Gigi and the Generation Gap

So a few weeks ago I had a bad day and a little breakdown about how I need to be a better person.  It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling — frantic loneliness, boredom, indecision, being hard on myself for stupid things (like snacks for dinner), etc., etc., etc.  My then-boyfriend, who was at the receiving end of this little breakdown, is really into old musicals, and suggested we watch Singin’ in the Rain.  We did, we laughed, it was nice.

I mistakenly thought that classic musicals might just be the key to happiness.  Maybe I could watch something other than Amelie when I needed a little mood boost.  I should know better than this — of course not every classic musical is going to make me forget a bad mood.

Anyway, I watched Gigi, the 1958 nine-Oscar-winning musical starring Leslie Caron.  There were reasons for liking Gigi.  In fact, I probably would have enjoyed it if I hadn’t had such high expectations for it.  I liked the song “It’s a Bore,” and the way they musically depicted gossip.  But there were many more reasons not to like Gigi (note: there are spoilers here):

  1. It opens with the kind of creepy, pedophilic number (really, in the context, even) “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”
  2. One of those Little Girls for whom we should Thank Heaven is, of course, Gigi, who is probably 14 or 15.  Her aunt and grandmother (both spinsters or widows or something) plot to polish her into a worldly young woman by giving her lessons in etiquette.  So that she’ll marry well.  Meaning: into money.
  3. The movie’s star male, Gaston, a sugar heir who is bored with everything, is dating Eva Gabor’s character, who cheats on him with her skating coach.  Gaston breaks up with her….
  4. And she attempts suicide “the usual way, insufficient poison,” and it’s this big joke in the movie, with the pedophilic uncle so-and-so congratulating Gaston on “his first suicide” and toasting to “many more” (!!!!!)
  5. Gaston treats Gigi like a kid sister, until one night they get drunk on champagne, he loses to her at cards because she cheats, and as a result, she goes on vacation with him (and her grandmother).
  6. There is romantic interest.
  7. Gigi’s etiquette lessons become more intense (and they work! She knows just how to select a cigar for her man!  Oh, the talent, the skill, the breeding!)
  8. He takes her out on the town, and hates her polishedness.  So he marches her home, she cries all the way…
  9. And then he asks for her hand in marriage?
  10. And then she says yes?
  11. And then it ends?
  12. What?

Anyway.  I won’t give up on musicals altogether.  I’ll just lower my expectations and go from there.



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15 responses to “Gigi and the Generation Gap

  1. I like musicals. Gigi is awesome, but that “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” really made me uncomfortable also. I suggest My Fair Lady!!!! If you want to really smile then you should dig deeper and watch Rocky Horror Picture Show or Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

  2. OOOh, yeah Gigi is disturbing! When I need a musical pick me up I watch the first half of The Sound of Music. Just watch it to the wedding and avoid all of the WWII drama.

  3. Zeno

    I think a lot of songs from that era are really disturbing. For example, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is basically a light-hearted song about date rape:

    So really I’d better scurry
    (Beautiful, please don’t hurry)
    well Maybe just a half a drink more
    (Put some music on while I pour)
    The neighbors might think
    (Baby, it’s bad out there)
    Say, what’s in this drink?
    (No cabs to be had out there)


    ought to say no, no, no, sir
    (Mind if I move a little closer)
    At least I’m gonna say that I tried
    (What’s the sense in hurting my pride)
    I really can’t stay
    (Baby don’t hold out)

    I really wonder if we live in a “worse” world than the 40s/50s or if we just actualize these things into our collective consciousness once they adopt commonplace words that imbue malevolence (i.e. “pedophilia” and “date rape”). Things seem a lot worse once you give them a name (not that I’m saying pedophilia and rape are good things!).

  4. No kidding, huh? Here’s my theory: We have an idealized view of the 40s and 50s, and we have it because depictions of that era (and I would venture to say much of the media produced at the time) have tended towards idyllic. Sure, there are dark exceptions, but for the most part, that was what was portrayed… Especially in the genre of musicals (Dancer in the Dark probably wouldn’t have been much of a hit.)

    I wonder about the whole collective consciousness thing, too. There are things that have been going on for as long as we know, and then there are things that become part of our vocabulary — school shootings come to mind — and start happening at a greater frequency.

    I think you’re onto something with the “naming” issue… Are school shootings really happening more often, or does giving it a name make us more likely to categorize an event as a “school shooting,” when it might have been a “tragedy” in the 1980s?

