I love Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and a generous portion of my affinity for it comes from my admiration for the main character, Milly.
I’ve probably seen it close to a hundred times – at least. Even as a kid, I was attracted to Milly’s character and wanted to be like her when I grew up. Now as an adult, I still want to be like Milly when I grow up.
In previous musings on the portrayal of femininity in film, I’ve often questioned the way we demonstrate that a female character is strong. We seem to have this automatic association of strength with physicality, as if the only way to be a strong character is to be physically strong. Or even if a film concedes that strength can come from intellectual prowess, it’s still a matter of overpowering other characters. So culturally, we believe that strength equals wielding power over others (or at least the potential to wield power over others). Heroes are only heroes if they are smarter or stronger or faster or better shooters or better dancers or better athletes… in all cases, somehow superior to the antagonist. Often, becoming superior or realizing that they already are superior is the character’s arc. Okay.
What I love about Milly is that she’s not stronger or smarter than her husband or her brothers (more educated, perhaps, but that’s external to her character). She’s sassy, she’s spunky, she’s strong-willed. But these things only make her an interesting character. What makes her the heroine is her outstanding feminine virtue.
Let me give you concrete examples… and context.
The movie starts with Adam Pontipee (played by Howard Keel) coming into town from his isolated mountain home where he lives with his six younger brothers (this is Oregon Territory, 1850, mind you) in search of a wife. His idea of a wife is someone to cook and clean for him and his brothers. He chooses Milly. Milly, even though she’s only known Adam for about five minutes, falls hard and fast, and besides, she’s always dreamt of being married with a home of her very own. So – arguably not the most prudent decision, but for the time and place and for the sake of getting on with the story, we’ll suspend our disbelief – Milly marries Adam and goes home with him.
Only she doesn’t know about the six other brothers. And she doesn’t know that Adam is more interested in having a cook than a wife.
Until she arrives…
She’s devastated at the reality of things, of course. And for a moment, we think she might give up. But – and this is my favorite moment, a moment that really defines who she is and who I want to be – she rolls up her sleeves and submits herself anyway. Not in a defeated way, but as in a way that exudes determination and fortitude – and kudos to Jane Powell for her performance showing us that difference without saying a single word. She cooks and cleans for all seven brothers.
That night, however, she takes her stand – she tells Adam that she will not live with him as his wife if he’s not going to love her like one. If she’s nothing more than a servant girl to him, she deserves a room of her own. Adam apologizes, but it will take the rest of the movie for him to understand what Milly’s talking about. This balance of submitting to Adam while at the same time never allowing him to use or abuse her makes her a strong and truly feminine hero, I think.
What Milly demands of Adam she also demands of her brothers when they begin to pursue marriage. She demands that they treat women with respect and love, but she never nags them or demeans their masculinity.
Our culture probably thinks I’m crazy – to most people, I’m sure Milly is the poster girl for women oppressed by a misogynistic, patriarchal society. But those people are only looking at the surface. If you look at Milly’s character, you’ll see that her willingness to serve and expectation to be loved by her husband – not simply admired or liked or lusted after, but truly, self-sacrificially loved – transforms the men around her into good men. That’s spiritual strength, strength of virtue.
And if you ask me, that’s the kind of heroine worth looking up to.