“You Let Them Win, and a Dog’s What You Become”: “Dogfight” and Gender

A little timeline/background info:

When I was 14, I went to New York City with my theatre camp to go see a musical that would oddly become a huge part of my gender experience. When I was 16, I was called back for the role of Rose at said summer camp. When I was 17, I performed the song, “Before it’s Over,” for my final recital at a summer conservatory. When I was 21, I performed the song, “First Date/Last Night” as part of my senior concert. And now, at nearly 23 years of age, I’ve been re-listening, and a lot of feelings have come up for me. I wanted to write about this show through a lens of gender specifically because Dogfight focuses on casualties of the Military and Masculinity Industrial Complexes, and also because I feel that as a trans man I bring a unique perspective to a show that grapples with maleness and masculinity.

SPOILERS AHEAD. This show premiered seven years ago, and the film is from 1991, though, so… it’s not exactly new.

Something I want to point out about the lens of the source material versus the musical is that the original film was written by a cis man (Bob Comfort) and directed by a cis woman (Nancy Savoca), the musical was written by not one, not two, but three cis men (Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Peter Duchan) and the original production was directed and choreographed by a fourth and fifth cis man (Joe Mantello and Christopher Gattelli). The production at my summer camp was directed by a cis woman and was acted by teenagers, which definitely changed the tone a bit.

My take on each of the two primary and three secondary characters:

Rose- the non-genue (that’s a woman romantic lead who doesn’t conform to ingénue). The setting of the musical is the Vietnam war era when many women were gaining agency and played a mix of traditional and non-traditional gender norms. She is objectified, negatively. Her first instinct is to try to impress Eddie with her appearance, but once he hurts her, it’s him who has to impress her with kindness, because she is out of his league. She starts out searching for herself and grows and changes into the strongest, most caring character. It is still through the lens of being “nurturing” and that feminine role, but she is absolutely the hero of this story, no matter how many times the Marines call themselves heroes.

Birdlace/Eddie- the chameleon. The male love interest. The wounded soldier. At the start of the story, he is a bold and brash charmer like his buddies, but once he is alone with Rose, he begins to soften and the more he sees her inner beauty, the more he realizes how stupid the “dogfight” is, and then he continues to feel torn between his friends and Rose until he goes to war. When he returns, all of his friends have been killed, and he returns to Rose with PTSD-like symptoms, in need of her support.

Boland- The “alpha male” character who is, in fact, so insecure he has to pay Marcy to pretend to be “ugly” because he has to win the contest.

Bernstein- the (sigh, stereotypically Jewish) “nerdy virgin” of his cohort, Bernstein learns from Boland and Birdlace and is part of their trio. He is part of the learning curve of masculinity.

Marcy- one of two sex workers represented in the musical, and while she bears the brunt of male aggression, she is (rightfully) portrayed as a survivor who knows how to play the system rather than merely a victim.

Here is a track-by-track, with the plot being intermittently mentioned, nuanced gender analysis of Dogfight.* (I can only speak to my experiences of gender, and my experiences of this musical).

1. “Prelude: Take Me Back.” The show opens with a motif/refrain/prelude. Time and memory are central themes of this musical. We are simultaneously introduced to Rose and Birdlace/Eddie. The gentle sound of the strings and acoustic guitar matches Rose’s personality and voice throughout the show.

2. “Some Kinda Time.” And then the piano and drums come crashing in and the boys burst through. This song is the first in the chronology of the show’s timeline, the proper “Opening” and it, much like the prelude, revolves around time, but it looks towards a bright future rather than at a painful past. The song weaves between multi-part harmony and unison, the unison, of course, being much like the camaraderie and uniformity of these Marines. In this song, we hear the dialogue that clues us in to the cruel contest that is the “dogfight” itself (a dance party where boys bring girls and compete to see whose date is the ugliest) but the tone remains excited, because, of course, it is a male lens.

3. “Hey, Good Lookin’.” The rock guitar/piano/drums combo is solidified in this number, and all the other girls of the company are introduced in this number. We get to see the individual personalities of the boys as they try to find their dates. There is a fairly homophobic comment AND a lazy transphobic joke in this number, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out. (I’ll always love you guys, but this show premiered in 2012.)

4. “Come to a Party.” Rose and Eddie’s first/second duet, and it’s back to a gentler orchestration. This show was an earlier foray on the part of Pasek & Paul into the topics of both lying and mental illness… interesting. What really intrigues me about this number is its introduction to the melody/countermelody theme that the two of them have, where their stories weave together. Also, the orchestra hit once he drops the act and shifts to internal monologue. Such good musical storytelling — — but this is a focus primarily on gender, though it’s not totally irrelevant to point out that he is so much softer with Rose than he is with the boys, with any other girls, or even, to himself. She is the person (as many women are burdened with this) whom he comes to trust.

