My husband took me last night to see Wicked, the musical. Wicked has always been my most beloved musical, rivaled perhaps by Rent. One of the reasons I love it so much is because I first loved the books. It’s incredible to see the characters you loved so much brought to life on stage like that.
But another, much more important reason why I love Wicked, is because of its social commentary. The musical delves deep into themes of societal prejudice, the power of propaganda, and the complexities of good versus evil. It serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers of blind conformity, the importance of challenging authority, and the significance of embracing individuality and empathy. It invites us to reflect on our own society, encouraging us to question the prevailing narratives and consider the perspectives of those who have been marginalized or misunderstood.
In many ways, it unflinchingly holds up a mirror to not only our past, but also to our present and what is to come in the future if we don’t make some serious systemic changes.
And it’s here, at this issue of how power is used to marginalize and oppress, that I felt a twinge of discomfort while watching Wicked last night.
The musical uses comedy to soften the difficult topics it covers, which I’m sure was a wise and deliberate decision. Such deep topics can be hard to digest, especially when you’re expecting a lighthearted night at the theater. But although the comedic undertones are there to lighten the issues, it seemed, at least to the audience last night, to erase them completely.
Wicked is a show that should be absorbed thoughtfully, critically. It challenges us to draw comparisons between the silencing of the Animals, the immoral Wizard, the wealth and excess of the constituents of Oz and the poverty and marginalization of the rest, and our current human circumstances.
And while I noticed that many members of the audience last night absorbed the show with a delicate balance of seriousness and lightheartedness, it seemed like the vast majority missed the message of the show entirely. It feels uncomfortable to write this — it feels like virtue signaling, othering myself from the folks who “don’t get it.” But the truth is, I am mentioning it because I didn’t always get it, either.
As a white woman, I have been able to navigate life with a whole lot of privilege. This privilege allows people like me to attend shows that are meant to teach us something, to reveal something important to us, and to simply be entertained instead. We learned how to not notice things, how to sit back and enjoy things instead of taking time to unpack and process them. I noticed a lot of that going on at the theater last night. Non-white audience members absorbed the show with sobriety and seriousness, being painfully aware of the underlying message. White audience members, on the other hand, seemed not to notice the message at all. Everything was funny — even the very unfunny parts.
Listen, this isn’t a post to shame white people. I am not ashamed of being white. This isn’t a white guilt post, either. It’s just an observation. It’s an observation that, I think, is worth discussing because it has implications for all of us. As white people, we need to be more aware of what a privilege it is to watch a show like Wicked and be blissfully unburdened by the dark, painful message it brings. It is a privilege to not be pushed into trauma by the imagery of the show. It is a privilege to appreciate the comedic moments without reflecting on the serious issues they are meant to make easier to digest — mostly for our benefit.
We need to actively engage with shows like Wicked, not simply passively receive them. We should be thinking deeply, having conversations, drawing similarities between the fiction and the facts. It’s okay to laugh at the moments that are meant to lighten the emotional load. We just need to make sure we’re doing the work of unpacking the deeper stuff, too.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.