Criticism of Social Misogyny in Georges Bizet's Opera 'Carmen'

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Bizet's 'Carmen' and Its Social Context
  2. Carmen: A Symbol of Misogynistic Critique
  3. Historical and Cultural Backdrop of 'Carmen'
  4. Carmen's Death: A Reflection of Societal Misogyny
  5. 'Carmen' as a Cultural Milestone in Opera
  6. Carmen as a Feminist Icon and Its Limitations
  7. The Misogynistic Underpinnings of 'Carmen'
  8. Conclusion: Reevaluating 'Carmen's' Message on Misogyny

Introduction to Bizet's 'Carmen' and Its Social Context

Adhering to the nature of opéra-comique, an exotic location, tragedy and depiction of the working class, Georges Bizet put a twist on this customary style of opera and created ‘Carmen’. The opera, set in Seville about the year 1830, is about Don José. He is enticed away from his duty as a soldier and his beloved Micaëla by the gypsy factory-girl Carmen he lets out of custody. Later, he is persuaded to join the smugglers with whom Carmen is affiliated, but his jealousy drives him insane. As Carmen expresses her preference for the bullfighter Escamillo, it all comes to a head. The final act takes place outside the bullring in Seville, where Escamillo is joined by Carmen, who is stabbed to death by Don José, who has been waiting for her arrival. Bizet's most famous opera, ‘Carmen’, added a note of realism to opera that those who saw the first performances found unacceptable. Carmen's wild and unethical conduct, the chorus of promiscuous cigarette-smoking factory-girls, and Carmen's last murder on stage all drew criticism. This play is an example of orientalist values challenging those of a bourgeois society. This paper discusses how Bizet's 'Carmen' is not misogynistic but instead holds up to criticize society's misogyny.

Carmen: A Symbol of Misogynistic Critique

Carmen is portrayed as the villain from the very beginning while the prize in question is her body and the narrative raises questions of who should own it, Don José or Escamillo, but not her. Many could interpret this play on the basis that a woman succumbs to male aggression and jealousy rather than an expression of freedom of choice. Carmen’s controversy stemmed from the context in which it was released, at the time in nineteenth century France a gypsy like Carmen would not be seen in a positive light, due to the post war French anti-Semitic culture, society would have a prejudiced outlook on women like her since Hitler’s ideology depicted gypsies as alien and impure. Expressions of female sexuality had been presented prior to Bizet’s ‘Carmen’; however, the protagonist was presented as a femme fatale in the way that her sexuality was her demise. The manner in which she was presented, almost as a weapon or beast-like, coveys the message that she deserved her ending and almost takes away some of the brutality in which she was killed as well as diminishes blame for Don José. This is a perfect example of how Carmen held up misogynistic ideas as by eluding that she was responsible for her death as it mirrors the reality of many women who suffered at the hands of men but were blamed or questioned because they did not adhere to society’s norms or expectations. Carmen was the embodiment of femininity, and although her demise was a result of fragile masculinity, she remains one of the most significant women in opera to this day.

Historical and Cultural Backdrop of 'Carmen'

There was a strong bourgeois-cantered culture in nineteenth century France thus the divide among males and females became very prominent and women became repressed and silenced. Seeing a woman in the opéra-comique, who deviated from societal conventions elicited diverse reactions from viewers who had never been exposed to such lax morals. This further proves the point that Georges Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ is not misogynistic but rather a moral message of the ‘terror surrounding the female body’, as well as a reminder that since the regulation of societal expectations surrounding sexuality has predominantly happened at the hands of men, the fact that Carmen took a position of power regarding her bodily autonomy and provocative behavior was particularly destabilizing (Kazdan, 2016). To this day, Carmen remains a powerful figure who established a precedent for upcoming women in opera.

Carmen's Death: A Reflection of Societal Misogyny

Adhering to the rules of opera, it makes sense for Carmen to die at the hands of a past lover as she refused to submit to Don José. In this opera, there was a clear divide between the characters and what they represented at the time. Carmen and the other gypsies symbolized the ‘uncivilized’, while Don José on the other hand symbolized the hallmarks of French civilization (Macarthur, 2014). Men have traditionally held much more power in the society in which Carmen is set (Hammerstein and Bizet, 1991). Seeing a man in a place of social wealth and capital be seduced and gradually persuaded to abandon this is a major cultural shock for the period. Carmen is a one-of-a-kind character in the operatic Carmen's time frame, and her significance as a character follows from this. Carmen would not be nearly as convincing a character if she were not an exception to the opera's general rule, which seems to mean that women should be subservient or otherwise tolerant of men's advances toward them and satisfied when someone with political or social power selects them. Carmen is a feminist character when there was little understanding of what feminism and equality were (Furman, 2020). Her death at the hands of Don José, who represents the kind of male entitlement that pervades every corner of ‘Carmen’, is a metaphor for her being too early for her time, challenging the norms of the early 1800s Spain she found herself stuck within (Bizet, 2018). That is not to suggest that ‘Carmen’ may not have been convincing outside of its period; instead, as more literature grappled with gender equality and the shortcomings of a patriarchal society as history progressed, the main characters Carmen and Don José have increasingly become less exceptional.

