Last week, the Internet exploded with the scandal of Josh Duggar (and thousands of others) using the affair-seeking site Ashley Madison.
Also last week, I listened to the soundtrack of Into the Woods for the first time. (And then about twelve more times between the Broadway and movie versions, because I go in loops like that. Don’t judge my listening habits.) So a fairy-tale sendup musical, strangely, became a frame for thinking about adultery, Christians falling from grace, and how our culture decides what’s right and what’s wrong.
Like most fairy tales (ask basically any Inkling ever—I’ve read essays/chapters by Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton on this), Into the Woods makes some clear statements about morality, ones that I found super interesting given the media attention to the Duggar scandal.
One clear villain among all the gray characters of the show is the Wolf. When Red reminds him that her mother informed her to follow the path and never stray, he smoothly affirms the advice…sort of. “Just so, little girl, any path. So many worth exploring! Just one would be so boring!”
Of course, we all know that didn’t end well.
Meanwhile, a few scenes over, Prince Charming articulates the modern approach to morality while attempting to seduce the Baker’s Wife: “Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods, only feelings.”
So, is that what Into the Woods is doing? Glamorizing adultery? Probably not, because the Prince also sings this line to the Baker’s Wife, “Days are made of moments, all are worth exploring. Many kinds of moments—none is worth ignoring….One would be so boring.”
We heard those lines before? Oh yeah, back in the creepy song with the Big Bad Wolf. Guys, I’m not gonna go all literary-theory on you here, but when a writer repeats the exact same lyric for two characters, he’s trying to draw a parallel.
I would say, though, that while it seems that the Prince’s serial womanizing is rightly shown as really bad, the Baker’s Wife gets off pretty easy here. Instead of regretting her “moment” with Charming, she vows to remember it, deciding that it makes going back to her husband mean “more than it did before.” So…that’s a little confusing.
In the same way, it’s interesting to see the outrage that people are showing over the Ashley Madison leak…when those same people wouldn’t be outraged at the hundreds of romance novels and movies where a man who has fallen “out of love” with his wife finds solace with some other woman, his true “soul mate.”
Why the disconnect? Why is our culture okay with abortion, no-fault divorce, casual sex, abusive fictional porn, and more…but not Josh Duggar creating an account on a site that assists you in having an affair?
Maybe Into the Woods can give us a hint at that too.
As I was listening to the soundtrack, I found myself nodding along pretty much every value judgment the songs were making. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, here’s a review: you should stay on the one correct path rather than following whichever one looks most exciting. Adultery is wrong. Even small misdeeds like lies and thefts have serious consequences, not just for you, but for those around you (like, you know, ¾ of the cast dying by the end of the play). And running from your responsibilities just to gain freedom isn’t a good trade.
Good. Totally on board with all of this. 100%.
And then, in the moral-of-the-story song at the end of the show from the heroes who managed not to get squashed by giants, Sondheim offers up this crowning solution: “You decide what’s good.”
Excuse me, what?
There is literally nothing in the entire rest of the musical that leads to this conclusion. Nothing. (If the actual movie gives this line context that the soundtrack doesn’t, please, please let me know. I’ll feel better.)
The first time I listened to “You Are Not Alone,” I felt like saying, “This is ridiculous. I’m in the wrong story,” like the moral had been cut and pasted from a different tale onto this one.
Guys, the Wolf and the Prince decided what was right for them. And it involved eating a little girl and seducing whatever new pretty woman happened by. The musical made it quite clear that this was not a good thing.
Yet we still get the Baker wondering, “Who can say what’s true?” And I think, “Um, anyone who’s been listening to the past two hours of singing and fighting and dying!”
The problem is, there is no God in Into the Woods…just the Witch and the world. Just a glimmer in the darkness and a vague promise that “You are not alone.”
I think the musical got as much right as it did because there are morals built into our world, and fairy tales especially show that we believe certain things are right or wrong. We know who to cheer for. We know what choices make us sad and which ones are heroic and brave. You can’t create a good story without giving nods to the common law of morality inside all of us. It won’t hold together.
Prince Charming seducing the Baker’s Wife isn’t wrong because it makes us angry. We get angry because it’s wrong, and something in us knows it.
Josh Duggar cheating on his wife isn’t wrong because it makes us angry. We get angry because it’s wrong…only no one wants to really admit that.
Historically, coming to our own conclusions about morality is a really terrible idea. Cinderella’s “You decide what’s good” is basically Judges’ “And every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Read that book to watch the total degeneration of Israel. The Baker’s “Who can say what’s true?” is basically Pilate’s “What is truth?” Read that story to see a rational man with good intentions condemn an innocent man.
This is what happens when we decide what’s good.
In the same song, Cinderella and the Baker admit, “People make mistakes.” Although I think that’s a pretty generous way to describe the repeated moral failings of the flawed characters of the story, it’s true. Josh Duggar made a terrible mistake. I make terrible mistakes. So do you. We sin. We tell a little lie, steal a little gold, break a little vow…and we look back at the mess we’ve made.
And then hopefully look somewhere other than our broken, sinful selves for right and wrong, because there’s no other way to get a happy ending.