Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music depicts how Maria, a nun, turns around the lives of Captain von Trapp and his children amidst the backdrop of an Austria on the brink of World War II. In turn, the von Trapps change Maria’s life for the better as well.
One of Captain von Trapp’s daughters, Liesl, is sixteen years old and “do[esn’t] need a governess,” as she so heatedly tells Maria when they first meet.
A bit of refusal to obey authority is often associated with teens who are coming of age. However, just a few songs later, Liesl sings a different tune: she apparently does need “someone older and wiser, telling [her] what to do”.
And that someone is a boy.
Along with disobeying authority, coming of age is often equated with sexual awakening. But for young women like Liesl, this sexual awakening is more oppressed than young men’s—an oppression that is frequently imposed by men themselves.
In “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, Liesl and her secret boyfriend, Rolf, share a duet where said oppression occurs.
Throughout the song, Rolf repeatedly reminds Liesl that he is seventeen, a shockingly large one year difference from Liesl’s sixteen. As such, he apparently has the authority to tell her what to do when it comes to the “eager young lads and roués and cads” Liesl may meet.
The late 1930s was a very patriarchal age where this sort of masculine control of feminine sexuality was the norm. There are still examples of this today, like with purity balls. During these balls, girls pledge to keep their virginity until marriage and fathers pledge to protect that virginity in a wedding-like scenario.
While purity balls are not a common experience, young women’s sexualities are still policed on a much-wider scale through pressure to have sex. The current feminist movement often hides having sex in a world where this pressure exists as a young woman’s fully free “choice”.
But if coming of age is so equated with sexual awakening that one is not seen as an adult if they haven’t had sexual experiences, is it fully a young woman’s free choice to pursue life as a sexual being, or are social pressures at play?
For example, most theatre works involve some sort of sexual or romantic relationship. (While sexual interest can differ from romantic attraction, they are often seen as conflated). Since life imitates art, audiences are going to think they need to have sex and/or a relationship, or they’ve somehow failed. (Of course, art usually isn't the root cause of societal-level occurrences, but it can certainly help those roots stay in the ground.)
In another favorite musical of mine (I do enjoy The Sound of Music, for the record), Jersey Boys, an entire song revolves around Bob Gaudio losing his virginity (“December, 1963 (Oh What a Night))”. His fellow Four Seasons band member, Nick Massi, really only starts to pay attention to Bob once this event happens. (As a sign of finally winning his friendship, Nick buys Bob a very economical car that gets “almost eight miles a gallon” in the following scene.)
Unfortunately, the knowledge that “free” choices are constrained by social pressures is lost on many ears, and attempts to caution young women about sex are seen as anti-feminist.
As such, Maria’s advice of “darling, sixteen, going on seventeen, wait a year or two,” in the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” reprise could possibly construed to support the idea that Maria, like Rolf, is controlling Liesl’s sexuality.
But with the aforementioned social pressures at play, is exercising caution before diving into the world of relationships and sex a bad thing? Jumping in so quickly is especially worrisome at an age where sexual partners most likely have not had the type of sex education that debunks harmful myths about how to achieve female pleasure, or the belief that female partners’ pleasure doesn’t even matter at all.
We need to stop perpetuating the myth that non-sexual assault or non-rape instances of young sex (or even sex in general), always occur because a woman freely chooses to engage in it, even if they claim that to be the case. There are societal forces at play, such as depictions in media like theatre, that control women’s sexuality in a way that pressures them to have sex. Decades later, we are controlling women’s sexuality in ways that parallel Rolf’s attempts to prevent Liesl from being sexual. And a way theatre can start disbanding these societal pressures is to create characters, plots, and even entire shows where no sexual or romantic components are present.
Characters like Elsa from Frozen are a good example. Sure, there’s another young woman, Anna, who does have a romantic storyline throughout the musical. But Elsa demonstrates that you don’t need a sexual or romantic relationship to rule a kingdom or to be a successful teen, or even adult.
(And audiences will still love your 11 o’clock number just the same.)