    The OED says “pedophilia” was first used in 1906, but I get the sense it didn’t apply to adolescent girls and older men until later (c. 1950s), but rather to small children. Interestingly, Gigi came out in the same year Lolita was first published in the U.S. (three years after it had been published in French). “Date rape” as a written term showed up in 1975. “School shooting” has yet to make the OED pages as a distinct term, but has been on Wikipedia since June 2002, about eighteen months after Wikipedia began (I haven’t studied Wikipedia enough to know what that suggests, if anything, but I think the whole “first written instance of a term” thing is changing dramatically).

  5. Actually, there’s an extra layer of creepy to “Gigi” . . . She’s not being trained to find a wealthy husband, she’s being trained to be a well-kept mistress of a wealthy man.

    And that’s the role that Gaston essentially choose her to fill near the end, but then he decides he doesn’t like it and drags her home to propose. His uncle faced the same choice with Gigi’s grandmother (as detailed in the song “I Remember It Well”), but he made the opposite decision.

    Needless to say, I loathe the movie.

  6. Kim

    I’m glad Jared pointed that out. I actually like the movie, but I admit the ending confused me the first time. But the second time, keeping the courtesan part in mind, it made much more sense.

    The “thank heaven for little girls” thing is still creepy to me. I think that is a change in culture. I mean, strangers used to be able to talk to children, even when I was a kid.

  7. WTF_is_this_ish

    Yeah — this is a pretty creepy movie, when you get down to it. “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, as you point out, isn’t even played for *subtext* — they mean *real* little girls, & they mean thank heaven for exactly what it sounds like…

    And this won the Oscar for Best Picture… makes “Lolita” seem like “Lillies of the Valley”…

  8. Mel Stevens

    Gigi is Lovely!! Contextually you are all wrong! There are a few aspects of this story that you do not understand. Social customs in Edwardian France are what drives this innocent movie!

    1.) People in the 1950s didn’t have issues like pedophilia on their minds like we do today since it was hardly an everyday news item or even conversation, so “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” isn’t (as I’m sure you know) meant to be creepy. Yes he is saying that all little girls will grow up, but its meant to be innocent and charming, which I think it is.

    2.) Firstly, Gigi is not 14, she is 16 years old (according to the original novel published in 1945) which, for centuries up until after WWI was a very common age for women to be introduced to society and to get married (and often to men old enough to be their fathers!). I know today that seems really weird but in reality, for women to marry young was considered the absolute norm.

    3.) Gigi’s aunt and Grandmother are former courtesans, or mistresses. In France this was considered a respectable profession of women from the less fortunate classes, and was really the only way to guarantee a stable income since climbing social ladders through marriage was not a realistic possibility. That is the only way her aunt and gran know, and for Gigi to become a courtesan would have been her only option in a society that inhibited women so much.

    4.) The “Suicide” situation was a common occurrence in this time period, and did not typically mean suicide literally, but usually meant light poisoning or some other kind of self punishment. They are laughing and joking in a very satyric way-Their joking is meant to be taken as social commentary, and hardly degradation of women.

    Even though it is well known that Gigi was not written to be a very g-rated story, I think Hollywood did a very good job of turning this classic historical situation, dark bits and all, into a very charming,innocent, and absolutely delightful movie. It’s Academy Awards are a testament to Vincente Minnelli’s brilliance. Gigi is a timeless classic, that just takes a little understanding and acceptance of a former society, with (in some ways) harsher conditions than we have today, to appreciate.

    Sorry this is really long winded but it stuns me that the brilliance of this movie could ever been misinterpreted. I just had to write something even if it doesn’t change your mind!

    • Mel Stevens

      Sorry! onc more thing after reading other comments! The beauty of the piece, and what makes it not creepy is the fact that even though Gaston is set up by society to take Gigi as just a mistress, he is so in love with her that he goes against the grain and finds that not marrying her would be immoral. That is why he is so uncomfortable at Maxims. He sees everyone looking at her like a fresh piece of meat, like a news item, and hears his uncle’s comments about Gigi lasting him for only months and he is disgusted even though, in his world most men would not have been. That is what makes Gigi a beautiful love story. The piece is set up with immorality, but ends in morality and justice for an innocent young woman

  9. Leslie

    Wow!! Thanks very much for the commentary. It’s another reminder of what a challenge it is to see any work of art through the eyes of its time and not your own. Thanks for taking the time to write this — I’ll watch it again with your comments in mind!