5. “Nothing Short of Wonderful.” Talking about gender in this number is easy, as Rose even says things like “be a girl, something pink…” and then corrects to say “just be you, he won’t care what you wear.” Rose is so unfamiliar with how to perform cookie-cutter womanhood, but she’s rushing to abandon her values for a guy because she wants to be loved, and validated. This song is the closest thing to an “I want” song as Rose gets, and what she wants is to be loved, and she’s so excited that someone has finally noticed her.

6. “Come to a Party (Reprise).” In the second part of “Come to a Party” we see each of the guys getting ready and Marcy and Rose getting ready for the dogfight and only Rose (and the other girls besides Marcy) don’t know that the party is, in fact, the dogfight.

7. “That Face.” A diegetic slow song at the party that is juxtaposed with the guys saying mean things about the girls. Eddie doesn’t want to subject Rose to it because he’s starting to fall for her, but she insists on dancing with him, only for her to be declared the “winner” at the end of the scene.

8. “Dogfight.” The eponymous number of the show falls towards the middle of the pack and it is the only woman/woman duet in the entire score. It is… the same roughness around the edges as the men’s songs but the orchestration gets that grit, not through the electric guitar, no, the strings are on display and they are hard and heavy, like the weight of misogyny. Together, Rose and Marcy see that the true ugliness is not according to these men’s beauty standards, but rather the ugliness in the hearts of men who abuse women.

9. “Pretty Funny.” This song is the heartbreaking end of Act I, where Rose goes home and feels defeated because she found out that it was fake and part of a twisted game. She’s been used, and no matter how hard she tried, they still thought she was ugly.

10. “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade.” This one opens Act II on a very dark note. The toxic masculinity comes to a head in this number as the boys’ last night in the US before shipping off gets later. A more rock sounding version of the “Take Me Back/Some Kinda Time” motif is underpinning the background of this number, and they sing about being heroes and conquests and how they are worthy of respect while visiting a sex worker and exploring San Francisco.

11. “First Date/Last Night.” The second duet between Rose and Eddie, this one is more equal and even and the harmonies/counterpoint are FAMOUS. This is one of the most solid duets of the 2010 decade, which is why I just had to sing it before my voice dropped. It conveys the awkwardness of their situation and of budding romances in a way that supersedes gender.

12. “Before It’s Over.” Rose is taking in the possibility that Eddie might actually like her and tries to encourage him to break out of his jarhead box and show it. This song is also in stark opposition to “Pretty Funny” because rather than accept Eddie hurting her or struggling to find a voice, she is blossoming into the confident woman who she was meant to be. She asks him to see her, being vocal about her wants and needs this time around rather than just being used for his.

13. “Give Way.” This song is the obligatory “they’re going to sleep with each other” song, but it’s also got a more hippie/folk sound that reflects Rose’s personality. Rose plays it at the diner when Eddie first walks in back in Act I and then plays it in her room for him here in Act II. The sparrow in the song, is a fearful bird, much like Eddie Birdlace is about to be, as he doesn’t return from war the same chauvinist tough guy he left.

14. “Some Kinda Time (Reprise).” Eddie leaves Rose’s to go ship out with the boys. Eddie keeps repeating “say goodbye” over the familiar tune from before, and then, just like that, after the montage is over, his friends are dead.

15. “Come Back.” The big 11 o’clock number of this musical, “Come Back” is Eddie’s complete unraveling. He has lost his brothers, he has lost any sense of pride or ego. Grief and trauma strip away the last of Eddie’s artifice.

16. “Finale: Take Me Back.” Eddie comes to see Rose. He is broken down and has nothing and no one else left. Her last line: “Welcome home.” Even after he doesn’t write to her, she can see his remorse and his pain and she chooses to take care of him because she loves him.

I first identified most with Rose. I still identify with Rose. But I understand the guys a little better now, especially Eddie. There’s pressure to conform to masculinity, even though it’s toxic, but some emotions (like love, like fear, like grief) can break through tough guys like him. I became more understanding of the men in this musical as I transitioned, that doesn’t mean I approve of a single thing they did. I also as a trans man feel an extra sort of closeness to Rose as my gender and body are policed constantly. As a queer trans man I often still deal with the cis male gaze- queer AND “straight,” both of which are BRUTAL. This story is a classic tale of dehumanizing potential partners — — sometimes people do it in a “positive way,” fetishizing, others they are disgusted and curious about a particular “type” of person and they will treat them one way in private vs. public. Once Birdlace realizes he’s interested in Rose, he still feels that inner conflict and pressure to perform disgust to his friends, even though the façade has dropped and he sees how gross and cruel his fellow men can be. I’m still very much in the Rose camp on that issue as a trans man and I’ll never fully ascend to that cis man realm. I won’t pretend I can. The toxic masculinity to conform I understand and have to work on in myself. But I’m still on team objectified more often than not. As men, all men, we owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to non-men to look inward and outward at the sort of behavior depicted in this story.

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