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Voice Paper #2: On "Cell Block Tango"

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Watching Prisons: Intersections of Reality and Fantasy




The story goes that the success of a musical is contingent on an audience’s willingness to suspend their disbelief for a period of time, to release their grip on reality, however briefly, and to embrace something closer to fantasy.  Merriam-Webster’s defines the real as that which is “of or relating to fixed, permanent, or immovable things.”[1]  Comparatively, the denotation of fantastic is merely “not real” or “so extreme as to challenge belief.”[2]  Posed as antonyms in this way, reality and fantasy seem less like conscious (or subconscious) choices on the part of any individual and closer to fixtures of an objective world where omniscient beings, instead of men, offer dictionaries as direct descendants of the tablets God gave to Moses.  Of course, this world does not exist.  Instead we have one where people pay hundreds of dollars to bear witness to spectacles like musicals that prove that fantasy and reality are much closer than Merriam and Webster would like us to believe.  Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango” could belong to a more seductive Schoolhouse Rock where viewers can sit back and watch actresses playing incarcerated women who sing and dance the stories of their crimes.  The objectives of schools and prisons are not diametrically opposed but demonstrate how similar institutions are, no matter how different their stated objectives.  The singing, dancing inmates of Chicago are the same caricatures we meet on a form of media called “reality” television.  Hold tight to the same beliefs you learned in school, no suspension of disbelief required, and the effect of the show’s number is the same.

In the opening scene of “Cell Block Tango,”[3] Roxie, the newly incarcerated, pseudo-innocent waif sits back and watches as “the six merry murderesses of the Crookem County Jail” introduce themselves.  The camera pans from cell to cell, focusing on each woman’s hands tightly gripped around the iron bars while the slow beat of the tango matches the flashes the viewer gets of their faces and bodies (apparently this jail allows makeup and skintight jumpsuits).  Suffice it to say, these woman are femme fatales to the extreme, perhaps even sirens whose songs about killing their lovers draw us into their deviant worlds.  It might be tempting to dismiss the number as ridiculous; however, the video never strays from conventional stereotypes about offending women as hypersexualized, ruthless, unrepentant opportunists. 

Though the men that the “merry murderesses” sing about may have treated them deploringly, the theme that echoes throughout the number, “If you’d have been there, if you’d have seen it, I betcha you would have done the same” is an opening for the audience to distance themselves.  Clearly, the song implies, these are deranged women; the first narrative we listen to is by a murderess who shot her husband for chewing his gum too loudly.  In fact the only woman with a sympathetic portrayal does not speak English, essentially silencing her story and distancing her further from her cellmates.  The message is that these women have nothing in common with the law-abiding audience.  We can sit back in our seats and relax, confident with the assurance that a normal, sane person could never end up behind bars.

Chicago does not offer us a fantasy of female offending but the reality that we learn about stereotypes through a variety of media.  While the theater may not be a school and a musical is not news, the biases present in these “objective” institutions are the same as the ones we see in “Cell Block Tango.” We may wish to believe that fiction is a genre altogether separate from non-fiction; however, the two intersect in innumerable ways, similar to the myriad of commonalities that educational and correctional institutions share.  There are no structures that exist outside of the society that produces them; the money that funds Broadway productions and films like Chicago is not a different currency because it serves the function of entertainment instead of punishment or education.  The “genre performativity”[4] about which Megan Sweeney writes in Reading Is My Window pervades all narrative forms.  In creating the categories of objective reference books and fantastical shows, we form discourses of reality and fantasy that posit that news and musicals, prisons and schools, are unrelated to and distant from the other.  Upon further examination, however, the histories we read in school share more in common with musicals than authors care to admit, and watching the elaborate song and dance of Chicago’s incarcerated women enforces the same stereotypes as any other piece with a purported allegiance to “reality.”







Works Cited


1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. "Real - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-

Webster Dictionary." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2012. <>.


2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. "Fantastic - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-

Webster Dictionary." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.


3. "Chicago The Movie Cell Block Tango - YouTube." YouTube. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2012.



4. Sweeney, Megan. Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women's

Prisons. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Print.




[4] Sweeney, Megan. Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women's Prisons

"Cell Block Tango" from film version of Chicago