Is “The Sound of Music” cringeworthy?

For my birthday, I watched “The Sound of Music” with my family. CJ had never seen nuns before. They made a big impression.

cassie the nun

For my part, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A lot of movies made fifty years ago haven’t aged well. But “The Sound of Music” stands the test of time. It has a lot more layers than I realized when I watched it at CJ’s age.

Take the first gazebo scene, between Rolf and Liesl. Rolf sings to Liesl that, at sixteen, she is “such a baby” that she is “utterly unprepared” for all the attention she is soon to get from other men. But since Rolf, at seventeen, is “older and wiser” (and male) he will “take care of her” (and himself) by protecting her from other suitors. Liesl laps it up and excitedly accepts Rolf’s kiss, her first, at the end of the scene.

It’s all a little shocking if you grew up thinking “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” was a pretty song about young love. But it never was. It seemed that way when I was eight, but that’s just one of the layers. Oscar Hammerstein[1] wrote a pretty song about young love that simultaneously reveals one of the lovers as sexist, condescending, insecure, manipulative, and self-dealing.

Am I fooling myself? It can be hard to tell whether writers are just portraying sexism or are actually sexists themselves. But in this case it’s clear which side of the line Oscar Hammerstein was on. “The Sound of Music” is not a sexist play. It has one of the strongest female leads between Joan of Arc and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And Rolf is no role model. This is the is the boy who later joins the Nazi party, which makes him feel “important,” and betrays the von Trapp family, including the girl he had promised to “protect.” Hammerstein shows Rolf’s insecurity and prejudice at the start of the movie, and it proves to be his undoing by the end.

Yet despite Rolf’s weakness and insecurity, Liesl’s love for him persists, and the Captain still sees good in him almost until the end. “You’ll never be one of them [the Nazis],” the Captain says, even as Rolf points a gun at him. “Come with us. Escape. There’s still time.” Rolf alerts the guards anyway, but perhaps there’s good in him even if he can’t find it.

If you think Oscar Hammerstein was incapable of this kind of nuance, listen to his statement “This I Believe,” recorded for Edgar R. Murrow in the 1950s. Especially this passage:

The conflict of good and bad merges in thick entanglement. You cannot isolate virtue and beauty and success and laughter, and keep them from all contact with wickedness and ugliness and failure and weeping.





[1] I’m focusing on Hammerstein because he wrote the lyrics (though not the book of the play, which was written by Lindsay and Crouse). I’m not going to stick up for Richard Rodgers, not here. Rodgers was a great composer, but according to his biographers he was unfaithful to his wife and harassed actresses and chorus girls.

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