West Side Story is a contemporary rendition of Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet. Set in the late 1950s in the west side of New York, gang rivalry and love story all in one. To todays standards these two gangs are more likely to be compared to a chess club than a gang. The two rival gangs are comprised of descendants of European immigrants (Jets), and the other Puerto Rican (Sharks). The element of racism is very apparent, but it is the underlying racism/ racial stereotypes and gendering in this film that influence an unsuspecting audience.
In the first scene the two gangs have contrasting racial and physical qualities. Most of the Jets are blonde, strong and healthy. Where as the Sharks are all dark haired and dark skinned, the white Americans speak first in most of the scenes, making derogatory remarks about the Puerto Ricans. In the first scene when the police show up the Puerto Ricans are ordered to leave. The police officer wishes to only speak with the Jets. The office making the following statement “Get your friends out of here, Bernardo, and stay out! Please!… Boy, oh, boy.
As if this neighborhood wasn’t crummy enough. Its as if the police dont have the time or the energy to deal with the Puerto Ricans, they are not worth their time. Not only is there racism in the movie there is also gendering. Women are seen as housewives that belong in the home, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. When Anybody a white female begs to join the Jets she is told to go home the streets are no place for a woman. Some of the Jets taunt her that no one would want to sleep with her, to them a a women’s status resides only in her beauty.
The women are present during the fight scenes, to watch and cheer on the men, but they are not good enough to fight alongside them. Anita reinforces the feisty sexually charged latino stereotype. She sings about how shes gonna get her kicks and have a private little mix with her boyfriend Bernardo in Tonight. Throughout the movie she tries to protect her best friend Maria and expresses her worry about Maria dating Tony. The Jets seem to look at women as nothing more than objects, and Tony is a Jet. Maria begs Anita to bring Tony a message at Docs candy store.
When she arrives she is taunted and encounters violence at the hands of the Jets. If Doc had not stepped out would Anita have been raped or were they just taunting her? This scene just reinforces the role of women in the eyes of the Jets. Between the two gangs a confrontation transpires, the Jets are looking to maintain their territory and social status, The Jets are not willing to give it up. The Jets prepare for a war/rumble. “We fought hard for this turf and we ain’t just going to give it up. These PR’s are different. They keep on coming like cockroaches.
It has been years since I originally watched this movie, and I was probably 15. I watched it with the innocence of a 15 year old in 1995. Watching this movie again 19 years later I was surprised. I know that it has always been a rivalry between gangs, but I never actually stopped to look at the racism or gendering within this movie. Not only is there blatant racism there were subtle moments of racism for instance Natalie Wood who plays Maria is not even Puerto Rican. The girl who played Anita her best friend could have easily played the lead role. She in my opinion is a far better actress.
Besides for the racism, I really enjoyed this movie again 19 years later. The acting could have been a little more convincing, but with the great dance scenes who needs acting! Overall this is a timeless film about the struggles of young immigrants in a harsh white neighborhood and lets not forget the love story. Under all this ugliness there is a beautiful love story, two innocent and unsuspecting kids fall hopelessly in love with the one person they are supposed to hate. They look past all the “hideous” features their friends and family see and plan to run away and be happy together.