I Am Chris: An Exploration of (White) Empathy

When it comes to theatre, I’m not very empathetic. You probably aren’t either.

I’m not trying to offend you. Heck, until last week I would’ve considered myself an exceedingly empathetic viewer. When it comes to musical theatre, in particular, I’m an emotional liability. I can’t remember the last musical I watched that did not make me cry, which I thought indicated my empathy. I was wrong.

Here’s why: I used to think empathy just meant sharing in the pain of someone else——walking with someone through their hurt. But is that really the full definition?

As I began to consider this question——to reassess my definition of empathy——I thought of an author I love, Brené Brown, who speaks on this topic. She says, “Expressing empathy or being empathic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.” 

I re-read this quote and I literally thought phew. Score. I’m off the hook, I’m definitely empathic. But, to my momentary disappointment, the quote continued. Brown writes, “Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” 

So if empathy is a choice, that means it is active. As viewers of theatre, we must be active to truly engage with the material, which I am. But my tears are not active. My tears might erase some makeup, but they leave me relatively unchanged by the time I finish my post-matinee dinner. And that’s where I think you and I are probably the same. If my “empathy” only extends so far as outwardly expressing itself with stained cheeks, it probably isn’t true empathy. Sympathy, perhaps. But not active, engaged, sacrificial empathy.

My——probably our——lack of empathy may already be overwhelming you. Maybe you feel guilty right now. Or perhaps even shameful. Before I proceed to deepen that wound, I want to affirm that shame is never the goal. But once I started down this rabbit hole of self-assessment, I couldn’t stop.

What is distressing to me is that this “empathy” I thought I possessed varies between shows, between people, and——dare I say——between races. I know. I went there. I’m kinda scared, too. But hang with me, okay? I need moral support.

Last week——back when I thought I was an empathic person——many students in my Theatre class expressed that sure, Nick Arnstein sucks, but Chris sucks more. I agree with this. I was far more angry and disappointed in Chris than I was at Nick. At first, I reduced this to the fact that Nick Arnstein presents himself from minute zero as a pompous a**hole whereas we first encounter Chris in a considerably more virtuous state (yes, I am aware he is in a brothel, but he does step in to “protect” Kim) which makes him more attractive. 

I thought I was more angry at Chris, then, because I had higher expectations of him than I did of Nick. However, when I really thought about my anger, it was rooted in a deep sadness for what these men did to Kim and Fanny, respectively. If I have greater anger toward Chris, this reveals that I harbor more “empathy” toward Kim than I do Fanny. But why?

After hours stuck at this very spot in my blog, I’ve come to this conclusion. Ready? Me neither!

Here it goes: my inability to directly connect with Kim’s life makes her more foreign to me——more needing of my “empathy.” 

Miss Saigon wedges space between its white viewers and Kim from the very beginning. We enter Saigon to meet Kim as she has just fallen to the ground in the middle of an airstrike. A moment passes and we have transitioned into the Engineer’s brothel with women singing “one of us will be Miss Saigon.” At the first sight of an American soldier, it is clear how opposite these two camps of people are. I watched with a knot in my stomach as the Engineer slapped a dancer and soldiers boasted their money and citizenship. Saigon did not know freedom. Saigon is maybe the furthest thing from my life in Nashville, TN.

In many ways, Funny Girl, however, draws the (white) audience close to itself through its location. New York City is the emblem of freedom. Fanny Brice endures her own struggles, of course. I am not in the game to compare traumas, rather the act of viewership. And the act of viewing Funny Girl is significantly easier than engaging with Saigon, in part, because New York City is just so overwhelmingly normal to me. And that’s the bottom line. Most things in Funny Girl feel normal to me. The most critical being… yep, you got it. Race.

In Funny Girl, white is the norm, so it goes unnamed——it’s not seen as racial, because whiteness just is. Miss Saigon is the polar opposite. The entire musical——for better or for worse——is undeniably a performance of race. Kim’s “otherness” to me only deepens her victimhood. I feel sadness for Fanny losing Nick; I feel complete and utter agony as I watch Kim kill herself for her son. 

Hard as it is, here’s the truth. In many ways, I am Chris. I am the character I hate because it is my whiteness that begs me to express empathy toward Kim. In selfish catharsis, I cry for her.

Chris sings, “I saw a world I never knew / And through her eyes I suffered, too… So I wanted to save her, protect her / Christ, I’m American? / How could I fail to do good.” I’d be lying if I said this was dissimilar from my reaction to Kim. Through her eyes I suffer — the beginning of empathy. But, like Chris, I fall short.

My failure to truly be empathetic, then, holds a much higher cost for Kim than it does Fanny. Where my “empathy” is higher, I am being asked more of myself. So when my tears dry and my life returns to normal, I’ve done a greater disservice to myself and others by failing to act. At this point, you might be expecting me to wrap all of this up in a nice little bow. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t do that. I don’t have an answer to this. I think radical empathy begins with acknowledging that you’re not there yet. I’ve done that part. But what next? I haven’t come up with a way to fulfill the last step of empathy——to put forth genuine effort to act upon that which I feel sadness. But for now, maybe Miss Saigon isn’t asking me to do that. For now, I think I just need to sit in this development. For now, I think I need to study the ways that I am Chris.

Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist- and Broadway a Little Bit More

BY: Cheyenne Figaro

The Broadway stage is often heralded as a center of creativity, a celebration of culture; however, it is just the opposite. For decades, the very stages that had brought to life Upper West Side in West Side Story and Vietnam in Miss Saigon have also perpetuated racist stereotypes, sometimes as apparent as blackface or yellowface, and other times through the much more subliminal use of lyrics, choreography, and dialogue. The importance of racial distinctions is only built upon when other identities such as gender and class are also interpolated into musicals. For proof of this, look no further than Kim in Miss Saigon and Miss Anna in The King and I. While both women face obstacles because of misogyny, Kim’s race and class cost her much of her autonomy and opportunity while Anna’s whiteness and “civility” gives her the upper hand throughout the production despite often contesting with a monarch.

It would be remiss to venture into the racism and sexism of Miss Saigon, without first touching on the fact that those were fundamental principles of the production. The show is based on Madame Butterfly, a one-act play which follows the same storyline of a fallen Asian woman desperate to meet her white savior, and going to extreme lengths for him to take their child back to America. The show was widely popular, and turned into an opera that was just as successful, before receiving the modern updates that made it Miss Saigon. However, the production wasn’t a celebration of Asian culture as it should have been, instead choosing to go the more American route, making a mockery of an “exotic culture”, and presenting it in a way that made Americans feel like they had to save the China Doll from the woes of her broken down country. These ideals remain ingrained in the modern version, where Kim is presented as an innocent, lost girl needing a strong, patriotic, white army man to come sweep her up. Kim’s entire identity is formed around inferiority but also around her need to be controlled and guided. She is a seventeen year old virgin, and instead of paying for her and setting her free, Chris actually proceeds to have sex with her. Yet, this sordid act is made out to be one of romance, and one of the only times in which Kim is able to voice her opinions, she decides that she wants Chris to buy her, despite the fact that she doesn’t know him from a hole in the wall. This scene heavily conveys the idea that the white patriot is inherently positive for the lost Asian girl, who wants to go with him and be obedient and give him what he wants. Hence, despite prostituting herself, Kim is happy with the outcome of her tryst with Chris and quickly falls in love with him. They sing of staying together even if this is the “Last Night of the World”, because they see themselves as soulmates. Of course, this dream comes crashing down not even fifteen minutes later with Chris leaving Kim behind, but it was good while it lasted, right?

Further into the story, the race and power dynamics between Kim and Chris become more relevant and apparent in the story. Chris leaves Vietnam and one year later gets a new wife. Correction: he gets a new, white wife. In the biggest slap in the face to Kim, he decides that the only way to forget her is to get someone who is the opposite of her. The fact that white, blonde, and affluent just happens to check those boxes is a coincidence, right? No. Although Kim and Chris were married in a non-traditional way, they were still in fact married. His new marriage is a statement of what a real wife should look like: white, clean, and American. She can’t be a lowly prostitute and she isn’t just a fetish for white men as women of other cultures often are. Hence, Chris being bound to Kim through nightmares is supposed to evoke pity from the audience, as we are made to feel bad for this man who is now being “burdened” by his past. Of course, the audience feels bad for Kim’s minor inconveniences too– left with no job, no house, a three year old, and an obsessed army general searching for her– but still Chris. Kim’s being a burden is reiterated when Chris finds out he has a son and instead of beaming with joy is filled with sadness. His son is another burden, and as soon as Ellen realizes Kim is in love, they make a joint decision to leave Chris’s family, Kim and Tam, in Bangkok because that would be the most comfortable to their lifestyle. Thus, Kim has to beg on her knees, sing on her knees, and literally pull out all the stops until her suicide just to get a white man to listen to her, to consider her opinion. Kim, an Asian woman, only experienced freedom throughout her story when she was living in poverty with Tam, and even then she was singing “I Still Believe” and thinking of her white knight in shining armor, because the musical is an endless cycle of American praise. Her autonomy is limited in every way, and yet all of Kim’s decisions revolve around Chris- from having sex instead of running away, remaining in poverty instead of going with Thuy (even if he is her cousin), and lastly taking her own life so that Chris can acknowledge and help their son. Kim’s story is one of fallen glory, of giving your everything to your love (even if they try actively to forget about you for three years and only come back for their son). Yet, Kim is portrayed as a victim of her circumstances, but not as a victim to the racism and misogyny that placed her in those circumstances to begin with. 

Anna’s story juxtaposes Kim’s in so many ways you would think that Broadway is trying to say that white women are inherently better in the face of conflict. Oh wait, that’s precisely what they’re saying. When first introduced to Anna, the words WHITE-WHITE-WHITE flash before the eyes, because she could not stick out more as an embodiment of whiteness. “Whistle a Happy Tune” is all about keeping a poker face when one is afraid, a skill that Anna’s son needs because apparently he is afraid of anyone who dresses differently than him- in this case differently meaning in rags or you know- like they’re poor. Throughout the number, Anna’s class is amplified as she walks with her nose turned high above the common people, as they grovel and run around for the coins that she throws on the floor like they’re pigeons. Her costume, a blue, flowy skirt, white gloves, and a tilted hat, emphasizes her wealth in comparison to the people of Siam dressed in brown and red rags. This wardrobe decision is once again emphasized when Anna speaks to the prime minister. She is nicely dressed whereas he is “half-naked”, already tilting the conversation in her favor as she seems to be more put together (read: ideally Western) than him. If anyone else were to talk back to the Prime Minister they’d surely be punished, but Anna, a white woman, is accepted by the audience as being right in this situation. She’s allowed and expected to talk back, breaking the Siamese way of doing things, because she must invade the space with her whiteness in order to correct their barbaric way of doing things. Thus, the show automatically sets up the dynamic of a fine and proper white woman having to deal with “savage” and poor Asians.

Her relationship with the King is the most apparent example of how Anna’s whiteness makes her superior in positions where women like Kim would be at the bottom of the totem pole. When the King calls her a servant in front of the Royal Children and Wives, Anna responds no, she is not a servant, and she doesn’t have to be in Siam teaching. She is doing him the favor, and reminds him of that loudly, scolding him in front of a large audience and making a fool of him. Anna’s insistence that she is not a servant despite the fact that she is being paid for is a clear contrast from Kim’s role as a prostitute in Miss Saigon. Anna holds strong to the fact that her time and obedience can’t be bought, the opposite of Kim whose virginity is purchased and is sold by the Engineer for an entire day to Chris. Anna also has the autonomy to leave whenever she would like, something that she fully intends to do until the King’s wife has to beg her to stay because the King needed her help. The musical establishes Anna as the person in power in all of her scenes, giving her the same type of white savior storyline as Chris but adding in her femininity as a way of saying that white womanhood trumps even the highest status of foreigners, despite white women being the lowest of white Americans. This idea is reinforced time and time again throughout the musical, most notably when Anna is allowed to have her head at equal height with the King whilst everyone else must bow into tiny “toads” on the floor when he walks in a room. Anna’s equal height, and thus equal importance, to the King is a stark contrast to Kim who spends the majority of Miss Saigon on her knees and staring at the ground. This physical distinction conveys everything that needs to be known about their status and role in their worlds, but also the way that these characters, a white woman and an Asian woman are viewed by American society. Thus, it isn’t peculiar that the entire last scene of The King and I is centered around Siam becoming more westernized instead of the children losing their father, and the wives losing their husband. The King is dying, yet the headlights focus on the Prince reversing every “savage” rule the kingdom has, and the children bowing to Anna in a Western fashion. The lights and dialogue in this scene are meant to move the audience to praise Anna for essentially colonizing Siam without them even knowing. Because while Kim struggled the entire show to get someone to listen to her, Anna was given that privilege the moment she stepped off the dock as a white woman. She is the American that Siam has been waiting for. She teaches them out of their ignorance, she guides them out of their “barbaric” views on love, and she overall uplifts Siam into a more progressive (Western) position.

Both The King and I and Miss Saigon bring color to the Broadway stage as it had never seen before. Full ensembles of Asians and Asian-Americans were revolutionary, and the productions opened up roles for these underrepresented groups in vast amounts. Yet, all representation isn’t positive representation, and both productions painted the picture of Asians- usually poor and uncivilized- needing to be saved by their whiter, more Western counterparts. Though completely unrelated, juxtaposing the roles of Anna and Kim reveals the twisted stereotypes that are perpetuated by the shows, as Anna is given the upper hand throughout her entire show, whilst Kim continues to experience loss and disaster at any moment that she isn’t with Chris. Hence, both roles serve to establish white supremacy in the eyes of misogyny, for Anna’s being a woman never derailed her as much as Kim’s being Asian did throughout their stories.

The Choosy Challenger: Gender and Racial Tensions within the King and I

In a college of education, you learn a thing or two about how to educate. For instance, the importance of getting to know your students and the culture that they come from. However, studying education also exposes the power that’s inherent with teaching and the necessity of creating a classroom environment where everyone is learning and no one ever knows enough, not even the teacher. Oh, how I wish Anna Leonowens would have stepped in a Peabody classroom before stepping into the Siamese palace classroom in The King and I. Anna, the white schoolteacher from England, makes an effort to make her pupils feel known and loved, which paints her as a compassionate teacher, and actively challenges the sexist views of the King, hence “hero” of the story. However, she also perpetuates white savior stereotypes and degrades a “barbaric” Siamese culture, furthering the ideas of whiteness as superior in her classroom and on the stage. Through looking at Anna’s physicality, demeanor, and ideals, especially in juxtaposition with those of the King, the notions of whiteness and masculinity as Broadway norms are thrust into the spotlight, exposing how white saviorism is used within the plot and by means of the stage to advance white supremacy.

From the moment she glides through the palace doors, Anna is physically set apart from the female backdrop of Siam. Kelli O’Hara, who plays Anna, is fair, beautiful, and drowning in a hoop skirt; however, even a hoop skirt can’t hide her height and stature. She does not only stand taller than the women of Siam but she’s also able to stand up to the King. Ken Watanabe, as the King, possesses a king-like stature that is tall and firm yet one O’Hara can physically compete with as they stand eye to eye, which works to increase Anna’s physical power on the stage. Physical awareness is acknowledged from the beginning of the musical, as the King actively insists that Anna’s head must always be below his as a sign of respect. Even though she complies, the King’s infatuation with this rule shows how her physical presence challenges his authority. Anna’s height, while setting her apart from Siam, also conforms to a standard of white stage beauty as dictated by men. The casting of O’Hara, with her long legs atop a slim figure, is a nod to the ideal representation of feminine beauty, originated by a man, Florenz Ziegfield. There is a reason Anna doesn’t look like, say, Fanny Brice. In casting a woman that is the epitome of white beauty, O’Hara demands the attention of men and admiration of women while the producers have created a greater physical distinction between Anna and the people of Siam.

Anna was also likely set apart from English women, in terms of experience, as she is a widow. Within the first moments of the musical, the plot has given Anna the ideal situation in which to be a “non-conformist” female character; without a husband, she has complete autonomy over her life and the life of her child. The King, on the other hand, symbolizes the old and outdated sexism residing “outside” of white culture. The most overt example is in the King’s treatment of his wives, specifically his new “gift” Tuptim. When she is first presented to him, Anna is appalled by the backward views of the palace. As Anna’s facial reactions scorn the King’s motives or she outright disdains him, the othering of an uncivilized Siamese culture is set up, without question for how it might have mirrored the sexism residing in English culture at the time. Lacking a male counterpart, Anna’s character never has to directly address the patriarchy that was surely present in England, allowing her to heroically criticize the sexist actions of the King without the hypocrisy in her home culture being exposed. Though the character of Anna is given a special circumstance that allows her to express unchallenged criticism of a sexist Siamese society, the actress’s power on the stage comes not only through her words but her physical presence, one that was cast with a masculine ideal of feminine beauty in mind.

While the role of the female is explicitly acted upon within the musical, the covert implications of white supremacy play to the problematic nature of the musical. Anna’s sole purpose is to educate the people of Siam, immersing her identity in the role of the white savior. Anna, therefore, is suggesting some superiority over the people of Siam as they need her to come in and save them from themselves. In case you hadn’t made it to your seat in time to hear the backstory, don’t worry, you wouldn’t miss the “savior of Siam” mentality, as it permeates the storyline. The way Anna talks, for example, is meant to emphasize her formal knowledge in contrast to the King’s lack thereof. Her eloquent tongue surrounds her in a haughtiness that the short, simple, grammatically incorrect phrases the King dictates lack. Yet without uttering a word, the eminence of whiteness is blinding. As Anna glides around the stage suggesting levelheadedness and wisdom through maturity, the King bounces around with mannerisms that radiate youth, immaturity, and therefore simplemindedness, even more so than the children. As the show continues, so do the overt examples of white superiority within the performance. When the prince asks his father a question, to which he does not know the answer, the interaction shows that not even the smartest man in Siam can compete with the knowledge that comes with being white. Back in the classroom, Anna seems to know everything and highlights the backward way in which the Siamese are living, teaching concepts that contradict all that the King holds true.

At the end of Act 1, the King receives news that he is being called barbaric and the English are considering colonizing Siam. The British statements deeply trouble Anna so she devises a plan to defeat whiteness the only way she knows how, more whiteness. Anna suggests the Siamese show the British they are more civilized through adorning the people in familiar British clothing (i.e. making them look white). In stripping the women’s beautiful ornate dresses in exchange for ugly white hoop skirts and plastered faces, the British are quick to accept the people of Siam as English garb would be seen as good or right, not “other.” Anna has saved the people of Siam by educating them out of their uncivilized ways and into a civilized (or White) means of living. The good/bad binary that is set up within this scene and the preceding song “Western People Funny” continues to rise with the action in Act 2. Later on, as the prince contemplates his expectant role as king, he reflects on the good things Anna has taught him about the removal of slavery and adoption of western religion, two things Siam lacks, suggesting that the current state of Siam can’t be good and therefore must be bad. Yet, no mention of white saviorism is as blatant as the final scene in the King’s bedroom. First, the children fall at the feet of Anna, their savior, as their father dies on the bed beside them. As if that wasn’t a low enough blow, the prince, this time accepting his new role, decrees an end of bowing to the king “in the fashion of a lowly toad”; one of the main cultural practices in which the King has clung to throughout the piece is now explicitly criticized for being bad. Even the young princess declares how Ms. Anna “led them on the right road” as if Siam was somehow always on the wrong, the bad, the evil road but thanks to the white schoolteacher, Siam can finally be made right.  

Both Anna and the King come into the play with an assumed power. The King as, well, a king and Anna as a teacher. However, Anna’s power is ultimately seen as good while that of the King is reduced to being bad. Unlike a royal who is handed down power, whether they deserve it or not, it seems that Anna must earn it, making the absorption of power a well-deserved feat. While this may be true, on the musical stage, Anna is also handed down undeserving power because of her white, independent female status. Not only is she given power of her classroom, in which the children (problematically) receive all she says as fact, but her actions outside the classroom fare held in high esteem, even to the point of heroism, due to her whiteness. While both can command a room, Anna commands the stage, and her voice is ultimately the heroic one that saves Siam. 

Education in a white savior context works to further white supremacy, even if coupled with genuine care for the well-being of students, which Anna seems to possess. Paralleling this, we see how this entire play is used as a means to “educate” overwhelmingly white audiences about life outside an English bubble. It is important to acknowledge the risk Rodgers and Hammerstein took putting this show on and telling another culture’s story at the time it was created. However, when analyzing with a 21st-century lens, the musical is extremely flawed, embedded with the racial attitudes of those who wrote it (white men). We see today that while this show is being put on, that is all it’s doing. Equipped with the knowledge of the problematic areas in this show, directors are still putting it on so an audience can “get to know” another culture without significant attempts to change the theatrical landscape from the male-dominated, whitewashed state that it has maintained. In other words, the content of the musical promotes the prowess of the producers on gender and racial matters while allowing them to take a backseat in the actual promotion of minority populations on the stage. While seemingly combatting gender norms, The King and I also perpetuates a culture of white superiority. Anna claims “when two people are as different as we are, they are almost bound to hurt each other”. When contrasting the physicality, demeanor, and ideals of Anna and the King, it is evident that while the King may have hurt Anna within the context of the play, the character of Anna does more harm in the end, evoking a white supremacist mentality that the audience can’t just leave at the theatre door.

A nightmare on Saigon street: Orientalism and the American musical

Priya Sankaran

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. But what if life drops bombs from the sky instead? What if life is living in a war-torn country, where your people are murdered, your nation is plundered, and you can’t wake up from the eternal nightmare that is your reality? Making lemonade seems pretty absurd then. 

The backdrop of Schönberg and Boublil’s musical Miss Saigon is this very nightmare. Life is a rigged game for Kim and the Engineer, whose fates have been decided from the onset of the story. You see, when your existence as an Asian refugee of war is held up against frameworks of white supremacy and imperialism that has ravaged your country, there is no winning. Miss Saigon’s heavy usage of Orientalist tropes characterizes Kim and the Engineer as the racialized, inferior “other” whose freedoms are inextricably linked to the white man. On top of the racialization of Kim and the Engineer, there is an additional gendered difference between the two. An underlying layer of regressive, misogyny taints Miss Saigon, making Kim’s role as a helpless, sacrificing mother markedly distinct from the Engineer’s role of unbound male sleaziness. On the other hand, the Engineer’s character is still subject to emasculation as an Asian male, despite the overarching patriarchal structure of the musical. Ultimately, Miss Saigon reveals that Orientalism and notions of an exoticized East serve to maintain Western hegemony and domination. 

Schönberg and Boublil present Kim to the audience as a 17 year-old girl who, after losing her family to the Vietnam war, is forced to prostitute herself as a means of survival. She is taken in by the Engineer, a Eurasian pimp, and joins the nightclub “Dreamland.” “Dreamland” caters to American GIs, specifically drawing on their male sexual fantasies of the exotic Asian female. In the song “The Heat is on in Saigon”, bikini-clad prostitutes are groped, prodded and thrown around like meat. They are degraded to such a position because they have no choice: their objectification and prostitution could be the ticket to their freedom. Kim stands in stark contrast to these women. Eva Noblezada’s portrayal of Kim involves using soft, feminized body language such as looking down and displaying shy facial expressions. Noblezada also sports a bewildered, innocent face throughout the show. Noblezada does not sexualize her body by exaggerating movements of her hips or chest, as the other women do. This acting choice reflects Kim’s most “appealing” quality: she is virgin. Chris, the white American GI/savior, who is jaded by his frequent visits to “Dreamland”, sings “I used to love getting stoned/ Waking up with some whore/ I don’t know why I went dead/ It’s not fun anymore.” Yet, Kim’s virginal naivety draws him in like bewitchment. Kim is extremely desirable in the eyes of Chris because she is weak, pure, and so obviously in need of saving. Assuming a position of civility and responsibility, Chris takes it upon himself to “protect” Kim. 

Next, Kim’s character as an Asian female, in particular, exacerbates her lack of agency and individuality. Because of her intersecting identities, she is bound to the meek, submissive Asian stereotype in addition to the existing ideas of female inferiority. Kim’s various interactions with other characters in Miss Saigon always follow this pattern. She is either a sacrificing mother to Tam, devoted lover/wife to Chris, subservient “sister” to the Engineer, or forced to sell her body through prostitution to men. Kim’s existence as a female is securely attached to all the males in her life, even down to her son. The song “Sun and Moon” highlights Kim’s dependency and need for a male to make her complete. Lyrics like “You are sunlight and I moon/Joined here brightening the sky” reveals a binary metaphor of the Sun and Moon, which are opposing elements like the East and West. Notably, the East and West are not part of an equal relationship. Orientalism is rooted in European white perspectives of white superiority and civility. The West invariably patronizes the East and the Orient is defined as the contrasting image to the West. If the West is civilized, powerful, and dominant, then, by default, the East must be savage, powerless, and submissive. Kim and Chris take on the respective roles of East and West. Sure, it takes two to tango. But in tango, one person leads and the other follows. There is an inherent power imbalance, so Kim and Chris’s relationship is not as wholesome or fulfilling as the song “Sun and Moon” suggests. The caveat of invoking binary language is that the value of each individual person is only recognized when in conjunction with the other. As a female, Kim must be perpetually tied to Chris for her existence to have value. Chris is concurrently tied to Kim, as her savior and protector. The only scene in Miss Saigon in which Kim displays agency is when she decides to take her own life for her son. But was her suicide truly her own choice or was she coerced by unfortunate circumstances beyond her control?

Next, in examining the character of the Engineer, the casting choice of Jon Jon Briones is very telling. Physically, Briones is a small, scrawny Filipino man of short stature. Although the Engineer’s career as a pimp affords him power, his physical features are not traditionally masculine when viewed from a Western perspective, and thus it renders him as less capable and visible when compared to his American counterparts. Miss Saigon portrays the Engineer as a selfish, sordid man, neurotically obsessed with leaving his destitution for America. However, unlike Kim, the Engineer is not punished for it. In fact, Miss Saigon adds a charming, comedic quality to his character. 

The Engineer is introduced to us as a ruthless pimp and owner of the nightclub “Dreamland”. In the opening act, he assaults several prostitutes, physically and verbally abusing them. He slaps them, grabs their breasts, rips apart their clothing, and screams at them. The Engineer’s freedom depends on his selling of vulnerable women and he works viciously to achieve that. In terms of acting choices, Briones plays the Engineer with incredibly dynamic facial expressions, moving his eyes, eyebrows, and mouth to portray intense emotions of fear, lust, anger, and compulsion. The Engineer compensates for his lack of physical masculinity through the exaggerated, over the top acting, which can be understood as a defense mechanism. In addition, Briones’s diction when delivering the Engineer’s dialogues has a nonchalant, arrogant tone. These acting choices ultimately paint a picture of a lewd, egocentric man, going to any length to achieve the American Dream. He manipulates Kim, seeing her son as a tool to get a US visa. Clearly, the Engineer is not a good person. When compared to the angelic Kim, the Engineer certainly looks Satanic. Yet, his toxic masculinity is celebrated. Throughout Miss Saigon, we hear the audience laughing and applauding the Engineer, which implies that the writers glorified his toxic attributes in a way that appealed to the audience. Most importantly, the Engineer is able to express his agency and power as a man on several occasions, most notably through the song “The American Dream”.  

“The American Dream” reveals how the Engineer imagines his future life:  a life of luxury, grandeur, and riches. The song features showgirls adorned in shimmering costumes, flashy male dancers in bright blue suits, and an extravagant car. A giant golden head of the Statue of Liberty looms in the background as the Engineer envisions opulence, capitalism, and freedom ahead. As the song progresses, we see the Engineer getting more unhinged and consumed in his fantasy. At the end of the show, the audience is left to speculate on whether the Engineer ever achieved his American Dream. Unlike Kim, a self-sacrificing mother who chooses her death, the Engineer has an open ended conclusion. In the end, his privilege as a male protects him.  

To conclude, Miss Saigon’s juxtaposition of Kim and the Engineer makes two generalizations of the Asian male and female. The Asian male is a chauvinistic opportunist that exploits women. The Asian female is weak and subjugated under the Asian male. Therefore, both seek liberation from the civilized West. In this way, Miss Saigon justifies acts of imperialism and US intervention in global wars as necessary for the moral good of humanity. There is irony in that the perpetrators of war and sexual exploitation, like Chris and the Engineer, are left unscathed at the end, however. Ultimately, Miss Saigon reveals how power derived from gender, race, or sociopolitical conditions, affords privileged people the authority to exercise their will over others. Understanding the nature of power relations is integral in understanding the context of a story, particularly when examining who writes the narrative, and for whose benefit the narrative is created. 

“Bread and Love” of Two Female Characters in American Musicals

         From the birth of musicals as a distinctive art form on stage in the early 1900s to the golden age in the 1950s, Broadway has witnessed an evolution of musicals. First, modern musicals remixed elements of music and gradually took the place of European operetta characterized by romantic light music. Second, encounters of culture arose more frequently and more people were available to go to theaters. All of above changes prompted musicals to focus on what intrigued ordinary people the most: bread and love. The musicals Funny Girl and The King and I emerged at this time. It is interesting to note that the main characters in both musicals were powerful females: Fanny, a Jewish American actress, and Anna, a British schoolteacher teaching in Siam royalty, both founded their bread and love yet ended up with a loss of balance between them, even though being in distinctively different geographical settings, one in the United States and the other in Siam in the far east. Through this intersectional lens on Fanny and Anna, the incompatible nature of bread and love still renders a tragic atmosphere on 20th century female.

         “Hello gorgeous,” with such an exhausted sighing, Fanny met herself in the mirror in a theater’s backstage room, and meanwhile met the audiences offstage. Fanny Brice in reality was a famous comedian, performing in the Follies in the 1920s, showing up in radio shows during the later years, and 13 years after her death, her glorious life was portrayed in the musical Funny Girl. However, at the beginning of her story, Fanny was just a funny comedian bringing laughers in the audiences, and a broken woman waiting desperately for her imprisoned husband’s return.

         In 1910s, Fanny represented millions of other girls from ordinary communities, not considered as a beauty compared to the popular appreciation of Ziegfeld girls. Being obsessed with Ziegfeld girls’ skinny body shapes, cute faces, and sweet dances — characters that Fanny barely owned, everyone concluded that a girl like Fanny “doesn’t spell success” and “gets only pity and pat” with such look. Fanny didn’t back down. She replied with a dramatic pose and a confident smile, “The whole world will look at me and be stunned!” Yet after this seemingly easy confidence was her repeated trainings for routines of the audition every night after everyone else was back home, countless falling overs followed immediately by standing up. Her perfect performances won her the chance to Keeney’s, and eventually on Ziegfeld. However, there were more obstacles on her way. Ziegfeld insisted to kick her out of Follies if she wouldn’t exaggerate on performances, and Fanny failed to convince him that she wanted audiences to laugh with her but not laugh at her. Therefore, the eventual success of comedienne Fanny, a “pregnant bride”, and later brilliant characters couldn’t show up without her iron will of singing, compromise, and conciliation at the very beginning. At an era when a delicate look determined a woman’s success, Fanny broke the barrier and won her bread.

         Meanwhile, the appearance of Mr. Arnstein after she stepped down the stage brought her infinite expectations of a glamorous future and infinite longlines when he was not there. “I imagined you every place in the world. You are like a character in the book to me.” After Mr. Arnstein’s leave for several months, Fanny realized what she really wanted is companionship. She was uncertain about this man, with uncontrollable hand shaking and avoidance in eye contact, but her courage and passion still pushed her to confront how she needed him. At the railroad station, Fanny decided to quit Follies performances and run after Mr. Arnstein, as she thought this was the one chance to catch happiness. In “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, Fanny didn’t utilized many singing skills, but instead expressed emotions, exulting in finding her happiness. Though with bright music, the first conflict between Fanny’s bread and love was rooted here. Her marriage life was in a much faster beat. Fanny made a compromise between her bread and love for the second time when she was rushing to return to the stage, so she made light on her husband’s debt trouble. Once again, she chose the fastest way, putting up the money secretly, to help her husband, which indirectly caused his anger, and finally hotheaded crime of embezzlement. Fanny was expecting an equal relationship with the man she loved, and she fought for it fearlessly. However, when she though that they were equally supporting each other, her husband was deeply hurt for receiving Fanny’s help and for feeling dependent upon her. This irreconcilable conflict ended their relationship, regardless of love between them.

         In the final scene, Fanny sang the melodies of Rain on My Parade again, with legs spread apart, with arms holding her chest, with pathos and decisiveness to look forward. She knew that she had to be even a stronger woman, supporting herself and her little daughter. But did she know why things turned out to be like this? No matter how much money and fame she earned from performances, how much inspirations she brough to the Follies and the development of musicals as a whole, or how independent she could be, she always had an identity that should be well memorized: wife. As a wife, she’d better support her husband’s career at least as much as to her own’s and avoid make her husband feel dependent upon her — or they would run counter to the general trend of the society.

