I've not seen the movie yet and am chagrined to admit I've not read Victor Hugo's novel nor seen the broadway play... but given the accolades I've read about it from sources I find credible and inspiring, I'm not surprised in the least that feminists would have issues with it.
“Les Miserables” should have feminists like me up in arms. The musical takes the female characters from a 150-year-old novel about a French rebellion and makes them bit players — even though they figure prominently in the book (and in the marketing for the musical and movie). They exist not to drive the plot but to sacrifice for the men, the real stars of the show.
Because in “Les Miz,” female characters are there only for the men to save, pity or forget. As Fantine, a hooker with a heart of gold, Hathaway does little but receive generosity from unfairly imprisoned fugitive Jean Valjean, who agrees to raise her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. Like her mother, Cosette is window-dressing — objet d’amour of Marius, a revolutionary student who wavers between his love for her and his devotion to politics. Meanwhile, Eponine, a striving girl, pines for Marius, a man beyond her station, then dies for his cause.
The women of “Les Miz” trigger the men’s ethical struggles and bravery, but they don’t actually do anything. Instead, they emote, propelling others to action.
The female stereotypes in “Les Miz” are deeply embedded in our culture — the mother who sacrifices herself to the death, the two women who love the same man, and the woman who desires a man in a different class. These characters are readily available, always recognizable and appealing in their familiarity.
We understand ourselves and our identities because of the stories we’re told. When we hear the same stories about people — women, gays, the poor, Asians or African Americans — over and over, we start to believe them. If our culture tells us that women should sacrifice themselves for their children or for men’s careers, we find it unremarkable that the women of “Les Miz” do just that. We seldom notice that they’re largely invisible in a blockbuster film likely to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
But for anyone who thinks critically about gender, it’s unsettling.
I would argue that what is truly unsettling is Ms. Wolf's mindset but I'd argue the point ineffectively. I'd rather let Deacon Greg Kandra do it:
I think the author misses a few critical points. She fails to note that a significant part of Fantine’s tragic fate is set in motion not by mean men, but by spiteful women (her factory co-workers). She also fails to see beyond her own gender fixations to appreciate the deeper spiritual currents that carry the story along. Here’s a shock for you: “Les Miserables” is concerned with much more than gender roles. Among other things, “Les Miserables” is about redemption and mercy, commitment and fidelity. It resonates with so many around the world because it speaks to old fashioned virtues like honor, faith, integrity, courage and — spoiler alert — love. And that includes both the male and female characters—so many of whom are willing to sacrifice everything for what they believe in (or, very often, for those they love.)
Viewing this through her particular prism, Ms. Wolf perhaps finds it shocking for a woman to lay down her life for something as inconsequential and burdensome as her own child; I suspect she also can’t imagine the sense of duty that might bring a man to spend his life seeking to fulfill a vow he made to a woman. And why on earth would a man risk his own life for the sake of a little girl? Though Ms. Wolf may not realize it, the inconvenient truth is that “Les Miserables” actually pivots around women—and in particular, the women who change one man’s life, compelling him to heroism and, even, sanctity. Jean Valjean is transformed, converted, saved, through his selfless actions on behalf of Fantine and Cosette; it is ultimately Fantine who at story’s end takes his arm and leads him to his reward.
If we have reached a point where we consider that kind of gender role sexist or demeaning, something is wrong.
Something is indeed wrong and I'd argue it's modern feminism.
Deacon Greg goes on to link to an interesting footnote pointing to the fact that many women are going to see the woman.
The hope is that the movie is speaking to their souls.