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There are many different opinions that have been bandied about, especially nowadays, about whether or not West Side Story, on the screen, is racist, sexist, too whitebread, too sanitized, or too full of stereotyping various ethnic groups as all being in street gangs and/or who are predisposed to engage in violent street combat and urban gang warfare. For a number of reasons, however, I have refused to buy into any of those opinions, especially the opinion that West Side Story, as a movie, is very racist....

Some people would argue that their are some very prevalent stereotypes in the movie; that all poor whites and non-whites (including Puerto Ricans) are in gangs and are pre-disposed to street violence and urban gang warfare. It's probably the fact that the Jets were presumably made lighter-skinned, and, in many instances, more fair-haired and light-eyed than the Sharks and their girls, but when one really looks hard at the film version of West Side Story, it's clear that some of the Sharks and their girls are lighter-complected than others. The same is true of the White European Ethnic American Jets, as well. A number of the Jets are just about as dark-complected as a number of the Sharks are, and if one really concentrates on looking at the screen or a colored TV, s/he will notice that.

With the exception of Baby-John, who was blond, and A-Rab, who was rather titian-haired and blue-eyed, many, if not most of the Jets had dark brown or mousy-brown hair, and were not super-light complected themselves. That being said, what I believe that what a number of people complain about is the fact that the Puerto Rican Sharks and their girls are made-up so that they look darker-skinned, while most of the white European-American Jets don't exactly have super-pale skin, or red or blond hair either. In fact, most of the Jets, including their girls, have mousy-brown or dark brown hair, and yet there are exceptions like the ones I mentioned above. A number of people also complain that Natalie Wood is too light-skinned to be portrayed as a Puerto Rican, but I beg to differ on that also. Because there are also many ways for Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic people to look (Some are darker or lighter-complected than others), it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about how all Hispanics, or, for that matter, all members of any given racial or ethnic group, presumably should look. Like all racial and ethnic groups, Hispanics range from being very dark-complected to being very light complected. That's also true of Native-Americans, Palestinians, and other ethnic groups, as well.

One also has to bear in mind, as well, that the application of facial make-up on some actors/actresses to make them look even more distinct from the opposing side of such conflicts on film was rather common at the time when West Side Story, both as a Broadway stage play, and as a film, came out.

Another reason that I refuse to buy into the opinion that West Side Story is racist, sexist, or too sanitized or white-bread is the fact that not only do the majority of people of various racial and ethnic groups that I've had contact with not have the opinion that West Side Story is any of the above-mentioned descriptions, but because of the overall message, which is as anti-racist and anti-sexist as can be, due to the fact that it clearly depicts the deleterious consequences of racial/ethnic/cultural hatred, and misogny (hatred of women) can and often enough does lead to, and that violence and gangsterism are not the way to go. Yet, despite the enmity between the Jets and the Sharks, as I've pointed out in some other posts of mine on here, a ray of hope seems to emerge in the form of the hint of reconciliation between the Jets and Sharks and their girls in the end, after the deaths of Riff, Bernardo and Tony, and both Maria's and Anita's devastations at having lost the men that they were in love with.

Granted, while West Side Story is about the warring Jets and Sharks on 1950's-1960's New York City's West Side, and the all-too-evident hatred that that gangs have of each other, West Side Story is also about hope and possible intergroup reconciliation.

Some people whom I've discussed West Side Story with, on the other hand, view this movie/musical as very sexist, due to the way in which the girlfriends of both the Jets and Sharks are portrayed; wearing ultra-fluffy, ruffled dresses, high heeled shoes, a lot of make-up, and teased or bouffant hair-dos, and that girls weren't supposed to fight. I have tended to disagree with that viewpoint, first of all because that's how a great many girls and women dressed back in the 1950's and throughout most of the 1960's, and secondly, because Anybodys, who's a tomboy, proves in the end that she's able and willing to take care of herself, even to the point of duking it out. Anybodys' persistence pays off; she ultimately gets accepted by the Jets as an equal, due to her having asserted herself and her right to equality as a woman, and to her perseverance. I get the impression that Ice admired her, and he showed it in the end, when he said to Anybodys, after she'd proven herself, "Hey! Ya done good, buddy-boy!" Anybodys must have fallen in love with Ice, because she got all dreamy-eyed when she responded, "Thanks, Daddy-O!" Yet, I think that Ice was probably too cool to make his interest in Anybodys too obvious to other Jets, but who knows?

Perhaps some people also think that West Side Story is sexist, due to the fact that the girls/women are never seen wearing pants, only skirts/blouses, or dresses, even when they're out and around, and not at the dance. For that reason, as well as my above-mentioned reasons, I do not buy into the notion that West Side Story, as a movie/musical, is sexist, either. When Anybodys asks "Hey, what about me?" regarding the searching for Tony, and Ice suggests "In and out of the shadows. Maybe you'll find Tony in one of them!", Anybodys is only too happy to go looking in and out of the shadows, despite the obvious exasperation and hostility that many of the Jets and their girls alike, feel towards Anybodys.

Yet, Anybodys is to be admired for soldiering on, going in and out of the shadows, ultimately finding Tony, and sending him over to hide out in the cellar of Doc's Candy Store.

Yes, West Side Story, as a movie/musical, seems rather sexist and racist to some people, and for some people, especially those who reside in, or work in low-income areas where gang activity often proliferates, it's easy to see why this musical hits too close to home for such people. Nevertheless, I stand firmly by what I've said, and am glad of it, and am happy about the fact that West Side Story came into existence, both as a film and a stage play. The fact that West Side Story is so special is the fact that, while it's fiction, it's also based on certain realities, which is what makes it so special and deals with a subject matter that most movie/musicals don't/won't touch.

While West Side Story, as a movie/musical, bluntly displays racism and sexism, it also speaks out, articulately and honestly, against racism and sexism as well, which is another big reason that West Side Story is so special, in its own right.

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West Side Story

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