         “I whistle a happy tune and every single time,” singing while holding her little boy’s hand, Anna Leonowens arrived in Bangkok, Siam on the other side of the earth. For the unknown journey in Siam where she could not speak any language and knew about no one, Anna sang this song to cheer herself up with courage. After landing, the half-naked outfit of the prime minister Kralahome, the invasive question he asked about privacy, and a group of concubines who messed around her luggage, all of these circumstances evoked Anna’s discontentment. But she bore and focused on her work. She devoted in teaching the children about freedom, equality, kindness, and other western theories. In “Getting to Know You”, Anna expressed her enjoyment making friends with the cute children and Thiang, along with the rising tone of the melody. Anna treated her job as a glorious mission, spreading knowledge and love to her students, thus rendering herself as a successful inspiring figure in the eastern world.

         On the other hand, the relationship between Anna and the king experienced tense moments, moments of reconciliation, and moments of attraction and rupture, eventually a woeful farewell. When the king disrupted her class, complaining about her teaching of “home”, she insisted on the promise of a brick house adjacent to the palace, and indicted that the king broke his promise. Throughout these times, she was never afraid of questioning his decisions or altering his beliefs, which deeply attracted the king. Anna was also aware of his transition, from scorn, weariness to listening to her suggestions in an open mind. Their admiration of each other climaxed after a European reception of the envoys. “Shall we dance?” These syllables repeated along the melody, like the transition from a questioning to a tentative tone between Anna and the king. Their careful affections were vividly depicted by their bodily languages: Anna’s enjoying dances, and the king’s unskillful steps. However, this affection could only be invisible, when the social status, race, and demand of freedom were desperately different between them. These hidden troubles experienced outburst when the king caught Tuptim, his “present”, dating secretly with her lover. He considered Tuptim as his belongingness, something that he could punish whenever he wanted, yet Anna, cherishing the valuable love in the deepest of her heart, tried to protect Tuptim. Both the dialogue and bodily expressions were explosive at this point, indicating that the king and Anna could never reach consensus.

          Throughout the king and I, Anna accepted the eastern culture, just as others embraced her fresh ideas, and along with her intelligence, courage, independence, she succeeded in. teaching the children, spreading thoughts of freedom, and finally helping cultivate the next king. However, she never got to speak her affections toward the king, nor did she get any chance to experience more with him. The king and Anna promoted the encounters of cultures in the late 19th century, but they could never overcome the barrier between their identities.

          Though Fanny and Anna lost their love in the end, the significance of their appearance as a representation of female in the 20th century should not be denied. Their self-confidence, self-reliance, persistence, and hard-working were the valuable traits for them to earn their “bread”, growing to be the iconic person in their field. By establishing these two female characters, the authors aimed to encourage more females to dedicate if they would like to pursue their own careers. In a nutshell, retrospection of Fanny and Anna’s life stories showed that the ceiling for females in the 20th century was the reason for their loss of love when seeking for power and independence, but let’s ponder what if they were born in 100 years later? With all the precious qualities they owned, and dedications they have made, there might be a different ending.

Live in Living Color: Miss Saigon’s ‘American Dream’

On the surface, Schönberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon is pretty. It is complete with all the frivolity of the classic American musical: from extreme and shameless objectification of its female characters to the reduction of its characters of color to stereotypes, this show has it all. Miss Saigon tackles themes of love, lust, parenthood, dreams, desire, all through the perspective of a couple of protagonists.

First up, we have Kim. Kim seems to be our hero, at least of sorts. In the show’s opener, we get a good idea of who Kim is. There’s a conversation between her and the Engineer that basically tells the audience that she’s a young woman who has recently decided to sell her body as a way to put food on the table. Simply put, she’s out of options. The opener to the show is the not-so-long awaited Miss Saigon pageant, (if you can call it that) in which the Engineer can be found hustling prostitutes to American soldiers that are fighting in the Vietnam War. 

In said pageant, Kim is clearly uncomfortable being viewed as just another piece of meat. This is something that  those around her do we have a great mastery of. “I’m Seventeen and I’m new here today,” she sings. “The village I come from seems so far away. All of the girls know much more what to say but I know, I have a heart like the sea! A million dreams are in me!” From the outset, Kim is depicted as the typical young, easily-influenced girl (with broken english) who doesn’t really know what she’s doing and seems to have gotten herself into a situation that she can’t handle. Say what you will about Kim, she is Not Like Other Girls. The show’s story takes advantage of the empathy that it tries to collect from the audience by putting this innocent girl in this precarious situation.

Miss Saigon does an excellent job of taking advantage of the “suffering woman” trope.  One complaint that many have about Les Misérables (also by Schönberg and Boublil) is that the female characters have little to no agency, meaning that they are acted upon rather than taking action themselves. For the beginning parts of Miss Saigon, this is more or less true for Kim as well. But, as a plot progresses, we see a new version of Kim who packs up and chases her son’s father. By taking a character whom the audience has learned to feel sorry for and using her to push the envelope on what it feels like to be wronged, at its essence, is exactly but every storyteller aspires to do. The problem with how Miss Saigon does it is that Kim is a very particular character from very particular context. It is evident that she’s being stereotyped and generalized into a place of such dire misfortune as a way of trying to evoke sympathy points from an audience. 

As for the actress that portrays Kim (Eva Noblezada), she is not Vietnamese. Wonderful? Yes. Talented? Oh, no doubt about it. I’ve bragged to friends about her being maybe the most talented actress I’ve ever seen perform live. But at the end of the day, she is simply Not Vietnamese. And that is important. To this day, Eva swears that playing Kim in Miss Saigon was the most fun she’s ever had as a performer and the most transformative role she’s ever taken on. I worry that she doesn’t see what I see. I worry that she doesn’t understand how she was used to perpetuate a stereotype. Worse yet, I worry that she does know and just doesn’t care.

Next, we have our wonderful, lovable Engineer. The Engineer is the only male Vietnamese character in the only popular Vietnamese show in America (more or less). Musical theatre, both historically and presently, tends to have mostly white audiences. That means that this image of a Vietnamese man will be the only one that a lot of people ever really see. That’s important. Performers of color get very few chances for representation, especially in musical theatre. That means that when they do get this kind of representation, they jump at the chance, they scream and they cry, they celebrate. 

That is, unless the representation is abhorrent and ill-fitting.  Miss Saigon depicts the Engineer as a money hungry, smash-and-grab, make a quick buck, slick talking guy who will do anything to achieve and attain the success that he knows is possible in America. I can’t think of a more damaging stereotype then the classic “America is the center of the universe” mindset that so many people (in life, musical theatre, and everything in between) take on. Using characters of color to  show off this narrative is as damaging as it gets. Moreover, it’s especially harmful because you can hide bigotry under the guise of providing opportunity for characters of color and for representation on the big stage.

As for Jon Jon Briones, (our Engineer) he is also… Not Vietnamese. That means that both of the main characters in this Vietnamese narrative are not actually played play Vietnamese people. For Miss Saigon to deface a people and a culture under the guise of representation, and then to not even actually give them that representation… there are few greater injustices in the performing arts world.

I want to take one more minute to discuss the character John, the fun-loving best friend. The (black) fun-loving best friend. John occurs at some bizarre intersection of token black character and bizarre generalization and thoughtful portrayal and complex human being. In a show that relies so heavily on the American Dream trope, it’s a little off-putting that the Engineer’s only real connection to American people ( through the military) is John. One thing that Miss Saigon never touches on, is whether or not the soldiers fighting in the Vietnamese War are a part of or living the American dream. In the original cast, John was played by a white man. I do not know what went into the decision of making him black, and I’m hesitant to argue against representation, (as I’m sure all POC in theatre are)  but I most certainly do have some problems with John being a black character. John. Is. So. Weird. He goes from singing about buying his friend a Vietnamese prostitute in the Act I opener to singing about saving the Bui Doi in the Act II opener. Character arc? Maybe. General Negligence? More likely. Hugh Maynard’s presentation of John is certainly a part of this equation. He’s this cool, caring, charming guy who likes to sleep with prostitutes but also wants to help babies. Nice.

But “so what?” you ask (and you should).  Well, here’s the thing. Here’s the kind of scary, bizarre, head-scratching thing: if you asked me what was wrong with Miss Saigon after my first watch, I couldn’t have told you. In fact, I would have recommended you watch it. For a long time, it’s been my mom’s favorite show, and she’s the one who got me into theater. After doing a really deep dive into the show and its themes, the first thing I did was call her and tell her that there was no way she could like it anymore (or at least, that she need be more mindful of what she was interacting with). 

Before critically analyzing Miss Saigon, I didn’t see an issue with it. I thought it was a fun story with fun characters and cool music.  I totally and completely neglected to realize that it’s an intentionally degrading story with caricatures of real people that were actually victims of some very heinous war crimes during the Vietnam war. This is what Miss Saigon does so beautifully but so tragically: it takes advantage of a mindset that is so ingrained into the general population, uses it to rise to general popularity, and stays there. It uses its engine and its Engineer to get into the good graces of the musical theatre world, at the expense of the people that it claims to honor.

The King and I: The Lab Report

In the world of reductionist scientific studies, scientists have created a pretty set system to determine if one thing has an impact on another or not. First, you want to eliminate confounding variables to ensure that the only difference in what you are looking at is the “independent” variable you put in place. This way, you can ensure that any difference in results, or dependent variables, between groups is due to the independent variable, not another factor. Even more importantly, if you find that there is no significant difference in results, then you can conclude that the independent variable doesn’t have an impact on the dependent variable you are studying, but this is far from the case when looking at the intersection of race and gender in The King and I. Anna, portrayed by Kelli O’Hara in the 2015 revival, is the new White and Western school teacher who comes to Siam, an Eastern oriental country, to teach the royal children of the king. Lady Thiang, as portrayed by Ruthie Ann Miles, is the first wife of the king, whose son is heir to the throne. From a gender standpoint, Anna and Lady Thiang look very similar in what is contributing to their roles and expectations as a female (this will be our results, or dependent variable). They are both middle aged, have a young boy, and both are doing seemingly well for themselves (confounding variables… accounted for!). However, they are of a very different race and culture (you guessed it: independent variable), and this difference does in fact cause a strong impact on the manifestation of their gender roles and characteristics. 

There are many examples where we see the contrast in Anna and Lady Thiang’s expected gender roles and stereotypes portrayed through both the show’s creators and the actors’ choices made in portraying their characters. Their external appearance, approaches to teaching, how the two interact differently with the king and the children, and their view on love are all areas where we see these differences in what it means to be a female for characters of a different race. 

The way women are expected to dress is a part of gender norms, and has been throughout time. This norm is not only constantly evolving, but is seen to be different across cultures and races. This is seen so clearly in the example of Anna and Lady Thaing. Although both are dressed precisely to their own culture and race’s expectation of gender, that expectation is different between the two of them. Anna is in a big skirt, almost obnoxiously wide. In the first scene where they meet Anna, the wives of the king run over to look at her skirt because they think she “wear big skirt like that because [she] shaped like that,” in the words of Lady Thiang. This shows that this is something they have never in their lives seen before, even though this is what is totally normal for Anna. It’s not just something acceptable for her to wear, but what is expected of her by the race she knows and the society she comes from. In contrast, Lady Thiang is dressed like the other wives of the king, very differently than Anna. Her dress falls with her body and she wears elaborate gold jewelry and accents on her dress, showing her wealth and status in a very different way than Anna’s beautiful silk. 

We also see a difference in their teaching style and actions in the song “Getting to Know You”. Lady Thiang’s teaching can be described by one prop: her stick. She is aggressive and points her stick at the map, then at the children, and not kindly by any means. She uses a harsh tone and insists that the children stay in line. Anna, when handed the stick, gives a look of confusion, and then laughs and puts it down in replace of a book, reflecting the opposite of Lady Thiang. The book shows she is educational, not strict like the stick. Anna smiles and nods at the children, encouraging them to learn and ask questions. She shows the traits of being personable, people-oriented, and good with children, she even sits on the floor with them and holds their hands. When the singing and dancing of “Getting to Know You” begins, we see these differences in their roles as women amplified. While Anna sings and interacts with the children, Lady Thiang stands in the back, hands folded, looking straight ahead. She only steps in when Anna interacts with the other wives of the king, getting them to act like her rather than Lady Thiang, which is communicated as unacceptable through her sharp scolds and clapping of her hands. Anna is the creator of the “unscientific” classroom the King describes at the end of the scene, while Lady Thiang is constantly trying to keep the obedience and order. 

Anna and Lady Thiang also reflect a great difference in their expected gender roles in how they interact with the king and the children. Lady Thiang does whatever the king desires. She is his servant. Anna, although she shows him respect, stands up for herself. She refuses to be a servant and won’t let him belittle her. She even shows a little sass towards the king in their first encounter not only by claiming to be 153, but also by giving him a half eye roll and holding her chin high in the air right after. This shows confidence and assertiveness to the king, and is something Lady Thiang would never do. These two women also interact very differently with the children. Anna is warm. She smiles sweetly at them, and always seems overjoyed to see them. She welcomes them by reaching out her arms. She is right in their mix, sitting on the ground, holding their hands, and even running with the children. Lady Thiang and the other wives of the king, although still loving the children, express that love in a very different way. When at school or in front of the king, they are much more cautious about their actions, and have much less physical affection for the children. Lady Thiang stays back from the children, keeps her distance, and portrays a very stoic persona. 

Anna and Lady Thiang also have very different perspectives on love and romance, which is one of the most stereotypical aspects of the female gender. Tuptim, the new princess who loves a man other than the king, finds a safe person in Anna, but not Lady Thiang. When Lady Thiang is speaking to Anna about this situation, she says, “another man” with squinty eyes and a dead stare, like she is warning, or even threatening, Tuptim. Anna, however, is all about the love Tuptim has for another man. She says “poor child”, describing Tuptim, with a pain in her voice. She looks away from Lady tiang like she can’t even bear to hear what she is telling her. Lady Thiang responds saying “it is strange for school teacher to talk so romantic.” To us, this is the opposite of strange. This is one of the most known stereotypes of females. Females are supposed to be boy crazy, wanting a romantic love, someone to emotionally sweep them off their feet. But because of the culture surrounding her race, to Lady Thiang this is strange. It is against the norm. Anna soon goes on to sing of Tom, her late husband, in “Hello Young Lovers”. This is a scene the audience has seen a million times. Think of “Hopelessly Devoted” in Grease, and every other scene similar. Girls in love, helpless over a man. But Lady Thiang has never seen this scene before, and that is revealed to the audience through the confusion in Lady Thiang’s face the moment Anna begins to sing and every moment after. She won’t take her eyes off of Anna, cautiously waiting for what she might say next.  It is almost as if we see Lady Thiang understand what love is the first time. 

In their first scene together, Lady Thiang refers to Anna as “Sir.” She knows Anna is not quite her definition of female. When Anna questions her on this, Lady Thiang says that it is because she is “not lowly, like a woman.” This shows what might be the greatest difference between the roles of these two women: where they find their worth. To Lady Thiang, the king is everything. Serving him, being obedient to him, whatever that may look like, is her life as a female. Anna is different. Her role as a female is to show love to the children and to others, while also staying true to herself. She is romantic and loving, the set female gender norm. Lady Thiang is obedient and devoted, and that is the set female gender norm, too, just in a different race and culture. With confounding variables accounted for, these many differences in gender roles and expectations portrayed through Anna and Lady Thiang (dependent variables in our two groups) are deemed significant, showing that race and culture are in fact significant independent variables when it comes to gender expectations. Looking at these two women in The King and I shows that the intersectionality of gender and race cannot be ignored. You can’t properly understand one without looking at the other. Race and culture impact the “norm” of what a gender norm is, and how that is expressed. In our “future directions,” we need to continuously recognize the importance of that intersectionality when reflecting on gender norms and expectations in all situations.

The Musical Fetishization and Appropriation of Asian Cultures

In Western musical academia, we assign certain modes and scales to Asian music. We direct actors to use offensive accents, dress them in stereotypical costumes, makeup, compose derivative melodies, and thus continue to reinforce these racist standards in our musical consumption. Two extraordinarily popular musicals, Miss Saigon and The King and I, rely upon such stereotypes. Kim, from Miss Saigon, is sexually abused, prostituted, and beaten down, reduced to nothing more than a sex worker and eventual maternal figure. The titular King from The King and I spends the majority of the musical proving that he isn’t a barbarian in order to grow close to his white love interest. These two characters are relegated to stereotypes- the savage and oversexed non-Westerner, an objectified prop for white people to “save” or “improve.”

In order to discuss how Miss Saigon and The King and I heavily fetishize Asian culture, we first must understand the conception and origin of these two musicals. There is a long and established performance history of white people portraying different races, decades before American musical theater became the conglomerate it is today. The performance practices for both of these musicals rely heavily on cultural appropriation. Both musicals were originally performed with white performers in yellowface whose characters wear traditional Vietnamese and Thai costumes. Three popular operas- Madame Butterfly (upon which Miss Saigon is based), The Mikado, and Turandot– were originally performed with white singers in yellowface. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical about an innocent Midwestern girl trying to make her way in New York City, features three Asian characters who are reduced to grotesque xenophobic stereotypes. The list of racist musicals is extraordinarily long, but Miss Saigon and The King and I are two of the most visible and relevant musicals. 

So why does the musical theater industry keep producing and performing these controversial musicals, when so much of the material is offensive? Recent professional revivals of these musicals have attempted to cast Asian people, but we still see white people in the majority of productions. High schools around the country perform Miss Saigon and place students in appropriative costumes and makeup. Is there a way to perform these musicals and be respectful of the cultures they use? 

Miss Saigon’s female lead Kim is a prime example of white fetishization. From the first downbeat of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical, viewers are assaulted with hypersexualized images of scantily clad Asian women. The lyrics in the first song, “The Heat Is On in Saigon,” reinforce this oversexed scene, referring to the women as “slits,” relegating them to walking vaginas and dehumanizing them. The Engineer, the resident pimp, does his best to sell the women to the American soldiers who frequent Dreamland. Kim, our sweet, virginal heroine, is traded and sold like a piece of prime meat at the market, offered to the highest bidder. Chris, our strapping American G.I., waltzes into the Dreamland brothel and sees Kim, coming to the realization that he has to “know her” (both biblically and platonically).  Kim’s character toes the line between innocent and slutty, and seemingly regains some of her feminine virtues when she assumes the proper role of mother to her son Tam. Miss Saigon is a white savior story that glorifies the sacrificial nature of motherhood and demonizes sex workers. Yet, without Kim, Gigi, Mimi, Yvette, and the other sex workers, we would have no plot. Miss Saigon has to fetishize these characters, or we have no one to save with our whiteness. 

On a similar note, The King and I also uses sex as a means to demote and divide the characters along racial lines. Anna, our white and widowed heroine, has one child and remains steadfast to her late husband for the majority of the musical. The King, conversely, has multiple wives and numerous children. During a conversation with the King’s head wife, Anna says that the King is a polygamist, but not a barbarian, hinting that Western marital standards are superior to those practiced in Siam. This perspective neglects the fact that polygamy is practiced in parts of the West: while it is certainly viewed as unorthodox, it is a far cry from being labeled as “barbaric.” The wives in The King and I function only as objects meant for sexual gratification and childbearing, just as the women in Miss Saigon are used. A prime example of such characterization is Tuptim, the gifted slave destined to become yet another wife to the King. We also see the forcing of Western culture onto the members of the King’s court. In the second act, the ladies of the court wear Western dresses, but neglect undergarments, so when Sir Edward raises his monocle to examine them, the ladies blush in embarrassment and fear and raise their undergarments over their heads, exposing themselves to the men. 

Both Miss Saigon and The King and I do a remarkable job of perpetuating the concept of the “white savior” – Chris is Kim’s hero, and Anna is the King’s better half. Both white characters must change the fates of their Asian counterparts. Costuming and makeup is a key part of both of these characters’ journeys. Kim from Miss Saigon is forced to wear revealing clothing as she works in Dreamland, clothing that is not Western; the other Dreamland prostitutes wear Western swimwear designed to flatter and show off the female body while barely covering genitals and breasts; the King and other court members wear costumes that mimic Thai traditional dress. Both the King and Kim were characters originally performed by white people (e.g.Yul Brynner). Pictures from the first production show Brynner with exaggerated eyeliner, clad in a robe, sash, and loose pants. 

If Kim is merely a sex worker, one iteration of a traditionally undervalued and belittled profession, then why do we continue to tell her story? And why do we tell the tale of the love story between the King of Siam and Anna? These tales echo relationships and situations found in our boring, everyday lives. Unrequited love, the loss of a parent- these traumatic archetypal events become almost easier to digest when pulped, processed, and seasoned with some cultural appropriation. It allows us, the viewers and white colonizers, to accept what we have done to a shocking portion of the world- we stripped it down and demeaned the indigenous populations, remaining unwilling to empathize with different cultures and using traditionally Christian morals as an excuse to obliterate thousands of years of history. Sex, love, and death act as catalysts for unity across cultural divides, but it doesn’t mean that we should have to boil down characters like Kim and the King in order to confront the consequences of colonialism. 

Kim’s tragic ending allows us to pretend that for a minute, we actually care about what Americans did during the Vietnam War, and allows us to repent for the sins of our forefathers. The ending of The King and I lets us escape to a fantasy world which lets us say, “We didn’t cause any harm to this culture!” But, we did, and we continue to mock survivors’ and descendents’ trauma by performing these musicals with white actors. While it is important to perform them, we must also be willing to discuss why exactly they are so problematic. We are compelled to sugarcoat the colonization and transform it into a peppy musical in order to assuage our white guilt and fragility. We are still absolving the sums of our collective guilt through the consumption of this art medium. Even though it is possible to continue to perform these musicals, they must be viewed not only as works of art, but as the imperialist propaganda they fundamentally are. 

Men & Power: Funny Girl and Miss Saigon

By: Cassidy Johnson

Power. Both a concept and a goal that has been around along as there was life on this planet. Yet, the way we as people view power is changing in terms of accessibility and who should have it. The default picture of a person in power largely remains a man. Because art often reflects the ideals of the society that created it, this same view of power is seen in characters on Broadway: men retaining power over women in the stories that are told. In Funny Girl and Miss Saigon, one or a few men hold the power. In Funny Girl it is the charmer Nick Arnstein, and in Miss Saigon, the Engineer. The journey of these two men in their attempts to attain or maintain a modicum of power drives their stories. The difference between them is that Mr. Arnestein is a charming, well-to-do white man in America, while the Engineer is a conniving, man, prone to violence in Vietnam. Though the motivations behind their actions may be similar, their different identities impact the way they are represented in the musicals.

Funny Girl is a 1960s musical from Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics), and Isobel Lennart (book). Each of these individuals is white. Given the racial identity of the and time period of the authors, it is no surprise that Mr. Arnstein is a white man. Nick Arnstein is the epitome of status and power at the beginning of the twentieth century. We’re given a man who will do anything to maintain his comfortable life in America. Miss Saigon was also written by white men (Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg). While they create a musical that gives a glimpse of what life might have been like for those left behind in the Vietnam War, there are no positive depictions of Asian men in the entire musical, the Engineer included. He only has power over those who are worse off than him: women. We’re given a man who will do anything to get to America. In fact, the Engineer’s dream life is not too far off from the life Nick Arnstein lives before meeting Fanny.

The audience is first introduced to Mr. Nick Arnstein as an admirer of Fanny Price, who uses his reputation and status to increase her salary. And though his last name is traditionally Hebrew, the character includes no obvious Jewish depictions or features. Fanny even questions his heritage at one point when he doesn’t know the meaning of a Yiddish word. Arnstein is for all intents and purposes a white man. He uses charm and seduction to gain (romantic) power over Fanny. In fact, he seems to have a similar effect on every woman he meets admitting that he has been with “merely dozens, nothing serious.” He is a perfectly suave man who goes after what he wants. He is established enough to carry casual conversational with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. As an entrepreneur and gambler, Nick Arnstein moves through the world with ease, playing games and making connections across the country and even internationally in places such as Monte Carlo. For Arnstein, his sense of power is directly tied to money. Everything is alright in his world until he finds himself in need of serious cashflow to avoid going bankrupt.

Initially, Fanny’s fame and power do not matter to him; as long as he has his own why should he care? As soon as that hurricane wipes out his casino development in Florida, we see a different man. This Arnstein is not simply acting on wants, he is acting on needs. And when he is in need of cash, who does he go to? Other white men. Does he go to his rich wife? No. Even when Fanny offers him a check he puts up a resistance. To him, these men, these white men are the only acceptable sources he can to for help. They might currently have more money, but they are still comparable to him, on the same level. While he loves Fanny, he cannot fathom actually asking her for help. What man needs help from his wife, let alone financial help? When Arnstein yet again finds himself in need of more money, instead of asking Fanny who he knows would not refuse him, he seeks funding from illegal sources. Criminality is more appealing that comprising his perception of himself as a man. Fanny’s mother later puts things plainly for her daughter, telling her that her husband “needed his own money.” That was so integral to maintaining his sense of self, to him feeling that he still had power, that he compromised his freedom and family. His wife made him feel small constantly offering help and support. Nick Arnstein didn’t love Fanny as much as he loved feeling powerful.

Darius Campbell, the actor who plays Nick Arnstein has no trouble portraying a good looking suave man but adds depth to performance with his obvious trepidation during Arnstein’s most trying moments. His voice is softer and his hands are tightly balled up as he pleads “Please Fanny don’t hold so tight, give me some air, give me some light” as she’s about to hand him a check. In the same pensive moment, he tells himself, “Nicky you’ve got to just set her straight” because he cannot reconcile that the source of money is his wife. However, as soon as the check is in his hand, his expression lightens. Campbell immediately enters the musical number “Temporary Arrangement.” With cold hard cash in his hands and signing contracts, this is the most expressive the audience has seen Mr. Arnstein so far. He sports a full-face smile and largely performs the same choreography as the dancers on the stage. Of course, the other men he’s interacting with on stage are white men too. The audience can see his confidence build back up again as he uses his fresh power to cement his plans. That is, right before he gets the devastating phone call.

The Engineer has immediate power over Kim and the other women in the club from the start. The power comes from making the women fear him, as shown by his threatening interactions with Kim and Gigi. The Engineer, like Mr. Arnstein, is a man who goes after what he wants. The entire musical, he is doing everything he can to get a visa to the United States., where he believes he can possess the ultimate power. There is no mystery or surprise regarding this character; the Engineer has no depth. His entire journey is simply trying to gain more power in every situation he finds himself in. Kim (and Tam) are special only for what they can do for him. He did not like needed them, but he made it work for him.

The Engineer is a Vietnamese man who is entirely one-dimensional. He is a scoundrel. He is a predator. The actions he willing to take better his circumstances are criminal and abhorrent. He begins by pimping women to GI’s in Saigon, controlling them with violence all while hoping to attain a visa. He escapes the grasp of Thuy and the military by murdering and donning the uniform of a soldier. In Bangkok, he is still pimping out women, now using Kim and Tam to get his beloved visa. Yet, despite having power over women and Kim in the entire production there are those who have power over him — other men. The GIs who the Engineer is hoping to get a visa from in Saigon, then Thuy, then his boss in Bangkok, and even Chris making a decision about Tam. No matter how much he tries, he is still constantly subject to someone else’s whim. That someone either a white/American man (the GIs) or another Asian man who is no better than he. He will never get what he is desperate for without the help of an American. His boss in Bangkok is also a pimp, and Thuy is arguably worse than the Engineer, wanting to murder a child.

The actor who plays the Engineer, Jon Jon Briones, does bring flavor to this foul and scrappy man. A man of Asian descent, Briones adds humor to his character. There are instances throughout the production where the audience laughs after Briones directs sarcastic quips or exaggerated facial expressions towards them. As a result, the audience is able to enjoy Briones’ portrayal of the Engineer without actually enjoying the character himself. Without adding any intrapersonal depth, Briones is able to vary the way in which he interactions with different characters on the stage. He often grabs women roughly, but tentatively places his hand on shoulders on GIs hoping they will help him out. His energy is drastically different when he is trying to get customers in Bangkok compared to when his boss accosts him and Kim backstage. But Briones truly shines in the number “My American Dream.” For the first time, we see the Engineer free with glee living his dream. Briones is enjoyable to watch as he cavorts with the dancers on stage and humps an American-made vehicle. It is such a strong performance that it’s own of the musical highlights.

Both men break the law in the pursuit of power, the consequences and resolution differ as much as their race does. Nick Arnstein gambles and commits embezzlement in order to maintain his status as a successful businessman, and really a successful man. His downfall is at his own hands and the only victims of his actions are his family. The Engineer’s crimes are on a whole other level. He facilitates prostitution throughout and even murders a soldier. His downfall is at the hands of white men: the United States when they abandon Vietnam, and Chris and his wife when they chose what is “best” for Tam and Kim. The consequences he faces are partly the result of other’s decisions. Mr. Arnstein gets out after 18 months. He is remorseful and does not want to hurt Fanny any longer. There is no resolution of the musical for the Engineer; the audience has no idea what happens to after Kim dies (but we can assume he never gets that visa).

On the one hand, we have a well-to-do white man who is given depth, likable from his first line, and is at least given a shot and redemption in the end. On the other, we have a Vietnamese man in a war-stricken country who is deplorable from the start and receives no resolution. Both are criminals. Both are primarily concerned with having a sense of power and willing to compromise those around to get it. But the white man is given the sympathetic edge. Arnstein can garner sympathy from the audience during those inner monologue moments because he is raw and real. The Engineer is not given those same latitudes. Even when he addresses the audience it’s in moments of humor and self-grandeur. During the glimpse into his disturbing childhood, Briones’ sings in such a detached tone that sympathy is not easy to feel. The audience is provided the chance to like one and can’t feel anything but disdain for the other. This is the tragedy of Broadway. It would not be such a problem if the Engineer was a white or even just an American man. But he is an Asian man in a country destroyed by the West. He makes horrible decisions because of his horrible circumstances. I want to feel bad for him, but I cannot because of the way he is written by white men.

The White Woman Will Always Win- How White Privilege Hinders Feminism

How is it that the heroine of the 1951 musical, The King and I, is far more empowered than the heroine in the 1989 musical, Miss Saigon, despite the 38 years of feminist activism and expansion of women’s’ rights that occurred between the openings of the two Broadway productions? The answer is in the race and ethnicity of these two characters. Kim, from the musical Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and Anna, from the musical The King and I by Oscar Hammerstein II, are both single mothers that are in trying to make a living in Asian countries with their sons. The only distinct difference between these two characters is that Kim is a native-born Vietnamese woman, and Anna is white and British. This small difference between Anna and Kim’s ethnicity and race translates into a world of difference in the way that the playwright and actresses in the musical wrote and performed each character. 

To understand the disparity between the performances of Kim and Anna on stage, viewers must acknowledge the patriarchal relationship between western and eastern cultures that elevates white women and degrades women of color. Western nations have a history of demeaning and interfering in eastern affairs to gain power and impose their practices on the citizens of these foreign nations. The King and I demonstrates this patriarchal relationship in the way that Anna patronizes the people of the Bangkok court. From the moment that Anna first meets members of the Siamese court, she convinces the audience that she is a superior and more civilized character. Anna first proves her superiority when she encounters the prime minister, Kralahome. Anna is shocked that Kralahome can communicate with her in English. The irony in the fact that Anna is surprised by Kralahome’s knowledge of English is the fact that the audience is not supposed to be shocked that Anna does not know the native language of Bangkok. Anna is in Bangkok for a job teaching the royal children, and the fact that she cannot speak the native language of the land is strange. However, instead of seeing her lack of knowledge as abnormal, the audience accepts it because people speak English in many western nations. This notion that “normal” people speak English dehumanizes the people that do not (many people living in the east) and allows the audience to ignore Anna’s flaw. Anna goes further to patronize Kralahome by repeating, “the King says,” after he says, “the King say.” This correction makes Kralahome look half-witted while Anna sounds well educated. The audience expects Kralahome not only know English but to speak it well to prove his intelligence, while they see Anna as intelligent despite not speaking the Central Thai dialect. This double standard allows the producers of the play to make Kralahome look inferior to Anna despite his intelligence and Anna’s lack of knowledge. Through Anna’s appearance of greater intelligence that the members of the Bangkok palace, creators Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein make the western world look intellectually superior to the eastern world. They also demonstrate this patriarchal relationship between the western and eastern world when Anna attempts to help the palace residents act British so that the British and the western world would not regard them as “savages.” Anna explicitly calls the native customs savage compared to the western way of living. Anna, an average white widowed woman, is given authority over the king of Bangkok and the entire Bangkok court at this moment. The subordination of the Bangkok court is synonymous with the patriarchal power men use to oppresses women. The description of the Bangkok people as uneducated and submissive to Anna, who is a western woman, enforces the hyperfeminization of eastern Asian people and the hypermasculinization of their binary, the western world. 