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'Carmen' as a Cultural Milestone in Opera

Historical context is essential when discussing the play, ‘Carmen’ was significant when opera was still a common form of entertainment for the general public. ‘Carmen’ was particularly significant culturally because it subverted several operatic conventions by using several comedic character tropes in a musical that was obviously about a tragedy. ‘Carmen’ defied conventions in a way that had never been achieved before, both in terms of form and feature in terms of gender portrayal (Dornford-May, 2006). ‘Carmen’ was innovative and edgy in the artistic world, and the kind of work that could have quickly gone down in flames as well as become a triumph. In our current socio-cultural environment, the play would have never triggered the same reaction or have been as notorious considering that the plays after ‘Carmen’ had already challenged the set of gender norms in the opera, creating an environment where a simple retelling of ‘Carmen’ in the same genre and with the same conceit would no longer possess the same edge that helped evoke the sultry nature of the former. Instead of being a rebuttal to the opera's reliance on strict definitions of comedy and tragedy, or the importance of male opinion in storytelling, ‘Carmen’ was now a rebuttal to the notion that seductive women were inherently villainous or problematic, the latter of which was a strong belief in France at the time.

Carmen as a Feminist Icon and Its Limitations

In many ways, Carmen can be depicted as a feminist icon, her free spirit, refusal to compromise and power she held over the ‘strong men’. However, we can also see drawbacks in her character. Her persona was created by the male gaze, almost offering up her life to an entitled, possessive man (Jorel, 2019). This is a narrative that is still present in today’s society, a third of all women killed in 2017 were victims of partners or former partners (Femicide Watch, 2019). Throughout the play Carmen weaponized her sexuality against men to manipulate them, an example of this would be when she seduced Don José into letting her go during the first act. She did this through the use of music and mannerisms. As a woman in the opera, Carmen’s unapologetic acceptance of her own sexuality was critical in confronting social norms, and given that the status quo for the opera lies in patriarchal hierarchy, her free body movements speak to the rigidity of society and its ineffectiveness at placing a chokehold on the human condition (Kazdan, 2016). Music was used to aid in the weaponization of Carmen’s sexuality, for example, in the Habanera the line “l'oiseau que tu croyais surprendre battit de l'aile et s'envola” places emphasis on how Carmen’s free will and independence is seen as a threat for the male characters as they realize that she is autonomous and places her own needs before their own, additionally she has no preservations when it comes to acting unconventionally in order to attain her goals.

The Misogynistic Underpinnings of 'Carmen'

The misogynistic logic underpins the plot of ‘Carmen’ as its criticism of social ideals was dramatic to viewers who first saw it in the mid-1800s when in reality it merely held up a mirror to patriarchy so that it may see some of its shortcomings. Similarly, Carmen may have been a character unique in her depiction on an operatic stage as a powerful, sexually active woman who tried to live by her laws. This character's personality was abnormal at the time: she was a strong woman who was also sexual, temperamental, and a factory worker. Furthermore, instead of being romantic and patient, she is vulgar and rebellious. In essence, she was the polar opposite of what a woman was supposed to be in the late 1800s. Still, she is eventually killed as a result of her actions. She is seduced and complicit in a relationship with a strong bullfighter and while this transition and her death are essential for bringing Don José’s story to a close, what was disconcerting was that Carmen was depicted as a woman who died mainly as a result of her actions rather than Don José’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the woman he loved had moved on, this is an example of operas traditional portrayal of women. The message interpreted comes from the viewers unique perspectives as rational thinking is required to grasp that it was not the intention for Carmen to be seen as a villain but to dismantle the system that painted her so.

Conclusion: Reevaluating 'Carmen's' Message on Misogyny

Moreover, we can say that ‘Carmen’ was not a misogynistic play, as although Don José’s interest for her was based on his want to redeem her, she never wavered and remained as she was. The play relayed a story of a woman who regardless of external cues stayed true to who she was, had she become ‘reformed’ it would have put into question the true message of the opera and it would not be as relevant as it is today.

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Criticism of Social Misogyny in Georges Bizet’s Opera ‘Carmen’. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/criticism-of-social-misogyny-in-georges-bizets-opera-carmen/
“Criticism of Social Misogyny in Georges Bizet’s Opera ‘Carmen’.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/criticism-of-social-misogyny-in-georges-bizets-opera-carmen/
Criticism of Social Misogyny in Georges Bizet’s Opera ‘Carmen’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/criticism-of-social-misogyny-in-georges-bizets-opera-carmen/> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Criticism of Social Misogyny in Georges Bizet’s Opera ‘Carmen’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Mar 01 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/criticism-of-social-misogyny-in-georges-bizets-opera-carmen/
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