Gender and Class Mobility in Saturday Night Fever

Chris Jordan

The American success ideology has historically been constructed on the basis of a tension between masculinity and femininity.  According to Rick Altman, the film musical mediates this opposition through a "dual-focus narrative" built around parallel protagonists of opposite sexes and divergent values. This dual-focus structure requires the viewer to be sensitive not so much to the narrative's chronology and progression but to simultaneity and comparison between the male and female leads.

The Hollywood musical, which historically has been directed almost exclusively by men, reinforces this major opposition through a depiction of men as breadwinners and women as sex objects. Often, this dichotomy is embellished by additional oppositions. Thomas Schatz observes that females are frequently characterized as tamers of males through marriage. Conversely, males are often portrayed as controllers of women's sexuality.

During the early 1970s, Hollywood made the working-class male a symbol of traditional masculine values. The New
York Times praised actor Sylvester Stallone in Rocky as "the first leading man in a long time who projects the image of a Real Man.”

The re-embrace of traditional masculine norms was counterbalanced by another outlook in the character Tony Manero (John Travolta) in Saturday Night Fever, a film that condemns working-class masculinity as a sign of arrested development and portrays the patriarchally ordered home as a hotbed of domestic dysfunctionality. The film also portrays dance as a liberating form of expression which frees its male protagonist to express a more effeminate demeanor.

Between Saturday Night Fever's release in 1976 and Flashdance's premiere in 1983, rising financial insecurity in Hollywood inclined studio executives to tailor popular movies to fit a media-manufactured characterization of single women as burnt-out overachievers and lonely sufferers of infertility. It was within such an environment that director Adrian Lyne was catapulted onto Hollywood's "A" list of directors on the basis of the overwhelming success of Flashdance. Lyne's attitude toward the feminist movement of the 1970s is evident in Flashdance's anti-feminist themes. "You hear feminists talk," he told journalist Susan Faludi, "and the last ten, twenty years you hear women talk about fucking men rather than being fucked, to be crass about it. It's kind of unattractive, however liberated and emancipated it is. It kind of fights the whole wife role, the whole childbearing role.”

While Saturday Night Fever portrays marriage as an institution that limits women’s opportunities for upward mobility and personal autonomy, Flashdance echoes Lyne's sentiments in its depletion of marriage as its heroine's only viable alternative to a life of loneliness and economic stagnation.  Flashdance also depicts its female lead as a sex object created by and for a male gaze. The concept of the male gaze maintains that Hollywood defines the female body as a form of erotic spectacle which plays to and signifies male desire.

The History of the Film Musical's Male-Female Motif

The American film musical's dichotomous characterization of men as breadwinners and women as sex objects has been a constant throughout its history.  Altman argues that the trend remains unbroken from the Gold Diggers series of the 1930s (in which men are characterized as sources of gold and women as objects of beauty) to Howard Hawks’s 1950s musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which turns on the simple observation, "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?"). On the basis of this dichotomy, "marriage is seen . . . as the only way to join beauty and riches, to effect not a compromise but a merger."

This construction of sex roles has been complemented over the film musical's history by the genre's sexual objectification of women. Such a convention is a hallmark of film musical pioneer Busby Berkeley's movies, in which a tracking shot along a row of chorus girls' faces is counterbalanced by a similar shot between their legs. This technique counter-balances the close-up, which personalizes a seemingly anonymous row of characters, with a voyeuristic shot that reduces each chorus girl to an inter-changeable sex object.

Often, the dichotomous portrayal of men as providers of money and women as providers of sex is embellished by additional oppositions. Females are frequently characterized as tamers of men's sexuality through marriage. In Oklahoma! (1955), for example, Laurie is a farmer whose ordered lifestyle is symbolized by fenced-in spaces, while Curly is a rancher whose world is wide open and free. Laurie's taming of Curly through marriage parallels the resolution of differences between farmers and ranchers and Oklahoma's transformation from an open wilderness to an organized society.

Conversely, men are often portrayed as controllers of women's sexuality. Such a motif, according to Schatz, is implied by the portrayal of the man as an older, patriarchal figure and the woman as a younger, childlike character. In Swing Time (1936), for example, the fleet-footed Fred Astaire condescends to take dance lessons from Ginger Rogers in order to free her from the stuffy, institutionalized confines of a ballroom dance studio. In doing so, "he initiates her sexually and musically.”