The patriarchal relationship between the western and eastern worlds and sexism also work to undermine Kim as an Asian female. This oppression is what makes Kim weak and helpless in the play compared to Anna, who is strong and independent. Kim demonstrates her helplessness as she sings the song, “I’d Give My Life For You.” The lyrics of the song perpetuate the stereotype that East Asian women are intensely loyal and always helpless. Within the lyrics of the song, Kim sings about Chris (the white American soldier who is the father to her son and left her in Vietnam) and how she is sure that he will return to her and give their son the life she cannot provide for him. These lyrics imply that Kim is not capable of improving her situation and taking care of her son on her own. Her only option is to wait as long as it takes for Chris to come back and fix her life for her as he did before. This behavior conveys the message that eastern women are desperately willing to rely on a western man with fierce loyalty. This stereotype allows men to fetishize Asian women as are dependent, easy to control, and desperate. Kim sings the song to her son about how she would give up her life to ensure him a better future. The audience sees Kim as a woman that is willing to sacrifice for love, but they do not consider how unreasonable and degrading this sacrifice is. Kim must take her own life for her son to go live in America with Chris and his new wife, Ellen. This decision determines the value of Kim’s life as a rational trade for her son to live in America. Kim’s entire life is determined by the men in her life and she is left with almost no agency of her own choices. Anna, in The King and I, on the other hand, can make independent choices that do not rely on the male characters in the musicalIn fact, the King of Siam was dependent on Anna to make him and his country civilized and educated with western knowledge. Anna is free to leave Bangkok or stay and she makes that decision for herself, not for her son or the king. The producers make Kim inferior to Chris in Miss Saigon because she is an Asian woman, and Chris is a white man. Anna, however, is made to look superior to the King of Siam, even though Anna is a woman, and the King of Siam is a man. This reverse of these roles is possible because Anna’s performance of whiteness allows her to overturn the constraints of being female in a sexist society. Anna’s identity in her race permits her to display authority and autonomy over other Asian characters. 

Another indication of the superior power that Anna’s character possesses in comparison to Kim’s is the casting of the actresses. In the 2018 adaptation of The King and I, 42-year-old Kelli O’Hara plays Anna. O’Hare appropriately demonstrates the power and wisdom of her age in her performance on stage. Eva Nobelzada, a 5′ 2” 20-year-old, is who producers cast to play Kim in the 2016 adaptation of Miss Saigon. Nobelzada’s young age and small stature fit perfectly in the role of Kim, who is 17 at the beginning of the musical. O’Hara uses the control of her voice in a disciplined and sophisticated way that helps establish Anna’s civilized character. However, Nobelzella, a young and less experienced actress, brings Kim’s youthful wide-eyed character to the stage. O’Hara’s facials are confident and proud, clearly expressing annoyance and anger at times to the King and other men in the production. Nobelzada’s facials remain soft, passionate, and confused in the musical leaving her lips slightly ajar in a pitiful pout to show Kim’s childlike purity.

Another difference between these two actors is the way that they sing. O’Hara is always elegant with her head held high in her songs. She sings in a very sophisticated and controlled voice while dancing joyously. However, Nobelzada does not sing in the same controlled manner. Nobelzada allows her voice to be full of passion and emotion. While she belts out, her pleading face is towards the audience. Nobelzada’s voice is also very youthful and almost childlike, which adds to the innocence and helplessness of Kim in the musical. The drastic contrast in the castings of Anna and Kim goes beyond the written characters. The casting of O’Hara, an established and accomplished actress, as Anna emphasizes the sophistication and the maturity that Anna brings to the stage, while Nobelzella, a young actress in her first major musical, brings Kim’s feeble innocence to the production. These contrasting characteristics are used to elevate white women to a place of high status and power and stereotype Asian women as helpless and weak. These productions show us that because of the binary relationship between western and eastern cultures the portrayal of women of different races on stage and in society will never be equal which will inhibit the progression of feminism as a whole. 

The stark contrast between Anna and Kim’s characters in their respective musicals conveys that activists cannot resolve the issues of feminism without also addressing issues of race. Anna demonstrates how white women receive privileges that Asian women cannot receive because of western and white supremacist beliefs detract from the oppression they face as women. Kim exemplifies how society treats Asian women as inferior because of the subordination of eastern culture in addition to their subjection as women. Women cannot achieve equality with men when there is still a disparity in the way that society treats females of different races. Activists must integrate advocation for racial equality and feminism to end the societal institutions that oppress all women.

Just Another Cinderella Story-Esther Ayoade

We all know the story of Cinderella: she is abused by her evil stepmother, she meets the prince at the ball, loses her glass slipper, yada yada yada, then she lives happily ever after with her charming prince. Miss Saigon takes a similar turn; Kim is orphaned as both her parents died, she meets Chris, they fall in love, yada yada yada, and they live happily ever after…. Wait no they don’t. Kim is an Asian woman. Miss Saigon, made in 1989 by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, was written in a way that represents the intersectionality of being an Asian woman by portraying Kim as an inferior character with limited amount of choices, while portraying Chris, a White man, as a superior character who has full control of his own life with the many choices he had. When such musicals are written this way, it makes it seem okay for society to adopt the many harmful stereotypes and beliefs embedded within, such as Asian fetishes (also called yellow fever). In this preference still practiced today, White men are greatly attracted to Asian women due to the physical attributes and characteristics stereotypically attached to them: helplessness and submissiveness. This causes Asian women to feel worthless because they are not loved for who they truly are. This is portrayed in the musical when the writers make Kim kill herself not only as a sacrifice to her son, but also as a way to show that her life was never meaningful in the first; it was especially not meaningful when Chris, a man of power and privilege, disappeared from the picture.

In society East Asian women are often labeled as these “China dolls” because of the suggestion that East Asian women are dehumanized to the level of a doll that is supposed to sit, look pretty and allow the White men to play and control them however they want. The idea of Asian fetisization is highlighted within the musical when Chris instantly “falls in love” with Kim because of her virginity but later leaves her for his White American wife, Ellen. The issue is that Chris did not actually love Kim, but lusted for her instead. They only knew each other for a few days and the initial attraction was due to the fact that she was a virgin, but the later attraction was due to the fact that he felt the need to protect her, after she portrayed herself as helpless and vulnerable. Chris confirms this in a later duet with his wife Ellen claiming, “so I wanted to save her, protect her Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?” This further shows that the fetish he had for Kim was real because he felt like it was his job to protect and comfort her not only because he is an American (white savior), but also because it helps him feel better about himself, considering it enhances his masculinity and superiority.

This play begins with many Vietnamese ladies in a club wearing skimpy lingerie, performing sexual dances as GI soldiers touch them inappropriately. Then Kim, a virgin and orphan walks out wearing a white dress that covers her legs and shows nothing but her arms as a way to portray her purity, the stage lights then turn white and shine on her center stage. Eva Noblezada, the actress who plays Kim, was chosen for this role because at the time of release she was a 20 year old girl with a soprano voice. The producers purposefully chose a girl like Eva, with an angelic voice, rather than another girl with a raspy voice, to go along with Kim’s characteristics of being innocent, as innocence is a key part of her identity and it is what draws Chris’ eyes in the first place. After the performances are over and Miss Saigon is announced, the Engineer, an Asian man, viscously grabs her by the neck and arm so she can attract more men, then a random GI background character, a White man, attempts to rape her, and finally, Chris’ friend John, a Black man, inappropriately humps her. Here we see three races, Asian, White, and Black, take advantage of Kim all because they share a common power: being a man. In this musical, men are shown to be hypermasculine and able to get whatever girl they want, while Kim is a woman, portrayed as a weak girl that is not able to defend herself. That is why throughout the play Kim relies on Chris to improve her life, because she sees this White man as her only ticket out of helplessness and out of Vietnam. Examples of this are when she begs Chris to take her out of the club in the beginning or when she runs after him behind the gate of the embassy.

Kim’s femininity is not the only thing that paints her as inferior. A main factor and the reason why her story ends in a tragedy while Cinderella’s and Chris’ do not, is because she is Asian. The stereotype that East Asian women are helpless is what attracts the White American men is portrayed in the scene where Chris wants to leave Kim because he thinks she is like every other girl who just sleeps with soldiers to get a visa to America, but then Kim tells the sob story of when and how her parent were killed and how she is forced to work at a club to stay alive. She sings the phrase “I would rather die,” and this makes Chris feel empathy for her, so much so that his so-called “love” for her is enhanced and he asks her to live with him. Chris even kneels down and puts his head in her lap as a way to show his “deep love” for her. However, if we really think about it, it does not make sense for Chris to fall in love with someone in less than 24 hours. Instead, he lusts for Kim because she symbolizes innocence and purity and this will allow Chris to appear as a hero in her life who saved her from her terrible life in Vietnam. At this point in time the ball was in Chris’ court, he had all the power and all choices of how he could play or comfort his “doll.” The phrase “I would rather die,” was added by the producers to foreshadow her demise, but also to paint Vietnam in such a bad light that it alludes to the fact that America is superior to Vietnam, the same way Chris is superior to Kim. 

In the duet “Last Night of the World,” Chris sings the lyrics “there’s a place your life will have worth, I will take you” then Kim replies with “ I will go with you.” These lyrics were added by the producers of the play to imply Chris’ superiority over Kim. It reiterates the idea that Kim, because of her Eastern culture and identity, does not have a meaningful life, but when she goes to America, even though she is still East Asian, her life will magically have worth. The play is written in way that insinuates that America is such a great place for any race that lives there, when in reality being a person of color in America comes with facing discrimination and not being given the same privileges and opportunities as other White people. They purposefully write Chris to be blind to the negative situations other races experience in America because his whiteness allows him to live a good life. Unfortunately, Kim’s ignorance adds to the perpetuating false belief of America’s superiority over Vietnam. She does not know that America has its own problems that she would also have to face, especially because she is a woman of color. The authors made Kim oblivious because it parallels with how many immigrants who long for the American dream, have a false notion that America is the land of milk and honey, when in reality that is only the case for native born White Americans. We see Chris exemplify this “White male dominance” again on the day Saigon fell; Kim says that she wants to go with him but he makes the final decision that he thinks it is best if she stays and waits for him to come back. The fact that Kim never makes it to America and dies at the end of the story ingeminates the idea that Kim was worthless from the very beginning and was only awaiting her demise, solely because Asian women are, and will always be, inferior to White men.

Throughout the musical Kim has portrayed her inferiority through her Vietnamese identity, but in the musical number “This is the Hour,” it is the first time Kim shows her strength and power which lies in the love she has for her son. She makes it clear that her son is what brings her joy and she will do anything to protect him and give him a better life than the one she has. Kim’s power is illustrated in the music as well, because when she is duetting with Thuy, the baseline of the accompaniment along with her pitch, gets higher and higher and eventually overshadows Thuy’s voice. Again, in the lyrics she shows her dominance when Thuy proclaims she is not a killer but she responds back with the words, “what I must do I will,” and then five seconds later she actually kills him, knowing the consequences. Her words and actions reveals her heightened power over Thuy and the sacrifice she is willing to make for her son. The only reason why Kim was able to overpower Thuy by killing him and face no repercussions, is because Thuy is also Vienamese. If she had gone toe to toe with any other White male like Chris, she would have failed. This is because the authors of the musical wanted to portray Thuy as the villain and Chris as the hero. It goes back to the idea that having white skin and western cultures is a more dominant and appreciated feature than being East Asian. However we must keep in mind that just because Kim was able to dominate over Thuy in that specific moment, does not make the portrayal of East Asian women, generally in this play, dominant. The fact that she has to make certain sacrifices in the first place, like killing other people or even killing herself, shows that she never gets to control how her own life plays out and she must always depend on the power of others to protect herself. 

The musical’s portrayal of the two main characters Kim and Chris serves to normalize and validate the stereotypical characteristics of submissiveness and helplessness in East Asian women along with the power and privilege in White men. The main way Kim demonstrates this stereotype is by constantly relying on Chris to take her and her son Tam to America, when she waits three years for Chris and when she kills herself. Chris, on the other hand, exhibits his dominance by fetishizing for Kim’s purity and vulnerability, which in turn makes him feel like the savior and enhances his masculinity. In order to end the stigmatization that men are superior to women and White people are superior to people of color, musicals must be written in a way that diminishes those harmful stereotypes. They need to portray a certain character’s dominance, not through their skin color, but solely through their actions and thoughts. If and when this occurs, there would be an alternate ending to this tragic musical. Kim would be Cinderella. Kim would not have to sacrifice her life for her son to live in America. Kim would get to live with her prince charming, Chris, along with her son Tam, in Vietnam.

Miss Saigon, Where Do We Go From Here?

When I found out that I would be watching the musicals Miss Saigon and The King and I for an academic class, I was more than excited to experience these productions. Not only had I not seen a production of these musicals before, but I was eager to see a minority culture represented on the Broadway stage. After some conversations surrounding representation and musical theatre with my own friends, I was made aware of the significance the show held for some of my Southeast Asian friends. I had assumed that Miss Saigon and The King and I were just as significant to my friends as Dreamgirls and The Color Purple are significant to me. And while Miss Saigon and The King and I do have some great storytelling aspects and stellar performers, the stereotypical sentiment towards Southeast Asians, specifically Southeast Asian women, continues to be portrayed in modern productions.

Miss Saigon transports audience members overseas and into 1970s Vietnam and Myanmar. Despite the foreign location, the production supplies spectators with a specific, Western-centric insight into the people and the culture inherent to these regions. Miss Saigon portrays a war-torn landscape where the native women are willing to do almost anything to escape their circumstances and pursue a better life in America, even if it means being whisked away by an American soldier whom they were pimped out to. When broken down analytically, the production itself offers intriguing commentary on the intersectional experience of being Asian and being a woman. However, most of these depictions draw upon negative stereotypes, and originate from an exclusively Western perspective. Kim, the lead character in Miss Saigon, is a prime example of a character whose femininity is accentuated to conform to the stereotype of the perfect, Asian woman. This notion becomes even more complicated as Kim’s expressed femininity comes into comparison with Ellen’s role as Chris’s American wife. The differences that exists between Kim and Ellen not only inform the gendered roles that they assume, but also lends itself to creating an intersectional crossroad of race and gender that specifically affects how Kim is depicted. As a result, Kim’s actions become a performance of otherness whenever juxtaposed with Ellen, a performance of whiteness.

Prior to Miss Saigon’s original Broadway debut, the terms “geisha girl” and “china doll” were grossly utilized to define characteristics that were expected of Southeast Asian women. These terms perpetuated the idea that these women were the epitome of submission and docility, more so than white women. These submissive and docile characteristics were molded to fit the Western, male-centered expectations of femininity. Subsequently, these stereotypes were subtly, and purposefully, integrated into Miss Saigon’s plot, characters, and the other storytelling elements. From the very beginning of the musical, Kim is depicted as a mere object of the existence that surrounds her. She almost always exclusively operates as a passive recipient, arguably only fulfilling the role of a direct decision maker during the final moments of the performance. From the very beginning of the production, Kim is lead away from her homeland and thrusted into the frenzied backstage of a strip club. When instructed to be the sexually desired object of a group of American soldiers, Kim meekly follows the Engineer’s commands as the men chant “the heat is on in Saigon, the girls are ready to screw.” These two contrasting images corroborate the submissive stereotype that have been inflicted upon women of Southeast Asian descent. The brash chants of the soldiers vocally assert a dominance over the women in the bar. Their forceful tone matches their physicality as they move their muscular bodies across the stage and lunge after the prostitutes that inhabit the bar. As the men intentionally graze up against her, grab and caress her arms, and lead her by the hips, Kim continues to be an object of their desires. It isn’t until Chris, one of the American soldiers, intervenes on Kim’s “behalf” that this behavior comes to a halt. The show itself doesn’t provide Kim with any agency of her own to redeem herself from this unsettling and overtly male dominated situation. Instead a white, American soldier must rescue Kim from her circumstance, suggesting that Kim alone does not have the power to advocate for herself. Even while she resides in her own country, it takes the authority and masculinity of a foreigner from the Western world to ease her struggle. In other words, Miss Saigon insinuates that the only way out for Kim and the other Vietnamese women working for the Engineer is to be submissive to an ideal, mostly white, American man.

The implications of race and gender in Miss Saigon continue when the audience is introduced to Ellen, Chris’s wife whom he marries several years after leaving Vietnam. Her first appearance during “I Still Believe” seamlessly intertwines Kim’s and Ellen’s individual storylines despite the characters not having any direct interaction at this point. While both women sing about Chris, Ellen is positioned lying in bed next to him wearing a simple, seemingly silken nightgown with a marriage band fastened her left ring finger. Conversely, Kim kneels on the ground below in soiled clothing with dirt smudged across her face, clutching the only remnant of Chris that she has. Kim’s circumstance, depicted by filth and squalor, warrants sympathy from the audience. Ellen’s condition, however, cements her status as Chris’s legitimate wife, almost refuting the establishment of Kim and Chris’s prior relationship. Complete with a marriage ring and a marriage bed, Ellen represents the traditional woman that awaits an American soldier once he returns from war: blonde, white, and ready to get hitched. Ellen even expresses her spousal commitment to Chris as she closes the song singing, “I’m your wife now for life until we die.” Kim mirrors Ellen’s final words, instead singing “I’m yours until we die.” Once again, the simultaneous comparison of Kim’s and Ellen’s inner thoughts aim to create sympathy for Kim. While Kim fantasizes about rekindling her relationship with Chris, Ellen lives out this fantasy in reality. Kim’s inability to acquire any of the physical signifiers of traditional marriage, unlike Kim, delegitimizes her relationship with Chris. This feeds into the concept of Eastern exoticism as Kim, previously desired and feminized to the upmost degree, becomes replaced for a more traditional, American woman.

The emphasis on Kim’s otherness reaches a peak during “Room 317,” the number where Kim meets Ellen for the first time. When Kim enters the hotel room, Ellen immediately dismisses her as cleaning personnel. In this brief moment, Ellen doesn’t consider Kim to be a person of significance. Even given the situation that brought her and Chris to Bangkok, Ellen never stops to consider if Kim is the woman Chris is looking for. Although this comment may have been made unconsciously, it calls Ellen’s reaction seeing a Southeast Asian woman entering her room into question. Her split-second reaction to Kim’s race and gender immediately labels Kim as just another person on her trip to Bangkok, someone who is there to merely turn the Ellen’s bedsheets for her convenience. If Kim had been a Southeast Asian man or a white woman, Ellen’s reaction would not have had the same effect. It is the combination of both Kim’s race and gender that this small comment carries as much consequence and insight as it does. 

As the conversation between Kim and Ellen continues, Ellen makes several, short comments and behaves in a way that reads as attempt to distance herself from Kim. When Kim implores Ellen to take her son, Tam, back to America with her and Chris, Ellen remains in her chair while Kim begs from the floor. Ellen is physically situated above Kim, affording Ellen more physical presence as well as control over the exchange. This dynamic leaves Kim depicted as the woman without any influence on the conversation. Given she has the upper hand, Ellen is visibly opposed to the idea and concisely remarks, “Chris is married to me, we want kids of our own.” Ellen’s remarks make it clear that she is married to Chris and the family she imagines does not and will not consist of Chris and Kim’s son. Ellen drives this point even further exclaiming, “He’s your child, he’s not mine!” This is Ellen’s most blatant attempt at otherizing Kim and Tam. In this moment, Ellen unconsciously reveals that Tam has no place in her American-born family despite being Chris’s biological son. Sending off a little money here and there is enough to meet Tam’s needs in Ellen’s mind, fueling her own white saviorism from the comfort of her homestead.

Both during its debut and its return to Broadway, Miss Saigon has been able to attract massive audiences, and it isn’t hard to imagine why this is. Eva Noblezada’s performance as Kim during the West End revival is more than good reason to invest in watching Miss Saigon. Her and the energy her other castmates bring to the stage, particularly Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer and Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi, makes watching the musical an immersive experience. However, this doesn’t negate the harmful ideas and images that the musical itself perpetuates. Displays of toxic masculinity, white saviorism, and Asian exoticism run rampant throughout the show, and it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge how these topics are rooted in real-world viewpoints and have real-word consequences. The ways in which Kim is treated throughout the show reflect how society has and continues to view minority women. The relationship between Kim and Ellen creates a dichotomy that explains how whiteness and non-whiteness, or otherness, have been defined historically. As troubling as these concepts may be, their subject matter can be used to foster productive discussion. These conversations can help inform future decisions concerning honest representations of not only Southeast Asian people, but all minorities across the musical theatre medium.

“The Complexities of The Patriarchy on the Modern Stage”

By: Tobi Akisanya

It’s a man’s world. I mean really, how sad is that? We live in a patriarchal society dominated by men. It has always been this way and it makes me question if it will always be this way.  Even though that sounds extremely negative, it is what it is. The patriarchy is no stranger to the American theatrical stage. After all, the stage is often a reflection of a society’s culture. The patriarchy is just one of many structures of oppression that intersect to create interlocking oppressions (in the words of the Combahee River Collective). The King and I first debuted in the 1950s and tells the story (set in the 1800s) of the headstrong and fierce King of Siam and his interesting and complicated relationship with the people around him, especially new English teacher/governess Anna. Miss Saigon, based on the opera Madame Butterfly, tells the chilling and devastating story of the complex relationship between Chris, an American soldier during the Vietnam war, and his Vietnamese lover, Kim. Both stories depict the problematic ideals of the era through the nature of the characters as a product of their given era. These eras, of course, were spearheaded by the men who dictated them. Despite the fact that both the King and Chris benefit immensely from the concrete structure of the patriarchy, it is important to consider the implications of race, gender as a performance, and binaries of the East and West as they pertain to their character arcs. 

Race gives individuals certain privileges and advantages based on who they are. Chris’s status as a white, American man almost completely contradicts the King’s status as an Asian man. Although both men are able both attain a certain hierarchy that comes with being a man, there are levels that exist within manhood. When factoring race into the equation of manhood it is clear that Chris achieves a hierarchy over a King. Since the King is an actual King, he is accustomed to certain immunities. However, one can experience oppression and elevation at the same time. The King is oppressed by being Asian but not by being a King. A prime example of this is seen when the King is worried about coming across as barbaric to the British. Instead of owning aspects of his own cultural experience to discount the assumption, the King turns to aspects of white and western culture in order to throw off their racist remarks. On the flipside, Chris experiences a double layered elevation of sorts by being white and a man. He uses his position of power to make decisions on the behalf of those who have little to know voice. Chris is allowed to make decisions only concerning his wellbeing, after all, white culture created the rules, he is just a product of it.

We are taught through socialization the ideas of being a man or a woman. Both The King and I and Miss Saigon are set in a time where no one really questioned or outwardly opposed the idea of gender binaries and what makes them problematic. Throughout their respective performances The King and Chris perform masculinity at its highest rank. Within the performance of masculinity, it is almost a requirement to acquire the “tough guy” persona. But, unfortunately, emotions are a sign of weakness for both of these men, or at least they think they are. The performance of masculinity is so restrictive that more often than not it becomes toxic, hence the term toxic masculinity. Even the male characters’ audience members want to give a chance, impose their toxic masculinity on others like a double-edged sword. They stab both themselves and the other people in their lives. Men are given the means to be superior but even they struggle to hold that title, and in the little pieces of the musical we see them struggle. However, it’s never in front of people that they want to do that. They put on a front. But the facade of masculinity must begin to wither at some point. The usage of “I am” songs helps both men ponder the questions that neither know the answers to. In “A Puzzlement” the King comes to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have answers to all of life’s questions–just as no one really does. He realizes that as the world changes around him that it is a struggle for him to create relevant ideas. He worries how his stagnation will affect whoever is next in line for the throne. This musical number, as it is delivered, gives the audience a sense of the King’s discomfort with himself, immediately making him more vulnerable. Similarly, in “Why, God Why?” Chris is haunted by the fact that the memories made in Vietnam will stick with him longer than he wants them to. As he pleads with God, audience members see his face covered in an overwhelming emotion that not even he, a privileged white male, can ignore. The patriarchy, at least in the traditional sense, did not give men the time nor the space to be emotional. In my opinion, men reckoning with their emotions is a relatively modern subject on the American musical stage. These numbers confirm that men are uncomfortable with the idea of confusion; it angers them so much that oftentimes they don’t even want to deal with it. Both men hate the fact that the women around them make them think deeper. But what would men think without the women around them?

         The stereotypical Asian character is such a caricature of a false reality created by white people for white people. It is a form of entertainment, of the “other”, in which they (white people) can gawk and laugh at. This type of over exaggeration is evident in the King’s mannerisms. Rather than approaching situations with poise he is overtly animated. His random burst of anger coupled with his broken English—even though it does provide comedic relief—is problematic. When Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil created the role of the King they knowingly/ unknowingly created a character that mocks the Asian race, shaping a false narrative of Asian culture for the white race. Asian characters posed next to white characters make white characters seem even more revered and refined than they actually are, a quality evident in both The King and I and Miss Saigon. In my opinion, Chris is the furthest thing from respectable. He only cares about himself and uses his white privilege to get what he wants.  For example, during “The Confrontation”, Chris confirms that his love for Kim is cheap. Rather than moving Kim and his son Tam to America, he decides it will be best for him to provide for them in Thailand, a place even he doesn’t think is good enough for him to reside in. His actions are rooted in himself rather than the people around him that desperately need him, yet the people around him immediately trust him. Why, you might ask? Because he is a white man, and by society’s standards they hold the key to life’s questions. The white race versus any other race was built in opposition creating concrete power structures that individuals, on both ends, are forced to deal with.  A character of color is always under suspicion and people are way more likely to believe that white people have superior knowledge. Similarly, with The King and I, what is it about Eastern knowledge that makes it so undesirable? The Western ideology prioritizes the mind and rationality whereas Eastern ideology prioritizes a sense of spirituality. Additionally, Western morality is rooted in the fact that every man is for himself and Eastern morality is rooted in honor and shame culture. But even with these cultural differences why is Western culture seen as superior?  Why does Chris’s presence hold a greater force than the King’s? A soldier versus a King yet the solider wins simply because he is a white westerner. The spiritual component of Eastern knowledge systems is often ridiculed and seen as subordinate or illogical in the face of Western rationality. 

         The combination of gender as a performance, race, and binaries of the East and West are what make Miss Saigon and The King and I what they are. Even though both of the musicals are widely problematic, it would be almost offensive to discount the fact that they are nonetheless phenomenal. Though he is a man, the King does suffer from racism and the discrediting of the East, adding depth and nuance to his character. And Chris, who is beneficiary of white privilege, struggles with the weight that comes with his role in society. Watching both of these men play with the cards they were dealt with in life gave a sense of added knowledge to me as a viewer.

The Silence of White Violence: Racialized Perceptions of Masculine Aggression in Miss Saigon

By Maya P.

“Sir, is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see her?” For Miss Saigon characters Chris and Thuy, I am disappointed to say that the answer is both. The 2017 Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil and directed by Laurence Connor (all of whom are white men), is a story of an ill-fated romance between Kim, a young Vietnamese orphan, and Chris, a white American GI during the Vietnam War. In the show, Kim and Chris fall in love before he abandons her, and we watch their separate stories progress until their tragic reunion at the story’s conclusion. During Kim and Chris’ whirlwind romance, Thuy, a cousin to whom Kim was promised by their parents in their youth, is identified as an interfering force in their romance as he constantly tries to track Kim down and claim her as his own. In pursuing Kim romantically, Chris and Thuy similarly threaten and enact physical and emotional violence against Kim – but because Chris is white and Thuy is not, this violence makes Thuy a villain while Chris gets to remain a protagonist. 

In order to understand the way in which Chris and Thuy enact violence against Kim, we first need to understand Kim’s situation. Kim, played by then 20-year-old Eva Noblezada, is a poor, seventeen year old Vietnamese girl whose parents are recent casualties of the Vietnam War. In order to get by, she turns to prostitution in a brothel. There, Chris’ friend John purchases a night with Kim for him, and from the first time they dance, it is clear that their love is written in the stars. They predictably fall in love, they get married, he abandons her when the Americans leave Vietnam, and she is left to care for their child in the ruins of Saigon while being actively pursued by Thuy, who is now a high-ranking Vietnamese army officer. Basically, Kim has every single odd stacked against her – she is young, she is orphaned, she is Vietnamese (i.e. not white), she is a mother, she is poor, she is a woman – and because of that, all of her actions stem from who she is, so she never has any agency and is treated as an object rather than a subject.

If Kim is a package with a “FRAGILE” label on it, the leading men in this musical are postmen who simply have no concept of the phrase “handle with care.” Thuy (played by Devin Ilaw) in particular inflicts overt physical violence onto Kim. When he barges into Kim and Chris’ wedding ceremony, he touches her face and smiles when he speaks to her, but when Chris makes himself (and his “claim” to Kim) known, Thuy seemingly turns in an instant. His face drops, he tenses, he hurls insults at the other women in the brothel. But upon closer examination, Thuy has had this violence within him from the start. He initially grabs Kim by the wrists and aggressively pulls her to him, and he’s simply allowed his violent “nature” to shine through when presented with a competitor. At one point, Thuy draws a gun on Chris, and Kim positions herself in front of the barrel to protect him. Though Thuy does not shoot, he holds the gun there for far too long to have not been thinking about it. He leaves as Chris “saves” Kim by chasing Thuy out at gunpoint.

There is already so much to unpack here. Thuy, a Vietnamese man (more on that later), is positioned immediately as an antagonist in Kim and Chris’ love story who is willing to use violent and even lethal force to get Kim, his “prize [he] can win,” because he thinks he has a right to “have” her. And then he comes back for more. Three years later, Thuy is an official in Vietnam’s communist regime, and with the help of the Engineer, he finds Kim hiding as she waits for Chris to return. He asks her again to marry him, and when she refuses, he orders his troops who had been waiting outside the door to tie her up and take her to a re-education camp, showing us that again, he is willing to kill her if she will not give him what he wants (what he wants being her). Kim is once again trapped with no options, so she reveals the son she had with Chris to Thuy, who once again threatens murder as he holds Tam at knifepoint, and Kim, because she is a mother, has no choice but to shoot Thuy with Chris’ gun. Thuy is shown as a relentless brute who will kill a white man, will think about killing a teenage girl, and will kill an actual toddler in order to get his way and preserve his pride and cultural ideas. His brutality and the way he gets in between Kim and Chris’ star-crossed love makes it such that the audience might even feel that he deserves his death, and even if they feel bad for him, they will hardly consider it a tragedy. 

Thuy also commits emotional violence against her. Even when he is not putting his hands on Kim in their initial encounter,  he invalidates her feelings for Chris, basically telling her that she “belongs” to him, and then dredges up the past trauma of her parents’ death in order to make her feel guilty about not wanting to marry him. And three years later, he forces her to watch as he holds her child hostage and almost kills him. Although it was Kim who pulled the trigger on Thuy, the fact that she had to choose between the death of her child and committing murder is an emotionally violent act in itself. Either way, she will be held responsible for the death of a family member. His entire character is based on a cycle of telling Kim he loves her and then threatening her with death, so, you know, a real stand-up guy.

And then we have Chris, played by Alistair Brammer. On the surface, he is the romantic lead! He is chivalrous, he is Western, he loves Kim and wants to rescue her from her tragic life in Vietnam. But he has the potential to be just as violent as Thuy; we’re just not supposed to think that he is, or at least, we’re not supposed to care. First of all, throughout Act I, he’s either in his army uniform or half-naked (read: having sex with Kim), meaning he’s either a symbol of war and American imperialism or sexually dominant at all times. Secondly, he’s also not particularly gentle around Kim when they first meet, either. Although he never lays a rough hand on her, he’s constantly using excessive force against other men who come near her, such as the other soldier who tries to assalt her or the Engineer, and he also doesn’t try to stop John’s sexual harassment against her, either. Though at first he pays her to leave the brothel, he eventually gives in to the pressures of toxic masculinity when John and the Engineer accuse him of not being interested in her – he takes her back to her room where he takes advantage of her naivete and proceeds to rape her (yes, she allowed him to, but as the musical makes both excessively clear through Noblezada’s portrayal yet also wants us to forget, she is a child). There are also multiple instances later on in the musical where he is an all-around violent guy, such as his pulling a gun on a man asking to use the phone, or spending his entire Big Emotional Solo pushing men asking him for help away from him. Even in moments where he was onstage with Thuy while Thuy was being actively violent, Chris was being violent as well! Remember, he chased Thuy out of the brothel at gunpoint after holding a gun to Thuy’s forehead over Kim’s cowering body. And before Chris leaves, he gives her his gun thinking he is protecting her, but as we later learn, she ended up using this gun to kill herself to ensure Chris took her son with him back to the States. Though he never physically lays a violent hand on Kim, the threat is constantly there. 

