Girls’ Studies: I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen

This week’s girls’ studies post is a critical analysis of the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music.   While my first reaction to watching this scene on YouTube was to sing along and dance a little, I quickly realized the messages that the song sends are somewhat outdated and a little bit shocking.

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The song begins by claiming that girls who are sixteen, going on seventeen, are waiting for life to start.  This is absolutely true.  I remember being sixteen and wishing that I could wake up one day middle-aged, in a home with a husband and children and a routine that I could call my own.  I did not imagine any sort of career plans in this wish, but at that time I did want to be either an architect or a hair stylist.  This was as far as I could see.

The song suggests that a girl’s life will begin when a man comes along and makes her his wife.  It says, “You belong to him.”  While I am not against marriage, I am against the idea that women are property.  Not long ago, this was a reality, the complications of which we see playing out on Downton Abbey each Sunday night.  When women are property, they cannot own property or inherit or be considered capable of running an estate.  (And that’s only if they were “lucky” enough to have an estate to run.)  So while growing up and getting married does seem as if life will then begin, the messages about that “adventure” in the song tend to promote the idea that women are objects.

The implication of this message is that women will discount their own strengths and see themselves as valuable only when they belong to another person, instead of belonging to themselves and being confident in their own abilities and in their own right.  It also suggests that women cannot care for themselves and that they must be married to be secure economically.  This is an idea that I have seen play out culturally, and I’m sure many women still feel this way.  Yet I have also seen countless divorces in which the woman must fend for herself.  It breaks my heart, but getting an education first and being able to provide for one’s self, rather than planning on a husband, is needed.  As my one of my favorite sayings goes, “A man is not a financial plan.”

I also disliked the song’s line about old ideas being gone once you meet that man.  It suggests that young women should give up their ambitions and dreams as soon as they belong to somebody.  I view marriage differently.  I see women and men as equals who work together to make both of their dreams come true.  I’ll never forget when my husband said to me, “It’s my turn to support you,” when I began working on a Ph.D.   We knew that my return to school would be stressful and time-consuming and difficult, but he was willing to make that happen.  Additionally, we have always shared household chores and bedtimes and homework with the children.  We are a partnership.  I’m not his property, and he’s not mine.  Based on the lyrics of the song, this is a relatively new way to enact marriage, but I see most people doing it now, which is why the song may be so disturbing.  Its ideas are foreign to us now.

I would like to point out one of the nice things about the song.  The first few lines mention that this man, who is destined to come along, will be “kind.”  I do appreciate this sentiment, for men should be kind to women and vice versa.  A marriage should have a measure of kindness, respect, and esteem for both involved.  This is certainly a universal idea that can be applied to marriage, and I see it as relevant today.  Young women should marry a kind man, especially given the advice in the book Zenzele that I reviewed a few weeks ago.  The mother in that book suggested that the first love of your life will make your hands tremble but perhaps not make the best husband.  She went on to explain that the second love will make your hands steady and will be reliable.  She advised that this was the marrying kind of man.

Lastly, the song ends with the positive message that this marriage shouldn’t occur for at least another “year or two.”  While that would only make the sixteen-year-old around eighteen, it is still a lovely idea to wait.  Nowadays, the young women I know get married later than what I saw when I was dating.  I do think it is important to date the person you plan to marry for a while and to wait until you are ready for that commitment.  I remember my mom talking to us about waiting to get married and about dating somebody for a while before doing so.  I think this is an idea that most parents would be comfortable with.

Overall, the song disturbed me in a way that it wouldn’t have a few years ago, but I still love the music from The Sound of Music.  We watched the film with my daughter a few months ago as one of her assignments for piano lessons.  She enjoyed it, and I enjoyed revisiting it.

I did not watch the Carrie Underwood version of The Sound of Music that aired live on NBC a few weeks ago.  Did any of you?  Was it any good?

