Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Bookish Women: Examining the Textual and Embodied Construction of Scholarly and Literary Women in American Musicals

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Michael Ellison (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Andrew Pelletier (Other)

Third Advisor

Angela Ahlgren (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Cynthia Baron (Committee Member)


Scholarly and literary women are some of the most beloved characters on the musical stage, yet the importance of these character’s intelligence and creativity has received virtually no scholarly attention. In this study I seek to understand how intelligent and creative heroines are constructed in American musicals and whether they are empowered feminist role models. Relying on an understanding of women’s intellectual history and the slow and inconsistent growth of women’s broader acceptance as intellectual and creative experts, I strongly suggest that the reading, writing, teaching, and studying activities of bookish female characters in musicals offer us an opportunity to speak back to and re-envision our feminist and intellectual histories and oppressions. Furthermore, I argue that the musical form is uniquely suited to the representation of bookish women who empower themselves and others through their bookish activities. When bookish women are able to reveal their intellectual and creative inner life, we see more clearly how they exhibit attitudes and action whereby they claim power themselves and others.

Seven traits common in the construction of bookish women in musicals are also identified and deployed. These traits make legible the empowering use and effect of bookishness in the character’s personality and experience. These include 1) their adaptation from film and literature sources; 2) their heroine journeys of development or becoming (sometimes referred to as a bildungsroman(e); 3) their experience of marginalization in their community and/or expression of feelings of marginalization that are sometimes due to, or exacerbated by, their bookishness; 4) experience of prolonged singleness or expectations of prolonged singleness; 5) their comparison with non-bookish women; 6) their significant father/daughter relationships, often because of the absence of a mother; 7) and their resistance to racialized and gendered stereotypes. Using a variety of theoretical lenses, I examined the following bookish characters: Jean Webster (Daddy Long Legs, 2015), Matilda Wormwood (Matilda 2013), Katherine Plummer (Newsies, 2012), Elphaba (Wicked, 2004), Nina Rosario (In the Heights, 2008), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde, 2007), and Nettie (The Color Purple, 2005).