Chris also inflicts emotional violence on Kim from the moment he decides to pursue her. Not only does he take advantage of her youth and inexperience in having sex with her, he continues to pursue this relationship with a girl he knows is all kinds of disadvantaged. She is seventeen years old, she is traumatized (she tells him about how her parents were civilian casualties in Chris’ war and how she literally saw their faceless dead bodies, to which he replies, “Can I see you tonight?” and I proceed to vomit a little in my mouth), and she is a prostitute because she cannot afford to eat otherwise. I cannot imagine that anything but good old white American male entitlement could have made him think this was a relationship he could pursue while keeping her emotional stability intact. Although he supposedly loves her, he capitalizes off of her for personal gain (“I saw a world I never knew/ and through her eyes I suffered too/ In spite of all the things that were / I started to believe in her”), which in itself is violent by turning her into nothing more than a stepping stone for Chris’ personal growth. There is an image that I think about a lot when considering the relationship between Kim and Chris: they are alone, center stage, kissing passionately while bathed in an almost heavenly light – but the first thing you notice is Chris’ gun on his hip. Maybe it’s my recent viewing of Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means To Me” talking, but all I can think about while watching this interaction is how easy it would be for him to grab his gun and shoot her in this moment, if only he had wanted to. 

Both Chris and Thuy lord their ability to inflict physical harm over Kim’s head constantly and leave the lingering threat of violence in their wake wherever they go. They both treat her like property. They both use her as a stepping stone for fulfillment of their personal narratives. And yet, why do we hate Thuy and sympathize with Chris? The answer is..you guessed it, Racism! Thuy is introduced as Kim’s suitor via arranged marriage (bonus points: he’s her cousin), and believes he is entitled to Kim because of it. Kim states that “I am not a prize you can win” (yay women empowerment?), then turns to Chris and explains to him that they were promised to each other four years ago (to which Chris nods sagely and understandingly, as if to say “ah yes, your oppressive culture, I know of it”). Thuy is painted as an embodiment of Vietnamese culture and attitudes towards women, which are represented as repressive and primitive. Meanwhile, Chris in his army uniform represents American chivalry and progressive Western values (which we American women know to be true because we definitely do not have to worry about walking home alone in the dark. All I am saying is that you can tell this production was directed by a white man). The Western audience wants to believe that Chris is the good guy, that his violence is acceptable because he is a soldier, because he loves Kim, and maybe, just maybe, because we’re just so used to white male violence that we are blind to how it pervades our American culture and we (women) have to ignore and forget about it just to get through our day. 

Chris and Thuy are so similar. They play tug-of-war with this poor girl’s life, and in the end it tears her apart – she dies via Chris’ gun in Chris’ arms, and the tragedy of her death is overshadowed by Chris’ grief about it. In comparing the way these two men inflict physical and emotional violence onto this vulnerable woman, we are forced to confront how pervasive masculine violence is in our lives and how racism impacts how we see it. All men are capable of violence, but our white supremacist culture allows us brush it off or justify it when a woman is a casualty of fighting a culture perceived to be uncivilized, repressive, or just flat out wrong. Our perception of violence as something perpetrated by non-Western cultures, by men of color, lets us ignore the more sinister forms of violence enacted upon women (women of color in particular) by white men – violence that isn’t even subtle. It’s right in front of us, the gun is on their hip, and white supremacist narratives like this one convince us that it’s just not that big a deal. And pulling the trigger gets easier. 

The Symbiosis of Sexism and Saigon

Broadway musicals have a knack for hiding things in plain sight. Hadestown’s entire plot seamlessly blends into the onstage set, and Hamilton conceals Lin-Manuel Miranda’s suspect vocals in harmonies with Leslie Odom Jr. and company. For Miss Saigon, the camouflage is much more sinister and pervasive. Despite the original production receiving 11 Tony nominations and widespread praise for the hit musical, Miss Saigon is filled with problematic American ideals. There is a whole number dedicated to American exceptionalism that toes the line of satire a little too closely for comfort. The American soldiers act as white saviors for their Vietnamese counterparts, serving as the keys to America and exacerbating the already unbalanced power dynamics between the two groups. You can expect these issues from a musical written in 1989, produced, and directed by all white men, and the men certainly make their mark in the last enduring American ideal. Sexism oozes out of this musical; it’s unavoidable. At every beat, every number, in every character, traditional gender roles and expectations are palpable, and as disappointing as it is to recognize, the original and continued success of Miss Saigon relies on the perpetuation of these stereotypes.

The most obnoxiously obvious example of sexism as a plot device is between Chris and Kim. The romance of Miss Saigon is a Disney princess movie with a Vietnam War veneer. Kim waits in her dismal circumstances, helpless to change her downward trajectory, until her knight in shining armor shows up, except this knight is a soldier fighting a meaningless war that directly causes Kim’s unfortunate situation. There is plenty to unpack in that tumultuous relationship, but Chris and Kim’s romance is mired with racism and nationalism that diminishes the severity of gender expectations. However, there is one character who can empathize Kim’s experiences with a xenophobic and authoritarian power structure: The Engineer.

The Engineer and Kim share almost no personality traits, but that is exactly what makes this comparison fascinating. The Engineer is rash, excessively ambitious, determined, and on the wrong side of God’s naughty or nice list while Kim is reserved, a prisoner of her situation, and passive unless compelled to act otherwise. They are not nuanced characters; they are caricatures with moments of nuance. They are written to emphasize the extremes of masculinity and femininity, or at least the expectations of the extremes. The only times they abandon these forced norms are in moments of desperation. These uncharacteristic scenes are glimpses at the power each character possesses beyond the shackles of gender stereotypes, and the establishment of Kim and the Engineer’s conflicting characters early on makes these moments that much more powerful and noticeable.

One strength of Miss Saigon’s writing is it does not waste time. From a character’s first few songs, you know his or her background, personality, and ultimate desires. “The Heat Is On” does an excellent job introducing Kim and the Engineer, but it more importantly establishes the difference between the men and women of Miss Saigon through the stark contrast of lyrics and music. The number opens with blaring brasses and a rock-and-roll drumline. The first characters to speak over the orchestra are the men that often reserve their conversations for women and sex, but ever so often one of the women is allowed to speak to the audience of men. The first two sex workers talk dirty to the barbaric applause of the soldiers, but Kim is “so much more than she seems.” For her introduction, the ensemble softens, the blasting brass is replaced with the soft whistle of winds, and the lights focus on the naive and clearly nervous Kim. Instead of seducing her customers, she sings of how young and inexperienced she is. Despite her soft tone, her words scream to the audience of the club and theatre, “I am a woman in a scary situation that needs saving!” and reminds any possible savior that she is more than an object. Of course, her eventual rescuer Chris ignores this reminder and immediately sleeps with her. While their relationship seems like all sunshine and roses at first, there is the looming possibility of Chris leaving and abandoning Kim to fend for herself, and inevitably Chris is evacuated without Kim (surprise, surprise), and a noble transition from her dependence on Chris would be Kim surviving and thriving without her husband that may have been more of a detriment to her life. Instead, the writers lean into the very American idea of a woman needing a man and his income to survive. The following scene, Kim is homeless, dirtier, and loses that glint of youthful hope in her eyes she had when the American military occupied Vietnam.

The Engineer suffers a similar collapse, but the contrast between his former self and the post-war him is much more pronounced because of his spirited beginning. Sporting a bright purple jacket and wielding a charismatic smile expertly, the Engineer is noticeably different than Kim from their first meeting. He talks to the soldiers, his customers, like they have known each other forever, and he tries to leverage his rocky friendship with John into a visa to America in “The Transaction.” From this moment forward, the audience knows the Engineer will do anything to achieve his dreams, and because he is a man, this unrelenting ambition is seen as a positive quality. The Engineer is a likable character because everything he does good and (mostly) bad aligns with the audience’s expectations, and they even root for the Engineer because his comedy makes his sins more or less excusable from their perspective (hey, this is theatre, not ethics). Despite his ambition and charm, the Engineer ends up in a re-education camp following the war. Like Kim, he is without a home or a club, his face is covered in dirt, and he has his purple jacket replaced with prisoner rags. This sudden downfall is much more shocking because it seemed impossible when the Engineer admired and believed in the American Dream. Kim does not have this illusion and aura of infallibility surrounding her though. The entire time she is with Chris, she relies on him for financial and emotional support, and everything that Kim depends on is ripped away when he leaves. Kim is supposed to fail without a man, just like Vietnam was supposed to fail with America.

Unlike the Engineer’s temporary demise, Kim’s failure is necessary though. Every stereotype she represents, every scene of fraughtful passiveness is needed to complete her character. Love is a fickle thing that often hurts more than it heals. While the Act 1 duets between Chris and Kim such as the “Sun and Moon” and “The Wedding Ceremony” are tender and evoke butterflies in everyone’s stomach, there isn’t that raw power of emotion and urgency that this show is lauded for in those numbers. No, these qualities show up when Kim’s son is in danger. Similar to the Engineer making it to America, Kim claims she would do anything for her son and certainly puts her money where her mouth is. Kim moves to Bangkok to feed her son, she kills her ex-boyfriend to protect Tam, and she takes her own life to ensure her son has the future she and the other prostitutes always dreamed of. No one recognizes the timid girl from “The Heat Is On” as the person who finally takes back control of her life from the men who unfairly took it years ago. Her suicide is so shocking because it does not align with the audience’s expectations that the show had cultivated for the previous two hours. Everything leading up to the final number reinforces the assumption that a man (Chris) will decide the fate of Kim and Tam, and yet the price she pays for deserved power is much greater than any man ever has to pay. Chris and the Engineer make decisions by virtue of simply being men. There is no hesitation in making choices. There is no price, and there are certainly no consequences if the decision is the wrong. Kim pays her price and gives her life for choice. She isn’t supposed to decide. The whole show Kim is built to be this passive figure that weathers the storm when it hits. If she had not forced Chris’s hand and simply raised her son in Bangkok, she likely would have been fine all things considered, but when does that cycle stop? Would Tam have to spend his whole life “weathering the storm” too? Even though she starts off as a little raindrop, Kim had to become the storm before it washed her and Tam away completely.This show and its writing does not rely on one aspect to make or break it. Regardless of the sexism, the music is incredible and has aged remarkably well over 30 years, the relatively shallow characters play off each other brilliantly and create an illusion of greater depth, and the acting in the revival does enough to support the emotion of the lyrics, but the inherent sexism elevates all of these aspects. Miss Saigon was not nominated for the “Best Book of a Musical” at the Tonys for nothing. Any great writing depends on suspense, which is a product of expectations. The suspense of Miss Saigon is rooted in sexism. All of the questions waiting to be answered like “Will Chris save his child?” and “Will Chris bring Kim to America?” are all focused on Chris acting as a white savior. If he had done the right thing and brought Tam and Kim to America, there would be little emotional payoff for the audience, and Miss Saigon may not be regarded as much more than a good show. But with Kim determining her destiny and taking control of her life and death, the show provides a devastating, memorable ending and reminds the audience that we all have power over lives, no matter how hard society may try to prevent that.

I’m Too Sexy: A Woman’s Guide to Being Perceived

by Maggie Mershon

A stage, showgirls, and sex appeal-the only three things you need for a successful show. Well, at least that’s the way it usually goes unless you live in the perfect conditions to combat it. Those who produce radical change can only do so if they are in the favor of those who are in power. In the musicals Funny Girl and Miss Saigon, it becomes easy to see how something as simple as culture or racial context can affect how one is expected to perform gender and sexuality and how easily they can manipulate that vision. Looking at the way they practically perform their genders on stage and how that affects their relationships with those in power, the white men in their lives, gives a nuanced look at how a woman understands their sexuality. Though Fanny Brice from Funny Girl and Kim from Miss Saigon outwardly perform the same gender, their different cultures and backgrounds mean that only one is given the choice of sexuality, which expresses itself in their performances and relationships outside of the theatrical space.

Both Fanny Brice and Kim are expected to perform for audiences, however, the way they are expected to perform is entirely different. Fanny Brice from the very beginning of Funny Girl is very much aware that because of the way she looks and is upset by how little she receives because of the way she looks. She repeatedly tells people that attractive girls won’t be in fashion forever and one day she will be a desired asset. Technically, Fanny is at the disposal of her audience in terms of being sexualized. Since she doesn’t receive this sexualization she is denied entry to the world of performance. In her first musical number, she performs gender in a joking manner, pretending to be pregnant and making fun of the traditional concept of what it looks like to be pregnant, doing various sight gags with her fake belly. In this performance, Fanny is permitted to be something other than a sexual object, aiming for a humorous take on gender. This is the basis of the rest of Fanny’s performances. She chooses to be a funny, laughable character, an opportunity afforded to her by, to be perfectly blunt, the color of her skin. Were she not a white character, the “exoticism” and “foreign interest” applied to her, would turn into a sexual other no matter what she wanted. We see this very explicitly in the character of Kim from Miss Saigon.

Can you guess which one is anti-traditional feminine looks?

from Twitter @FunnyGirl_UK

The first time the audience is introduced to Kim is as a conservatively dressed “virgin” girl in a brothel. The moment she appears on stage, she is a sexual object. This connects the audience to the soldiers who are attending the brothel who see the women there as exotic sexual items and nothing more. Outside of that context, they are nothing. After a few minutes, Kim quickly realizes that she is going to be sexualized no matter what and the Engineer encourages her to use that to her advantage. Kim continues to appear conservative and watches as the girls around her throw themselves at men to try and get a chance to better their lives, which for many of them means getting the opportunity to move to America. Kim’s only chance at survival is predicated on the fact that she accept her inherent sexuality and weaponize it. As the show moves on, she does that, dissociating her mental faculties from how she capitalizes on her sexuality which becomes crucial to her survival as it applies to her sex work. While Fanny Brice can perform a whole host of other perceptions and personalities onstage, Kim is not afforded the same luxury due to what her audience expects of her.

As is typical for a musical, both stories include love interests. And while they both compliment two strong leads, these love interests aren’t necessarily great, giving, feminist icons. In Funny Girl, Fanny Brice becomes entangled with a rich, fancy man named Nick Arnstein. At the beginning of the show, Fanny is unable to believe that Nick would be interested in someone like her because she has always been told by her mother and the people around her that she is not beautiful enough. When Nick approaches her about a relationship, it is very much up to her whether or not she wants to continue a relationship with him. He defers to her decision about whether or not she wants to move forward sexually. This occurs rather explicitly in the song “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” where Nick continually asks Fanny to get together with him and only does so once she accepts. Her sexuality can be conditional on her consent, which is not something of which non-white women are afforded the luxury. Following this romantic involvement, Nick and Fanny become married, sharing everything with one another, including money, something with which Fanny is very well-endowed. As a man culturally engrained with toxic masculinity, Nick feels emasculated and begins to pull away from Fanny as she becomes the breadwinner of the family. Nick feels belittled by Fanny earning money by going to work, a scenario that makes her appear more masculine and less feminine, and by virtue of the latter, sexualized. In the early 20th century this kind of opportunity would only be available to a white woman, due to persisting stereotypes about those of other races that oppress them to otherness. As a member of the majority race class in America, Fanny would have been the woman to receive such an ability.

In Miss Saigon, the plot of the story is built upon the relationship between Kim and an American soldier named Chris. Beginning in Dreamland, a brothel filled with American soldiers and Vietnamese women trying desperately to appeal to men with their sexuality, Chris takes notice of Kim. She is the only girl who isn’t actively trying to sell her sexuality and as a result, Chris is immediately interested in her. Kim is sold to Chris for the night and they sleep together. When we see him the next morning, Chris is completely in love with Kim. Yes, that’s right, in love. The only things he knows about her is that she doesn’t want to be sexualized like the other women of the club, and he rewards her for that by sexualizing and sleeping with her. Think of it this way, Chris wants to celebrate Kim not actively performing her sexuality and to do so he engages with her sexually. There is no context in which Chris’s perspective of Kim isn’t dominant, not only because he is an American soldier and she is Vietnamese, it is because she is only a woman and in that perspective is a sexual object. Every encounter between Chris and Kim is sexually charged with them passionately kissing every time they are united, him leaving her wrapped in a bedsheet, asking she be in bed when he return, and him, even in death, needing to wrap her in his arms and kiss her one last time. Even though Kim becomes a murderer, mother, and martyr, she is still defined only by her sexuality whether she likes it or not.

Both the actors who play Kim and Fanny Brice seem as though they have a strong conceptualization of what it means to be a woman in their given scenarios. Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice is, while a little shy in her movements with Nick, closing her body language off from him, she also projects a confidence in non-feminine movements. She capitalizes on moments like “Rat-tat-tat-tat,” fully committing to forego her femininity and create oafish character movements, an opportunity Fanny Brice would have accurately relished in. The caricature in the way she speaks separates her even further from traditional femininity. In the same way, Eva Noblezada’s Kim is not unaware of the position she’s in. At the beginning of the show, when she needs to appear a virgin, she gives an air of quietness, moving in slow, subdued movements. As she becomes more empowered by Chris’s validation, she is charged with energy, giving to him all of the power he is giving her. As the show progresses, she becomes stronger, striking power poses and gripping her son with strength. Even in her singing voice, Eva gives it her full power, but only in contexts outside of Chris, in songs like “You Will Not Touch Him” and “I’d Give My Life For You,” restraining herself in songs like “Sun and Moon.” She remains strong and steadfast for the entirety of the second act, returning only to quietness when she and Chris and reunited as she dies.

Grip that kid, Eva!

from: Playbill.com, Photo by Matthew Murphy

There’s an opportunity in every piece of work to represent your characters in a way that reflects the audience in a way that empowers or hurts them. Addressing how sexuality is a vital counterpart of what it means to be a woman is incredibly necessary. It could not be more important to think about how those who are a part of multiple intersecting minority groups, are not offered the opportunity to define what that identity looks like. Funny Girl gives the audience a peek of what that choice could look like, but Miss Saigon presents an unfortunate reality for several women. This representation is valuable for those who can’t comprehend what that lack of choice looks like and provides a space for reflection on behalf of those who are perpetuating it and validation to those who are victimized by it. So, no, the world isn’t totally equal and fair for every individual, but it’s through performance and theatre that we are able to enable active discussion and empower choice and change until it is.

The Madame Butterfly Effect

by Lily Jaremski           

“A virgin will give them a treat/ Lower your eyelids and play sweet/ Men pay the moon to get fresh meat.” The Engineer’s first words about Kim do not bode well for a feminist storyline in Miss Saigon. Clearly, she is nothing but meat to be gobbled up, much like the other girls at the club, who have no opportunities other than to go home with American soldiers. Even though Kim’s affair with Chris is framed as more romantic than what goes on in the club, ultimately, she becomes another Vietnamese woman with a half-American child, left behind by the child’s father. Her situation is so dire that she ends up killing herself  – the only  comfortable future she envisions for her child is one without her in it.

            Tuptim, from The King and I, has a very similar story despite the disparity in styles of the two shows. She is a slave girl, a gift from the King of Burma to the show’s titular King of Siam. After her quiet and reverent introduction to the King, Tuptim reveals to the audience her secret love for the scholar Lun Tha who travels with her. They sneak around at the palace for a while to meet in secret but are ultimately discovered and forced to flee. They are caught, Lun Tha is executed, and Tuptim’s story ends the same was Kim’s does: she kills herself, albeit not on stage.

            One of the oldest famous versions of this tragic Asian woman on stage is found in Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which tells the story of a Japanese woman who marries and gives birth to a child with an American man, who leaves her to marry an American woman. Once they return to bring his child to America, she kills herself. Clearly, the work was the direct inspiration for the story of Miss Saigon, over 70 years after the opera’s debut in Milan. In addition to promoting a tragic narrative for Asian women on stage, the opera contributes to a persistent stereotype of Asian women as sex objects for white men, a notion that remains problematic to this day.

            In addition to copying the tragic elements of the Madame Butterfly story, Miss Saigon and The King and I have also embraced the American theatrical tradition of white men writing the stories of characters of color. Miss Saigon was created by modern theatre heavyweight Cameron Mackintosh as a (at that time) modern retelling of Madame Butterfly set in the ongoing tragic fallout of the Vietnam War. The King and I was a passion project by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who hoped to tell stories about marginalized communities (see also: South Pacific).

However, both of these attempts failed, particularly in their original runs. Both shows, which debuted decades apart, had a white actor in yellowface as the main Asian male character, as well as many members of the ensemble in yellowface as well. The stories come across as paternalistic, rather than empowering for the characters. Modern revivals of The King and I make attempts to portray the court of Siam accurately, while Miss Saigon has since committed to color conscious casting. When produced, both shows have offered the greatest density of opportunities for Asian actors looking for work on the Broadway stage, yet the roles are stereotypical, even with a modern reimagining. Tuptim and Kim would each benefit for a reexamination of how their stories are portrayed.

            Kim first steps on to the stage of Miss Saigon as a picture of innocence amongst an environment of sin. After being treated to several minutes of harshly sexualized women who work at the club, Kim is quiet and plain, dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothing. Around her, the other “experienced” women dance in skimpy, Americanized outfits and lingerie. Her image of innocence is soon shattered when the Engineer lifts up her skirt and violently removes her underwear, so she will be deemed suitable for the American men. In this scene, all of the women are judged based on their sexuality in the white male gaze. Whether they are pure, like Kim, or “ruined” like the other women, their sexuality is all they can barter with.

            Mackintosh, like many at the time, had heard of the precarious situation these characters’ real-life counterparts were in. Real women worked in a sex industry for purely American soldiers. Systems like this still exist in Southeast Asia, as shown in the later scenes set in Bangkok, Thailand. There, the women still work to satisfy white, Western tourists. Kim has set her own innocence aside in order to perform sex work to care for her son. While it is commendable that Mackintosh would want to promote this story, the show effectively performs violence against its own characters. While many artists have created shows that depict violence and trauma they have survived, Miss Saigon lacks a nuanced look at its characters’ lives. As such, sexualized violence and norms are reinforced over and over again when the dancers perform in skimpy outfits and Kim’s underwear are ripped off.  

            In her story, Tuptim faces violence as well, though not overtly sexual in the story of The King and I. She is brought into the King of Siam’s court as a “gift” from the King of neighboring Burma – a slave. Seeing as she is supposed to join the ranks as one of the King’s wives, it is implied that she will have to sleep with him and bear children. Like the other members of the court, Tuptim shows deference to the King, but once she is left alone on stage she reveals she is in love with another man, singing, “Though the man may be/ My Lord and Master/ Though he may study me/ As hard as he can/ The smile beneath my smile/ He’ll never see/ He’ll never know I love another man.” In an effort to place emphasis on Anna and the King’s relationship, the issues of human trafficking and forced marriage to the King are not examined in the show with much detail beyond the King’s multiple wives being a quirk of their culture.

            In the show, the wives serve as a chorus along with their children to be taught by Anna, the Westerner. Tuptim is portrayed as not wanting to be one of the King’s wives because she loves another man, not because she does not love the King. The rest of the wives serve as a chorus, rather than having individual personalities. Lyrically, the show does not treat them much differently than the children, who also sing during lessons and perform during “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Tuptim could never continue to live in the world of the show because she cannot comply with the demands of the court because she chose to follow her heart over submission.

            Ultimately, both characters decide to commit suicide after being subjected to physical and sexual violence throughout their stories. Both women are used as property and leverage, and face tragedy after stepping out of their submissive roles. Tuptim runs away to be with the man she loved rather than the King, in a stunt that left him to die. Rather than submit and be an obedient bride for the King, Tuptim asserts that she will kill herself once left in a jail cell. Kim commits suicide after realizing that Chris and his wife will not raise her child in America if she is still living. Rather than allow others who would control her to decide her fate, Kim takes matters into her own hands, singing, “This is the hour I swore I’d see/ I alone can tell now what the end will be.” In both stories, suicide is framed as a tragic, yet courageous choice made by the character.

            It is hard to root for the ending of Tuptim and Kim’s stories as courageous when audience members know that they were put in those precarious situations by the creators of the stories of which they play a part. When watching the show, we feel for the characters because they have few options for maintaining power in their societies. However, Mackintosh, Rogers, and Hammerstein saddle the blame for giving these characters tragic and stereotypical storylines. Asian actors continue to be vastly underrepresented on the Broadway stage, and even within shows with majority Asian casts the roles tend to be stereotypical. In the end, I do not blame Tuptim or Kim for how their stories play out. They do the best they can to make choices to help their loved ones when stuck in precarious political situations. They sing beautifully and emotionally and decry their oppressors with passion. Ultimately, more artists of color are needed to tell poignant yet empowering stories of marginalized people.

“Not Like the Other Girls” – Comparing Funny Girl and Miss Saigon

Funny Girl and Miss Saigon are two classic Broadway musicals that I had never seen before. I throughly enjoyed them both, but upon watching them back-to-back, I could not help but notice the similarities, as well as the glaring differences, between Fanny Brice and Kim. Fanny Brice, a young woman living in Manhattan in the early 1900s, is recruited by the theater entrepreneur Florenz (Flo) Ziegfeld to perform in the “Ziegfeld Follies.” Her successful acting career draws the attention of a playboy gambler, Nick Arnstein, who leads her away from the follies to start a family with him. Although their relationship does not work out, Brice’s conclusion is far more lighthearted than Kim’s. Kim, a girl living in Vietnam as a bargirl during the climax of the Vietnam War, falls in love with an American GI named Chris, who promises to bring her back to America. Kim and Chris are separated due to the fall of Saigon, and Kim must endure with the child she and Chris (unknowingly) had together. Though scrounging for survival, she remains hopeful Chris will come back for her. When he eventually does, he is married to another woman, and does not fulfill his promise to take her home to America. In order to save her/their child, Tam, Kim sacrifices her life so that Chris must take Tam home with him.

Now, you may be thinking, “how in the world are these two characters similar at all?” Well, Fanny and Kim are both hardworking young women who grew up poor, hopeful to start a new future for themselves and both depended on a man they loved and were betrayed by. Interestingly, although both shows center around these two female leads, their outcomes are determined by the men in their lives. This is especially true for Kim, but less so for Fanny. Why is this so? The obvious answer would be their circumstances. While it is true that Kim lived in the midst of the Vietnam War, she struggles the most while outside of Vietnam, in Bangkok. So then why is it that Kim and Fanny are so different? Both start as young women from a poor financial background, and yet, therein lies the problem. To view Kim as strictly female (in similarity to Fanny) is to treat a chocolate chip cookie as just chocolate. It is Kim’s intersectional identity as both Vietnamese and female that leads to her hardships and to Fanny Brice’s success.

It is easy to forget that being of Asian heritage, even while in an Asian country, has a negative effect on Kim. Though America at the turn of the 20th century was not a great standard for progressive behavior towards women, it is leagues more progressive than Vietnam and Thailand (even 50 years later). This is not a diss towards either country, I mention this to put in perspective the role Kim played in society as an Asian female. Simply put, Kim’s intense struggle can be explained because women in Asia held less power than women in America. This lack of power takes the form of limitations in occupations, romantic life, and social status. Furthermore, even if Kim were in America, an Asian woman would hold less power than a white woman. Therefore, due to Kim’s Asian and female identities, she has an inherent disadvantage when compared to Fanny Brice, who identifies as white and female. While both identify as female, a societal disadvantage in the 20th century, Fanny fundamentally has more opportunity for success than Kim, simply because she is white.

This distinction in identity has effects present in both the plot of the show, as well as the actor portrayal of the characters. The best example of Fanny’s and Kim’s similarities and differences in power (brought about by intersectionality) is the role of men in their lives. Both characters play stereotypical, pre-progressive women, who are defined by the sexual binary aspect of their lives, the men, and in this case, white men. Both Fanny and Kim make sacrifices for the men in their lives: Fanny gives up the Follies and Kim neglects Thuy, the man she was betrothed to. Identity intersectionality comes into play at the conclusion of each of the women’s stories, as told in their respective shows.

Funny Girl ends with Nick Arnstein saying goodbye to Fanny, abandoning her, and Fanny saying that she is not going to let this break up with Nick determine the outcome of the rest of her life. The show concludes with a reprise of Fanny’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as she defiantly goes on to a new chapter in her life as a highly successful actress. This ending conveys that Fanny has options. Though she gave up much of her life to Nick, he was not the controlling, defining factor in her life. She could still support herself and her child, and she chooses not to let Nick stop her from doing so. Miss Saigon ends in a similar outline, but the conclusion is starkly different. Chris tells Kim that he cannot bring her back to America, though he promised to do so. Kim sees that she has no other options, and in order to protect her son, kills herself, forcing Chris to take the child back home with him. Though she had the choice to accept Chris’s “support” and continue living in Bangkok as a bargirl, she knew that that was no life for her son to live. She either had to continue forcing Tam to live through hell or sacrifice herself for his future. In this sense, she had both a choice and no choice at all. These concluding decisions are only examples of motifs that appeared throughout both shows: Fanny paying the investor to hire Nick, Kim fleeing Vietnam for Thailand, etc. Time and time again, Fanny makes choices of her own free will while Kim wrestles with dilemmas. Kim lacks the whiteness that gives Fanny autonomy and power in society. Chris provided her this power, but without him, she once again loses it. When refuses to take her home, she realizes what little she has control of, thus forcing this difficult decision to save Tam.

The difference in power these two characters hold can also be visualized through their portrayal onstage by their respective actors. Sheridan Smith depicts Fanny Brice as a spontaneous and outlandish character. She constantly plays with and taunts others, gives fun facial and bodily expressions, and even mixes the pitch of her voice. Smith’s choices mirror Fanny’s carefree, unpredictable, and explosive personality. Eva Noblezada (whom I absolutely love) depicts Kim as a docile, naïve, yet tough character. She is often standing in a vulnerable stance—arms by the sides, head down—but never shows fear in her facial expressions, usually by blankly staring at those who push her around, as to not give them the satisfaction of agitating her. As with Smith’s choices, Noblezada’s performance mirrors Kim’s desperate and impossibly optimistic personality. Kim is written and performed as one of society’s untouchables, hoping to soon escape the life she finds herself in.

This leads to another example of intersectionality and the differences between Kim and Fanny, which comes in the form of their occupations. Both of these women come from poor backgrounds. Kim recently emigrated, and Fanny’s mother emigrated as well. However, as far as financial background goes, this is where the similarities stop. Never once in the show did Fanny struggle with money. Though her career as a performer seemed, at first, to have little potential, she was never forced to change professions. Fanny chose to stay as an actress throughout her life, only leaving to pursue Nick Arnstein. Money was not something Fanny had to worry about, only life satisfaction. While being both female and Jewish would consider her a minority, her whiteness gave her power. Power to pursue the opportunities of her choosing, without limitations. Kim, on the other hand, did not enjoy such luxuries. Being both Asian and female limited her options for an occupation. It is not mentioned what Kim would like to do, but I think it is safe to assume she would rather do anything else than working as a bargirl. Because of the barriers that faced her, Kim was forced to sell herself or starve.

While some consider Funny Girl and Miss Saigon starkly different shows, I feel as though the main women from both shows, Fanny Brice and Kim, mirror each other in their desires and roles as the stereotypical woman—reliant on their man. Where they differ, however, is at the intersection of their identities—Fanny being a white woman and Kim being an Asian woman—and this intersection of identities is what causes such obvious differences in circumstances and outcomes. Kim is at an inherent disadvantage to Fanny in that whiteness holds power. Kim lacks whiteness, and therefore her power comes from Chris. When she loses Chris, she subsequently loses her power, forced to once again work as a bargirl. She is dependent on Chris, unlike Fanny, who is able to live a life free of Nick Arnstein, as seen at the end of the show. The systemic limitations facing Kim, in contrast to Fanny, due to their differing intersectional identities, inevitably leads to the tragic ending of Miss Saigon, as well as the defiant moment that ends Funny Girl.