The Film Musical's Male-Female Motif and Saturday Night Fever

During the early 1970s, a nascent male liberation movement championed a "new man" unencumbered by traditional masculine norms.  Feminism inspired such a movement as men's liberation activists like Jack Sawyer argued that women's struggle for equality "need not be a battle against men as oppressors." Instead, as Sawyer contended, "the choice about whether men are the enemy is up to men themselves.”

The key to male liberation was the destruction of sex-role stereotypes. Countercultural spokesperson Charles Reich's The Greening of America equated men's adoption of more androgynous dress styles with their freedom from a masculine role. Reich declared that "a boy does not feel he has to dress in a certain way or 'he will not be a man'; he is not that anxious or concerned about his masculinity."

As Barbara Ehrenreich has noted, the men's movement's advocacy of androgyny was paralleled by the homosexual community's establishment of norms that in some ways freed heterosexual men from a fear of being labeled homosexual. The heterosexual male who rejected traditional standards of masculine dress was no longer automatically suspected of sexual deviance.

A man's potential for liberation was, however, linked to his class of origin.  Reich defined male liberation as the matriculation of three levels of "consciousness." These levels happened to correspond to stereotypical, class-circumscribed ideals of masculinity. John G. Cawelti has observed that "Consciousness 1" described the nineteenth-century, working-class, self-made man enslaved to conservative ideals of masculinity, while at the other end, "Consciousness 3" corresponded to the postcountercultural, liberated man sensitive to the needs of others. In essence, The Greening of America described male liberation as contingent on one's upward advancement from the blue-collar norms of boyish masculinity described in Consciousness 1 toward the middle-class ideal of male sensitivity outlined in Consciousness 3. Saturday Night Fever champions a Consciousness 3 masculinity.

John Badham, director of Saturday Night Fever, has noted the influence of this gender/class nexus on his work.  "[My work] seems to have this idea of people looking to grow and improve themselves in one way or another," he told Cineaste in 1978. "One thing I liked about Saturday Night Fever was that it was about a guy who's trying to get out, who first of all doesn't know that he wants to get out, then gets up the courage to move himself into a different situation.”


Saturday Night Fever’s protagonist Tony Manero is a 19-year-old high school graduate who works in a hardware store as a paint salesman and lives with his parents.  His parents follow a culture of traditional gender roles in which an ethos of economic individualism subverts the communal values of the family dinner hour.  A construction worker emasculated by prolonged unemployment, Mr. Manero interrupts the dinner table conversation by vehemently rejecting his wife’s suggestion that she get a job.  Tony’s parents gain their sense of dignity from their son Frank Jr., a Catholic priest. As the parents of a priest, they are recognized members of the community. A formal photograph of Frank Jr. on the mantle implies the sense of self-worth he contributes to their otherwise dreary lives.

The patriarchal, working-class outlook instilled by Tony's home life is reinforced by the hardware store. The hardware store, like Tony's parents' home, is a world where individuals are alienated from each other by the rules of bottom-line economic individualism.  When Tony delivers to his boss a can of paint purchased from a competitor and informs him of its price, his boss shouts, "That son-of-a-bitch! Just wait until he runs out of something!" Tony offsets the rival store's competitive tactics by further raising the price and telling a customer—ironically played by actor John Travolta's own mother—that he's giving her a "special price" because she has had to wait so long.

The theme of economic individualism is a constant in Tony's personal relationships as well. As one friend reverently recites an anecdote about an uncle who cheated a business partner, another recognizes the limitations of their collective aspirations, complaining that "it's a stinkin' rat race. Nobody's ever going to give you a chance."

Tony's only escape from his meaningless, working-class existence is the fantasy world of the 2001 Disco, where he and his friends are transformed into "The Faces." Disco music arose to mainstream popularity from the underground gay nightclub culture of the early 1970s and provided a fascinating microcosm for studying this culture's impact on conventional masculine norms.  Under the swirling lights and clothed in soft, colorful fabrics, Tony expresses a more feminine side of his personality when he asks his partner Stephanie, "how come we never talk about how we feel when we're dancing?"

