By Appreciable Goodfaithpoet
Globalization is a major theme and factor in this movie. The immigrants choose to come to America from Puerto Rico, because of the promise of freedom from violence and poverty. However, once they are in America it seems that both of these problems are still a factor for them. This situation causes us to wonder if the American dream is an illusion for those caught in a cycle of poverty. We see that the older people in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods do not understand the culture very well and do not realize the effects that it is having on their children. The parents are unable to understand the complaints and feelings of their children as they seek meaning and identity in a new culture. I think that one of the most subtle messages in this movie comes through the absence of the parents in this movie. We hear the voice of Maria's father calling from the other room when Tony comes calling late one evening; however, we never actually see any of the parents in the film. This is a subtle statement about the fact the many of these children have parents which exert little influence in the lives of their children and do not spend time with them or have a warm loving relationship with them. One of the major risk factors for these young people also appears to be the neighborhood in which they live, this seems to be an environment that produces dangerous behavior, even in those who are trying to be good and escape the violence, to find a time and place for deep and enduring love in their future marriage.
Maria is growing up and when she is able to go to her first dance she wants to have a lower cut dress than the more experienced women will allow her to her to have. Puberty has changed Maria, she has noticed and she wants the boys to notice, she
feels pretty. The imaginary audience is wondering, “Who is that girl that is so pretty?”
There is a cultural contrast that is very stark in the relationship of Maria and Tony. Their ethnic groups are in conflict and there is a high degree of prejudice against each group from the other. The Puerto Rican women seem delighted with the new American culture and the men seem to hate dealing with the lack of economic opportunity for people with their skin color. In the end Cheno, who is meant to be Maria's arranged marriage partner kills Maria's American-style-love-at-first-sight-fellow Tony. It is as if one culture is preventing change by killing the other culture. It is a tragic thing when young people who do not feel sufficient identity as part of a loving family seek an identity as part of a violent gang.
As we think about Bronfronbrenner's Ecological Perspective, we can see that the Puerto Ricans have the added prejudice of the police department against them as a matter of racial persecution. In the depiction of the school representative at the dance, it seems quite obvious that these young people attend a failing school with teachers who are ineffective.
Erikson helps us see the search for identity that Tony is experiencing and the confused reaction of this friend Riff. Riff is stuck in the same identity that Tony used to be in when he was younger. (When your a Jet, little man your a king.) Tony has changed a great deal and those changes are accelerated because of his love for Maria. Toward the end of the show Tony must face his most difficult moment of role confusion after his friend Riff is killed by Maria's brother.
The abstract thinking that is demonstrated by these adolescent children is a curse in
a way because it allows them to fool the police department and to escape detection or capture until several people are dead. The imaginative way that Maria's grieving friend lashes out after being mistreated is a very cruel and creative technique, which ultimately leads to Tony's death.
Gender issues are very apparent in this stereotypical story. The women find their value in being attractive to the opposite sex and the men find their value in being tough, aggressive and unemotional.
In the song, "Officer Krupke" we see the difficult situation that these young people are in. These children do not want to go home at the end of the day because they do not receive love there. They come from homes that are challenged by poverty, substance abuse, transvestite behavior, physical abuse, and working moms (some of them as prostitutes.) We see the effect that it has on these young people as they have way too much free time on their hands. They do not feel a close connection to their parents and so they look to their peer group for acceptance, identity and protection. The peer pressure on Tony is strong even though he has decided to reform his life. Doc is a mentor to Tony and Doc seems to be a strong influence on Tony in helping him escape the life that he had before. When the young people are sent to different government representative and employees they must explain that they do not want to work, they don't get along with other more affluent young people and they are not crazy they just want to be left alone by the police and allowed to do the things that will help them find acceptance in their peer group (Which involves breaking the law.) The answer to the question, "Why can't you just leave us alone?" in this case could be,
"Because you are likely to get killed or kill someone if you continue on in this same direction." The young people feel like the police treat them like they are not even human.
Henry David Thoreau jokingly said that the citizens in his community did not even realize that there was such a place as a jail in their community. Thoreau went to the jail to stay the night for refusing to pay his taxes (he was protesting the legal practice of slavery in the United States of America.) He said that he quickly realized that the main use of time at the facility was spent in looking out of the window. He jokingly said that he would have thought that they could find a better means of employing his abilities than to have him only look out of the window. The point that is made by these young people is sometimes valid and the government sometimes only confronts those who are struggling with superior force. There must be some teaching that takes place beyond just giving people a good beating and locking them up for a while. It seems to me that what these young people need is a balance between the unfeeling and hateful police force (who sabotage their own efforts to fight crime by getting information from the people on the street) and the permissive and enabling "doc" who allows them the privacy they desire while they conduct their war council. The main criticism of these young people about the attempts of society to help them seems to be the absence of love from every entity. These young people want to be loved and they feel like all they have is each other. Unfortunately, they are all in the same boat, terribly inexperienced with life and unable to check the impulsive behavior that leads their group into major trouble.
This group of young people, show a very high degree of pragmatism after the fight, in their approach to covering up their activities on the night of the fight. The new leader of the Jets advises everyone to calm down and play it cool so that they can live to old age and die in bed.
The impulsive and sometimes ineffective decision making process that is a part of adolescence is what gets Tony into big trouble and leads to his death. Tony goes to the fight between the Jets and the Sharks without thinking too much about the potential of danger to himself. As a result he ends us killing his girlfriend's brother. If Tony's brain had been more developed he may have realized that the best way to stop the fight would be to alert the police department of its location. Later on, Tony also acts very impulsively when he thinks that Maria is dead. Tony rushes out to find Cheno so that he can die as well. Tony would have been wise to first verify that his lover was indeed dead before seeking out the vicious, jilted Cheno. Tony seeks “suicide by Cheno” (instead of cop.)
In this movie it seems at first that Tony and Maria are very good people and that they have a bright future. During the imagined wedding scene at the dress shop between Tony and Maria, one can observe that they both have loving parents who they imagine are in attendance and they seem caring and supportive. To me this really reinforces the importance of being a good parent so that our children can find happiness and positive peer groups to be a part of as they demonstrate the ability to form close emotional bonds.
Interestingly this movie may actually amplify the misconception of many people that
adolescence is always a period of storm and strife. Parents who watch "West Side Story" may come to believe that their teenagers are going to follow in this same path and that they are little criminals just waiting for an opportunity to act. If parents do not treat their children with respect and trust them to make good decisions they may indeed turn out to be the police-officer-hating types shown in the movie who have learned how to hate authority from a very early age, starting at home.
In Clearfield, Utah, where I live we saw a tragic story in the news recently. A young man walked down to the train tracks, set his school bag down, and then walked in front of a train. This young man died as a result of these choices. This story does not end for our family at that point however, because this young man has a sister who is in my oldest daughter’s class at the Elementary School. It seems that this young man may have been motivated in his suicide because of the constant fighting and hostility that he witnessed at home between his mother and father. This tragic situation really hit home for our family. As puberty has started earlier with succeeding generations the powerful emotions and relational dynamics have also started to occur earlier in the lives of children. Parents have such an important role in helping children to navigate the teenage years. Years that will shape the rest of their lives for good or ill.