Women and their Destinies: Agency (or Lack Thereof) for Women on the Broadway Stage

by Ilana Cohen

Broadway musicals use stereotypes understood by audiences to shed light or comment on truths within society. One stereotype that the American musical utilizes is the stereotype of womanhood and femininity. American women were expected to be graceful, pure, beautiful, and domestic. They were supposed to act demure and dignified at all times and to only concern themselves with domestic issues like being wives and mothers. Anything outside of that was seen as masculine and therefore negative for women. This stereotype, however, is specific to white women, who were held to different standards and expectations than women of other races. Another group stereotyped and fetishized on the American stage was East Asian women. These women were intriguing because they are exotic and mysterious to the Western world as Americentrism makes white the norm and anything else unfamiliar. East Asian women also are expected to behave even more submissively and passively than white women, who were all expected to submit to the dominance of their man. Two musicals that highlight the American musicals use of these stereotypes are Funny Girl and Miss Saigon. While Funny Girl highlights Fanny Brice, a woman who defies all stereotypes of femininity, Miss Saigon focuses on Kim, a traditional East Asian woman who upholds all the stereotypes associated with that. Despite the contrast in Fanny breaking the norms and Kim embracing and upholding them, both of these characters’ relationships end tragically, suggesting the idea that women do not have control over their fates whether or not they conform to stereotypes.

Both Fanny and Kim are starkly contrasted with the other female characters around them to highlight their defiance against and confirmation of stereotypes, respectively, held against these women. The directors intentionally place Fanny on stage with the Ziegfeld girls, the embodiments of American beauty, in order to illustrate the contrast between her femininity and beauty and that of the American ideal.  The Ziegfeld girls were made to create the pinnacle of beauty, most likely to appeal to the masses of men who desire to see something easy on the eyes when they come to the theatre. The directors recreated the Ziegfeld Girl in both their choreography and costuming to embody the ideal American beauty. The ensemble women were all dressed in white, like brides, which symbolizes purity– a societal expectation at the time– while at the same time the costumes were provocative, as they were made to highlight the female figure. The women were also doing very simple choreography, making them seem meek and not pulling focus– another expectation for women at the time. The synchronous nature of their movement also made the women lack uniqueness, promoting a uniformity. The Ziegfeld girls look demure and beautiful on stage in order to promote an ideal standard of beauty that people would pay to look at. Fanny immediately contrasts with the other women on stage in both her mannerisms and appearance. Fanny wears a less revealing wedding gown and she moves more hunched with a wide stance, both of which make Fanny seem less feminine in comparison to the Ziegfeld girls. Fanny went further than just not upholding these ideals of femininity; she wanted to mock them. Being uncomfortable singing about being the ideal of beauty as the bride, Fanny instead parodies the ideal wedding by coming on stage as a pregnant bride. This choice was bold as weddings were a custom important to American society, that highlights a woman’s purity and beauty, and it would be taboo and completely inappropriate for a bride to be pregnant at her wedding. Fanny’s character lacks the grace and beauty to be the ideal American woman and the purity to be the ideal bride. Her choices purposefully emphasize how far from the stereotype of American femininity she is, and she is proud of that. 

On the other hand, Kim is contrasted with the Engineer’s other prostitutes in order to demonstrate how much she does uphold stereotypes held about East Asian women. The other prostitutes both look and act promiscuous. Similar to the Ziegfeld girls, the prostitutes’ costumes highlight their figure, but their costumes are more like lingerie, making them look more trashy, while the Ziegfeld girls’ costumes were made to make them look beautiful and desirable. While the other prostitutes paraded around in bras and short shorts, Kim wore a traditional, white dress that went up to her neck and down to her knees. The costume designer intentionally used the white dress contrasted against the colorful lingerie to highlight Kim’s innocence and purity. Her conservative dress made Kim seem more mysterious, a stereotype of East Asian women, as it left more up to the imagination in terms of what her body looked like. The other prostitutes also moved around the stage and danced with bold, sexual movements to draw attention towards themselves and promote their wildness while Kim was more stoic to make her seem more dignified. The Engineer uses Kim’s disparity from the other girls for his own financial gain, as he is aware that her exotic, mysterious aura combined with her purity would make her very desirable to the American soldiers. 

Though Fanny spends most of the musical defying all stereotypes of femininity, both Fanny and Kim perform songs about the sacrifices they are willing to make for men and for love– which is an action consistent with stereotypes of women as accommodating to the man always.  “I’d Give My Life for You” gives insight into Kim’s character as it expresses her deep devotion and love for Chris and to her son, Tam, while also perpetuating the stereotypes of East Asian women as passive and subservient. The lyrics of the song express Kim’s loyalty and willingness to make sacrifices for her love. She is overly trusting, believing that Chris will come back to her, which gives Chris all the power in the relationship, as Kim is completely dependent on Chris’s decision. Kim admits how intimately and deeply she feels for Chris through the lyrics which state how she thinks about him all the time. While the melody and the lyrics of the song show Kim’s feelings as pure and true, the lyrics also present Kim as subservient and passive in her relationship with Chris, which is problematic because it reinforces stereotypes of East Asian women as desirable because they are submissive to their men. As an audience member, one might wish she was less open about how deeply she loves Chris and how willing she is to make sacrifices for their love because it emphasizes the stereotype of East Asian women as subservient. However, the audience still roots for Kim to succeed in love because the lyrics expose how genuine her feelings are and can relate to her willingness to sacrifice for her child– as the feeling of motherly care and protection is universal. While Fanny’s willingness to give up her career opportunity in the theatre to pursue Nick Arnstein goes against the rest of what the audience knows about her character, a woman who does not conform to the actions of the ideal American female, the way in which she performs the song “Don’t Rain on my Parade” can be seen as consistent with her persona as a defiant woman, breaking stereotypes. From the beginning of the song, Fanny refuses to listen to the reasoning or concerns of any of the other men and women on stage. She knows what she wants and is going to go after it despite what anyone thinks, this ambition and stubbornness is more of a masculine trait because women were not supposed to have great ambitions beyond being wives and mothers at the time, and women especially would not refuse to listen to the advice of a man. As the song progresses Fanny is alone on stage, making it clear to the audience that Fanny is the only one making decisions for her and that she is solely and completely in control of her destiny. Unlike Kim, Fanny is making the decisions in her relationship, chasing Nick instead of waiting and hoping he will come back to her. While both Fanny and Kim have faith and trust in their relationships, truly believing that they will work out in the end, Fanny performs with much more confidence because she is the one making the decisions in the relationship, so she can be more sure of the outcome. 

Despite the audiences wanting Fanny and Kim to succeed, as they are both sympathetic, relatable characters, both of these musicals end tragically, with failed relationships. The writers of these shows may be conveying a message that whether you defy stereotypes or not, it is very difficult for women at this time to be happy and fulfilled, as society allows men to do what they want and women must deal with their choices. Both Fanny and Kim were fiercely loyal and loving partners, but that did not guarantee them happily ever after. Fanny’s lack of stereotypical femininity may have been what intrigued Nick initially, but her ambition and success were too much for Nick to handle. Feeling emasculated by Fanny’s lack of femininity, Nick gets involved in illegal business dealings in order to find some of his own success, and he ends up in prison. Similarly, Kim’s conformity to the stereotypes of Eastern Asian women was what drew Chris to her in the first place, but her passivity makes it so she will not fight for her love once she finds out Chris had moved on and remarried. The harsh and problematic lesson learned by seeing the tragic endings for both of these women is that even if women attempt to control their own destinies or not, at least in terms of relationships, men still have the power to choose the fate for them, their relationship, and their women.

A Puzzlement – How America’s Brand of Toxic Masculinity Slithers Through Broadway

Schuyler Kresge

In the American empire, bigotry is serpentine in nature. It lies in wait in the tall grass, slithering closer to any unsuspecting individuals and eagerly strikes. While this representation is confined to metaphor, the truth is that the venom of bigotry has worked its way to the very core of America and the symptoms can be identified in the appendages of society, including musical theater. As a representation of the dominant identity of the United States at a given time, musicals can serve as a bellwether for the pervasiveness of sexism and racism in that particular era writ large. In the characters that emerge from Broadway, it is evident that America is the natural habitat of a specific subspecies of toxic masculinity. American toxic masculinity is packaged and branded as the quintessential white male socialite. Charming to a fault, American toxic masculinity prioritizes and emphasizes dominance over equality in a uniquely capitalistic way. Through examining the King of Siam and Anna from The King and I as well as Nick “Nicky” Arnstein from Funny Girl, it becomes clear that even in musicals with female leads, the venom of white American toxic masculinity still pervades the work. This issue taints the very core of The King and I and Funny Girl, making them incapable of non-problematic productions.

On the surface, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I appears as a sugar-sweet tale of the comedy and growth that occurs when white British schoolteacher and widowed mother Anna Leonowens becomes the official tutor of the children of the King of Siam, leading to a complex advisory relationship with the King. Unfortunately, both the original book and lyrics as well as Bartlett Sher’s 2018 production suffer from the unavoidable negative impacts of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s American male gaze. While Anna is British, the plot of a white woman coming to an Asian land and “educating” the backwards natives was intensely relatable to America’s collective culture during the The King and I’s first run in the immediate post-World War Two era. However, what truly stands out is that the King of Siam exists at the intersection of American exceptionalism, whiteness, and toxic masculinity even in today’s productions. In the 2018 production this analysis focuses on, the set design creates a powerful hierarchical effect from the very first scene. As Anna arrives in Siam on a stunning boat set piece, it is clear that she is “above” the subjects of Siam. Despite this initial moment of power, Anna is met by the King of Siam’s masculinity. It is in this moment where the interplay between race and gender becomes apparent. The only two characters with any significant power are Anna, representing whiteness, and the King, a beacon of masculinity. Throughout the remainder of The King and I, the audience becomes a spectator in the subtle dueling of the “class” that is codified in Whiteness and the “strength” of masculinity.

Although the harmful pervasiveness of bigotry in 20th century American theater is certainly nothing to write home about, it is the dialectical nature of Anna’s whiteness and the King’s masculinity that makes The King and I such a unique viewing into the harmful consequences of America’s obsession with white masculinity. Much like America’s role in disturbing peace in regions such as the Middle East, Anna’s whiteness is perhaps at its most harmful when it comes into contact with citizens of Siam, exemplified through Tuptim. Anna, allegorical of the West, sees herself as more civilized than the Siamese and attempts to help colonize Tuptim (incredibly brought to life by Na-Young Jeon). In turn, Rodgers and Hammerstein maroon Tuptim by killing off her love interest, permanently creating a rift between the “dream” of Western life and the Siamese “others”. Intersecting with Anna’s Whiteness, the King of Siam represents and embodies the toxic masculinity that captures America’s attention even in present day. The King rules with aggressive patriarchal norms that his subjects excuse as firmness. During one encounter, the King makes it clear that Tuptim was “gifted” to him, reinforcing his dominance over her on the basis of antiquated gender rules. The King’s overbearing masculinity can be seen in Ken Watanabe’s blocking, as he frequently prowls around or sits in a sprawled manner (also known as “manspreading”), best seen as he watches the presentation of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”. As O’Hara’s Whiteness clashes with Watanabe’s masculinity throughout the musical, they soften to each other but cause damage to fodder like Tuptim. Through this analysis, it is evident that the interactions between Anna and the King in both original book material as well as the 2018 production clearly demonstrate a unique and unintentional view of the dialectical nature of White masculinity in America. 

While Anna and the King of Siam complete the American white-male dialectic in The King and I, the dialectic is synthesized into one character in Isobel Lennart, Jule Styne, and Bob Merrill’s 1964 work Funny Girl—namely Fanny Brice’s on-again, off-again husband Nick “Nicky” Arnstein. Set in World War I-era New York, Funny Girl is a biographical musical telling the story of famed the Ziegfeld Follie Fanny Brice. In addition to her comedic abilities, Brice also possessed an an incredible ability to connect to audiences, perhaps stirred from her own troubles with Arnstein, a notorious con and compulsive gambler. While the role of Brice in Funny Girl has traditionally been synonymous with Barbra Streisand’s original performance, Michael Mayer’s 2018 West End revival starring an excellent Sheridan Smith will be the focus for the purposes of this analysis. From the first time the audience sees Nicky, everything about him is absolutely drenched in the prototypical “alpha male” machismo found in boardrooms and ball courts across America. Especially within the first act, Arnstein is constantly impeccably dressed, dazzling Brice with suits and connections. This is one of the most distinctive identifiers of the American brand of toxic masculinity, as it pairs the physical domination common of all toxic masculinity with a capitalistic interdependence on money and power. While Arnstein’s gambling issue is introduced early into Act I as a possibility, both Brice and the audience shrug the creeping apprehension. This willful ignorance is on full display in numbers like “People” and “You Are Woman”. These songs, which are two of the most well-known songs from Funny Girl in popular culture, are deeply and inherently problematic due to Nicky’s presence. Turning first to “People”, the song begins as Brice and Arnstein flirt at a party celebrating Fanny’s opening night as a Follie. What is most striking about the impact of masculinity in “People” is how much Darius Campbell’s Arnstein drives the song’s plot, despite his blocking being pushed to the corner of the stage. For the first half of the song, Arnstein sits and observes as Brice rationalizes away his many flaws. While Lennart ostensibly wrote this scene as a ode to full-hearted romance (indeed, steadfast belief in love is arguably one of the biggest themes of Funny Girl), when stripped of the gendered language “People” is exposed as a validation and confirmation of the superiority and dominance of a White male with connections.

If “People” is as subtle as Funny Girl’s misogyny gets, “You Are Woman” is the blaring car horn of American White masculinity. The scene and song consist of Fanny Brice falling for Arnstein again during a run-in in Baltimore despite his prior history of ghosting Brice. The blocking of the scene is predatory and problematic, with Arnstein following Brice around the stage and attempting to woo her with food. Brice falls for this, saying “Well, at least he thinks I’m special/He ordered à la carte” (“You Are Woman”). It is in “You Are Woman” that the uniqueness of American bigotry is exposed— toxic American white masculinity, embodied by Nick Arnstein, is a beast found at the intersection of patriarchy, racial oppression, and unchecked capitalism. In this way, Arnstein and toxic white masculinity represent a repugnant and insatiable hunger. This hunger is all-encompassing and results in the financial ruin of Brice and the destruction of both Arnstein, Brice, and their relationship. By promoting this kind of relationship implicitly through Brice’s never-say-die attitude, it is evident that Funny Girl is an inherently problematic musical.

Understanding the addictive dangers of the venomous American White masculinity that courses through Funny Girl and The King and I not only partially explains why these musicals have such tremendous sticking power, but also helps identify similarly problematic characters in both entertainment and real life. As society incrementally inches towards progress on racial and gender equity, the snake of American bigotry will retreat deeper within the tall grass, creating a false sense of safety. It is here that we find characters such as Anna Leonowens, the King of Siam, and their “synthesis”, Nicky Arnstein. Despite both Leonowens and the King of Siam not being American, they are distinctively and pivotally Americanized characters. Put together, these characters are dominating and connected, suave and manipulative. More crucially, through intentional and unintentional blocking, casting, and writing choices, these Broadway characters are NOT properly vilified and are instead either partially or completely lionized as proud examples of whiteness and masculinity. In doing so, all involved in earlier productions laid the foundation for modern-era villains like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan the “Wolf of Wall Street” Belfort to become the standard-bearing heroes for harmful American White masculinity. As such, it is evident that after retracing the toxicity found in Arnstein, Leonowens, and the King, it is impossible to ethically support productions of shows like Funny Girl and The King and I.

American Man Discovers a Vietnamese Woman is a Human (Not Clickbait)

By Kacy J

She’s your (manic pixie) dream girl: hot, young, innocent, full of deep trauma, the physical embodiment of moonlight and warmth, in dire need of protection, unconditionally in love with you despite your many flaws, and across the sea, making her easy to leave once she’s served her purpose of helping you realize you’re capable of feelings. And, sadly, your love is doomed. That should have been obvious from the start for Miss Saigon’s protagonist Chris Scott and his love for seventeen year old Kim. After all, he is a sensible white American GI and she is a mysterious Vietnamese teenager he could never possibly hope to understand. In this tragic “love story,” musical writers Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr make it clear that since Chris cannot save Kim with his Western influence, she is condemned to spend the rest of her life in Asia alone, rendering her life worthless.

Chris first sees Kim in a house full of prostitutes, but while the other women are experienced and older, Kim is only seventeen and a virgin. Her untouched virtue and wary eyes prompt Chris to want to protect her from being corrupted by The Engineer and the other more morally bankrupt GIs. Every sex worker in the club wants to escape Vietnam through marrying one of the soldiers, but the direction of Miss Saigon shows us that every woman except for Kim is already a firmly rooted stereotype of the East – sensual in a way American girls can never be. These women could never leave Vietnam, as they are too far gone to be assimilated to Western culture. Kim, on the other hand, is innocent and untouched, leagues separated from the women around her. She wears a long dress that is ripped without her consent, but, in Eva Noblezada’s interpretation of the character, holds herself tightly guarded even after, as if she longs to become invisible. She is not a paradigm of Asian stereotypes, like the others, though she is also not just an American character with a Vietnamese face. Kim still is a representative of some stereotypes as her youth plays into the way the West infantilizes Asia. She is only seventeen, how could she know what is good for her without an older mentor showing her the ropes? Since the women around her are all hopeless and the Asian men are heartless and unfeeling, wanting her to be more like the others in the club, good guy Chris is all Kim has. If Chris is a representation of the West, Kim is “the ideal” East – not overtly sexual, but still subservient and in need of protection.

Chris is clearly a good man because he is an American who is able to love a Vietnamese girl. He falls in love with her under completely normal circumstances – by having a friend pay so that Chris can take her virginity because he can’t stand to see someone else do it and then discovering Kim’s inner worth when he finds out she is an orphan (as her village was burned in the unnecessary war he is fighting) and therefore more of an “April moon” than a whore. Kim is not unlike the other sex-workers at the club who have had equally hard lives, but her virginity (pre-Chris) paired with her willingness to speak on her pain makes her easy for Chris to save. He is an American, how could he fail to do good? But just as America couldn’t “save” Vietnam, Chris cannot save Kim, so he chooses to leave her and move on with his life.

While Saigon was “a place full of mystery that [Chris] never once understood,” America is the one place where Chris thinks things make sense. Asia is a land of mystery with mysterious women, like Kim, but once Chris starts treating Kim like a human with a history and an inner life beyond her prostitution, he realizes there is more than he has been told. Chris sings that Vietnam is bearable “just as long as you don’t believe anything,” but that through her suffering, he learned to believe in her. This knowledge that Saigon contained at least one real human being in the form of Kim sticks with Chris and tortures his soul when he is back in America. He does not understand, even three years later, how an indescribable place could hold someone so authentic. Instead of working on humanizing the others he met in his head or going back to find Kim, Chris chooses to forget her and move on. He marries Ellen, a blonde white woman who makes complete sense because of her American citizenship. He thinks that with Ellen his life will make sense and he will avoid having to answer the questions of his past. Questions like: Were the Vietnamese actually human? Do their lives have worth? And although Chris never grapples with these, the musical sure makes their answers known.

Kim, still in love with Chris after three years, does not want to raise her son Tam alone for many reasons. However, when it becomes clear that she cannot have the happy family with Chris that she dreamed of, Kim decides that having a white American father in her son’s life is more important than having a mother. Although Chris tells Ellen they can send Tam to American schools in Bangkok and support him from afar, this is not the Western influence Kim wants for her son. After all, with racist men like Thuy who despise the white genetics of her son, what is there for him in Asia? Rather, he should go to America where no one is racist and his life can have worth. The promise of America is so big and bright and beautiful that is supersedes the influence Kim could have as the boy’s mother. The musical makes no attempt to hide its distaste for Vietnam and Bangkok. No opportunities can lie there and it is such a terrible place that growing up there would be worse than seeing your mother kill herself in front of your eyes and being forced to live with a father who was ready to abandon you just a song earlier. Even Kim, the representation of the ideal East, is nothing when compared to Chris’s American machismo.

The ending, though, is not a tragedy because she feels her life is so worthless that her only course of action is to kill herself. Rather, the audience is meant to cry because of how worthy she was of being saved by Chris and the American Dream. She was pure and only worked as a bargirl and dancer because she had to, unlike the other women who obviously were sex-workers for fun. Kim possessed a strong motherly instinct, just as we hear Ellen does. Kim is also the only Asian character to have any semblance of backstory or feelings beyond being upset about living in Vietnam. She feels love and is something special in the eyes of the Americans. Thus, she should have had worth. Kim could have had worth, if only she had been taken to America to be more fully assimilated. We as the audience are meant to cry because she was a hopeless case solely because she was born in Vietnam. If she had been American, she would have been a perfect woman without a tragic end. But it ends with her death, a sure sign that the East and West can never truly blend, except in this child Tam, though he will only be okay if he is fully Americanized.

The plot of Miss Saigon is not the racist idea that someone from Asia and someone from America can fall in love but perhaps are ill-fated from the start. Rather, by ending the musical with Tam going to join Chris in America, the musical is suggesting that love between an Asian woman and an American man can work, but only if the Asian woman becomes fully subservient to the man and the ideals of the Western nation. It’s important to note, however, that this cannot happen with just any Asian woman. She has to have pain incomprehensible to any man and yet still has to be naïve and not world-weary. She cannot turn to her sexuality willingly and must be tender to men who treat her like an object to pay for. The man, also, cannot be any man. He must be willing to see her as a human being. That is about the end of the list for the man, as long as he is a white American who knows that his job as an American is to “do good” by protecting those poor Asians who need to be saved. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr want you to know by watching Miss Saigon that some lives have immense worth and perhaps more lives should be more valued, though it’s a shame these authentic human beings were not born in America.

His Love Makes Me Beautiful: Race, Gender, and Relationships in ‘Funny Girl’

By Jillian Fuller

Set just after World War I, Funny Girl is a story of a woman trying to make it in show business in New York. Throughout the play, we follow Fanny Brice as she reminisces on her journey to mega-stardom, we watch her failures, her triumphs, and her relationships as she prepares for her next performance. While Funny Girl follows the story of a Jewish woman, the story of Fanny Brice and her relationship with Nick Arnstein not only reflects negative stereotypes of Jewish people, but also showcases the power Fanny Brice possesses within herself by not limiting her to the typical beauty standards and the male gaze. However, her success still comes at a price and Fanny is forced like many women to choose between love and her professional life.

When we are first introduced to Fanny Brice she is already a star. She is preparing for a performance with Ziegfeld’s Follies when she begins to recall her journey to fame. We are then transported to her teenage years when she has a job working in vaudeville. Fanny believes this is her big break, but her mother, Mrs. Brice and her friends try to convince Fanny to be more realistic about her showbiz dreams. They tell her that when she was younger and able to make people laugh simply with a funny face it was okay, but now because she is older and people are paying to see someone (especially men) then she has to be pretty and they believe Fanny is just average. There is an emphasis on the importance of the male gaze. In the 1920s, women are expected to be essentially one dimensional. “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” basically showcases the importance of the male gaze in regards to show business and the amount of success women can achieve outside of the home. The actors on stage ask Fanny to, “[k]indly name a star who hasn’t won a contest or a pageant” (Merril, 1964). Her family, friends, and boss believe that no matter how much talent Brice may possess, it’s not enough to gain her the notoriety she dreams of. 

Thankfully, Fanny is not discouraged. Merely, frustrated when she is initially let go from the vaudeville act that she is rehearsing for. At the end of rehearsal, Fanny proclaims that “beautiful girls won’t stay in style forever”. Fanny is confident that she possesses more talent than the beautiful girls that continuously beat her out for jobs. As she expresses her frustration with not being appreciated for her abilities. Fanny laments that she is like “a bagel on a plate of onion rolls”. Initially, you’re turned off by the presence of something different, but if you were to give the bagel (or in this instance – Fanny) a chance, you’d realize you actually like it. Fanny is constantly pushing the boundaries which is unheard for a play set in the 1920s and was initially released in 1964.

Fanny is a Jewish woman from Henry Street. There are many stereotypes surrounding race and gender throughout the play and Fanny herself seems to be a juxtaposition to common Jewish stereotypes like the ‘Jewish American Princess’ or ‘belle juive’ as she is not revered for her beauty or wealth but still maintains confidence in her abilities. For example, the Ziegeld girls are known for their elegance and beauty. Fanny is not someone known for her elegance and beauty, yet, Ziegfeld hires her.

 In her performance with the Follies, Fanny cleverly flips the script on what is supposed to be a romantic number. Whilst performing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”, Brice pretends to be a pregnant bride rather than a vision of typical beauty that the audience is expecting. Here we witness her quick thinking and undeniable talent. Brice doesn’t play into the male gaze — something that is often expected of women, especially in the performing arts. Fanny’s decision to adjust the performance in this way is a snap decision and just another way those around her and audience members can see the star quality she mentioned previously. It’s clear that Fanny has a  desire to be acknowledged for her vast amount of talent rather than superficial things like the way she looks compared to other women on stage. So much so, she changes a number set by the famed Florenz Ziegfeld.

While Fanny seems to defy stereotypes based on her gender and race, her husband, Nick Arnstein seems to reinforce them dramatically. When we meet Nick Arnstein he is presented as a dapper young man of wealth. Darius Campbell (as Arnstein) carries himself with a confidence and superiority of someone born into money – not merely chasing it. However, we soon see that Arnstein is money hungry and willing to do whatever it takes (legally and illegally) to make a quick buck. Though he seems to not understand much about his Jewish roots in practice, he, unfortunately, falls victim to embodying the negative stereotype of the greedy Jewish man. This greed is what ultimately lands him and prison and subsequently ends his relationship with Fanny.

Arnstein is also a product of a white patriarchal society in which he feels he is the one with all the power. Any time he fails in a business venture, Fanny tries to make light of the situation in an effort not to discourage him. However, it is her refusal to take these failures seriously that frustrates Nick. He feels as though he is being treated like a child and somehow failing in his ability to provide and be a breadwinner as a man. This belief makes Nick too sure of himself and self-aggrandizing. One of his final deals before prison has him telling a man he is equal to a $68,000 advance – risk or no risk. The ability to place a monetary value on himself as a partner even after so many failed ventures is astounding and a product of the patriarchal society he lives in.

The relationship between Fanny and Nick seems doomed from the start even though Fanny is determined to make it work. As Fanny gains critical acclaim and notoriety, business venture after business venture fail for Nick and he ultimately ends up in prison. Fanny is so enamored by Nick Arnstein and this life of grandeur that he falsely represents that she allows herself to continuously be convinced to bank roll his various get rich quick schemes. 

In the beginning of their relationship, Nick is flaky. When he returns after almost a year Fanny is rightfully upset and maintains her pride in order to protect herself and not fall all over him as she would have in the past. They come to a truce and Fanny decides to have dinner with him. When Nick orders for them she feels out of her league due to his use of French, she quickly asks, how will she even know if he’s making advances if she can’t tell when he orders them roast beef and potatoes for dinner. To which Nick simply replies, “I’ll be much more direct” and proceeds to sing the extremely sexist song “You Are Woman I Am Man” wherein he spends two minutes reinforcing stereotypes of men and women being the complete opposite of one another. Nick states that she’ll be smaller and softer than him so that he can be taller and stronger. However, these simple differences and ideas of masculinity and femininity are the very things that Fanny continuously works against as a comedienne and dancer. 

It’s disappointing that as strong of a woman as she is, Fanny allows her to be swept away by the image and words that Nick Arnstein presents to the world when he can’t even bother to support her at major moments in her career due to fear or “business” ventures. Fanny continues to give him pass after pass and handout after handout. Is it because he is the first man that she was interested in to return her romantic intentions? If this is the case – which it seems to be, this unfortunately detracts from the self confident woman that she presents herself as in the beginning. However, it’s possible that this self confidence Fanny possesses is merely in her talent and does not, unfortunately, translate into her belief that she is desirable. As much as Fanny fights against the male gaze in her performances, it seems that Nick Arnstein has the ability to force her to perform for the male gaze,as he continues to pursue dicey ventures.

In the end, Nick is released from prison and Fanny and Arnstein make the mutual decision to split. Once again, Fanny makes a decision that many women in that time may not have made. However, she doesn’t necessarily come to this conclusion all on her own. Her mother once again enters the picture to put things into perspective for Fanny. For most of the show while she has been chasing and achieving her dream of show business fame, she has been seeing Nick and his business practices through rose colored glasses. When Nick is finally caught, Mrs. Brice tells Fanny that her “handouts” were choking Nick and making him embarrassed. Funny Girl is a world renown musical and somehow still manages to villainize the concept of a strong woman. In the beginning, Fanny sees no success because although she’s funny and talented she doesn’t have “the look”. When it’s clear that she doesn’t need “the look” to be successful for show producers she achieves massive success, but somehow this success is consistently undermined by the fact that her husband refuses her assistance and refuses to come by his money honestly. With all this success – Fanny has still failed by embarrassing her husband. Thankfully, Fanny decides to cut ties with Arnstein and move forward with her professional career. Despite the harsh realities of her relationship with her ex-husband. Though there are aspects of her behavior that are questionable, Fanny still remains a unique and strong female character. No thanks to the men in her life.

Miss Saigon – An Epic Story of Stereotypes

One of the great effects of well-written theatrical characters is the ambiguity of interpretation for audience members that complex and layered writing provides. Part of what makes esteemed theatrical pieces compelling is the space they give to audiences to formulate their own opinions and feelings about the piece and its characters, without being essentially told how to feel by a show’s creators – we don’t appreciate good art because it spoon-feeds us answers, but because it challenges us to think and reflect on our own beliefs, experiences, and biases. Based on this criterion, please allow me to explain why Miss Saigon and its characters are far from original, complex, or layered. On the contrary, the characters in Miss Saigon are quite unilaterally one-dimensional, stereotypical representations that drive a very specific and dogmatic interpretation of the piece endorsed fully by almost all aspects of the show’s performance text. Since dissecting every moment of this show would take quite a long time, I’m going to focus on the representations of two of the show’s leading characters – Kim and Chris – to demonstrate how Miss Saigon advances an extremely narrow-minded and culturally insensitive narrative. 

I’ll begin with Kim, the show’s 17-year-old Vietnamese female lead, played by Eva Noblezada in this 2016 filmed production. On the surface, Kim’s character arc leaves one with the impression that she is a strong-willed fighter, willing to do anything for a better life for her child, continuously fueled by her love for Chris. This is how the show intends for the audience to view her, as a tragic but independent and strong female hero. But is this actually how the text presents her? It’s difficult to argue against the contention that Kim is “strong” – indeed, when the audience is re-acquainted with her after the three-year time jump, we see just how much of a fighter she is, caring for Tam and struggling to survive while living on the streets. The text seems to assert that this fighting nature within Kim is a manifestation of her independent spirit and strong self-concept. To which I’d respond that Kim’s agency is in fact almost entirely illusory and lacks fundamental support from the text. 

Let’s consider the opening sequence of the show and the first interactions between Kim and Chris. Kim – along with every other female seen on stage – is bound to a life of sex-work, all with no choice but to obey the commands of the Engineer and serve the desires of male patrons. All of the women see their only means of escape from this life as dependent on convincing a visiting American male to take them back to America with her as his wife. In other words, these women believe they have no capacities within themselves to attain their freedom, and feel they have to be entirely dependent on the will of a man to be their savior, Kim included. So, would you consider her independent? A free agent? I’d be more inclined to say something like, “Kim is enslaved to the wills of men.” That feels more accurate. So, when she and Chris spend one night together and then decide that they’re in love, what do you think motivates Kim to come to the conclusion that she has fallen for Chris? I think it’s because she knows that “love” with an American soldier equals escape, even if it means binding herself to the soldier as his wife, which is exactly what she does. And on top of that, the only means of exerting her agency in such a situation is with her sexuality – she is only set apart from the rest of the women because of her virginity, and is made to be seen as more desirable to the patrons because so. Oh, and it’s also literally all Chris knows about her before he takes her to a room to have sex with her because his buddy paid for it. The buds of true romance, apparently.  

So, three years later after one night with Chris and she’s still in love but he has a new American wife. So she makes it her objective to have Chris take Tam with him back to America to give him the life she wants for him, and kills herself once she accomplishes this. The text would like you to interpret this as her tragic yet heroic ending. And it is tragic, but not because she shares one last kiss with Chris (we’ll talk about this later) and then dies in his arms. It’s tragic because Kim perceives her role as Vietnamese mother as inherently less valuable than that of American father. It’s tragic because she thinks Tam will have a better life if his mother is dead but he gets to live with his American father. She sees herself as fundamentally less valuable a life than that of Chris. She is not a tragic hero, but a sad mother who sees herself as incapable of providing the life she desires for her child. Because she is a woman and Chris is a man. And because she is Vietnamese and he is American. 

This is a stance the show advances throughout its duration – that Vietnam is hell and America is heaven. Every common Vietnamese person that the text introduces the audience to wants to get right out Vietnam, without presenting any internal character conflicts about leaving their home or bothering to suggest that there may be any aspects of Vietnamese life that could be preferable over life in America. The text suggests that there is no way a reasonable person could desire to stay in Vietnam. The show’s only prominent character who doesn’t pursue leaving is Thuy, who is also portrayed as 100% angry-communist-American-hating-military-man and whom the audience is offered no reason with which to sympathize. Only evil people could want to stay in Vietnam, apparently. 