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53 thoughts on “Girls’ Studies: I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen

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  1. I love your line, “A man is not a financial plan.” And, were I a man, I don’t think I would want a wife who didn’t plan to become a partner in supporting the family financially or at least getting the training to do so in the event that I, the breadwinner became unable to do that, even though I was “sixteen going on seventeen” when this movie came out. That’s a lot of pressure for a husband! There is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mom when the situation seems to indicate it, but that “career” lasts only a while. One the other side of my career, at nearly 65, I can’t imagine not having had a career outside the home. Every woman, however, is entitled to her own opinion and must follow her heart as to what is right for her.

    1. Yes! Exactly right, Stephanie. Also, I love your point about a man wanting a partner who will also be part of financial decisions and support and ultimately be a partner. I would assume that most men don’t want property or a servant, but a partner. Thanks for that!

    2. I love this, Stephanie! And I love that line, “A man is not a financial plan,” which is kind of funny in my case because my husband is a financial planner. But still not my plan. 🙂 I grew up with my parents telling me I always had to work hard, do my best, and earn whatever I wanted, so I thought it would be weird to get married and suddenly not have to earn anything for myself. It seemed very unfair to men.

  2. Emily, great post. Ironically, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about my first movie which was “Sound of Music.” My thrust there was to discuss Maria speaking up for herself and rebelling against convention. Yet, your post above is also quite accurate. What may have been more understandable as part of the then societal norms, is not now.

    There was a study highlighted earlier this week about the increasing number of women in poverty. Also, in my volunteer work, I often cite the statistic that the fastest growing population of homeless people in the US is mothers with children. The group I volunteer with helps homeless families, about 85% are headed by one parent – a female. These women work, but are living beneath paycheck to paycheck. Some of have been victims of domestic violence, some have been victims of bad choices and mistakes with their male partners.

    But, please note, it is hard to make ends meet with only one parent. So, women need to think differently now, looking to make their own way. I was very impressed with the mother’s advice in Zenzele, about finding the right life partner. If you raise a family, having that right partner makes a huge difference as being a parent is a hard job, even harder to do alone. And, as society, we need to make sure opportunities exist for all people, especially women who still have some glass ceilings to break through.

    Many thanks, BTG

    1. Thanks for the great comment, BTG. I was surprised to learn just how much we have vilified single women through another course I took on the culture and politics of motherhood. There are a lot of problems facing women because of some of the issues you mentioned.

      1. Emily, to your point, I read an article about poverty and unmarried mothers. The solution from this conservative advocacy group were myopic, in my view. The solutions are larger and complex and include holistic sex education (self esteem, abstinence, what no means, and birth control) for teens. The solutions include domestic violence awareness (30% of our homeless mothers we help are DV victims). The solution include teaching engaged couples that marriage is hard work. And, so much more. Thanks for the dialogue on this, BTG

  3. There’s also the other side of it- what Rolf is singing back to Leisl! He goes on reinforcing the belief that Leisl doesn’t know anything, and presents himself as a protector or savior. And Leisl sings, “I need someone / older and wiser/ telling me what to do / You are seventeen / going on eighteen / I’ll depend on you.” Yikes!

    1. Interesting. I watched a short clip of the song with Maria and Leisl for this assignment, but that sounds like it adds to the main themes I saw. Thanks for adding that in!

  4. I haven’t seen The Sound of Music since I was about 8 or 9. I loved the songs and I had a wonderful singing teacher who played lots of songs from musicals on the piano, including The Sound of Music. Over a decade later, I can still sing Do, Re, Mi (one of my favourites from The Sound of Music) from memory. I sang it to my three-year-old niece when I was looking after her a few days ago and she loved the tune.

    Of course, at that young age I wasn’t thinking about the deeper meanings of the lyrics. But the song certainly has a very antiquated attitude to the role of women, relationships and marriage.

    Stephanie’s comment is very interesting and I would certainly hope that most men want an equal partner, rather than “property or a servant”. In terms of earnings, however, I think a lot of men today still feel that they must be the main breadwinner in a household. I read a very interesting article in The Guardian a while ago which was about women who were the higher earners in a marriage, rather than the men.

    Here’s a quote (my emphasis): “Heterosexual couples who both work are happier, right up until the point where the female partner starts to out-earn her husband; then, marital satisfaction dips and divorce rates increase. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/06/breadwinner-moms-equality)

    This isn’t the first article I have seen or read about women out-earning their partners/husbands. Apparently some men feel emasculated because their wife brings home a higher salary than they do. I find it sobering to think that some marriages and relationships are under strain, simply because the woman earns more than the man.

