By Dorothy Pomerantz
As a feminist, it’s easy to look down on Maria.
For starters, she’s a young girl who aspires to be a nun. There are few things more subservient than marrying Jesus. But she finds her true purpose as … mother to seven children.
She, of course, falls in love with their dreamy father, Captain Von Trapp, along the way. He’s a man who needs to be saved. After the death of his wife he turns cold and treats his children like cadets. Maria fulfills every woman’s fantasy by saving him and bringing out the warm, loving man buried beneath all of that cold anger. How dull.
With less music, more jokes (and a much shorter run time) The Sound of Music could be the worst kind of romantic comedy — one where the heroine redeems her juvenile boyfriend by dedicating herself to taking care of him.
But Maria is actually much more than that. She’s a rebellious gutsy broad.
Maria chafes against authority whenever she encounters it. Although part of her wants to be a good nun who quietly worships God in the convent, she can’t keep herself from climbing the hills surrounding Salzburg and singing to the wide-open sky. Although her sisters can’t see it, Maria has found her own way to worship — by communing with nature. When confronted by a group of scowling nuns when she’s late (again) for church, Maria rolls her eyes and throws up her hands. Although she’s exasperated with herself for always being late, you get the sense that she’s also exasperated by the narrow-minded nuns who can’t appreciate what she’s doing.
When the Mother Abbess throws Maria out of the convent to nanny for the seven Von Trapp children, Maria is terrified. But on the bus trip to the Von Trapp home she bucks herself up by singing one of my favorite songs of all time — “I Have Confidence.” Hands down my favorite scene in the movie is watching Maria go from being a terrified girl shut out of the convent gates to a confident woman marching bravely up to the door of the giant Von Trapp family home. There have been many times in my life when I’ve channeled that moment to push myself through an intimidating situation.
Maria’s bravery comes from an admirable combination of loving kindness and blunt truth. She tells the Captain what’s what, criticizing him for treating his children like a small army and never giving them time to play. At the same time she’s the best, most attentive mother ever. She teaches the children to sing and lets them all pile into bed with her during a thunderstorm.
And of course her bravery is infectious. When the family needs to run from Austria to escape the Nazis, they make a daring escape by foot over the mountains. Even though he is a fervent patriot, one feels that Von Trapp wouldn’t have had the drive to make such an escape without Maria by his side.
Maria is a small, modest person. Unlike many heroines, she’s not faced with a series of seemingly impossible obstacles. She’s not Katniss Everdeen. If things didn’t work out at the Von Trapp household, she could have gone back to being a nun. The fate of the world was not resting on her shoulders.
Today, we want our heroines big and bold. But I would argue there’s a lot to be learned from someone like Maria. We make small choices every day. We can choose to be kind and helpful or we can choose to be selfish. Sometimes it’s braver to be kind. Her victories are small but she’s still a gutsy broad.
More Gutsy Broads in Film
Dorothy Pomerantz is a Los Angeles-based journalist and longtime Forbes writer covering the entertainment industry. Read more of her work on Forbes.