothered by how the topics contradict with the modern stances on these topics. This allows the viewer to see the brilliance of the play’s composer. If the viewer is so narrow minded to be offended by sexism and racism then they will fail to see the artistic merit of West Side Story.

  4. Camille Jester says:

    It would be difficult for most people today to get through a watching of West Side Story because of the racist and misogynistic stereotypes it portrays, and the fact that it’s over two hours long might be a deterrent. When it was released, no one really saw the offensive nature of the movie; they only saw the ways in which it was “progressive.” When people now watch this movie, they should have the understanding that the musical was in many ways more regressive than progressive. If people should even be watching it for artistic reasons is questionable.

  5. Geethika Polepalli says:

    West Side Story should be watched by the 21st century as a very racist and sexist film. It portrays women as they should be happy with only being housewives and nothing else. It portrays white people as “Puerto Ricans” which is very offensive to their race. People now should watch it thinking about how much society has grown to not have this kind of mindset anymore. West Side Story is a cinematic masterpiece and should not just be tossed to the side because of its racism and sexism, but the film needs to be watched with a sense of disgust and pride in how much society has developed.

  6. Everett “CJ” Mason, Jr. says:

    In today’s world, the racist and sexist views of this film would easily be despised by most. I feel that it is important to recognize b0th the brilliance of the play as well as the outdated views that were prevalent in the work. By having some sort of forewarning before watching the film, viewers will be more capable of actually understanding the important underlying messages against racism.

  7. Hangila Ceesay says:

    West Side Story should be viewed in an artistic nature, but with its demeaning stereotypes kept in mind. Though I have never seen the movie myself, I am aware of its cultural relevance and its contribution to many films today. However, I think that films containing stereotypes should be used as lessons for present-day viewers. For example, when people watch Gone with the Wind and other movies that portray black women as the “mammy” stereotype, they are that this kind of stereotype is a racist depiction of black women that should not reappear in society in any fashion. The same goes for West Side Story; its depiction of women and Puerto Ricans is one that should be used for present-day watchers to learn from. Acknowledging the blatant racism and sexism in the film should not take away from its brilliance entirely, but it may allow viewers to see that the film is not as unmarred as it is perceived to be.

  8. Jay De Ochoa says:

    I agree with some of my classmates that West Side Story is racist and sexist but I also acknowledge the power that it has. It has won many Oscars meaning that many people will likely take time to watch the film. That said audiences that watch it can learn something from the film but it can be hard to distinguish the good and the bad parts of the movie. While it does give Latinos a chance to be seen on the big screen it reinforces many stereotypes that Americans should be working to stop depicting. Thus I advise that audiences watch the film for the more general theme and attempt to analyze parts of the movie that are inherently racist and sexist.
    To answer the second question, I don’t think there is a limit to there is the point at which revulsion to old stereotypes prevents us from seeing artistic merit. I think that there can be artistic merit in highlighting stereotypes but it can be difficult to demonstrate that in films. By depicting stereotypes individuals can observe how insensitive they are. Furthermore, artistic merit can be viewed in an entirely different category from other parts of the film. For example, things like cinematography can have little to do with other important factors of a film like the script or the cast.

  9. sephora says:

    Art is subjective, something that was good one night could be horrible the next. West Side story is not exempt from this fact. Understanding that art from a different time was made in that time, and should stay in that time is imperative to appreciating the medium while still being critical of the harmful things that the piece perpetuates. A person who is studying a piece can still appreciate art while being critical. Our revulsion to certain ideas and actions does not have to fully distract us from disliking a piece of media. Understanding the issues and refusing to let what happened in that medium happen again not only helps with progress but also in educating ourselves and others with the harmful things that happened in the past. Even things that were esteemed to the highest honor do not escape the critiques of the future nor shame from the past.

  10. Christina Zhang says:

    My opinion: let West Side Story die. West Side Story is a mediocre play that sends a generic message of love triumphing over hate, yet the thing that marks this play different from other stories of the same theme is it’s reoccurring and impenetrable racial stereotypes against Puerto Ricans. Why is it that West Side Story, a play created by four white men, is the only mainstream example of Puerto Rican stories on the big screen?

    The film’s usage of white Americans to play Puerto Ricans and brownface is one that should not be neglected, even in the name of “art.” It is time that we move on from this harmful storytelling. The creation of the 2021 West Side Story is still one that is presented under this condition, and although the claim can be made that it is “better,” its installation into American culture only reestablishes white cultural authority. Puerto Ricans are more than West Side Story, and in light of recent American history, it is more important now than ever for their voices to be amplified through bettered means.

  11. Veer Vanmali says:

    I think it is necessary for 21st century audiences to know what they are going into. The film is filled with racism and sexism, holding horrible stereotypes towards women and Puerto Rico. While some find the film necessary, there are ways for those underlying messages to be conveyed without such an ugly basis. West Side Story would be ill received by today’s society, showing the need for it to be tossed away. While the artistic merit may be lost, its value does not outweigh that of the repulsive stereotypes it contains.

  12. Oliver Higginbotham says:

    I would say take what you watch with a grain of salt, this goes with anything you watch. I watch movies/musicals solely for the purpose for entertainment and not the education of society nor sterotypes. The reason behind this is to purposely filter the negative that a movie might portray and an instance that could be negative in some way in order to continue enjoying the movie/musicals for what it was designed for and that is entertainment. I do have exceptions like when the movie is a historical document basically teaching history through motion pictures as well as audio. Once again to sum up my advice, watch all movies with a grain of salt as a movies’/musicals’ purpose.

  13. Lexi Holdiness says:

    In any documentation, whether it be a movie, book, or play, it is extremely important to understand the social harm that it potentially has while also recognizing the contribution it made to its respective industry. In the case of West Side Story, there was obvious racist and sexist connotations that are simply not okay. It’s the implication of stereotypes and domesticated sexism that makes West Side Story so controversial. It’s important for today’s viewers to recognize these implications and understand their impact on society. It’s also important for the evolution of artistic merit, that these works like West Side Story are recognized for their contributions to their respective categories. West Side Story was absolutely a ground breaker for Broadway and it brought on the tears that no one was expecting. It is vital to recognize West Side Story when reviewing historical moments in Broadway and when looking at a hall of fame for musicals. It’s also impossibly important to recognize the social implications that West Side Story presented in it’s runtime.

  14. Claire Ellison says:

    West Side Story is a play that came out in 1961. It depicts a Romeo and Juliet type love within New York. However, within the play, racism and sexism is blatantly shown through common stereotypes of the time. While watching West Side Story, acknowledging that the play was seen as progressive rather than stereotypical would place the viewer within the society the play was created in. Revulsion to old stereotypes does currently prevent us from seeing artistic merit within a multitude of arts. Societies taste changes as the years past, and currently our taste affects the appreciation of the play strongly.

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