    Anyway, I hope I haven’t gone too far off-topic. I’ll stop here before this comment turns into an essay!

    1. Grace, that is fascinating and now that you mention it, I’ve seen those same articles and studies. I think it depends on the man and the context, but I can see where that would be true. I hope that attitudes are changing! And yes, the music is fabulous. Such a great bunch of tunes and lyrics.

  5. You might look at it a different way. I think that the audience is supposed to feel the irony of a seventeen-year-old boy and a sixteen-year-old girl thinking he is more knowledgeable and worldy wise and has to guide her. It is supposed to be more of a comic and cute song about these young people’s illusions than a romantic one. I don’t really like the song, but I think everyone is taking it a little too seriously. This is what the kids think life is supposed to be like, but they’re just kids, so they are clueless. The whole phrase “sixteen going on seventeen” gives it away, because only children talk of their age this way. An adult doesn’t say she’s “twenty-nine going on thirty.” Also, you have to keep in mind both what time period the song is supposed to be sung in (the 1930s) and when it was written (the 1950s? 1960s? I’m not sure when Sound of Music was written for Broadway).

  6. The Carrie Underwood version was based off of the play so it was definelty different than the movie. I enjoyed the music, but the acting is not Carrie Underwoods fortay. I enjoyed this post, I often time analyze the lyrics of songs. It’s fun.

  7. It’s a lovely little wistful song that doesn’t deserve the back-breaking weight of academic analysis. Better to pick on the female-hating rappers.

    1. True, but this was a class assignment, so I had to! And because I am interested in historical constructions of gender I think such an exercise isn’t worthless.

    2. You know, the more I think about it, could a song like this be more “damaging” and have more power than a rapper’s song because of its reach, widespread appeal, and general acceptance without scrutiny? I think that angle is worth considering.

      1. I was just thinking that too, Emily. Perhaps because we accept it’s simplicity and innocence is where the very danger lies. Little girls, and boys, believe these themes to be true and they get that message from simply innocent social cues like music and movies.

    3. The fact that it’s a lovely little wistful song is deceptive… it shows just how much this thinking has become engrained in our society, especially in the minds of young women. Thankfully, as Emily pointed out, a lot of that is changing.

  8. I enjoyed this song very much when I was much younger, but I agree as we age, it just leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. I suppose it was all right for those times though, so take it with a pinch of salt.

  9. Yep, I’ve been pretty horrified by this song since I hit teenagerhood myself. Shudder. Even worse, to my mind, is the redux version between Maria and Liesel in the second half of the movie.

    That said, I do love The Sound of Music, and can’t imagine why they thought remaking it was a good idea.

        1. Oh, no, Carolyn. I wasn’t trying to come across as scolding you. I was just trying to say that it was the version I used and therefore why my interpretation was as feminist as it was… I always seem to type too quickly and then not reread what I’ve responded to make sure that it makes sense and that I communicated all of what I was trying to say. I am sorry!

          1. Don’t be sorry — I would never take your tone as scolding! I just felt sheepish because it’s (now) obvious which version you were referring to. I had the picture of the gazebo in mind.

  10. It’s a relief to know we’ve come some way since then. Just looking at the books and movies that my 9 y/o has access to now – all the different and strong female characters – makes me realize how differently his view of gender is going to be. I shudder to think what may have been in the books and lyrics that I was exposed to while I was growing up…which probably explains why I didn’t become a feminist until I attended a women’s college.

    1. It is so hard to recognize the subtle messages when we are so entrenched in it. This can extend to advertising and other types of messages. It is hard to wade through it all.

  11. When I was young I watched The Sound of Music over and over. I don’t know how I felt the first time I heard this song, but after a while as I got older, I realised the irony in it. Liesel turns out to be the stronger more moral character while Rolf is the easily lead Nazi sympathiser. I think the purpose of the song in the story may be to show us how a young girl can learn and grow into her own person.