This brings me to Chris, played by Alistair Brammer. Yes Chris, our All-American, muscular, handsome, moral, caring, and principled American solider…you see where I’m going with this. Just as the text makes every effort to portray Thuy as the force of evil to be despised, there is not a moment when the text does not endorse Chris as the morally superior, white American male savior, the idyllic embodiment of western manhood, above reproach or moral fault. This begins the moment we meet him, when we see him having to be peer pressured to enjoy his time at Dreamland and when we see him attempt to protect Kim from the other men. And after they spend their night together, he decides he’s fallen in love with her after she sings of the death of her family and struggles, which makes him feel a mandate to protect and care for her. His love for her is not based on shared interests or the result of them bonding through shared experiences – he has sex with her, she tells him about her dead parents, and now he is love stricken. The entire basis of him being in love is on the grounds that he feels he must save her. White, savior, complex.

Chris’s actions are never truly brought into serious question at any point in the text. When we find out that he has hidden his history with Kim from Ellen, the audience is not meant to doubt his faithfulness or integrity. Rather, we are expressly meant to sympathize with him for the mental torture that he is enduring. The text emphasizes this in both acts of the play with both Ellen scenes. Even in Ellen’s solo, “Now That I’ve Seen Her/Maybe”, she doesn’t place any blame on Chris for the secrets he’s kept, but rather turns inward to place blame on herself, wondering if now it was her duty to somehow set him free. With this, the text refuses to place any blame or responsibility for the pain Chris has caused others on himself. Rather, he is framed as a victim of circumstance and as man that was simply acting out of the goodness of his heart. When Chris explains himself to Ellen, he even says, “Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?” This line hits the nail right on the head. Miss Saigon refuses to tarnish the goodness of Chris’s character because of his identity as an American man, an ideal to be held up to. Even when Chris kisses Kim before she dies, the text completely ignores the implications of the kiss on Chris’s romantic relationships, as it could be interpreted that his willingness to share in the kiss is indicative of the fact that he is never going to be fully emotionally satisfied with Ellen. But no, the text excuses this as ok because it is the tragic, dramatic conclusion to the tale of two lovers. At this point, I hope I have provided enough evidence to show the flaws with this stance that the performance text takes. 

Miss Saigon is a show of immense scope and scale, and famously so. But unfortunately, the production’s flair for the big and grandiose results in a performance text that quite egregiously presents one-dimensional, stereotypical representations of its characters that deserve much more depth and nuance. The show’s devaluation of Vietnam, its culture, and its people – especially its women – coupled with its glorification of America and the modern American man creates a performance text that fails to appreciate or acknowledge the complexities of the characters presented, and instead settles for outdated and recognizable tropes and stereotypes. 

It’s the Subtle Racism for Me: How Miss Saigon Fails Minorities

Originally debuting in 1989, Miss Saigon tells the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers, a 17 year-old Vietnamese girl and an American soldier, who meet in the midst of the deadly Vietnam War. Think of it like Romeo & Juliet meets the Viet Cong, but with racist undertones and a storyline crafted to intentionally assert white superiority. Much of the diversity conversations regarding Miss Saigon revolve around the initial casting controversy of Jonathan Pryce using yellow-face, but the recent 2016 West End revival shows that the racism in Miss Saigon goes far beyond that.

In classic American imperialistic fashion, Miss Saigon is rooted in our belief that Vietnamese people need and want saving. It perpetuates the narrative that the Vietnamese are victimized, and this begins the process of stripping the Asian characters of any agency. The entire second act revolves around Kim’s failure to evacuate Bangkok and her efforts to have her child avoid the same fate. However, the audience never gets to hear Kim talk with another Asian character about why she feels it’s necessary to give up her child. It’s just an unstated fact that as audience members we’re already supposed to believe that America is superior to any country in the Eastern world.  This choice by the creative team further emphasizes that Miss Saigon is a musical designed through an imperialistic lens. Even though the story heavily features minorities, it’s clear that didn’t happen because the creative team was actually interested in elevating minority voices. Instead, Miss Saigon uses Asian characters and countries because they’re a unique commodity for consumers to derive entertainment from.

The stark divide white privilege provides is prominent in the late act II song “Room 317” that features Ellen and Kim meeting for the first time. The lyrics primarily work to move the plot about Chris and Kim reuniting forward, yet the story is told almost entirely through Ellen’s (white) eyes. Ellen, as a white American, can never understand the pain and trauma Kim has experienced as a native Vietnamese living in a warzone. The intentional choice to have Ellen be the one who delivers this pivotal, crushing blow to Kim’s optimistic expectations exemplifies the fact that Miss Saigon was created for white consumption. Despite being a secondary character for the majority of the show, Ellen’s role becomes elevated and “Room 317” becomes about showcasing her own feelings. 

All the while, “Room 317” strips Kim, arguably the story’s most central character, of her agency. From the moment she enters Chris and Ellen’s hotel room, Kim is thrown into the unexpected. Her role becomes about responding to comments Ellen has already initiated, and therefore her role becomes mostly reactive in nature. Near the beginning of the song, Ellen wonders, “I don’t know how I’d feel if our roles were reversed.” It’s a fair question, and certainly something audiences must be keen to explore as well. Perhaps Kim would practice more empathy if she finally found herself in a position that wields power? We’ll never know.

Alas, much like the rest of the musical, the song continues without exploring much of Kim’s perspective and concludes with her fleeing the hotel room in an emotional haste. Audience members are never given the chance to hear Kim genuinely answer some of Ellen’s questions, and are instead only able to debrief the moment through Ellen’s lens. Even the songs there were written to further Kim’s narrative arc manage to completely block her from achieving any agency.

The costuming choices also accentuate the role race plays in creating agency. In anticipation of seeing Chris again, “Sun and Moon (Reprise)” shows Kim gracefully unpacking her wedding dress. The outfit is oriental, and the delicacy she unpacks and dresses with suggests to the audience that this is a valuable possession of hers. However, when Kim enters Chris’ hotel room wearing this outfit, Ellen immediately mistakes her for the maid. The comment is subtle and more of a disrespectful microaggression than a deliberate jab, yet it embodies the racism that plagues Miss Saigon throughout. It helps show the audience that Kim, even when wearing her finest outfits, will always be perceived as lesser than Chris’ American (read: white) wife. 

Several blocking choices in Miss Saigon also work to further the white supremacy communicated throughout the musical. Towards the end of Act I, Ellen is introduced to the audience for the first time during the song “I Still Believe” that shows her laying in bed with Chris as he struggles to sleep through a nightmare. The bedroom is staged in a way that it appears raised over Kim in Vietnam. The sets appearing concurrently shows the audience the totem-pole rankings of Chris’ lovers. It also communicates to the audience how Chris would be perceived in society if he had stayed in Bangkok with Kim. He would still be on the ground level, probably wearing tattered clothes with dirt on his face just as Kim was. Instead, the audience sees how coming home has already benefited him. His new wife wears clean pajamas, and they sleep in a fancy bed. “I Still Believe” puts in little effort to characterize Ellen beyond the fact she’s Chris’ American wife, but it perfectly communicates all the ways Kim pales in comparison to an American (read: white) bride.

In terms of staging, “Room 317” also acts as a prime example for the musical’s themes. Towards the end of the number, Kim recognizes that she’s fighting a losing battle with Ellen. Laurence Connor, the director, could have reworked this key moment in the revival to show Kim empowered by knowing the choice she now needs to make. Instead, the audience sees Kim continue her submissive ways. Noblezada lowers herself to her knees and bends over in a way that communicates how desperate Kim has become. This staging choice frames Ellen in a position of power (which she, of course, possesses) and accentuates Kim’s weakness. Noblezada’s positioning also vaguely resembles someone praying, which serves as subtle commentary on the overall plot that a white family (Chris and Ellen) can serve as literal “savior” to a non-white child (Tam).

As a white spectator, consuming Miss Saigon in 2020 and excusing its blatant racial misgivings because “the music is catchy” and “the story is so good” is a privilege. Even though the musical is technically diverse in nature and employs a large number of minority actors, it’s evident that the narrative conjured in the main story is full of harmful microaggressions. Continuing to revive this musical and consume it as theatre-goers makes us complicit in perpetuating the harmful, racial narratives associated with it. Miss Saigon commoditizes Asian culture and insists on telling this tragic, diverse story through a white-only lens, oftentimes unabashedly roping the audience into accepting the superiority of white culture. 

Miss Saigon has a crucial role to play in musical theatre history, but we’ve reached the point where it’s time to move on and retire the harmful narrative the story perpetuates. The music, book, and staging (hello, helicopter!) are theatre triumphs that deserved to be celebrated at one point in time. But we can acknowledge these once remarkable accomplishments while still admitting that the musical provides little to no cultural benefit in 2020.

This all being said, the continued fanfare for Miss Saigon and consistently sold out engagements proves that there is an active and eager market for more Asian-led stories. There is an entirely new generation of extremely talented Asian performers looking for their big break, just how the original production boosted Lea Salonga into the mainstream with opportunities they previously might not have had before. Asian stories are marketable, and it’s time for Broadway to retire its outdated tropes and start producing new, diverse stories featuring people of color.

Love in the Fall of Saigon

The 1989 musical Miss Saigon reframes the tragic love story of the 1904 opera Madame Butterfly around the Vietnam War and fall of Saigon. The writers Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg explore the meanings of family and motherhood through Chris’s relationship with main character Kim and Ellen, his American wife following the war. By setting up Ellen as a foil to Kim, Boublil and Schönberg reveal the prejudices of Americans against the Vietnamese. Kim, the lens through which the audience sees Vietnam, represents and generalizes the powerless, dependent, and sexual role young women took on during the war. Her love interest Chris retains all the power in the relationship and, even after he leaves, he and America represents Kim’s symbol of hope for a better life. Although this musical portrays Asian women as helplessly dependent, as an Asian-born American woman, the show still allows me to feel seen on stage. People are naturally drawn to stories with characters they can empathize with. As an adopted person with a Chinese birth mother and a white adoptive mother, the true love story told in Miss Saigon wasn’t between Kim and Chris; it was between Kim and Tam and the sacrifices she made to give her child a better life. In Miss Saigon, Chris’s two love interests, Kim and Ellen, reveal the differences in which the American and Vietnamese define the responsibilities of family.

Successful writing team Schönberg and Boublil based Miss Saigon on the opera Madame Butterfly, which itself was based on an 1898 short story of the same name. Although audiences aren’t responsible for knowing the history and inspirations behind a show that date back a century, if critics choose to contextualize and critique Miss Saigon through a 21st century lens of the Vietnam War and Asian culture, they should also know that Vietnam was simply chosen as the backdrop, rather than the unique setting where this specific narrative must take place. As an Asian woman, I found the overtly sexual portrayal of Asian women during a devastating war extremely disturbing; however, Boublil and Schönberg’s conscious simplification of Vietnamese culture sought to serve the purpose of the story they were telling and create an environment that fit the Madame Butterfly narrative. Boublil and Schönberg intentionally generalize their characters so audiences can more easily understand their scenarios from a white perspective. Specifically, Kim’s intersectional identity or lack thereof suggest that Boublil and Schönberg believe that a non-American character must be defined by a universal trait such as relationships so American audiences can empathize with them.

From the beginning to the end of the show, Kim is crippled by her lack of choice and only asserts herself when protecting Tam. Although her love for Chris seems to be her lifeline throughout the devastation surrounding her, her actual hope resides in the belief that Chris will give Tam a better life. Kim is introduced to the audience after losing her entire family, and finding comfort in the arms of Chris, falls in love with the idea of companionship and opportunity more than Chris himself. In “The Confrontation”, Chris also admits that “in the shambles of war [he] found what he was looking for. Saigon was crazed but she was real”. Chris and Kim both gave each other what they needed in that moment, making the authenticity of their love irrelevant and building an instant attachment. Kim and Chris are happily in love and Kim is wearing a wedding dress. The next image the audience sees of Kim is her dirty and disheveled following the street parade establishing the three-year time jump. Although Chris has clearly left her behind and she is alone, she sings “I Still Believe” expressing her faith in Chris. Since this song comes before the audience is made aware of Kim having a son, she appears lovestruck and naïve, especially after Chris’s wife is revealed when the song becomes a duet. “I Still Believe” establishes Chris as Kim’s lifeline when Kim sings “As long as I keep believing I’ll live”. However, once Tam is revealed when The Engineer finds her, the song takes on a new meaning: Chris not only represents her opportunity to experience love, but also to give a better life for her son.

            While “I Still Believe” reveals Kim’s blind faith, independent of Tam, “I’d Give My Life for You” explains why faith is her only option now that she is a fugitive. In “You Will Not Touch Him”, Kim kills the cousin she was supposed to wed when he threatens her son, screaming that Tam is what she “lives for” and her “only joy”. After killing Thuy, Kim permanently brands herself as not only a powerless victim, but a victim who can’t ask for help. Kim’s desperation to fulfill her duty to Tam pushes her to ask The Engineer, a man who previously sold her as a prostitute, for help. In “I’d Give My Life for You”, Kim contextualizes “I Still Believe”, illustrating how the faith she has in Chris isn’t out of naivete. Kim’s tragic love story isn’t between her and Chris; it’s between her and her son and Chris is a symbol of hope. She keeps herself going by believing that someday Chris will give her the life he promised, and she remains in love with the companionship he gave her. Kim’s relentless devotion and protection of Tam gives her a lifeline to not only Chris, but also the true love story of Miss Saigon.

            Ellen, Chris’s American wife, serves as a foil to Kim, fighting to keep Chris because she doesn’t want to lose her family, while Kim fights to help her son. In “Room 317”, Ellen reveals herself as Chris’s wife to Kim; the melody of “You Will Not Touch Him” plays in the background as Kim processes the information, showing how her thoughts and heartbreak immediately reroute to protecting Tam. When she begs Ellen to take Tam back to America, Ellen immediately becomes defensive claiming that he’s not her son, and they can’t take him away from his mother. Although Ellen still rejects Tam, the 2017 adaptation took clear steps to make her character more sympathetic. From the beginning of the scene, when Kim explains that she’s not the maid Ellen says “how can I help you” rather than “what do you want then”. Additionally, Ellen’s defensive solo “Her or Me” that essentially declares that she will do anything to keep Chris is replaced with “Maybe”, a more contemplative song to reflect her inner conflict about her and Chris’s responsibility to Tam. The director’s choice to change these songs and lines to make Ellen more sympathetic show her true love for Chris and how her heart will break if he leaves her. When Chris returns from searching for Kim, Ellen’s tells Chris “you may say what you want, but she’s still born you a son”, revealing her belief that Tam may legitimize Chris and Kim’s relationship more than her marriage. Her insecurities culminate until she delivers the ultimatum that Chris must choose Kim or her. Although Ellen does seem to be the deciding factor keeping Chris from accepting Kim and Tam as his family, the 2017 producers and Tamsin Carroll’s portrayal of Ellen force the audience to sympathize with her making her more of a legitimate foil to Kim rather than just a villain.

            Kim’s willingness to give up her son and Ellen’s wish to provide only monetary support to her define the main conflict in Miss Saigon. While the play is fraught with violence, heartbreak, and war, the play ends with Kim sacrificing herself to protect her son. The play concluding at with Kim’s death revealed that the ballad “I’d Give My Life for You” determined the ending before the second act even began. Chris’s failure to save Kim also serves as an allegory for the America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Although he falls in love and vows to help her get to America with pure intentions, political strictures make it impossible to keep his promise, only to find out years later that Kim had faithfully waited the entire time. Like America in Vietnam, Chris’s intentions and execution were both morally controversial, with the ultimate question being if he should’ve gotten involved and made impossible promises in the first place. Kim and Vietnam are portrayed as powerless, while Chris, Ellen and America hold all the power and opportunity. Ellen is able to persuade Chris that preserving her vision of family is worth sacrificing Kim. Kim, on the other hand, is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her son.

The Savior and the Saved: How White Feminism Victimizes Women of Color on Broadway

Everyone wants to play the hero. In every story, the audience bears witness to the transformative journey of a character, or characters, who gain the strength to face the challenges inherent in a narrative plot. The musical stage is no different. What was once a role restricted to prototypical protagonists–white, straight, males– has become a place where people with marginalized people can tell their story. Still, representation on the musical stage has not come without a cost, especially for characters with intersecting identities. While book writers and societal pressures alike allowed some authoritative roles to women relatively early in Broadway history, victimless roles were reserved for white actresses only. Broadway is yet another space where white women use their racial identity to transcend the boundaries of a patriarchal society while feminist movements leave women of color powerless. Through race, white women are allowed to be the heroes– or the saviors– of the Broadway musical, while women of color routinely exist only as objects that need saving. Portrayals of women of color on Broadway are one artistic showcase of the shortcomings of white feminism. 

In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, protagonist Anna Leonowens is everything you would not expect from a powerful leading woman: widowed, homeless, and technically foreign. Still, her independence, strong will, and most importantly, whiteness, give her an aura of authority that challenges even the King’s. Notably, Anna’s authority is assumed both from herself and from those around her. Imperialism has taught whites and non-whites alike that whiteness is superior– that non-Western cultures must be cleansed by whiteness. This idea permeates theater just as it permeates politics. From open to close, Anna is destined to be the story’s savior.

In Boublil and Schönberg’s Miss Saigon, Kim is meek but passionate, indigent but loyal, devoted and humble. Kim’s story is defined by contrast. The musical begins in a brothel with scantily dressed women who vie for the attention of handsy men. In her modest dress and with her young face, she is the one who attracts the handsome American soldier. At first glance, this single act may seem empowering to young women– the modest girl gets the guy. However, this premise, at its core, is rooted in slut-shaming. As such, it is inherently anti-feminist. The story line fails to redeem itself and only further victimizes Kim. While her love story begins to seem like it will save her from her impoverished conditions, it only makes her more vulnerable and sets up her tragic ending.

Despite their drastic dissimilarities in background, Anna and Kim still have much in common. They’ve both experienced tragic loss, been thrown into new environments, and must rely on the wills of men for their ultimate destinies. Though their initial circumstances may give them a similar perspective on their surroundings, they are unmatched when it comes to their capacities to shape their own outcomes. Anna is adamant about getting what she wants; she expresses her desires fiercely and openly. Kim is steadfast in knowing what she wants; but conversely to Anna, her life is largely a waiting game. She lacks control. Anna is active while Kim is passive. Anna becomes the savior while Kim must be saved. This staunch difference between the two characters culminates in their ultimate fates at the end of the respective shows. Anna is praised for her Western wisdom while Kim is respected for her most basic feminine quality: motherliness. Even though both characters are fighting the same war as women against the patriarchy, they are unevenly equipped to fight their respective battles. American society expects women of color to fight the same war as white women when given half the resources and twice the battles. This shortcoming reflects on Broadway just as it does it American politics.

Anna’s identity as a white Westerner allows her to surpass most constraints she faces as a woman. Even as the “other”, Anna’s whiteness makes her the most powerful character in The King and I. From the second she steps foot in Siam, viewers understand that the writers are framing her as the hero. She is easily identifiable as the “good guy.” She’s kind, she’s likable, and she voluntarily teaches English to brown children. Rodgers and Hammerstein immediately give Anna a believable moral authority that shapes how she moves throughout the show, and how other characters move around her. This authority develops and culminates in her ability to persuade the king to do “what’s right” at the end of the show. In essence, Anna convinces the king that he can reach Western standards of goodness. More than gender, race is what defines and divides the relationship between Anna and the king, just as it juxtaposes the relationship between Anna and Kim. 

In sharp contrast to Anna, Kim is always powerless in her relationship with Chris, her American soldier. This powerplay is dramaticized by the fact that their story takes place in Kim’s own homeland. At the beginning of the story, the writers may have viewers convinced that Kim’s weakness is solely due to the fact that she is a woman. Given that even today, male domination in a coed relationship is often seen as “natural”, this assumption is, unfortunately, reasonable. However, her relationship with her eventual husband is entirely defined by his needs and desires. But this dynamic is not entirely due to gender norms or differences– when Kim’s undesired suitor, Thuy, obsesses over her, she fiercely takes control. She tells him “no” with strength and dignity; when he further disrespects her, she murders him with no regard to his maleness. However, viewers never see this forceful nature when she is confronted by whiteness. Kim’s submission to Chris aligns perfectly with the widespread supposition that Western culture bows to Eastern culture. Kim showed viewers that she could assert her dominance within her own culture, but she was not able to effectively assert her own desires and needs within her marriage to her American husband. In Miss Saigon, Kim’s relationship to men and to whiteness demonstrates how white feminism fails women of color.

Kim’s relationship to whiteness becomes more apparent in the number, “I Still Believe”, in which viewers finally see Chris’ new, blonde, American wife. Not only is Kim replaced by a “proper”, white wife, but Ellen, Chris’ new wife, has influential power in her relationship with Chris that Kim never had. When Kim and Ellen finally meet, it is obvious that Ellen has authority in their relationship, too. Like Chris, Ellen’s authority comes from her whiteness. In certain respects, Kim’s relationship with Ellen mirrors her relationship to Kim. While Kim and Ellen come from very different cultures, they share the struggle of being viewed as inferior to men in their day-to-day lives. Still, the intersection of Kim’s gender and race is an issue that Ellen does not have to live with or even become aware. Like Anna, Ellen’s whiteness earns her at least a little bit of respect, not only with Kim, but also with her white husband. Viewers can imagine that had they been given the opportunity to witness an interaction between Ellen and the men living in Vietnam, she would have likely been able to assert some sort of power over them as well. Ellen’s whiteness is contrasted perfectly against the background of the Vietnam War, in which white people were acting as “saviors” for the people of Vietnam. The power dynamics brought about by the war would have given her a sense of dominance over even men from Vietnam. The intersectionality of race, gender, and culture within the show present very challenging questions about how appearances shape the power dynamics within their worlds.

As much as actresses Donna Murphy and Eva Noblezada use specific body language to portray their femininity, their movements are just as important in displaying their races. For example, Donna, who plays Anna, is often situated higher than all other characters on the stage. By contrast, Eva, who plays Kim, often crawls across the stage and frequently performs from a kneeling position. These subtle differences highlight the ways in which the characters take up space, which has been an integral subject in modern discussions of feminist and race relations in the United States. The feminist movement centers around not only general equality across gender lines, but also the simple desire to be seen and heard. The King and I makes clear, without explicitly saying so, that Anna believes she is meant to be seen and heard. Conversely, Miss Saigon’s Kim is consistently scared to take up too much space. Together, these shows demonstrate that white women have a certain confidence that women of color lack, largely due to the latter’s exclusion from feminist movements.Art has always reflected the political moment. Art can also help shape the political moment. Broadway writers and performers have a responsibility to at least be conscious of the subliminal messages that exist in any piece of art– but especially their own. Anna of The King and I and Kim of Miss Saigon are multi-dimensional characters that cannot be reduced to single issues, such as race, class, or gender. Their dynamic experiences do not exist in a vacuum. So, while it is a viewer’s responsibility to critically analyze any character or performance, it is also their responsibility to understand them– to explain them with compassion. It is through both a critical analysis and compassionate understanding that we can begin to unravel the intricacies of feminist movements as they are performed– sometimes with subtly– on the Broadway stage.

Toxic Masculinity in A Tux

By: Elicia O

Funny Girl portrays Nick Arnstein as an irresistibly charming yet domineering young man who reeks of self-entitlement——characteristics that distract others from his Jewish ethnicity and hypnotize them into affirming his carefully crafted façade of untainted whiteness. However, Fanny’s contrasting feminine Jewish status often threatens to expose Nick’s fragile ego. As a lower-class woman from Henry Street, Fanny doesn’t have many avenues through which she can abandon her Jewish identity. So, she opts to trade it in for fame and love. While Nick’s assumption of toxic masculinity and sexuality have afforded him the erasure of his Jewish identity, they also aid in destroying everything his façade has built by triggering the subsequent demise of Fanny, his marriage, and ultimately himself.

Nick consistently wears a suit throughout the musical as a constant sign of his white class status, as if we needed a reminder. Notably, when Nick first meets Fanny, he swaggers into her dressing room wearing a carefully pressed tux and white ruffled shirt, accented with a creased, white pocket-handkerchief. However, Fanny is still in her costume from the night’s performance. Nick’s costume provides him with an air of distinction and superiority over those around him, especially Fanny. As if the tux and pocket hanky weren’t enough to assert his self-importance, he chimes in on Fanny’s conversation with her boss without hesitation. In taking over her business deal unsolicited, he is enacting the misogynistic role of the male savior and provider for a woman whom he barely knows. He sees a poor, helpless woman in need of a man’s touch to “take care of business” and get her what she wants. The only advice Fanny offers in return is a laundry tip on how to keep his shirt from going limp. This comment reinforces Nick’s perpetuation of antiquated gender roles, amplifying his superior masculine status. Thus, Fanny’s role in the relationship is to aid Nick and cater to his needs while Nick acts as “the breadwinner.” How domestic.

The gender roles that Nick establishes in his first encounter with Fanny permeate every subsequent interaction and give her a subconscious sense of reliance on Nick as she equates him with the reason for her success. When Fanny sees Nick again after landing a job with Mr. Zigfield, she automatically assumes that Nick must have been the reason she got the job. Predictably, Nick does very little to convince her otherwise. Under Nick’s influence, Fanny has fallen prey to the idea that she needs a man to be successful in her career.

Nick doesn’t seem to be very knowledgeable about his Jewish roots, but he is very well-versed in gold digger. When unfamiliar with a Yiddish word that she uses, Fanny questions whether Nick is sure he’s Jewish. Naturally, he shrugs it off and changes the subject to talk about Fanny’s fame and, more specifically, how to use it to advance his preferred white male agenda. Fanny rejects Nick’s invitation to go out for the night and asks him instead if he would like to come to her party back home on Henry Street. Nick is quick to say yes. Now, why in the world would a “Dapper Dan” like Nick Arnstein want to slum it on Henry Street when he could have a night out on the town?

“I Wanna Be Seen With You Tonight” unveils Nick’s not-so-hidden motives for his initial pursuit of Fanny.  Nick proceeds to sing of how he just wants to be seen with Fanny. He even confesses that he wishes to “wear [her] like a charm, [her] glitter decorating [his arm].” Nick clearly views Fanny and her accompanying fame as an accessory, a pretty, shiny thing to make him look better by accentuating his pretentious masculine qualities. Nick laces his misogynistic idiocies with flattery, which not only entrances Fanny but also promotes his vision of her as an understated accent piece whose sole purpose is to inflate his white, male ego.

Nick’s behavior at Fanny’s party on Henry Street also conveys his lack of interest in Jewish affairs. Nick immediately leaves Fanny’s side upon entering and saunters over to the corner for a smoke, while Fanny dances with her Jewish family and friends. He only regains interest in the festivities when someone suggests a game of poker. Nick adopts a consistently “too cool for school” attitude toward Jewish culture. He not only exhibits an utter disregard for his Jewish heritage, but actively sets out to avoid it. Meanwhile, Fanny delights in spending time with her Jewish family and has developed an appreciation for the Yiddish language. She doesn’t shy away from her culture because she has no reason for hiding it. In fact, she often incorporates it into her musical numbers to get an extra laugh, like in her performance of the overtly sexual and patriotic Private Schwartz. She uses her Jewish identity to promote her fame and wears it on her sleeve as Nick wears his toxically masculine, white class status on his. More specifically, in Nick’s case, he has severed any ties to his Jewish roots in favor of the advancement of his current persona, which embodies white, toxic masculinity.

Nick’s assumption of his white male status naturally comes with an air of entitlement as he finds justification in his motives and dismisses any opposing perspectives. After kissing Fanny at her party, Nick disappears on a business trip for ten months. Naturally, he assumes that an expensive restaurant with French foods that Fanny could only dream of pronouncing should excuse his lack of consideration. So, when Fanny shows up to the date visibly upset, he is quick to call her “bad-tempered” and “childish.” As usual, the man is “cool and rational” while the woman is “overly emotional and dramatic.” In the words of pop-culture icon Taylor Swift, “a man is allowed to react. A woman can only overreact.”

Sadly,Nick’s invalidation of Fanny’s feelings only plummets her further into the delusion of his misogynistic, white grandeur.He continues to use his cavalier, unbothered attitude to persuade Fanny to not only to succumb to his will but to adopt it as her own. So, when Fanny finally decides to stay, he positively reinforces this decision by calling it a “very sensible” idea. Thus, Nick is conditioning Fanny to abandon her desires for his. Nick also uses this tactic in the bedroom, or in his case, a fancy French restaurant with a couch.

It’s very clear that Nick plans to make advances at Fanny on the date as he’s strategically placed a couch near their dinner table. Thus, Nick is unashamed of his sexuality and purposefully flaunts it in front of Fanny on their date. In contrast, Fanny worries that she won’teven know when Nick is making a move on her. Nick confidently assures her that she will as he is always “very direct” with what he wants. He then perches on the couch and admits that he believes you can have anything if you only insist on it. Thus, Nick adopts yet another classic trope of toxic masculinity as he draws strength and confidence from his sexuality, whereas women like Fanny are groomed to be sheepish and timid. Fanny tries to fight her sexual desires while ruminating over the standards her idol Sadie and her Jewish mother had set for her. Thus, Fanny’s instinct is to allow her Jewish ties to influence her decisions, while Nick is driven by his sense of male entitlement to getting what he desires.

 Despite Nick’s very forward approach to seduction, he carefully maintains his chivalrous exterior as he frequently compliments Fanny, pulls out her chair, and orders for her. However, growing eager, he then proceeds to sing “You Are Woman, I Am Man” to coax her into sleeping with him on the couch that he has so graciously provided. He also sings that “[she] is smaller, so [he] can be taller than.” Thus, Nick simultaneously flaunts his sexuality and asserts his male dominance by encouraging Fanny to give in to their primal nature. Conveniently, this is the same primal nature that demeans women and subjugates them to the same will that drives the male gaze.

For the second half of the musical, it seems that Nick has got Fanny right where he wants her. Fanny’s priorities shift as she has alienated herself from her Jewish family and friends so that she can fully invest in her relationship with Nick. She’s grown to develop both an emotional and–albeit very short-lived–financial dependence on him, but the tables quickly turn. Fanny offers to fund Nick’s casino business herself, so Nick can stay home with her and make her opening nights instead of going on business trips looking for investors. Given Nick’s track record for his perpetuation of more traditional gender norms, it’s no surprise that he hesitates. Fanny views herself as an equal in their relationship, adopting an attitude of “what’s mine is ours.” However, Nick is still stuck in his tendency to allow his sexist ideals of male dominance to fuel his decisions. Ultimately, he opts to compromise his dominant white male status and accepts Fanny’s money. He admits that he feels smothered by Fanny in her attempts to hold him so close, but it’s too late. His conditioning of Fanny to equate him with the ultimate source of her success and happiness has finally come back to haunt him. However, Nick simply chooses to stroke his fragile ego by remembering that because he’s assumed this white class male status, he knows that “fortune’s a fickle dame” and “lady luck changes affection.” Nick possesses this air of invincibility as he compares his current misfortune to just another woman for him to take advantage of and bend to his will. So, who runs the world? Well, according to Nick Arnstein, the answer is always rich, white males. However, we soon come to find that there may have been more truth in the original Queen B’s lyrics, at least in Nick’s case.

When Nick’s casino business inevitably fails, Fanny uses her connections to try once again to bail him out, but this time without his knowledge. Nick is furious when he finds out that Fanny was puppeteering his most recent and only business deal. Nick’s outburst reveals a break in his usual trend of being perfectly content with using Fanny for her fame. Now, he sees Fanny’s fame as a threat to his assumed control over setting the parameters for their relationship and blames her for it. This scene exposes his insecurities as he wrestles with his need to feel like a man, which stems from his ability to provide and be in control of their relationship. His reality of being financially dependent on his wife falls short of his warped standards of toxic masculinity and his original plans for conditioning Fanny to rely on him for her needs.

Ultimately, Nick crumbles under the pressure to maintain his façade of toxic masculinity and winds up in jail after becoming so desperate to feel in control again. Fanny blames herself for Nick’s break, his conditioning of her finally manifesting in a blind, unconditional love for him, despite his negligence with her emotions. Thus, Nick abandoned his Jewish identity in favor of the amplification of his white male identity, but it restricted him to a standard at which he was incapable of consistently performing. Nick and Fanny’s resulting demise act as a practical example of how traditional tropes of toxic masculinity both harm women as well as the men who subscribe to them.