  10. I have always loved this musical, but listening to it today it occurred to me that if someone were to try to make it today there would be such an uproar that it could never be financed, produced or released.

    consider one way of looking at it:

    1) From the time she is a young girl, Gigi’s family raises her to be a whore. oK, that’s a strong word. We’ll call it “courtesan” to make it more palatable.

    2) Family arranges to sell her to the highest bidder at the best price they can negotiate.

    3) Older man sings the “little girls” song, with it’s meaning deliberately ambiguous, except we know what the story is about, so we know the meaning.

    4) man purposes to (and is accepted by) girl who must be 25 years her junior, and who has only recently passed through puberty.

    None of this stuff bothers me. But there are plenty of people on the left and the right who would propose tar and feathering anyone who dared make such a movie. And anyone who would dare defend it wouldn’t fare much better.

    The real subtext in Gigi is the power and independence of this group of women which out wits the decadence and solipsism of the men around them. But that would be too subtle for even most bright and educated people to see because of the narrowing moralistic attitudes of our era.

  11. Bravo, Mel Stevens! Just a slight correction though, the film is set in the year 1900 (though you mentioned Edwardian France, so I’m sure you knew that!).
    And I agree that while Maurice Chevalier’s infamous song and other aspects of the film might make some uncomfortable, the lifestyle and culture was an everyday part of life and it doesn’t help to judge a film based on today’s standards.
    We also have to keep in mind that America’s attitude towards courtesans is very different than Europe’s (as the U.S. was founded on many British Puritan principles). I am re-watching the film now and enjoy it every time!

  12. Chasina

    I’m clearly late in reading this post, but the new Broadway revival has me questioning how far we have really come if this show is STILL being performed. I find it so odd, disturbing and saddening that there are, in the 21st century, people defending this show. These people couldn’t be more wrong.

    “Bravo, Mel Stevens” (see Leanna J above) ??? Um, no. You all are clearly missing something very big here. You argue context and that it was a perfectly normal practice for the time and, even up to a few decades ago, that girls around 16 got married to men more than twice their age…so that makes it okay?

    1) It is 2015 and they are singing HAPPY songs about these customs and we are singing, clapping and tapping along. You know what else used to be customary and considered the norm? Slavery. If there was a musical about slaves that we revived today where the slaves sang about how happy they were to be slaves and the white masters sang “Thank Heaven for Strong Negroes” should we defend it as just being an expression of the “times”? Shall we say, it is a beautiful story about how we used to all get along and everyone knew their place in the bygone era of when our magnificanet country was being built? Lol. No. There come times in our growth as a species to retire outdated and harmful art and practices and to place them in the annals of history as context for how we have progressed and what we should not condone or go back to….this is one of those pieces of art. Teach it in school, with historical context, don’t perform it with delight.

    2) 100 years BEFORE Collette wrote Gigi, and it was turned into a straight play, then film, then subsequent musical movie, Alexandre Dumas wrote the novel, La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), which was later turned into a play and the inspiration for Verdi’s opera La Traviata. This story also tells the tale of a French courtesan, yes, a Parisian “norm” of the 19th century. However, this author depicts a much more realistic life of a woman who is groomed and used sexually by men her whole (albeit short) life. Given the time she lives in, she has no rights and little other chances to survive, than to live the life of a prostitute (courtesan=euphemism for “high-end hooker”.) She eventually dies a long and, very painful death, alone because of the life she was thrust into/had to live. None of her previous clients, even the man that she was in love with and supposedly loved her back, came to comfort or help her. She died of consumption (today it is called tuberculosis), literally asphyxiating on her own blood being expelled from her diseased lungs.

    So, let me get this straight, 100 years after Dumas’ depiction, Collette writes a rose-colored story of this life and it is celebrated with musical cheer! Then, almost 60 years after that people are defending it, here as “lovely”, “a beautiful love story”, and, my favorite, “awesome…but really made me uncomfortable also.” (okay?)

    It really does go to show that some people will never get it. There will always be racists, sexists, and homophobes no matter how much time passes. Clinging to a beauty of the past that never really existed because one of the hardest things for humans to do is to move on, grown, learn, and change.

    • Chasina

      Please excuse typos above.

      And one last thought. Here is one of the last lines from this show that some of you adore so much

      Gigi [to Gaston,when finally breaking down to accept his marriage proposal]: “I’d rather be miserable with you than miserable without you.”

      aaaaand happy endings for everyone!!!

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