    1. I like this interpretation. I wasn’t at all thinking of the overall story and out of context isn’t the best way to look at it. Thanks for your comments. 🙂

  12. I love the Sound Music – probably know every line. But I never thought too much about the message in the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”. That is a great analysis. I agree that the term “belong” should never apply to a person because a person is not property. I do question though whether the lines “Gone are your old ideas of life/The old ideas grow dim” refers to a woman’s ambitions. Maybe the “old ideas” refer to the ideas the man and the woman had about marriage prior to the wedding. .

    1. I like this. You are right that the old ideas are certainly open for interpretation and perhaps they mean something different to each of us depending on our own experiences. Thanks for sharing!

  13. It is an excellent write up Emily. Your observations are most pertinent in today’s life…old songs need to be re-written sometimes! Spouses ought to unlearn a lot of cultural crap which is not so easy at times. But the crap has to go…!

  14. THANK YOU! I hate it when girls my age and slightly older/younger idolize films like “The Sound of Music” or “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” because they are “romantic.” That darn word holds so much hidden misogyny I can’t even begin to describe. That said, I watched this movie many times as a kid and never identified with the silly Liesl; I much preferred the independent Maria.

  15. I have to voice my agreement with some of the comments here which point out that the song has a very different meaning when taken in its context. The first version of the song, between Rolf and Liesl, is absolutely meant to a) point out the over-romanticism of young love, and b) foreshadow the downfall of the cocksure Rolf. Even Liesl, with her first young crush, shows that she thinks Rolf is overdoing it a little bit, smirking and nearly rolling her eyes. The Reprise with Maria evokes her own relationship with Liesl’s father – that she won him over by being strong enough to stand up to him! Even though many of the words used are the same, the meaning is completely different when spoken by the 17-year-old Hitler Youth and the 30?-year-old ex-nun. In the end of the movie, the new husband and wife work *together* side-by-side to risk their lives to save their children, with both parents equally important. Maria’s version is meant to demonstrate to Liesl that “take care of” and “depend on” don’t have to do only with finances and physical prowess; both parents provide care to the needs of the other, and to the children. Obviously in this case some of those roles are gender-traditional. I have always loved this movie, and saw it as being primarily about the strength of Maria. All of the men in this movie who try to show off their power wind up being taken down a few notches, and it is ultimately nuns – women with no use for men – who save the day. Could it be “better” from a feminist perspective? Sure. But if it is taken in context, it is nowhere near as bad as you make it out to be.

  16. This song always made me really angry, “you need somebody older and wiser, telling you what to do”. No, she really doesn’t. Which one of you is the paid up member of the Nazi party, Rolfe? Arrrgh.

  17. Just for the record, the song was written as a lyrical irony. She was meant to be portrayed as much more mature than he, in both the original 1959 Broadway Play, and in the movie. Much of what she is saying is meant as a tongue in cheek objection to stereotypical marriage roles.

    The director of both the play (and the movie) would each agree with your objections to stereotypes, but I suspect they would both be disappointed that you did not pick up on the fact that the song was trying to poke fun at those stereotypes.

  18. You missed the whole point of the song.

    “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” cannot be judged by its lyrics alone; the performance in the original movie is an essential part of the song’s real meaning. If you only go by the lyrics, of course you’re going to draw the wrong conclusion.

    As Liesl is singing the song, she is flirting aggressively with Rolf, invading his personal space and grinning suggestively and practically begging him to romantically engage with her. The lyrics are meant to be flirtatiously coy – she’s playfully _pretending_ to be meek and submissive, while ironically being the more dominant member in their courtship.

    Rolf’s side of it is showing that he’s still immature, thinking that manliness comes from stereotypical misogynist nonsense. He is several times visibly uncomfortable by Liesl’s seduction. The irony of the song is that the gender roles playing out in reality are the opposite of the gender roles being sung about. Rolf is a clueless fish on a hook, bespelled by a Liesl who knows exactly what she’s doing.

    I was disappointed by the song in the remake, where it was played straight and therefore lost all its meaning and really _did_ become misogynist. In the original movie, however, the performance contained a lot of tongue-in-cheek irony.

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