The Power of Race in Women

While two very different musicals, we can find similarities in the two main characters from Miss Saigon and The King and I. Both productions have a female lead in which love is inevitably part of the story. Miss Saigon is the tragic story about a young Vietnamese women, Kim, who falls in love with an American G.I. right before the fall of Saigon. Her story ends tragically with her sacrificing her own life to give a better life for her son. The musical teaches us a lot about what it means to be a Vietnamese woman during this time and the limitations they face for mobility in society. The next musical up for analysis, The King and I, is about a white woman who comes to the country of Siam to teach Western ways to the King and his many wives and children. In an increasingly westernized Asia, Anna works to teach the children Western ideas that inherently conflict with oriental traditions. This conflict, however, is why Anna is brought to the country, but her disruptions do not come unnoticed in changing the ideals of many of the characters in the musical. Both characters can teach us different things about gender and race in various cultures. This includes the independence and knowledge of the white female in comparison to the desperation and male dependence of the Vietnamese female in a poor country during this time. By looking at both characters carefully we will be able to better understand what it means to have power as women in different contexts and how race and social status impact this experience.

We can begin by understanding the sexism and racial implications of the play Miss Saigon. Kim is a victim of the sexist system present in Asian countries at this time. In the opening scene of the musical we learn that her virginity is her most valuable asset according to the Engineer, the man selling her adolescent body to bargoers. Kim’s innocence is obvious in her doe-eyed expressions and even her costuming. She is one of the only women in the scene not wearing a provocative outfit, but a white dress which, for many, symbolizes virginity and innocence with almost her whole body covered up. We learn that Kim understands that her fate is likely not in her own hands. The song “Dream” teaches us that her only hopes of escaping prostitution include finding a man who is willing to take her far away from her current life to a better life in America. Men are gawking over her in the bar, objectifying her body until Chris comes along and takes her away from the scene in order to protect her. In this setting it is understood that Kim’s character is written to be weak. She has little to no control over her own life as a young Asian woman in a country experiencing war while she is at war with her own reality. Kim’s character seems to be weaker than the other female characters in the musical. At least the other prostitutes seem to move with confidence going with their respective males for the night. Kim on the other hand is reluctant, still young and looking for more than just a one night stand, she is looking for a man to bring her to a better life.

Men dominate the life of Kim. First it is the Engineer who pimps her out to men in a bar while exploiting her virginity as if it is some commodity that deserves to be advertised. Then when Chris comes a long nothing else in the world matters to her except for that man. From that first night everything that she does is out of a love for him and eventually the child of theirs that she bears. Kim’s character is ultimately hopelessly in love with a character who, in my opinion, does not deserve half of it. The only possibility of empowerment for Kim’s character is reuniting with Chris upon arrival to America. We can understand a lot by analyzing the historical context in which Chris and Kim met each other. For Kim, Chris’s promise to get married is everything to her. It is the only promise she has for a new life and an escape from a country that is in its downfall. For Chris, he does not have to face the reality of living in a country as poor as Saigon for the rest of his life. At the end of the day he still gets to return back to America and live a normal life without all the violence and terror that Kim experiences. With this knowledge, it makes it a little more understandable why it is exactly that Kim holds on to this hope with Chris for so long. Her gender, race, and socioeconomic status provide her with no reasonable means to make a life for herself. As a result, she becomes a character who is dependent male support for the rest of her life, which can be seen from the beginning of the musical with the Engineer being the one to bring her into prostitution and determine her fate for the rest of the story.

In The King and I, Anna’s race provides her with a much different fate than that of Kim. Anna’s character is much more strong in herself, embodying power in all the areas that Kim lacks. She is the minority in a palace filled with Siam royalty, but her confidence and self-awareness is of discussion. In “Getting to Know You” Anna sings with genuine emotion and wins over the hearts of the children and all of the King’s wives. Anna shows strength within herself in refusing to take anything less than she deserves from the beginning of the musical. She gets into a heated discussion with the King about the promises he made to her before her arrival, almost leaving when the King does not fulfill his promise to her of her own separate place to stay. In this way she challenges male authority to an extent and displays her power. Unseen by the females in Miss Saigon, could it be Anna’s whiteness and confidence in western ideas that allows her to take on this role? Anna only succumbs to the King’s terms when she meets the children she was assigned to teach. Her love for children and others drives her success in the musical and brings others to like her, including the wives’ of the King. It is not even long before the King is beginning to fall for the charm that Anna embodies with her self-confidence and knowledge.

Throughout the musical Anna continues to relay her Western ideals to the King and others. Upon learning about Tuptim’s love affair she pleads for the King to be more understanding. After the big party Anna challenges the King’s ideas about women, explaining to him the worth that woman have and that women are more than what a man gives them. Soon enough, the two of them are dancing with one another intensifying the relationship they have grown. Her power is exemplified with her teaching the King to dance. In this scene we can see her power beginning to break down the complex the King has up and their romantic relationship start to grow before it is interrupted by some unfortunate news. Anna’s character brings so much joy to those around her showing that confidence in one’s self changes how all characters interact with one another and the ultimate fate of a woman in this time. Anna is unrelinquished in her pursuit for the fair treatment of woman, calling the King out for all of his faults that contradict the western ideals she is trying to impose on him. Her passion for others and confidence in what she believes in drives her character forward.

It is interesting to understand the intersectionality of race and gender for both of these characters and how it is similar, but different for each character. For Kim, the combination of the two provide her with no power. This disadvantage leads to the inevitable fate of her character. Without the authority over herself to make a better life, she succumbs to a lack of self in the ultimate sacrifice of death she makes at the end. On the other hand, the combination of race and gender is what allows Anna’s character such success in the musical. Her western ideas and female charm is what wins over the trust and respect of most characters. She even begins to break down the emotional walls of the King who is the most stubborn character in his Oriental way of thinking. The song “Shall We Dance?” shows how her balanced display of confidence and intelligence wins over the King, opening him up into a more vulnerable state that it seems no other character was able to bring out. It can be argued that this confidence towards pursuing the King proves to be too much in the end, humiliating him in front of his own people, yet ultimately trickling down into the way the new King will plan on ruling his people.

Power has to do not only with one’s self, but interactions with others in all contexts. In the case of these two musicals it is how others see them just as much as how they see themselves which helps us to understand them. Kim is simply pitied and almost abused by those around her while Anna’s place in the story is to come in and help a foreign culture. She has respect from the beginning simply because of her race and the cultural environment of the time. In many contexts, race is one of the largest factors to determine one’s success which has all to do with power. Anna has more power and respect by simply being white, which is something still relevant and extremely prominent today. Therefore, we can understand that power cannot necessarily be earned, yet often times we are born with this right. It leads me to believe that because of Kim’s race and social status she was ever able to have the power that a white woman like Anna had, and the story only highlighted this aspect of her life. It is easy to understand that from these times so long ago not much has changed in the importance of race and the respect you earn from others. Two opposite female characters in Asian countries have the ability to teach us this, a lesson that many have continued to learn and experience.

The art of being different in Miss Saigon: There is one acceptable way to be a woman of color under colonialism. Except she died.

Miss Saigon was one of the few musicals I got the (dis)pleasure of watching live. I didn’t cry a single tear. I was too busy being furious. Highly acclaimed as it is in West End and Broadway, Miss Saigon reeks of colonialism and white savior complex, a white narrative from and for white colonialism. Kim and Chris are both set up to be different from the rest of the characters, but their Otherness had opposite roles in the narratives. Kim was othered not only from Asian characters – shone by the light of purity, innocence, and femininity – but also from the audience whose sympathy she was supposed to garner. Chris was othered from the characters – as one of the only white men in the show – but he was one and the same with the people who were watching him.

Kim is a virtuous character, but at the same time, she is a fallen woman. Her narrative ties neatly into the virgin–Madonna-whore complex, a complex born from the misogynistic idea that women can either be respected, tender, and completely non-sexual (the virgin and the Madonna) or be tainted and depraved by their own sexuality. At the beginning of the show, Kim was a young, innocent seventeen years old girl. She was then pushed into prostitution and consequentially was ruined. Her struggle, on the surface level, was the struggle to remain virtuous – as she transitioned from a virgin archetype to a Madonna/mother archetype while facing her trauma of being a prostitute, being “ruined” and depraved. Ultimately, her death was the resolution to these seemingly warring forces: to keep her virtue as a mother, she had to not be the “fallen” woman; and the only way to do that was to stop being alive at all. The Western audience can be enraged at this misogynistic narrative. They can sympathize with her tragedy as a woman in a world that was keen on punishing women for things outside of their control. However, the audience cannot see the true insidiousness of her story without relation to her race. Kim was not just a woman, she was an Asian woman among other Asian characters. She wasn’t written to represent her people, however. She was written to represent how the Western world sees her people: greedy, scheming brutes without virtues or pride who ultimately pushed a woman like Kim to ruin.

Since the beginning of her story, Kim had been a victim. A victim of war, as she had no family, no home: she was all alone in a big city. She had so little agency or knowledge of the city life that she could only look up to the sky fearfully during an attack, unable to protect herself. Until a man – because women were always supposed to be “saved” by men – gave her a hand to pull her up and brought her into his world. That man, the Engineer, was not there to save her. He was there to ruin her. In fact, all the Asian men who had a significant role in her story – namely the Engineer and her betrothed Thuy – were in the story to oppose and hurt her. She ran from Thuy to only fall into another insidious trap that led to her complete ruin. Throughout the show, Kim was constantly pushed around – physically – by both the Engineer and Thuy. Kim, a woman – a young girl – was helpless under the thumbs of the (Asian) men in her life. Even her son (a son, and not a daughter) was a tool to make her life more miserable. The Engineer used her son’s future to manipulate her into selling her body again, and Thuy was willing to kill the child in cold blood. It was one of the only moments we saw Kim stood taller than a man. But she stood for her son, not for herself. Kim’s story perpetuated the stereotype that Asian women are most submissive and cannot stand up for themselves, while Asian men exploit these characteristics. Kim’s racial and gender identity might not be that obvious among other Asian characters, but against a Western audience, it showed more than clearly what the West thinks about Vietnam and the East.

Furthermore, there was also a contrast between Kim and the other Asian women in the story. Kim was the example of the “not like other girls” trope – a common romance trope where the lead woman was set up to stand out from the common, boring women around her. In Miss Saigon, instead of only being misogynistic, this trope was also racist. Kim was pure and virtuous, and she was put against a backdrop of women who were not. For the majority of the show, Kim wore white – at first a cheongsam (which is a Chinese dress, showing the lack of research or respect for Vietnamese culture and Asian culture in general by the production team) and then her white wedding áo dài (which is not the color for wedding but for funerals or students, but I again doubt that the production team were aware of that). In her first night as a bargirl, Kim had her pants taken away, yet her modest top and shy demeanor – a contrast to the other girls who strutted on stage in their underwear – revealed that she hadn’t fallen into ruin yet. Her innocence was even more apparent in her duet with Gigi in “The movie in my mind” as they were put into comparison. Kim in her modest white clothes and traditional hairstyles and Gigi with her black lingerie and risqué appearance were in stark contrast. Even the lyrics they sang showed how different they were from each other. Gigi wished for an escape and materialistic wealth. Her wants were practical and monetary. Kim, innocent dreamer she was, wished for love and protection, not money. It was a slight contrast between two women seemingly in the same situation, but because Kim’s wish wasn’t as materialistic, it was her wish that came true, not Gigi’s.

Kim’s purity was obvious. What was also obvious but tended to be ignored was that: she was pure among impure Asian women, she was the perfect victim under brutish and scheming Asian men. She was moral and good, the other Asian people were not. Kim’s story was not a story about her being an Asian woman, her story was about how she was different from the Asian people who did not matter. That was why she was sympathetic. That was why she was “acceptable”. She was what a model minority should be. She was who Chris – the white man, the beacon of Western progress – chose.

On the opposite spectrum from Kim on the “being different in Miss Saigon” scale was Chris, the example of the white savior complex, a prince charming who would rescue the princess from the hands of the evil, horrible people in her life. In fact, Chris’ first appearance and interaction with Kim was him “saving” her from another soldier. He was sweet and polite, the true gentleman. He wanted Kim to leave the brothel and was intercepted by the Engineer. Already, Chris was different from both the other soldiers and the Vietnamese Engineer. He was the perfect guy for Kim to meet: “a man who will not kill, who’ll fight for me instead”. While Chris had probably killed before, to Kim he was a hero, a savior from her dreams. This, interestingly, was also what Western colonizers thought of themselves when they invaded other countries – subsequently bringing destruction and death to many cultures. Like the system that he served, Chris directly caused Kim her tragedy. As a White Man, Chris was so painfully unaware of his role in the narrative and the power he held due to both being White and being a Man. In all fairness, we can only partially blame him because the creators – colonialism apologists they were – were probably also unaware of the role of America and Western colonialism and imperialism in the Vietnam war. 

Chris, as a white man, was put into contrast with the Asian men in Miss Saigon, just as Kim was put into contrast with the Asian women. And like Kim, this contrast provided a vision of the “typical” Vietnamese person (uncivilized, greedy, violent) and the white man (polite, gentle, giving). Instead of using Kim to earn money like the Engineer, he wanted to give her money for a free life. Instead of threatening Kim with violence like Thuy, Chris used violence only to protect Kim. He was different. This difference, inherently because he was a white man written by white men as a symbol of white power – gave him power and agency. Chris had choices. He might be a “minority” on stage, race-wise, but his position was still on top of the societal ladder. Chris had choices: of which girl to fall in love with, of which girl to protect. He chose Kim.  

He chose Kim, and that choice – the power of that choice – led to the entire tragedy. Chris might later seem like he didn’t have any agency in the consequence of his action, but it cannot be denied that his initial choice and inherent power played a major part in the story. His lack of choice in the later part of the story stemmed the lack of self-awareness and responsibility of one’s action. This was distinctly a Western, colonialism-apologist perspective, of which Chris was the manifestation. This lack of self-awareness was evident in his song “Why God Why”. “When I went home before, no one talked of the war. What they knew from tv didn’t have a thing to do with me”: Chris and the Western world viewed the Vietnam war as something fictional, unreal. They removed themselves from the guilt of what colonialism did to an Asian country and are unaware of their own benefits from colonialism. Chris talked about Vietnam the same way Americans talk about Vietnam now, as if it was not a real place, as if the Vietnam war was separate from the US. “I like my memory as they were”, he sang. Chris liked his memory of a Vietnam devoid of all humanizing traits, of Vietnamese people who weren’t the people he cared about. He liked his memory guilt-free and his conscience clean. He would have been content with that lack of awareness if Kim hadn’t appeared. Kim, again, became the example of the model minority: her difference wasn’t used to counter the racial stereotype of Asian people, her difference was used to further dehumanize other Vietnamese people.  She was different from the other Asian people – men and women – around her, and therefore she was the only one who deserved to be seen as “human” by the white man.

Miss Saigon was at best, an apologist narrative for colonialism and, at worst, a pro-colonial narrative. It romanticized the Vietnam war, glossed over the violence and damage Western imperialism the US inflicted upon Vietnam, and reeked of hypocritical white guilt and performative sympathy. The story was incredibly insidious not only because it showed racist and misogynistic stereotypes of Vietnamese people and Asian people in general, but also proposed and reinforced a social hierarchy of acceptability and model minority between Asian people under the eyes of the white Western world.

By Rose Nguyen.

Anna, Fanny, and a Puzzlement Concerning Powerful Women

By David Ward

Both The King and I and Funny Girl are classic musicals led by powerful white women. The King and I tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher who moves to Siam in 1862 to educate the next generation of Siamese on the latest Western knowledge. Funny Girl, as the name implies, tells the story of Fanny Brice, who is both funny and a girl, and her rise to fame in the early 1900s. Because both shows are driven by powerful leading ladies, both had the opportunity to break gender barriers and provide strong role models for young women when they premiered in the mid-1900s. However, both shows failed to do this; both stories present their leading ladies’ power as being a product of their race (rather than their gender) and focus on negative outcomes that result from their confidence and power.

               Anna’s power and confidence are on display from the first time she meets the king of Siam. After singing “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” a song about how nervous she is about moving to a new world and working for a king with a reputation of being “a barbarian”, we see her enter the king’s chambers and make fun of his gullibility (telling him she is one hundred fifty-three years old) and his country’s funeral customs (she says, condescendingly, “best fireworks I’ve ever seen at a funeral”). While Anna claims she is nervous, Kelli O’Hara’s inflection and body language tell us she is snooty; O’Hara’s Anna believes that because she was taught from a young age to “hold her head erect” and act in a proper white Western manner, she is in a position to humiliate the Siamese, whose king (Ken Watanabe) stands with a forward-leaning hunch. Anna’s power being a product of her whiteness is even more glaring when the staging of the scene is taken into account; all of the non-white women in the room sit on the floor in the background of the scene while Anna stands tall at the front of the stage.

               Fanny’s power grows as the plot of Funny Girl progresses. At the beginning of the show, the only facet of her that distinguished her as a white woman was her dream of being a famous performer. Female performers at the venues where Fanny dreamed of performing (like Ziegfeld’s and Keeney’s) were exclusively white. While at no point in the show does her ego appear to be inflated because of her race, there is no way to know that it is not because she (unrealistically) does not interact with any characters of color throughout the show. In the context of the show, it makes sense that Fanny’s confidence is simply part of her personality because she is only competing with and performing for white people. As the plot advances, Fanny is given more opportunities to climb the ranks of notoriety (and gain wealth and power) – opportunities that she would not have received if she were not white. She gets a second chance at performing at Keeney’s because her friend Eddie Ryan is the choreographer there. Fanny would not have met Eddie and even been given a first opportunity (much less a second) if she had not been white. Much of the plot is drawn by Fanny’s affection for the wealthy Nick Arnstein. She gains power and notability from her relationship and eventual marriage to him. Would Nick, the man who was so uncomfortable with unconventional relationship dynamics that he broke up with Fanny over her making more money than him, have been interested in an interracial relationship? There is no way.

Throughout The King and I, Anna demonstrates that she is a powerful woman who thinks of herself as being no less than anyone else and is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. She continuously refuses to let the king forget that he promised her a house to live in because she believes people should uphold their promises. She also works against the king’s wishes and helps Tuptim and Lun Tha meetup because she believes people should be able to choose their partners. When the show was created, it was not common for female characters to be as powerful and assertive as Anna, but Rodgers and Hammerstein fail to present this as a positive characteristic. At the end of The King and I, Anna demands that the king allow Tuptim to love a man other than him. When the king refuses, Anna calls him “a barbarian,” which gives him a heart attack that makes him bed-ridden (and that he claims he will die from). In other words, Anna’s assertiveness kills the king. Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to have Anna’s actions kill the king as pro-West propaganda for their Western audiences: Anna represents new bold Western ideals, which kill off the king, who represents the “barbaric” ways of the East, and make way for Prince Chulalongkorn, a child groomed by Anna and therefore knowledgeable about Western culture. A side effect of the decision to end the musical in this way is that spectators unfamiliar with the historical context will only see a confident, independent female character use her confidence kill the likeable king. Instead of presenting strong women as being beneficial to society, some spectators may interpret The King and I as promoting that strong women are dangerous in that their independence and boldness can kill.

In Funny Girl, Fanny’s power is what leads to her unhappiness. Nick, what Fanny wants most in the world, is intimidated by her power, wealth, and confidence. He wants them to have an old-fashioned husband-wife relationship: the wife stays at home and watches the kids while the husband makes the money and makes the important decisions. Fanny, instead of conforming to this, has the confidence to fight for what she wants: an equal marriage with no set roles. When Nick strikes out with his casino project, Fanny is perfectly comfortable being the source of income for their household; Nick responds by saying he does not want her to have to “write [him] another check.” Nick sees his role as the provider for the family because he is the husband; Fanny’s potential and willingness to provide for them makes him feel like less of a man. Another part of Nick’s ideal relationship is being able to make all of the decisions for both himself and his partner. He reveals that he does not want to have to sacrifice his desires for Fanny when he begrudgingly agrees to skip his investors meeting to stay with the baby so Fanny can go back to work after maternity leave. From this point on in the show, Darius Campbell’s Nick is stern and concerned; he wrinkles his brow and takes big gulps more often. He has realized Fanny will never take a secondary role in their relationship and give him the power he desires. His refusal to accept having a wife that will not cater to his every desire ultimately leads to their divorce. In one of the few musicals at the time to have a powerful leading lady, Fanny’s confidence and assertiveness are what lead to her losing someone she loves. Even though it is Nick’s flaws that lead to their divorce, Funny Girl promotes the idea that strong women cannot be in successful relationships; it happens with Fanny and her mother. In this way, the representation of women in Funny Girl is misogynistic in that it reinforces the idea that heterosexual relationships only work when women are of a lower status than their partners. More generally, it could be interpreted as saying that it is hard to love powerful women.

Both Anna and Fanny end up losing someone they care about because of their power in the form of assertiveness, confidence, boldness, independence, wealth, or some combination of these qualities. In both musicals, it is significant that the leads are female and that the tragic events at the climax are direct effects of them expressing their power. While both shows end with the powerful women sad because of an event that was the effect of their assertiveness, it is important to note that these women would not have been happy if they were passive either. Anna would have followed the king’s every command but would have been quietly angry about not getting her house and Tuptim and Lun Tha not being permitted to be together. Fanny and Nick would not have gotten divorced, but he would prioritize his work over her and miss many of her opening nights. In this way, the musicals end too soon for the powerful women; we only see the immediate negative effects of their power. If the musicals had not ended at their climaxes, audiences would see Anna guide Prince Chulalongkorn how to rule Siam under her Western “civilized” ideals. Spectators would tear up over seeing Fanny find a man who will love and respect her as an equal. The futures for these powerful women are not as grim as the abrupt conclusions of The King and I and Funny Girl would have you believe. It is strange and seems intentional that both musicals end at an unfortunate time in both of these women’s lives instead of waiting to show their happy endings.

It is important that girls are exposed to powerful women in culture so they can realize all that women can do and have role models to look up to. While The King and I and Funny Girl present the stories of two powerful women, these musicals present women empowered by the color of their skin rather than women empowered by being women. Furthermore, both musicals present the assertiveness of the powerful women as being detrimental to them because of the state of their lives at the time when the shows end. While these musicals provide entertainment in their interesting characters and quality songs, if you are looking for complete and inspiring tales of powerful women, neither of these outdated musicals are the way to go.

The Downfall of Feminism in Theatre

by Remi W.

The first time I saw The King and I live, I was seven. I fell asleep before intermission. My sleepiness had nothing to do with the talented performers playing Anna, the white, British school teacher, and The King or the engaging storyline from 1860 Siam; the musical included themes that went right over my head: slavery, international relations, and the idea of a “white savior.” Now that I am older and have watched it again under the direction of Bartlett Sher and Gary Halvorson, I understand these themes and how they continue to make this musical a huge hit in the United States for all the wrong reasons. The Miss Saigon revival directed by Laurence Connor is a musical set in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War that also deals with some of these same themes and narratives. Another white savior (a United States soldier this time), more international relations, and the prostitution of the main character, Kim, somehow give this musical another special place in American’s hearts despite its stereotypical narrative. Why do we continue to love and cherish these musicals? They are definitely not furthering us as a society nor are they culturally appropriate. As a woman watching these, I felt disappointed in our need for the patriarchy. Miss Saigon shows no sign of feminism for the women of Vietnam in 1975 while The King and I problematically displays it as easy to attain for white women in Eastern countries in the 1860’s. Although women living in Asia occupy the lead roles in each of these musicals, the lives they live and stories they tell differ prominently. We want our musicals to reflect our experiences and our lives; feminism must be part of it.

 Anna’s journey to and through Siam allows us to see how her whiteness and westerness affect her view of feminism. Anna came to Siam in the 1860’s on a boat with her son to be a school teacher for the King of Siam’s children. At the very beginning, we witness her speaking to the wives of the King, and she asks why they continue to call her “sir.” Lady Thiang, the King’s “head” wife, says, “because you scientific, not lowly like a woman.” Anna replies by saying that all women are smart and important. She says this with ease as someone who comes from “Western” culture. Her character immediately imposes her whiteness and ideas of feminism on them, and while inciting feminism, she does it in the wrong way. Completely ignoring their culture in favor of her own, she begins to sing about “true love,” a concept they are unfamiliar with, pushing her western ideals onto them as a white savior does. 

In another moment of expressed whiteness, Anna sings “Getting to Know You.” This song’s lyrics, although most likely written unironically by Oscar Hammerstein II, make it sound like she actually took the time to get to know them. Unfortunately, the things she teaches them will change their culture forever, and the things she learns from them, she will most likely forget. Through dancing, she teaches them how to “properly” sip a cup of tea and how to shake hands. When she tries to teach Tuptim, the slave of the King, how to shake hands, Lady Thiang interrupts her, which surprises Anna. Kelli O’Hara, who plays Anna, makes a choice here to be overly confused by the disappearance of Tuptim, emphasizing her misunderstanding of their culture and their use of women as slaves. After the song, things get carried away, and the King and Anna end up fighting about what the King promised her, and he refers to her as his “servant.” She advocates for herself in front of all of the children, the wives, and Tuptim, which startles them. The staging of this scene makes it clear how important this white woman and her culture has become to them. Boldly, she showcases her ability to speak her mind as a woman, something that the people of Siam are not used to doing, especially not to the King. Although this could be a good thing for her to do in order to teach them, she does not value their culture which in turn teaches them to not value their culture. Women do have value, but do not act like a white “Western” woman needs to tell anyone that.

On the other hand, Kim’s views of feminism in Miss Saigon do not even exist. She quite literally has no choices to make for herself or her life. It all starts when the Engineer, a strip club owner, pulls Kim in and forces her to work for him as a stripper. During “The Heat is on in Saigon,” Kim stands on a chair to introduce herself to the strip club regulars while wearing a traditional white dress, emphasizing her innocence and therefore ignorance. In “The Movie in My Mind,” Kim and Gigi both sing about wanting a better life; both of them explicitly state that a man will make their dreams come true. The lyrics, written by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr., continuously emphasize “he,” implying that they need a man to survive, completely erasing any agency that they had in their lives. After Kim finishes singing, a drunk man tries to grab her, and Chris, the American soldier she eventually falls in love with, fights the man off of her, emphasizing in movement her weakness to defend herself and creating his image as the white savior. Kim then sings “Sun and Moon” after spending only one night with Chris where she describes him as the sun which also happens to be that thing that humans cannot live without. Interesting. More white saviorism and less feminism. Classic. As quickly as he arrived, he left, leaving Kim lonely and suffering in Vietnam. During “Too Much for One Heart,” the musical choice to have Kim sing full of hope underneath two men, the Engineer and John, who both sing of her probable downfall, highlights how the men in the show have manipulated her and continue to use her to get what they want. The patriarchy cannot be trusted. This whole show exudes anti-feminist energy, and poor Kim, in comparison to Anna, has absolutely no power. 

Both women live in Asia.  One is white, and one is Vietnamese. Both women are working for men, yet the white one has more agency. The only difference between the two women is their race, yet the white one is more “Westernized,” so that somehow makes her better and more capable of feminism; it makes Kim the “other,” incapable of standing up for herself. Both of these musicals portray feminism in a poor light. They make beautiful statements about love and loss, but say very little, and when they do, it isn’t good, about any sort of social justice for women in the world. Both women make sacrifices, but the white one one has a happy ending and the “other” only dies. Directors need to add more feminism and female agency in musicals we see on Broadway and in the right ways. White women should not force their ideals onto others; these others should just have agency in their own stories. These two musicals are near and dear to American’s hearts because of their heartbreaking love stories, so lets make some different casting choices, some different acting choices, and some different staging choices. The book and lyrics and story may remain the same, but that does not mean we have to let it destroy our progressive social movements towards women’s equality. 

The Queen and I

By Margie Johnson

Hoop skirts, white gloves, and jeweled necklaces are all  part of Anna Leonowens’ typical attire. Her style of dress has no practical use other than for show, symbolizing the wealth and beauty that is the standard of her position in Western culture. Throughout her journey into Siam, Anna stands tall with her head held high, separating herself from those who do not dress, look, or speak as she does. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Anna’s whiteness is amplified and reinforced by her Western attire and mannerisms which grant her the authority to challenge the expectations for women in Siam. Those who do not possess whiteness, such as Tuptim, are left defenseless, trapped by the confinements of gender and femininity as proscribed by her culture and society. 

Anna’s superior position is revealed in the very first moments of the musical. After taking a position as the school teacher for the royal children of the King of Siam, Anna and her son Louis embark on a journey from Singapore to Bangkok. While still aboard the ship, Louis excitedly exclaims that there is a “naked” man passing by, evoking an eruption of laughter from the audience. In immediately calling attention to traditional attire of Eastern culture in a mocking manner, a sense of “otherness” has been established in favor of Louis and Anna. The actors invite us to join them in their mockery. Further into the scene, Anna and Louis admit that they are afraid of what is to come, calling upon a singing response from Anna to “Whistle a Happy Tune.” There are no tangible dangers present other than the new culture of Siam, however, suggesting that it is the leaving behind of the comforts of their Western culture that they truly fear. When they finally arrive at the shore, the characters must physically lower themselves onto the ground below them, symbolizing their descent from their high lifestyle towards the presumably inferior and foreign Eastern civilization. As soon as they step foot on the ground, they are immediately swarmed by the common people of Siam. While some pull at Anna’s silk skirt and others beg for money, all are dressed in uniformly ragged and filthy clothes, dehumanizing the Siamese people and creating a starkly visual division of class and wealth. As a result, Anna and Louis are firmly positioned  on a pedestal of properness, allowing the Western audience to more comfortably accept their likely preexisting conception of superiority relative to the  presumed inferiority of the Siamese culture. 

In an attempt to impress the British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey, the King of Siam decides to entertain him in a grand manner with European traditions. One of the traditions includes dressing the King’s wives in European gowns. When attempting to put on the gowns and the makeup, the women shriek that they have to turn themselves “upside down and inside out.” They awkwardly waddle around in the bare hoops of the skirt or in an overly white painted face, alluding to their feelings of ridiculousness as they are not accustomed to any of these traditions and simultaneously making clear the false trappings of social standing and propriety. In one moment, a wife points to a dress and calls it a “costume,” referring to the dress as West and her face as East. Although the women are clearly suffering with their bruised toes and choking collars, Lady Thiang states that they must wear these trappings because Anna told them to do so, reinforcing the influence that Anna holds over them. Thus, it is no longer just the dress or the “costume” of Western traditions that provide Anna with power, but also the authority granted by her whiteness.

In addition to directing the entire event for Sir Ramsey, Anna speaks freely against the King, an action unheard of for a wife or any woman in Siam. Throughout the production, when confronted by the King’s rude remarks, Anna is unafraid to retort, emphasizing the immense amount of comfort and authority that her whiteness has provided her to the extent that she feels equal to a man of great stature. For example, before Anna arrives in Siam, she is promised a house by the King. This house is never delivered, however, causing her great distress. Although she is warned by the prime minister figure The Kralahome not to mention this unfulfilled promise to the King as it would aggravate him, she does so regardless and continues to do so throughout the musical. When teaching a lesson about snow, Anna’s students refuse to believe that snow, more whiteness, exists as they have never seen it themselves. After hearing the commotion, the King storms in and erupts into a fit of rage. He begins his tantrum with the discussion of snow but quickly trails into speaking poorly about the unfamiliar English traditions and revists the argument concerning the promised house. He throws books and shouts at the children, turning into a ruthless monster. While all of the students and wives cower below him in a prayer stance, Anna stands tall, head held high, and refutes him. She reminds him, once again, that the house was a broken promise and denies that she is a servant to his commands. If she does not receive her house, she states, she will return to England. In threatening to leave Siam, she has established herself as someone of value to the King with equal and unwavering opinions. Further, an entire song titled “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”  is devoted towards Anna sharing her grievances about the King to the audience. In the song, she calls those under his ruling “toads” and pokes fun at their blind obedience. She includes a sexual reference, noting that all of his wives must compliment his sexual behaviors and behave as docile wives. In doing so, Anna has separated herself from the other women trapped under the King’s rule as she has enough power to ridicule him. Her incredible dominance granted by her whiteness has allowed her to supersede the limitations placed on the women in Siam. In a stance that would be humiliating to the King, were she a man, somehow it is accepted because she is a woman and while willing to confront him, still under his rule. Because she exhibits this Western whiteness, shared by the Western audience, it is still the Siamese people that are seen as “other.”

