Part of Into The Wood‘s enduring influence is its deconstruction of popular fairytales. Audiences are afforded an easy entrance into the world of the play through these timeless, universal stories. We can all identify the sly twists that Sondheim and Lapine impose on the tales, and we can appreciate the complexity they add to these classic characters. We can acknowledge that the purpose of the musical is to turn the fairytales on their heads, to subject them to the realities of love, loss, and strife. Cinderella and Prince Charming don’t live happily ever after, Little Red’s maturity comes at a cost, giants can kill innocent people, wishes have repercussions, and morals never come in neat, simple packages.
However, Into the Woods doesn’t free itself completely of the fairytale mythos: in a way, all stories engage with a discourse whether they realize it or not. The predominant discourse of Into the Woods surrounds the family. Nearly all of the characters are trying to redeem themselves of the judgments and weaknesses of their parents. Most central to the plot is the Witch’s curse on the Baker, making him impotent after his father steals beans from the Witch’s garden. Similarly, Cinderella must escape her stepmother’s tyranny, Rapunzel and Jack free themselves of equally domineering mothers, even the Witch herself is cursed by her mother.
Family is the driving force of conflict. Wait. More accurately, controlling women are the driving force of conflict, for even the Baker’s father was urged on to steal by his pregnant wife’s “unusual appetite.” And family is also the driving force of the musical’s resolution. Wait. Actually, it’s a family without any controlling or desirous women, since they’re all dead. The ending restores the strong nuclear family structure that controlling women threatened with their desires: there’s the new father who has evolved into a masculine leader and head of household (Baker), the subservient housewife whose proclivity towards wishing has been quelled thanks to a wish gone wrong (Cinderella), and two orphaned children seeking a home (Little Red and Jack). By the end of the film, we’re still in a patriarchal fairytale. The Rob Marshall film underscores this with its closing image of the new nuclear family sitting down together in the woods, listening to the Baker narrate what we’ve just finished watching.
And clearly, it should be the Baker telling the story. Because it’s been his story all along– a story of a kind but emasculated man earning his manhood, first characterized by his ability to have children, then by his heroism and courage. He succeeds at overcoming the generational curse where the female characters don’t, because female desire leads them astray.
Look at the Baker’s wife. Even though she is not the barren one (the Witch makes it clear that the Baker is the one cursed with impotence), she leads the effort to battle the Witch’s curse. Her desire for a child trumps that of the Baker, and his timidity puts her in control of of the plan, which she repeatedly must defend to other characters (Baker, Prince, Cinderella) who ask her why she is alone in the woods. The men of the play hardly ever have to defend their actions to other characters, even when their actions are clearly wrong (like the Princes’ adultery or Jack’s stealing from the Giant). The men’s actions are never put on trial the same way the Witch’s or the Baker’s Wife’s actions are subject to judgment (“Maybe They’re Magic” and “Last Midnight”). The Baker’s Wife is the character who most often blurs the lines of morality, offering beans for Milky White, or pulling Rapunzel’s with the knowledge it might tumble her from out of the tower. Yet, it is her sense of action that furthers the story and the couple’s mission to have a child. Compare her persistence and action-driven habits with Cinderella’s passivity and indecisiveness. One of these women takes on the role of wife and mother in the ending’s reformed and romanticized family dynamic. The other dies.
While the Baker’s Wife’s death could be interpreted as a random killing (“Your Fault” assumes that imposing logical blame for the death is useless), her death is immediately linked to her adultery and to her new Eve-like understanding of “Moments in the Woods.” Her affair with the Prince is only the last in a series of patriarchy-threatening actions that the Baker’s Wife commits (the others are tied to her role as emasculating leader and moral boundary-breaker). Her death silences her as a threat to the family structure. Plus, it occurs only after “Moments In the Woods” reaffirms her traditional role as loyal wife and mother. The song, meant to exhibit the purpose of and lessons learned in the woods, solidifies the traditional family structure by preaching that those “and” moments that transgress social and moral boundaries reinforce the “or” moments that force women into a dichotomy of good vs. bad, pure vs. slut, seeking to please vs. seeking to be pleased. The Baker’s Wife’s adultery only makes works to silence her desires and put her back in the home, back to lacking desire.
In other words, a woman who acts out her desires realizes that the only good to come from her desires is to passivize her into a non-desirous so as to not act on her desire any more. And then she dies for acting out her desires.
Now, before we start arguing about whether or not she actually died because of her desire, or whether gender actually has anything to do with any of this, let’s look at who else dies and who survives:
Jack, the young boy who is a thief and who inadvertently causes the death of a giant? Alive.
Rapunzel, the young woman who pursues her desire to wed a Prince and escape her mother? Dead.
The Princes, ridiculous and superficial idiots with no concern for their subjects? Alive.
The Witch, clearly the most powerful character who exacts revenge for a likely rape? Dead.
Mrs. Giant, seeking revenge for her dead husband? Dead.
Cinderella, a woman with no clear desires and who likes to clean? Alive.
Jack’s Mother, a demanding and unpleasing woman who hassles her ideal-prone son? Dead.
As much as the musical resists fairytale tropes and fairytale themes, it can’t seem to get away from the classic fairytale trope of “let’s punish a woman for acting in her own interest.”
Let’s talk a bit about the Witch. Witches are traditionally unfeminine figures, and from that they gains their power. She is historically considered to cause barrenness, and she is anti-family, unnatural, and the far opposite of maternal. The Witch in Into the Woods literally takes away the Baker’s manhood and she is the greatest threat to the nuclear family structure and the restoration of masculine leadership. Besides, she’s not the greatest mother to Rapunzel (understatement much).
What better way to neutralize a female threat (besides killing it) than to make it pretty and take away her powers! The Witch starts as a subject with power to an object of desire when she drinks Milky White’s potion, returning to her youthful beauty and losing her magic. Why her magic is lost is never really addressed in the show, but the fact that the loss is linked to her restored femininity insinuates a connection: power is unfeminine.
Now, you might say that we’re supposed to identify with the Witch. She’s actually good! She has the most emotional songs! We sympathize with her! She is the voice of truth in the play! This is only partly true. What does her truth, her experience bring to the play? She is reckless and cruel. Her emotions make her a bad mother and a threat until the very end, where she is all for giving Jack to the giantess. Her truth doesn’t actually reflect the realities of the play (her rape, for example is never explored) and she isn’t really ever right (children will listen). Her ‘truth’ doesn’t make her a heroic subject, she doesn’t lead the characters to victory*. It’s the Baker who leads the way to victory (by killing another threatening woman). It’s the Baker who restores order, order not being very high on the Witch’s list.
The moral of the story? Don’t give into the desires of troubled women. They don’t lead to much good.
*If you want to read a more thorough analysis of female desire in Into the Woods and have access to articles via some kind of academic library, look up “Back(lash) Into the Woods” by Peter C. Woods from Text and Presentation
journal. It’s a wonderful, accessible read, and it adds way more context and evidence to these ideas. I used Woods’s article as a sounding board to better shape my own ideas, particularly about the Witch.