The first song, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," is a duet between Liesl, the youngest of the Von Trapp children, and her boyfriend, Ralph. In this song, Leisl replies to Ralph's serenade with, "I am sixteen, going on seventeen, innocent as a rose. Bachelor dandies, drinkers of brandy, what do I know of those? Totally unprepared am I, to face a world of men. Timid and scared and shy am I, of things beyond my ken." In this famous scene, Leisl is wooed by a "man" one year her senior while dancing in a gazebo at night. As a child, I knew all of the lyrics to this song, and never saw anything fundamentally wrong with this seemingly innocent picture. Upon reflection, I realized that Leisl's character, and the words in this song, paint a different portrait then one I had once seen as a child.
First of all, it is important to contextualize my commentary. Obviously The Sound of Music was produced at a time when gender expectations and roles were drastically different, and the movie is set in a pre-World War II Austria. Leisl is portrayed as a hopeless romantic, enchanted with a young soldier. Though there may be nothing inherently bad about depicting Leisl as a chaste and angelic teenager, I believe that this unrealistic portrayal of the "virgin" teenager is detrimental to young women. I have been searching to figure out what exactly bothers me about Leisl's character, and it appears that I have found the answer. My reasoning is quite circular, but I have found why Leisl's "innocent" character can have a damaging influence on women. As an impressionable child, the words "innocent as a rose" resonated with me. Since I first saw the movie when I was 6 years old, the image of a virtuous Leisl stayed with me for years. The problem with Leisl is that the idea of a flawless virgin at the age of 16, "unfamiliar" with the "world of men", doesn't exist. And it doesn't take a genius to realize that grappling with a childhood make- believe character who sings about being "timid" around men may cause an adolescent girl to become disillusioned with real feelings that often arise during teenage relationships that are not exactly "innocent." When there is no countervailing character in one's most cherished movie who represents real life and the real emotions that surface during teenage lust, one can become disenchanted.
My discussion of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" does not end with Leisl and Ralph. In the end of the movie, Maria, who has married Captain Von Trapp, sings with Leisl and the two perform a new rendition of the song. Leisl, distraught and frustrated that Ralph no longer wants a relationship, asks Maria for advice about love. Maria replies, "Lo and behold your someone's wife, and you belong to him. You make think this kind of adventure, may never come to you..." As a child, I had never viewed Maria as Captain Von Trapp's property, and to hear Maria openly declare herself as an "item" of Captain Von Trapp almost made my jaw drop. Not only is Maria singing about her husband, but she advertises marriage as an "adventure" that Leisl may some day be fortunate enough to experience. While I see how these lyrics can be beautiful, they may also be sinister. To explain that belonging to a man is an adventure to look forward to in life is damaging to a young girl's ears, for it belies the truth that a woman can find an independent and promising future without the help of a husband. Again, this movie is based in the 1930s, so the context makes the lyrics more understandable. But, the movie also shows how far we have progressed. Imagine a mainstream, popular Glee episode where the characters sang such lyrics. There would be public outrage!
Though I will continue to watch The Sound of Music every Christmas, I now watch it from a feminist perspective. It is with this newfound grace that one can still enjoy the classics, while remaining weary of any messages that promote unrealistic expectations of women.