The Feminist Moment In “Groundhog Day” You Might Have Missed

The superhero scale of Wonder Woman’s feminism has been getting a lot of well-deserved praise. (Even a jiggle of Wonder Woman’s thigh inspired a body-positive Tumblr post about the male gaze that has gone viral.)

Sure, Wonder Woman’s feminist power pose is mighty, both literally in the form of Gal Gadot and figuratively in the impact she is having on audiences (and studio executives.) But there’s another character making a statement about women in movies. It’s happening live, eight times a week, at the August Wilson Theater on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Her name is Nancy.

Nancy steps alone into the spotlight at the opening of Act 2 of Groundhog Day: The Musical. The moment is both as unexpected as it is moving. Having trouble remembering her? Nancy Taylor is a minor character in the original 1993 movie. In the movie, Nancy shares an awkward one-night stand with Bill Murray’s Phil Connors. She only has a couple of minutes of screen time. She’s pretty. She’s fun. She’s a punchline. That’s all there is to the big screen Nancy. In the musical, she isn’t much more. That is, until that moment at the start of the second act.

Tim Minchin, composer and lyricist for Groundhog Day: The Musical, gives Nancy some redemption with that spotlight moment. “Playing Nancy” forces the audience not only to see Nancy but to listen to her. He uses the moment as a chance to improve on the original, a chance to look the Bechdel Test straight in the eye for a story that doesn’t. (Even so, both the movie and the musical come up short by Bechdel standards.)

Nancy challenges the audience to examine the role of women in film and in society. Minchin’s words speak for themselves: “I’ll play whatever role I’m cast in,” Rebecca Faulkenberry as Nancy sings. “If you look good in tight jeans, that’s what they’ll want you dressed in.” Then, finally: “Who am I to dream of better?/To dream that one day I’ll be something more than just collateral in someone else’s battle/I will be something more than Nancy.

In a show filled with physical comedy and a score that gives an exaggerated wink to the pop motifs of the movie’s original music, “Playing Nancy” is a meta exercise in female empowerment.

Groundhog Day is a story about redefining yourself and grappling with the existential challenges we tackle every day, whether that day’s challenges are new or soul-crushingly familiar.

“Playing Nancy” is at once both off-putting and engaging. From a storytelling perspective, the song makes no sense. There is no narrative reason for the audience to get to know Nancy better and perhaps that’s why, in the original film, we never did. But, perhaps, the reasons of the original are more sinister, if unintended. Nancy is simply another obstacle in Phil Connors’ journey, less important than the ever-present alarm clock announcing 6:00 AM. Nancy isn’t a real person. She’s just one of the things Phil manipulates along the way. One of the brutal ironies of romantic comedy tropes is that there is only room for one happy ending and Groundhog Day reserves that for Rita, Phil’s producer and love interest, not Nancy.

For every Wonder Woman, there are a hundred Nancys, even now, but Minchin’s acknowledgment of this one Nancy is a powerful thing. As Minchin has said about the show, “It’s deeply profound in a very gentle way.”

Safari, so good.

I love safari adventures. I mean, I’ve never been on one, and I’m not much for outdoorsy-type things. I hate bugs and have a debilitating fear of snakes. So maybe I should be more precise: I love the idea of safari adventure. Or maybe even more precise: I love the idea of safari adventures as presented by Disney’s Jungle Cruise and Banana Republic. Not the Banana Republic we have today, oh no. The Banana Republic we had in the 80s when there were actual, antique British Jeeps displayed in stores and filled with t-shirts with elephants and zebras on the back. Mosquito nets hung from the ceilings and some of the clothes and accessories were legit army surplus. I bought a surplus utility belt that was olive drab and put a heavy emphasis on the utility part of utility belt. My mom bought a flight suit-styled jumpsuit in all three colors: khaki, gray, and, of course, olive drab. Sometimes she borrowed my utility belt. 

banana republic

I owned a pith helmet. Seriously. I wore it to band camp. Don’t judge me. I wasn’t the only one. It was Ft. Lauderdale in the 80s; if you weren’t wearing a Banana Republic t-shirt, you probably were wearing one from Panama Jack. Panama’s and pith’s keep you cool in the tropics. Mine was pink. (You can buy one all your own on eBay.)

I have always maintained, and will continue to do so, that my dream job is boat captain on Disney’s Jungle Cruise. I know how you stop a rhino from charging. Take away his credit card. I could maneuver the boat past Schweitzer falls to share with happy, tired, sweaty park goers a “sight rarely seen by human eyes: the back of water!” (I am not the only person who loves the Jungle Cruise. Check out this awesome tribute site.)

The Explorers Club, a new play from Nell Benjamin, was, for me, the theater equivalent of riding the Jungle Cruise while wearing a Banana Republic t-shirt and a Panama Jack pith helmet. The play certainly lives up to reviews: “Comic gold!” raves the Daily News. “Wildly Funny!” says Variety. But, for explorers and safari adventurers like myself, it is so much more.

IMG_0437It has everything: a ground breaking female adventurer, a native from a lost city, uptight Englishmen, and a guinea pig named Jane. The cast is beyond fantastic, the play is hysterical, and the set decoration is my posh Victorian safari dream come to life. There are shrunken heads behind the bar, a magnificent globe in the corner, and a stuffed walrus, amongst other things, on the wall. (Being a thoroughly modern production, they encourage you to take pictures of the set and share them on the social media platform of your choice. Voilá!)

I recently read an article about the newly remodeled Four Seasons in the Serengeti in Tanzania.  It takes like twenty-nine hours to get there, but, once you’re there, you don’t have to ride in a bumpy jeep or sleep in tent. The hotel pools are next to some of the watering holes. The elephants come to you! And so do the cocktails. The explorers in The Explorers Club would be so proud.

Unfortunately, the price of such an adventure still requires a Royal sponsor or, at least, an internet guru’s fortune. So I’ll just turn on The African Queen, pour myself a tumbler of scotch, and pop on the pith helmet. Or maybe watch those YouTube clips of The Explorers Club one more time.IMG_0443