I’ve been thinking on and off about the song “We Do Not Belong Together” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and what the musical says about gender expectations, opposite-sex relationships and artistic talent. The only reason I like the song is that when taken in isolation, it is one of the few examples of boundary-setting – Dot honours her own need for clear communication and verbal affection by telling George that he has the agency to Use His Words something to get her to stay. I mean look, I accept that not everyone is comfortable with verbal affection, but I really dislike how Sondheim implies that the talent of the male artist trumps any responsibility to pay attention to his female partner’s emotional needs and communicate. George also has the gall to claim that Dot should have been content with the emotional scraps left over from his work, and that painting her should have been enough to signal her importance to him – riiiight, making her stand in the sun and scolding her whenever she moves is enough to show your love for your partner. (Dot arguably seems to have a better understanding of the creative process, since she knows that being one of his key models doesn’t make her emotionally significant to him as a person. There’s also the question of whether she would have continued being valuable to him as a model as she got older.) Let’s not even go into how most models’ lives receive a fraction of the attention that the men who painted them get.
It is hugely disappointing that every other moment in the musical dilutes the impact of Dot’ decision to get her emotional needs met and dump an unsatisfying partner. Sondheim continues to exalt George’s genius by presenting Dot’s decision to leave him as a bigger source of regret for her than it is for him – she states in multiple songs (“Everybody Loves Louis”) that she’s settling for Loving-But-Boring-and-Kinda-Dumb Baker Dude, because the choice seems to be either that or Perfect-If-Not-For-That-One-Thing Emotionally Unavailable Male Genius. Since the economic precariousness of being an artist’s model back in the day was real, couldn’t Sondheim have made the emotionally present dude is someone engaging in his own way, not just a consolation prize for the Emotionally Unavailable Artistic Genius?? For god’s sake, we even see Dot’s ageing daughter prize their family’s connection with George over, say, the man who actually parented her.
The most infuriating part for me is that the promise of the critique of male selfishness offered by the song “Sunday in the Park with George” went completely unfulfilled, and at the end, Dot is completely reduced to nothing more than a muse for another angsty male artist. Worst still, we’re left with the message that because she is the one who’s in his debt because he “taught her how to see / Notice every tree / Understand the light”, so, y’know, small things having her physical discomfort dismissed when she was modelling for him and all that emotional neglect wasn’t a big deal. The song’s nauseating ending literally has her saying “We have always belonged together!”
I am not unsympathetic to artists for whom their work is their life, and I would not be willing to sacrifice the minimum time I need for my work for a partner. The solution to that, straight dude artists, is to get together with someone who is fulfilled by the level of attention I can offer, and not take advantage of women’s emotional generosity by getting into a relationship when you can’t be a fully present partner. And for fuck’s sake don’t whinge when your partner decides to stop subsuming her emotional needs to yours and dumps you.