Westside Story: Foreshadowing the Rise of the Feminine Age
I think I was nineteen years old when my Mom introduced me to the 1961 movie, “Westside Story” (based on the Broadway musical by Jerome Robbins/Arthur Laurents), and the movie’s images, and story never left my consciousness. For decades after that first viewing, I experienced a reoccurring dream where I’m backstage preparing to audition for the role of Maria or in another scenario I landed the role and wait backstage for my cue.
My early interpretation of this dream had me questioning if I missed out on a career as a stage actress, yet I had no dramatic training, even if my life in my twenties and thirties contained plenty of real life drama, mostly of my own making. So this reoccurring dream continued for years after I could have played the role of the virginal Maria. So what did any of this mean?
My love for this story has not diminished since my first viewing of it. And concurrently, I’ve involved myself in alternative spiritual practices that promise to usher in the age of the feminine, or I could say, the next age of the feminine, since hundreds of thousands of years ago, another feminine age existed. And somewhere in our primal brains, we remember this age.
My other interpretation has more to do with my heritage. My mother’s side of the family arrived in the Americas from Spain, and resided mainly in Puerto Rico and my grandfather in the Philippines. I remember hearing stories during my childhood about my Grandmother Celina Davila arriving in Brooklyn in the 1920s from Puerto Rico. She worked as a seamstress, most likely in a sweatshop, but perhaps she worked in a bridal shop like the character Maria. In any case, though one story took place in the 1920s and the other some 30 years later, I connected my grandmother to the beautiful Maria. Oddly enough, my grandmother also sang soprano and I was told she had a beautiful voice.
So I watched “Westside Story” again last night because it’s been a few years since I last watched the movie. Once again, I was carried through it by my strong emotions and attachment to the story. I didn’t just identify with Maria, but also with Anita, Tony, Bernardo, and all the characters that made tough decisions and couldn’t keep a cool head while doing so, such is a nature of a tragedy.
But this time instead of just reflecting on my Puerto Rican roots and the way my relations were mistreated when they arrived in “America,” I saw something else. I witnessed the foreshadowing of the arrival of the feminine age, mainly through the women characters in the movie and the restless energy they portrayed. I saw also through Tony, a man trying desperately to get in touch with his feminine side, against the patriarchal gang’s wishes. Does any of this sound familiar to you men out there?
So here’s the story as I see it mirroring the age we have recently entered. Wounded young men empower themselves by claiming their turf. Remembering their lineages of warriors, soldiers, and possibly colonialism, they subconsciously act out the role of dominator even though they feel dominated by society. Forget that they’re teenagers rebelling against authority, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Something else happens on a deeper level that’s embedded in the ancestral DNA.
So here comes a foreign gang, The Sharks, just off the boat from Puerto Rico. They’re not welcome because they’re different and a threat to The Jets. But if you look at this historically, you can see the patriarchal era and its cruelty, not to mention tragedy played out. The divide and conquer mentality rears its head, along with control and manipulation. Instead of the Puerto Ricans and the Anglo-Americans seeing what oppression they share in common, a fight for turf and power breaks out. And by living this way, peace isn’t possible and neither is healthy change for the community. This patriarchal mentality only leads to more battles, more wars, more blame, and less forgiveness because who can forgive under these circumstances?
Meanwhile on the softer side of things, the innocent Maria draped in a white dress (her communion gown transformed into something more womanly by her sisterly friend Anita) preparing to attend her first high school dance. This brings back my own memories of attending middle school dances in dresses my mother had sewn. However, unlike Maria, who met a soul mate Tony, I never met any boyfriends at these dances. And I guess I could be thankful that I didn’t if it would have ended in tragedy while young men staked out territory.
So Maria attends this dance and among the tension caused by the gang rivalries, she encounters Tony, the former leader of the Jets who left the gang to seek a new life. In today’s world Tony represents the average man as his feminine side calls out to him. He’s the everyday man who prefers to show women compassion and give them a fair shake instead of dominating them. But any man going through the throes ofthis type of transformation isn’t going to shift overnight. For every two steps forward Tony takes, he takes another three backwards. Yes, he’s left the gang, but still acts out of allegiance to his gang brothers. However, it’s not the way of life that keeps him stuck, but the love he feels for the gang member Rip.
Does any of this sound familiar?
On the women side of things, we have Velma (Rip’s promiscuous girlfriend), Maria (an innocent transformed into a wise woman through an initiation), Anita (experienced woman dealing with her own anger issues that lead her to betray Maria), and the tomboy (who promotes the patriarchal way).
If you look around in your life, you will see these roles played out on a grander scale. Velma represents women in the entertainment, fashion, and sex trades. Anita represents the foreign woman forging a life in a new land, Maria represents the virgin, the priestess initiate, and holy woman to an extent. And the tomboy represents women who for whatever reason have this need to make it in a man’s world, but not through the feminine way.
Clearly this young woman was dealing with her sexual identity during a dangerous time for this type of exploration (1950s). In a way, she represents the most tragic character in the story, even if she plays a minor role. She’s the androgynous woman who doesn’t fit in with the gang’s feminine girlfriends with all their makeup, fancy dresses, and perfume. And she certainly holds no candle to the holy Maria who represents the virgin-turned-tigress. She’s the type of woman who ended up in mental hospitals during the 1950s or shunned by her family or worse.
Okay, so maybe I’m getting a lot out of my viewing of “Westside Story,” but most of what I’ve gleaned on a spiritual level has come from popular entertainment or high literature. For instance, Joseph Campbell would agree with me on a lot of my assumptions gleaned from good story telling. Most of what Hollywood was producing in its early and middle years hailed back to the tragedies and comedies of the Greek myths. “Westside Story” with its dancing, singing, and beat poet dialogue, tells a powerful story that resonates so deeply that it produced reoccurring dreams in my psyche.
The story was also based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” popular entertainment from the Elizabethan Era which somehow was transformed into highbrow art over the centuries. And what I’m saying here is that Hollywood, popular literature, doesn’t need to supply its viewers and readers with cheap tawdry sex, violence, or fear to attract audiences. I think that a universal story told well will attract everyone to it. And why not include a spiritual message even if it’s only received on a subconscious level? Isn’t it our job as entertainers, composers, and creators to use our talents for the highest good? If we can make a difference than why don’t we move in a direction of telling a universal story?
From its razor sharp choreography, to its vaulting melodies, and tough speak dialogue, “Westside Story” proved that even a hip movie could provide substance for the soul. And if that final scene with Maria (Natalie Wood’s lifetime performance), transformed into a tigress protecting her dead lover Tony doesn’t yank your heart open, nothing ever will.