Hamilton, History, and the Bechdel Test

by | Sep 15, 2021 | Outlook

The unconventional treatment of our revolutionary beginnings with its brilliant lyrics and vibrant production made the show Hamilton a Broadway smash. It is the iconic embodiment of the hope of American multi-culturism with its use of hip-hop lyrics and the casting of actors of color in the roles of our founding fathers. This show was the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Uniquely qualified to play Alexander Hamilton who hailed from the Caribbean Island of Nevis, Miranda (himself of Puerto Rican heritage) portrays this immigrant hero with all of Hamilton’s genius and his flaws. Tickets for the original cast production became not only hard to come by but also prohibitively expensive. What supreme irony that this twenty-first century version of our history was out of the reach of the ordinary citizen! But on this July 4th weekend, with most of us shut away from traditional celebrations, for a mere $6.45 Disney+ subscription, we could stream a live-filmed performance of the entire show.

This chapter in the story of America’s beginnings is familiar to many of us: Hamilton serving Washington, clashing with Jefferson and Madison, and dying in a duel at the hands of Aaron Burr, a former friend and longtime rival. We know it because it has been taught to us in school. However, what was new to me was the story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Alexander’s wife and the mother of his children. Left almost destitute due to his debts and humiliated by public confessions of his infidelities, she nevertheless dedicated herself to telling his story and carrying his work forward. As I watched actress Phillipa Soo’s powerful portrayal, I was reminded of the Bechdel test and how this play was failing it.*

* The Bechdel test is a metric created by cartoonist and Burlington resident Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace to determine if women are being fairy represented onscreen. To pass the test, at least two female characters must have names and must talk to each other for at least a minute about something other than a man.

There was a second female story that came to light in the play – that of Angelica Schuyler, sister to Eliza. The actress portraying Angelica, Renée Elise Goldsberry, received a Tony for her electrifying performance. Her character was strongly attracted to Hamilton but ceded him to her sister, to whom she was devoted.

The arc of Angelica’s story is presented through episodes of her pining for Hamilton, interspersed with declarations of loyalty to her sister – and nothing more. This loyalty allows Angelica to be the support needed by the betrayed and then widowed Eliza. Their relationship is mediated solely by their connection with this formidable man. It was not clear in the play, and may not be to history either, whether Angelica had an actual liaison with Alexander, as we learn nothing else of Angelica or her story.

Eliza’s presence in the play grows as her anguish increases – anguish caused first by Alexander’s publicly revealed love affair, then by the death by duel of her treasured oldest son, and finally by the killing of Hamilton himself. She is portrayed as one would expect, singing bravely through her tears. But in the final minutes of the performance, we get to glimpse what a play titled Eliza could have been like. She lived for fifty years beyond Hamilton’s death – longer than his entire life. And in those fifty years, she carried on his legacy while laying the foundation of her own. In fast-paced hip-hop lyrics, she spits out a record of political activism and social justice. And in those brief but powerful moments, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton claims her place in history – and maybe someday in our history books.

But, of course, the play was not called Eliza. And it is not Miranda who has failed the Bechdel test; it is the telling of our history. And what is history? We think of it as a set of facts about what has occurred. But it is he (or she) who writes the history books who controls which (and whose) stories are told. I was recently struck by the cynical musings of a government official when asked whether he worried about his place in history. His smirk was notable as he paraphrased a famous quote: “History is written by the winners.” Our winners have traditionally been white Christian men.

This explains why the Bechdel test even had to exist. It has served to usher in awareness of the lopsided representation of women in the arts. It may now be time to apply it more broadly to our history. We know how hard women had to fight for the right to vote – a right gained 144 years after the Declaration of Independence. But now, at a time when we are again in a struggle to attain the full benefits of our society – benefits ranging from access to healthcare to the attainment of political influence at the highest levels – it is time to look at our history through a new lens. Not to obliterate the stories already told, but to add to them as we navigate the way forward to establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty for all in a more perfect union.