Elaborately dressed and groomed, Tony expresses this more feminine side of his personality through stunning dance moves that win accolades from aggressive female admirers. While disco's popularity reflected mainstream society's embrace of a new masculinity, it also mirrored a widespread public desire to escape the bleak realities of economic recession. The high school graduate who worked at a gas station but had the right look and a few good dance moves was transformed into a star beneath the mirrored disco ball. Although Tony's environment imprisons him and limits his options (according to Travolta, the real-life characters on which he based Tony had one thing in common: "They all wanted to get out of Brooklyn"), he lacks the job skills necessary to be upwardly mobile.

Saturday Night Fever's stylistic revision of the film musical's relationship between song and dance and everyday reality reflects this culture of survival. Like the conventional musical, Saturday Night Fever celebrates "a highly stylized representation of life," in which "a different mode of reality, the inner reality of feelings, emotions, and instincts are given metaphoric and symbolic expression through the means of music and dance.”

However, Saturday Night Fever simultaneously recognizes song and dance as only temporary excursions from reality rather than transcendental forces imbued with the power to transform the prosaic limitations of human existence. Where "life properly lived is a dance" in the conventional musical, the songs and dances in Saturday Night Fever are "identified as performances, bound by the natural limitations which normally attend to such presentations." As such, they occur only in performance spaces like the 2001 Disco and a dance rehearsal hall, leading Tony to observe that he would like to be able to get the "high" the disco affords him "someplace else" in his life.

Saturday Night Fever reconciles Tony's limited chances of upward mobility in a flat, mid-1970s economy by redefining social mobility as personal growth rather than material success. The spokesperson for the reform of Tony's "barbaric" attitudes is Stephanie Mangano, a fellow disco dancer from his neighborhood who has made the move to Manhattan and secured a position at a high-profile talent agency. Her ambitions to join the middle-class and her distinctly feminine demeanor transcend the series of structural oppositions that define Tony's world. She is from Brooklyn but lives in Manhattan; she is far more feminine than Annette and the other women of the disco, yet is capable of holding her own ground with the Faces. Stephanie also transcends Tony's sexist classification of women as virgins or whores. She is sexually involved with an older man, yet is sufficiently self-reliant and monogamous to refuse Tony's numerous sexual advances.

Stephanie's ability to mediate Tony's dilemma is realized in the film's final scenes. Tony's sense of alienation from his friends reaches a breaking point when he learns that a retaliatory fight against a rival Puerto Rican gang in which he reluctantly participated was misdirected. His frustration over 2001's limited relevance to his aspirations as a dancer is confirmed when he and Stephanie are awarded first prize in a dance contest on the basis of the judges' prejudicial attitude toward a superior Puerto Rican couple. As the rigged contest so clearly illustrates, "even the dance is vulnerable to the inconsistencies that . . . overshadow the rest of (Tony's] life."

Tony leaves the disco contest enraged and vents his anger by attempting to rape Stephanie in the back seat of a car. She violently deters his advances and returns to Manhattan. Stephanie's rejection of Tony's advances leads to his attempt to recover his wounded sense of manhood by joining the other Faces in their usual Saturday night ritual of acrobatic displays on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. On this particular occasion, however, Bobby C., Tony's most desperate and effeminate friend, is killed. The bridge thus serves as an apt metaphor for Tony's dilemma by revealing the precariousness of his macho values when applied to the complexities of adulthood. As the sun rises over Manhattan, Tony finds his way to Stephanie's apartment. A new relationship emerges from their meeting as Stephanie offers him friendship and forces him to reconsider his class-bound ways of perceiving. He resolves to move to Manhattan, and they embrace in an ambiguous final shot.

Saturday Night Fever thus portrays a middle-class woman as the tamer of a working-class man. Stephanie becomes a spokesperson for middle-class masculinity by forcing Tony to reconsider his boyish machismo and prodding him into a more mature strain of sensitivity.  However, Stephanie's decision to be Tony's friend rather than his lover celebrates her freedom to choose an independent lifestyle. Seven years later, the musical Flashdance argued that there could be no permanent sexual satisfaction for a woman who refuses a subordinate role. In doing so, Flashdance characterizes its male lead as the controller of its female lead's sexuality. . . .