Sixteen Going on Married

“Lo, and behold, you’re someone’s wife, and you belong to him.” The phrase coos through Julie Andrews’s lips with a buttery smoothness that almost makes me forget what I’m hearing. After all, it’s a comfort to sink into a classic. Musicals were never required viewing at our house, but after seeing my first real Broadway show in middle school (well, “touring-cast Broadway”) I was hooked for life. Ragtime, Little Shop of Horrors, even Disney’s recycled and inflated stage venture Beauty and the Beast—I was dying to see them all. Yet somehow, even while scribbling “Brett and Erin 4-eva” on my planner’s margins during free period one afternoon, I failed to engage with The Sound of Music as it blared from a roll-away TV at the head of the classroom.

And yes, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is the song that did it. Forget for a second that I was thirteen and nowhere near my current feminist desire to claw apart anything that told me to get married for a living. The song just felt a little ahead and to the side of itself. Why was this sixteen-year-old girl listening to some “older and wiser” boy croon on about his superiority? Why was Maria assuring Liesl tenderly that soon she too would be chosen for marriage? I lacked the vocabulary to spell out why this song rubbed me the wrong way, but it still felt obvious that something crucial was out of place.

To be fair, The Sound of Music is a historical piece that’s widely divorced from the politics of the twenty-first century. Then too, the iconic movie adaptation hit the scene in 1965, when the average American feminist was still dressing like a dowager and shunning the Lavender Menace. Given the franchise’s time, it’s unsurprising that “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” would strike an essentialist note for girls. But instead of dismissing the song’s message as a relic of a crappier era for women, it’s worth analyzing what’s going on in the scene and questioning whether girls should watch it today without being asked what it means.

The reprise between Maria and Liesl is particularly annoying to a feminist critic. It’s an assurance, from the older to the younger, that soon all of Liesl’s boy woes will end. Right now, Liesl is obviously “waiting for life to start,” poised to “jump up and go” when this boy is ready to take her time and company seriously. Inevitably, even if he doesn’t ask her to marry him, someone will. If not next year, then the one after that. And then, she’ll be his.

It’s not the marriage or romance itself that upsets me but the idea that it’s all been laid out for her. The implication, spelled out clearly, is that marriage will be Liesl’s vocation. Because she has to wait for a boy to ask for her hand, her lot rests in staying put—and trying no to be too fidgety—while she waits for someone else to give her the okay to start the next phase of her life.  A lot of movies aimed toward children and families work hard to sell the idea of compulsory marriage, and girls internalize the message most when they’re being told, directly, that marriage is the thing they’ll grow up to be best at. A boy today might view this same sequence and gather that he’ll need to get married, but he learns from the exchange that he decides when and whom to ask. A girl assumes the passive role, learning from this oldish movie that it’s probably a good idea to sit still and wait. Further, the sequence, at its face value, puts the idea of marriage at seventeen or eighteen on a girl’s radar in the first place, leaving boys at least an extra year or two to go and be bachelors (like the earlier part of the song suggests) while girls stand idly by and wait.

So why is all this a big deal? I like to think that most girls today are educated enough to spot the dated concepts without flinching, but I think the most damaging part is how a message like this flies right under the radar for most people. More than a few women I know saw this movie before they were old enough to talk, and reached adolescence with the songs already memorized. When a message is internalized and repeated in a sing-song mantra before an age when reason and critique come into play, it’s a little late to go back and re-program.

A girl might not grow to adulthood thinking she is required to get married by eighteen, but I feel like these messages seem to find a back door in women’s brains. Some years back, I was single and bought my first house, inviting my then-roommate to come and rent a room from me. She excitedly obliged, but when we went furniture shopping to get the things we each needed, she balked a little. “I’ll just get, like, a plastic set of drawers from Walmart,” she said, taking her hand off a polished wood dresser. “I mean, what if I get married?” She didn’t even have a boyfriend but was waiting for the Big Day before buying anything nice or permanent for herself. It was like she was afraid to set up shop and live her life as the established, successful adult she was because, as an un-married person, she wasn’t supposed to. Not yet.

Of course, it’s totally up to her where she keeps her underwear, and it’s entirely possible that I’m reading too far into my friend’s frugality (although she did ultimately walk away with a nice mattress and a pine dresser). It just gave me pause to think about how this woman in her late twenties felt like she had to live a sort of temporary, disposable life until someone emerged from the shadows and gave her permission to start living, like Liesl two years or so from her duet with Maria. My roommate’s hangup probably didn’t come from The Sound of Music, but the movie does present an idea for girls to come along and absorb like scented lotion. The Message comes from all over, but when placed in a popular movie, inflected by Rodger and Hammerstein, and trilled to girls by the would-be nun herself, it’s as catchy as it is ensnaring.