I was listening to Hamilton for the 500th time, and I noticed something strange when I got to “Say No to This,” the song during which Hamilton has an affair with Maria Reynolds. I thought, ugh, she ruined his life. When the affair goes public, his political career crashes and burns and his wife understandably distances herself from him. All because of Maria.
Then I realized….the song was decidedly not placing the blame on her. So why was I? My “internalized misogyny” bell started ringing in my brain, and I was horrified to realize I was doing what culture does best: blame the woman. After all, Alexander Hamilton is the hero of the musical. We’ve seen him through years of his life, we’re rooting for him, and we want the best for him. When something goes wrong, surely it’s someone else’s fault. Surely it’s hers (because she seduced him, she corrupted him, she tempted him). Surely she’s the slut, and Eliza is the saint. Surely women exist as a dichotomy, served to bolster or destroy the male hero.
A lesser musical would have followed these old familiar tropes, but Hamilton is not a lesser musical! Throughout the song, Maria is portrayed as a fully developed person and the onus of decision is placed firmly, and repeatedly, on Hamilton’s shoulders.
My husband’s doin’ me wrong
Beatin’ me, cheatin’ me, mistreatin’ me…
Suddenly he’s up and gone
I don’t have the means to go on
Maria must bear the fault of intentionally seducing a married man, that’s true. But she isn’t only a seductress. She’s the wife of an abusive, horrible man. (Tellingly, the only time slut shaming happens in the song is when James Reynolds calls her his “whore wife.” We’re obviously not meant to trust his judgement, since he says this in the middle of blackmailing Hamilton.) She seems desperate for a better life with a better man, and let’s face it, during that time in history the only way for her to move upwards was by attaching herself to a man. She’s in a horrible situation, and she makes the wrong choice, but the song never minimizes her or demonizes her.
I am helpless—how could I do this?
Instead, the blame is placed firmly on Hamilton. No matter how fiercely Maria might have flung herself at him, the musical is adamant: he could have said no. That is, in fact, the name of the song: “Say No to This.” Throughout the piece, Hamilton goes from praying “Lord, show me how to say no to this” to admitting “I don’t say no to this.” To make it even more obvious, the end of the song concludes with a chorus of voices: the ensemble shouts “NO” while Hamilton and Maria sing “Yes!” to each other. If that’s not consent, I don’t know what is.
The fact that Hamilton cheated on Eliza with Maria is a tragedy. But in the face of cultural schemas that portray women as sluts begging for it or temptresses ruining men’s lives, Hamilton says “no.” Maria Reynolds is responsible for her actions only. Alexander Hamilton is responsible for how he responded. It is so refreshing to listen to a musical that does what it can to diminish our dangerous stereotypes.