Tuptim, a woman gifted to the King of Siam from the King of Burma, does not experience similar autonomy as she does not possess Anna’s whiteness. Tuptim can speak English very well, and courageously exhibits this skill to the King when defending herself against the accusations that she was sent over as a spy. Instead of appreciating her talent and treating her as scholarly as he does Anna, the King pulls her away off stage to have her become another wife. In a plot twist, as suspected by Lady Thiang, Tuptim has fallen in love with another man. When Anna hears of this news, she feels sympathy for Tuptim and explains to the wives in a song about the great joys of falling in love. During the song, Anna stands tall above the women who are sitting equally far apart, grouping them into an obedient mass of women without any uniqueness or individually. Similar to the other women, however, Lady Thiang feels no emotion for Tuptim. Lady Thiang reflects the engrained sexist limitations of women in Siam and argues that it is foolish to love another man when she has the King. Due to the freedom and power granted by her whiteness, Anna has had the autonomy to fall in love naturally in contrast to the wives who must display constant obedience to the King. Tuptim, as a result, is forced to meet her lover in secret. In “We Kiss in a Shadow,” Tuptim and lover Lun Tha express the depths of their love for one another. They chase one another between pillar to pillar, playfully alluding to their constant hide-and-seek to see one another. Although a romantic song, they sing solemnly to express their sorrow that they will never be able to safely experience their love to the fullest as Tuptim has become a wife to the King. During the middle of the song, Lady Thiang strides in the background under a cool dark blue shadow, reinforcing the constant fear between Tuptim and Lun Tha of being punished for pursuing their love. A panic ensues between Tuptim and Lun Tha, causing Lun Tha to run away and leave Tuptim alone to finish the remainder of the song. Unlike Anna who can sing her love songs to an entire audience, Tuptim can only sing of romance in private, reinforcing Tuptim’s limitations as a new wife who cannot choose to be with the one she truly loves.

In an act of rebellion, however, Tuptim bravely attempts to defy her confinements and run away with Lun Tha. She gathers strength from the performance of Small House of Uncle Thomas, a version of the American classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tuptim performs as the narrator of the play, speaking directly to the King as she speaks from her own heart. She announces the characters by describing them as happy people with the exception of slave Eliza. When it is time to announce Eliza, Tuptim stands directly next to her and bows in the same manner, making a clear reference towards herself that she is the unhappy slave to the King. Tuptim understands that it would be forbidden to clearly reveal her misery in the palace as she is expected to be grateful as a wife to the King. She acknowledges that she achieved the highest honor for a woman in Siam even though completely imprisoned. In order to fight for herself, she cleverly calls attention to the similarity between her story and Eliza’s. Eliza is separated from her lover George, just as she has with Lun Tha. Eliza runs away from her slave owner Simon, just as she will shortly after the play. Additionally, Eliza can only escape hidden behind snow, a concept associated with Anna’s teachings and defiance as seen from moments earlier in the musical. Tuptim alludes to Anna’s freedom which she so desperately wishes to obtain through this connection. Anna’s freedom, however, is only granted by her whiteness. As a result, despite Tuptim’s efforts, she will never be freed from the expectations for a woman under the King’s rule. After the production, Tuptim’s escape is brought to the attention of the King, and she is given a physical punishment of whipping. Once finding out that her lover has been killed, she reveals that she will soon kill herself to be with him. Tuptim’s only chance of happiness has been stripped from her as she was not given the agency of whiteness to stand up for herself without severe punishment. She could not bear to behave in complete obedience as demanded of her for a woman in Siam, ultimately driving her to death as a final resort. The King and I utilizes the extreme contrast between Anna and Tuptim in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements. In evoking raw emotion in the form of sadness and rage from the troubled life of Tuptim, the audience is able to question the unjust privileges granted to Anna. At the same time, Tuptim’s passion comes across as more authentic and not circumscribed by social class and social mores. The actors are masterfully able to portray their characters in a manner which is playful and highly entertaining while calling the audience to question their own notions of race and gender, power and place in society. If one is not white and proper as defined by Western culture, are they obstructed in their ability to obtain freedom and happiness? And at that same time, are the King in his maleness and Anna in her whiteness truly free?

Defending What You Know Best (The King and I )

Morgan Baxendale 

10/18/20

Ever since Anna Leonowens and her son Louis arrived in Siam, she impacted everyone around her, especially the King of Siam. The setting in which The King and I takes place is Siam, Bangkok in the early 1860s. Anna is all set for her new adventure to take a position as a schoolteacher for all of the children of the King of Siam, however, when she arrives she is met with many challenges that deal with holding firm in her traditions, values and succumbing to those of the King. As soon as Anna and the King step foot into the palace of the King, they both struggle to find any common ground and it takes almost the entire play for both of them to fully respect what each other believes in and why they are so passionate about it. The musical communicates something significant between Anna and the King of Siam that shows their cultural differences, how each view their social status, and the ways they look at gender and race. Both of these characters bring something unique to the table and allow the other actors on stage and the audience to have a full picture as to what it is like for two totally different people in this particular setting. 

Anna, who comes to Siam as a white English woman, immediately expresses to the audience how confident and excited she is about embarking on this new adventure. The staging helps tie this scene together extremely well, along with the first number that Anna performs in the musical. The first scene of The King and I was a pivotal moment for me as a viewer because of the way Anna expressed herself to the audience and how powerful she seemed when singing I Whistle a Happy Tune. You would think that a woman in this position would be more fearful or unsettled, but because of her experiences in England, the knowledge that she possesses, and the fact that she is a white woman, she is ready to take on these challenges in Siam. “I whistle a happy tune and ev’ry single time the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.” The more she continues to show confidence in herself, the more the audience believes in her as well. The staging in this scene is planned out perfectly because the boat that she arrives in emphasizes that she is the one with all the power in the scene because of the way the boat is extremely high and the audience has to look up at her. She is the one the entire audience has their attention on at that moment. Throughout the rest of the play, she has to fight for her power as a woman because the King continues to demean her, mainly because she is, in fact, a woman. Even though this battle between them continues, there is light at the end of the tunnel for both of them in this case. 

The fact that Anna is white woman is one thing, but the fact that she is a scientific and knowledgeable woman puts things in a whole different perspective. Anna fights from the very beginning to make sure she receives her side of the bargain from the King, which includes getting her own house to live in with her son, in exchange for teaching the royal children of the King. When the King would try and intimidate her about the deal or something about her teaching, Anna would rise up right away to defend herself. Anna was taken back when Lady Thiang, one the King’s wives, would call her sir because she possessed the knowledge and leadership capabilities that men particularly possessed during that time. All of the women around her that were noticing this behavior were surprised by her actions and so was the King, but if she was going to get anywhere with him she needed to be aggressive. The norms that surround a typical woman and a typical wife of the King, were to act like they were a servant to any male figure that was around and to be very soft-spoken. The way that Anna was acting, along with the other main characters, put into perspective how important the gender norms are in Siam. It was something that should definitely not be taken lightly, but Anna was doing a great job of starting to make pivotal changes for how they should act and how women were treated. Anna wants to make sure we all know that women should be valued and treated the same as men and puts forth that effort until the very end of the play. 

The King of Siam on the other hand is a totally different story. He is a strong male figure that has been a native of Siam his whole life and someone who thinks he has all the power in every situation. From the very first scene he was in, you could tell that everyone around him worshipped him and praised him. He had one specific rule for the people around him that indicated that your head could not be higher than his because if it was, it was like you had more power than he did. The King of Siam is a firm believer in the cultural norms in Siam, especially the ones that focus on valuing males over females. This meant he could treat them very disgracefully and almost slave-like. There are many times throughout the course of the play where The King likes to remind others in the palace, but especially Anna, who is King. Even if Anna is right in a particular situation and he is wrong, it doesn’t matter because the King is always right. The King thinks he has all the power and values the right things. There are times where he does doubt himself, but of course, not where Anna can see. After his issues with Tuptim and Anna, he comes to a conclusion that he is finding puzzlement within life. The number “A Puzzlement” takes the audience into a state of confusion, just like the King is facing. The directors set this scene up very well because you found out what was exactly going through the King’s mind when you couldn’t recognize it during the regular course of the play. He was being extremely vulnerable, which was very unlike his normal emotions and something he couldn’t relinquish to everyone else. The King would be considered weak and not powerful in this particular moment, and as a male figure he definitely didn’t want to portray that to anyone else. “There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know, and very often find confusion in conclusion I concluded long ago.”        

After analyzing both Anna and the King of Siam individually, I now want to discuss both of their characters collectively and what changed over the course of the play. For both characters, race and gender were important topics for them, but on different scales. The King of Siam wanted to make sure everyone around him followed his gender and race norms, but Anna was doing everything in her power to avoid those and stick to ones that she knows best and those that will benefit both genders. Because Anna was white and a woman, it made it even harder for the King to let Anna in at all.  Anna tried to defend every woman that was mistreated and verbally abused by the King, including herself. The moment in the play that grabbed my attention at the end and Anna’s attention was when the King said to Anna that “you are my servant.” At that point, Anna knew if she continued to stay in Siam she would continue to hurt, be mistreated, and see others mistreated as well. If Anna was like every other woman in Siam she would not defend herself, but she knew because of her statue, she could pull it off.     

It came to a point in the play that one of the King’s wives had to beg Anna to give him advice even when the King was on his deathbed, something needed to change in him and fast. I honestly believe that the King would’ve been ok with the fact that he was going to die knowing the fact that he was right, but deep inside him he knew and everyone else knew he had a “heart problem” and Anna needed to help one last time. In  receiving Anna’s help, he knew he would be going against all of his beliefs and norms that he has carried with him his entire life, and eventually succumbing to the right way of being King. 

In the final moments of the play, the King of Siam passes away, leaving Anna with what seemed like all the power. The King could not admit he was wrong for having the beliefs he had or the way he treated women, but he died knowing that his son; the heir to the throne was going to make changes to that were based on behalf of Anna. Anna did all that she could do to defend what values and standards she knows best, and ultimately ended up with the power over the King after his death. From the very beginning, most people in the palace and Anna believed that the King of Siam had a “heart problem”that caused many of his hateful beliefs. Eventually Anna was able to have power that she’d never thought she’d have in Siam because of her determination to show the people around her how all people should be treated and respected. Even though the King of Siam and Anna were two totally different people, from different backgrounds, the King was able to learn something pivotal from Anna that changed the entire direction of Siam for years to come. Anna never backed down from anyone that questioned her and stood firm in her cultural beliefs, values, knowledge, race and gender the entire time she was in Siam. Both Anna and the King made a monumental impact in the way culture and gender will be considered in Siam, but also in each of their lives.

Women on Broadway: Fetishized and Tokenized

Tall, thin, and white. The typical American standard for beauty is one we are all familiar with, and one that permeates our media and entertainment, including Broadway. Women who do not meet these standards have faced, and continue to face, prejudice, discrimination, and harmful stereotypes. Being such a creative and influential medium, one would assume that Broadway shows featuring non-white women would use this platform to empower these individuals. So, how do these, mainly white male, creators of Broadway shows choose to communicate the complex intersectionality between gender and race through these characters? They often do so by fetishizing or tokenizing them.

Funny Girl, written by Isobel Lennart in 1964 with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, follows Fanny Brice, a Jewish performer during the Ziegfeld era. In the show, Ziegfeld invites Brice to join the Ziegfeld Follies. However, instead of joining the ensemble, she stars as a comedian. In 1989, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil premiered Miss Saigon, a musical set during the end Vietnam War. This production features a young, Vietnamese woman who falls in love with an American soldier. Based on these simplistic descriptions, these shows may not seem inherently problematic. After all, these female characters represent racial and ethnic identities which often do not reach the spotlight. However, the book, lyrics, dialogue and other theatrical elements in both of these musicals paint patriarchal narratives which either tokenize or fetishize these women which, in effect, furthers racial and ethnic stereotypes.

At the start of Michael Mayer’s revival of Funny Girl, Sheridan Smith, the actor who plays Brice,uses her clunky movements, wacky facial expressions, and at times, booming voice to create a stark contrast between her and the uniform Ziegfeld dancers. In addition to Smith’s acting choices, her character wears unflattering, baggy shorts, and a loose, collared shirt and tie. This costume’s masculine design creates a visual effect that accentuates the difference between Smith’s body type and height from the other dancers Additionally, earlier in the song, Brice’s mother sings, “Is a nose with deviation, Such a crime against the nation?” Though not explicitly stated in the show, the real Fanny Brice was Jewish, and one can assume the reference to her nose alludes to the association of Jewish people and large noses. To drive the point home, the supporting male characters tell Brice, “If a girl isn’t pretty, like a Miss Atlantic City, She’s a real Miss Nobody, U.S.A.” The song confirms for the audience that the performing world will reject Brice because she does not have the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon appearance. Luckily, Brice persists.

If not evident already, the oppressive patriarchal nature of the show appears in Brice’s first performance in Ziegfeld’s show in the song, “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Silently, Zeigfeld girls in sparking, white lingerie reminiscent of wedding dresses flood the stage while male performers dressed in white tuxedos sing about beautiful brides. In what can only be described as an uncomfortable waddle, Brice appears onstage with a blanket tucked under her dress to appear pregnant. Brice parodies the idea of a “justifiable bride” by implying the scene now represents a shotgun wedding. I highlight this scene because, although in the moment, Funny Girl seems to make a commentary on the ridiculously misogynist nature of these performances, Ziegfeld uses this as an opportunity to tokenize Brice. Instead of making a substantive statement on the unachievable standards of beauty, the show continuously singles out Brice for her differences in order to make the audience at Ziegfeld’s shows laugh. She becomes the “Funny Girl.” Not to be misconstrued, Smith’s interpretation of Brice engages the audience and demonstrates her range as an actor. Especially during scenes where Brice performs comedy for Ziegfeld’s show, Smith exudes confident and impeccable comedic time. However, no matter how strong and empowering Smith tries to make Brice, the plot binds her to her status as a woman who later gives up her power in order to satisfy society’s obsession with a subservient wife.

Later in the show, Brice marries Nick Arnstein, played by Darius Campbell. Arnstein enters the show as the classic white, male savior. His costumes consist almost exclusively of suits which complement Campbell’s shoulders-back, head-high posture, all the while exuding an air of unearned confidence. His character tokenizes Brice as well. During the song he and Brice share, “I Want To Be Seen With You,” he literally says, “I want to be seen, be seen with you, With you on my arm, To wear you like a charm, Your glitter decorating my arm… The gossips will press… Know what? So what!” The lyrics demonstrate that Arnstein views Brice like a charm, or token, to display. Nowhere does this song illustrate his respect for her talent or personality. Surprisingly, Smith makes the acting choice to coyly roll her eyes and flirt with him. Even though Brice becomes a self-made success, eventually she puts her own career on hold to be with Arnstein, just because he is willing to be seen with her. Near the end of the show, Arnstein participates in shady business, landing him in jail. Brice tells Ziegfeld she wants to quit show business, give up all her power, just to satisfy her husband. Just for male approval. In the end, the man she allowed to dominate her life and tokenize her identity, tells her he wants a divorce. Seated at her dressing room mirror, Brice looks at herself crying, and slowly pulls herself together. Smith makes a swift movement to pull off her robe revealing a sparkly dress, and ends the show belting, “Nobody is gonna rain on my parade,” standing triumphantly, arms strong in the air. Smith’s quick 180 turn from sad to resilient tries to take back the power Brice loses throughout the show. Honestly, it feels like a cop-out by the authors of the show as they attempt to end on an uplifting note, both literally and figuratively.

Laurence Connor’s revival of Miss Saigon, tells a very different story. From the start, Kim, played by Emily Bautista, has no power. After American soldiers burn down her village, she arrives at a brothel run by a man named the Engineer. Through the costume design, the scene establishes a clear dichotomy between Kim and the sex workers. She wears a plain, cream-colored dress which represents her virginity. The engineer immediately objectifies her, “Men pay the moon to get fresh meat.” The sex workers surrounding her wear brightly colored bras and underwear, which they changed into once they heard American soldiers were coming. From the first moment of the show, all the Vietnamese female characters are defined by their overt sex-appeal for the American men. During the song, “The Heat Is On In Saigon,” the lighting design includes flashing neon lights the scenic design choice of scattered chairs and bars creates as strip club environment. Suddenly, the sound cuts and focus turns to Kim who appears on a platform. The lights turn white, illuminating her dress. Bautista keeps her arms tight by her side and sings directly to the audience about her dreams. The movement choice by Bautista, or lack thereof, distinguishes Kim from the other dancers whose bodies move freely. Chris, played by Anthony Festa, the shows white male savior, looks to Kim with infatuated interest. From a hopeless romantic lens, it appears he has fallen in love at first sight. However, at this point in the show, all he knows about Kim is that she is Vietnamese and a virgin. So really, one has to assume her virginity peaks her interest, furthering her objectification by men. Even though Chris inadvertently tells Kim in “Sun and Moon,” that she is, “like a mystery, I’m from a different world that’s so different, From all that you are.” His interest in Kim stems from a fetishization of her as a Vietnamese woman.

Because Kim is both a woman and Vietnamese, she has little to no power to lead her out of her poverty. After spending the night together, Kim has a moment of dominance over Chris. She stands on the stairs, physically above him and belts the tragedy of her parents’ death that she witnessed, all the while drums and horns swell under her. For a moment, it seems as if Chris might recognize the ways in which others with his shared identity, American men, have hurt her. Instead, the show undermines the moment. Kim quickly sits, and Bautista chooses to lower her head and her voice to a whisper, retreating to a state of submission. The music turns soft, and Chris invites Kim to move to America with him.

The show portrays the elements of Kim’s identity, being a woman and Vietnamese, as inferior to being a man and/or American. By being a man, Chris gets to call all the shots. He goes back to America, a safe place compared to the Vietnam portrayed in the show, and loves not only Kim, but also his new wife. The authors write Kim’s character, on the other hand, to end up impoverished with a son to raise on her own, while simultaneously pining over her lost love. The show also explicitly shows that, at least to white males, being Vietnamese is inferior as well. An example of this appears when Kim meets Chris’ new wife. Kim walks in wearing a dress similar to that of the day they met. Chris’ wife immediately assumes she must be the maid come to “turn the sheets” because Kim is Vietnamese. Baustista face shifts from pure excitement to utter disbelief when Chris’ wife tells her he remarried. In that moment, told just by the expression on her face, Kim and the audience realize that Chris has chosen an American woman over her, a Vietnamese woman. Kim internalizes the inferiority imposed on her through the fetishization of her for her race and also the patriarchal conditions that leave her with no options. Chris and his new wife determine, “What is right, right for him, right for us, right for Kim,” without actually listening to Kim when she says what is right. The characters with more dominate identities have belittled her so much that she feels her life only has value if she kills herself to force Chris to take their son to America.

When creating characters who differ from conventional standards of beauty or who have foreign identities, oftentimes Broadway musicals simplify or undermine the characters by tokenizing them or fetishizing them. Instead of celebrating diversity, productions like Funny Girl and Miss Saigon use these identities as a convenient method of furthering the plot. Representation matters. Creating shows that incorporate identities that currently go unrepresented should be encouraged. At the same time, simply writing a non-white female character into a show does not undo the innate patriarchal and racist themes. Authors of new production should be mindful of finding ways to empower historically marginalized individuals, not perpetuate hurtful stereotypes.

“Western People Funny”: How Anna’s White Influence Led to Tuptim’s Downfall in The King and I

They think they civilize us whenever they advise us / To learn to make the same mistake / That they are making too. 

These lines follow the King’s wives singing about how “western people funny” in the song of the same name. This is a theme that occurs several times throughout the musical, and unsurprisingly so, considering the premise of the show is that an English woman and her son have moved to Siam in order to teach the King’s children. Throughout the show, Anna exercises  her influence in various ways: through her teachings to the children, her interactions with the King, her “civilized” party for the Englishmen, etc. Her push for things to be done as she sees “proper” is often shown without negative consequences, leading the audience to believe that her way is, in fact, the better way of life for everyone. However, Anna’s Western teachings in an Eastern culture were bound to have negative consequences, and this is the case in the form of one very important character, Tuptim. Over the course of the show, Anna “helps” Tuptim both in learning about Western culture and its ideals as well as in her secret relationship with Lun Tha. This help, despite its good intentions, only leads Tuptim to further pain and suffering with the death of her lover. Due to the cultural differences between Western and Eastern gender roles, Anna’s good-intentioned, but ignorant attempts to help Tuptim eventually lead to Tuptim’s downfall. 

Tuptim and Anna are characterized versions of the stereotypes about Eastern and Western women, which is portrayed both by their character and the actresses’ portrayal of them (for this essay, Na-Young Jeon and Kelli O’Hara as Tuptim and Anna, respectively, from the 2015 revival). In Tuptim’s first appearance, it is apparent that she is important and different from the other women, for the King’s many wives sit around him in purples and deep reds, while she enters wearing white and gold. This contrast continues throughout the musical, with her clothing constantly separating her from the sameness of the other wives. As she enters the room, Tuptim lowers herself before the king in submission, submitting not only to him, but also to the stereotype of the beautiful and submissive Eastern woman. She attempts to break out of this stereotype almost as quickly as she falls into it as she speaks back at the king for accusing her of being a spy, but ultimately becomes submissive to him and his wishes as she accepts her fate as his “present.” Na-Young Jeon illustrates this conflict of tone and actions through the way she fires back at the king in tone while still keeping her face lowered to him as all the women — besides Anna — do. This surprising move by Tuptim is less surprising later on when she mentions wanting to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, referring to it as The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Her knowledge of the novel shows a previous exposure to Western culture, and possible influence, which explains why she both speaks clearer English than Lady Thiang and the other wives and her less submissive nature than the other wives. However, her failure to impose this knowledge coincides with her lack of control in her current situation and in her culture as a female. 

In contrast, Anna represents everything Tuptim aspires to from Western culture. Anna is independent, knowledgeable, and unafraid to stand up for herself. In Anna’s first appearance, she travels alone with her son to an unknown place as the captain attempts to warn her what she is getting into and she promises that she can take care of herself. This independence and complete control of her life and destiny is something that Tuptim desperately lacks and, simultaneously, wants. Kelli O’Hara also uses her costuming and blocking to represent Anna’s “betterness.” In contrast with the red background and surroundings of Siam, Anna wears a lighter colored dress to emphasize her gentleness in a more vicious or barbaric setting. Her dress also serves as a costume that sets her apart from the other women in Siam, and, unlike Tuptim, serves as a constant reminder of her Westerness and its presence in a very different culture. She also highlights her independence further by positioning herself at the higher point of the ship, forcing the captain to look up at her, rather than down as a man in Siam would. O’Hara speaks with a similar tone of voice as Jeon’s Tuptim, however she addresses the man with her head held up in defiance of his questioning her capabilities as a woman alone in the East. Although similar in their characters’ feelings and ideals, Anna and Tuptim are seen by and placed in society completely differently due to the way others view them based on their respective cultures. For Anna, her independence is something that can be supported because it is a Western ideal, however, Tuptim’s culture forces her to be submissive, especially to a man with power over her such as the King.

The King’s relationship with Anna and Tuptim is also very indicative of how the two women are viewed differently despite their similarities. Throughout the musical, Tuptim maintains a quiet resistance to the King due to her love for Lun Tha. Although he is displeased with how she does not feel honored to be with him, he does not show any disdain for her until she openly opposes him during the performance of her play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As the children perform, she hints at her personal connection to the story of Eliza through Na-Young Jeon’s white and gold costume that is similar to Eliza’s (and also correlates to the only other scene where she stood up to the King in the beginning) as well as her hesitation to name certain characters by their character names rather than who they represent in her life, such as Simon and Eliza. However, her emotions become too much and she openly disrespects the King as she lets him know that she feels he has mistreated her and now holds her in slavery as Simon held Eliza. His reaction to this and her later running away is to punish her. Though it is apparent that the King despises women defying him, the violence of his actions is seen as extreme and, most importantly, surprising. This is due to how his multiple arguments with Anna throughout the show have never led to him lashing out violently against her. 

The King’s difference in reactions to the two women is impacted by his different view of Anna due to her Westerness. He constantly refers to Anna as “scientific” and Lady Thiang helps Anna understand this when she questions the head wife for constantly calling her “sir.” Lady Thiang informs her how the King has taught them that women can not be knowledgeable and teachers, or “scientific,” because that is a man’s place. Him allowing Anna — a woman — to teach and share her knowledge, however, shows a conflict to this idea which lets the audience know that the King sees Anna as another. It is obvious that this difference comes from the alienness of their cultures. As the only white woman in the show and the protagonist, the show itself and the King place Anna in an elevated position due to her Westerness (code for whiteness), allowing her to get away with things the King often does not allow women to do, such as argue with him or give him advice, while continuing to show her and her actions, though oppositional, in a positive light. In opposition to this idea, Tuptim, as an Easterner, is shown as being out of place for taking a similar stance to Anna. Her sameness to the women around her, which is illustrated to the similar style clothing of the other wives despite the difference in color, keeps her trapped within the confines of the King’s ideas about how a woman should be and, because she is not white like Anna, he is unable to disassociate her from these ideas. Her Easterness is in direct correlation with her lowliness in his eyes and places her at the bottom of the spectrum versus Anna and her whiteness/Westerness at the top.

The biggest question to be answered is how Anna directly influenced Tuptim to act against the conventions of her culture. Although Anna’s general presence seemingly made the greatest impact as a whole, there were many things she did that directly helped Tuptim develop a Western mindset. First, when the King said Tuptim could help Anna teach the wives English, she begged Anna to lend her books, specifically Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her lending the book to Tuptim allowed Tuptim to understand the morals and beliefs of (some) Westerners that holding someone against their will was wrong and she connected these ideals to her own relationship with the King. Anna also talked to the women about the importance of true love, something they obviously did not consider since they were all in a polygamous relationship with the King and not in love with him but merely doing their duty as his wives. However, her talk influenced Tuptim who was already in love with Lun Tha. Anna went a step further in helping this secret relationship by providing them with ways to be together. There is even a moment in the show when Lun Tha remarks how if Anna were to leave it would be impossible for them to ever be together without her help. The combinations of these ideas and actions facilitated by Anna helped Tuptim commit the acts that went against the King. If she hadn’t introduced Tuptim to her ideals about love and freedom, Tuptim would never have stood up to the King during her play or tried to run away with Lun Tha. She would have remained like the other women: silent and submissive. 

Anna’s insistence upon helping everyone in the castle be more like her when it comes to ideals and morals was good-intentioned, but her ignorance and lack of understanding of the culture made her efforts have some negative impacts. Just as Lady Thiang and the wives said in “Western People Funny,” she believed that her way of life was the proper way and tried to impose that on them only to make them also make mistakes. Her influence led to Lun Tha, Tuptim, and the King’s death, as well as the influence of Western culture being within the mind of the new heir to the throne. Although Siam had many internal problems, Anna was still wrong for imposing her culture and ideals there in order to make it “better.” The show sets her up to be the hero of the story because, like the white creators of the show, she is showing how “white is right.” This idea is especially wrong on the part of the creators through their presentation of Tuptim for making it seem that she would be unable to have the agency to make decisions for herself without the help and influence of a white person. Their ignorant ideas about Eastern cultures and people’s need to have Western influence in order to have a better way of life creates the idea that one is inherently better despite the fact that one cannot be better than the other. In today’s society, though, in both the world and the conflicts of white casting in The King and I over the years are working to deconstruct that idea and to show that what is more important is seeing things from multifaceted perspectives in order to discover the “right” way to live.

Performing The Patriarchy: Oppression on Broadway

Two highly criticized Broadway classics, The King and I and Miss Saigon both tell the story of women in settings that are unfamiliar to them, challenged with patriarchal forces in some form. This explanation is, of course, an oversimplification of two complex plots; nonetheless, it remains the fundamental basis of both shows, and this premise gave way to significant criticism with regards to how these productions addressed topics such as race and gender. It certainly does not require any sort of reach to find similarities between The King and I and Miss Saigon in the way that gender dynamics are performed in the two shows. Furthermore, there also exist compelling differences between the shows with respect to the significance of race as it pertains to power. 

Although both shows are centered around the experience of female leads (Anna and Kim), it is critical that we question the significance of the shows’ male antagonists (The King and The Engineer) and the way that the presence of these characters affects the experience of women in the show. As you read the analysis of The King and I and Miss Saigon in the following paragraphs, it is necessary to note that the analysis is being done through a critical feminist lens. To that end, we must acknowledge the significance of men, women’s binary opposite, to the feminist approach, and understand that the relevance of men in this discussion is no less than that of women. In this essay I will argue that the presence of powerful men in both The King and I and Miss Saigon serve as an agent by which the authors of the shows depict the objectification of women, and that the race and status of men is insignificant to their ability to oppress women. Finally, I will argue that the shows discourage the audience from villainizing the male antagonists, further perpetuating the acceptance of oppressive males in society.  

The male antagonists in both  The King and I and Miss Saigon are incredibly important in the way that they influence the gender dynamics in the performance. This influence comes largely from the actual staging of the show. The presence of these characters allows the storytellers to put a cavalcade of beautiful women on stage. In Miss Saigon the performance of “The Heat is On in Saigon” features dozens of women dressed in provocative costumes. The women are dressed in a way that The Engineer utilizes to tempt the American soldiers as he sells the women’s bodies to them for sex.  For the entirety of the song, The Engineer is surrounded by these beautiful women; he treats them as if they are commodities, forcing them into the hands of soldiers and aggressively groping them. The Engineer’s physical presence on stage is what solidifies the image of female objectification that the performance depicts; his forceful behavior and inappropriate physical contact with the women sets the standard for the misogynistic treatment that the female characters will endure for the rest of the performance. Without the presence of The Engineer in this performance, these women would simply be struggling prostitutes; The Engineer’s presence reveals to the audience that these women are, in fact, victims of objectification. 

In Rogers and Hammerstein’s controversial production of The King and I, there are numerous performances that center on the idea that men are superior to women, and further, that men hold both a physical and emotional control over women. The existence of The King’s character gives the authors of the show a reason to constantly have beautiful women on the stage. The subconscious rationale behind this is that if there are no women present, then who are the subjects of The king’s misogyny? The authors relieve the audience of this possible confusion by featuring masses of elegant, gorgeous women on stage. Even when Anna is the only woman on stage, she is essentially a lively feminine prop that prompts The King’s overt misogynistic behavior. It’s important to understand how the fundamental concept of gender plays into this staging dynamic: because men do not exist without women, and women do not exist without men, it’s critical that the audience can see the on-stage interaction of the two genders because men could not oppress women if women were not there. This seems like a simple concept, but it is often overlooked in analyses of gender performance in musical theater. 

In both performances, this spectacle of feminine beauty is really just a means by which the directors can express the oppressive behavior of these male characters. In The King and I and Miss Saigon, the male antagonists share a clear similarity in that they are both Asian men. This similarity is largely irrelevant to the characterization of the men as misogynistic individuals, but what is compelling about this similarity is the disparity in power between the two men and, further, the fact that despite this disparity in power, the men are equally able to oppress masses of women without consequence. The King is the most powerful man in Siam. The Engineer is a hustler who exploits women for a meager living. The gap in power between the two men is vast. The King clearly has far more social and economic capital than The Engineer does. Considering this difference in power and wealth, it is insane that the men are equal in power when it comes to their ability to objectify and oppress women. The King oppresses women primarily through policy and his membership in the patriarchal Siamese court, and The Engineer does so through prostituting young women to sexually-desperate American soldiers.  Spectators see here that the Patriarchy spans beyond wealth and power. The men in these shows are able to systematically oppress women because of the simple fact that they are men and that is an ability that society has gifted them. The King and The Engineer’s primary similarity is not their race—it is the power they share in their ability to control women. 

The most interesting thing that these shows have in common is the fact that they both encourage the audience to like the male antagonists. This is more understandable with The King’s character, as the audience witnesses endearing spurs of character development from him, but it’s still questionable. The Engineer, on the other hand, is just plain creepy, and still, Miss Saigon tells spectators to like him. These shows don’t condemn misogyny; they give the men allowances for their cruel actions towards women. The King and I and Miss Saigon absolutely raise questions of gender dynamics through their performances of misogyny and femininity, but truly, neither villainize the oppressive male antagonists. This may seem lighthearted, but really it is a translation of what we see in society at large: toxic masculinity and oppressive male behavior is widely acceptable. This begs the question that I will leave you with: have these Broadway shows fallen victim to the patriarchy just as Kim and Tuptim did? 

Funny Girls Break Glass Ceilings

By Elise Darby

Smart. Hilarious. Talented. All of these words are not typical characteristics used to describe Jewish women in the early 1900s, but the character of Fanny Brice is uniquely beautiful. In the production of Funny Girl, Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice reverses stereotypes held for the gender and race roles during this time period by presenting Jewish woman in a bright light. Fanny Brice breaks the glass ceiling held by society through her talent and comedy, not her looks. Fanny Brice’s character makes groundbreaking headway within the roles of gender and race; she is idolized by many for the actions she took towards shattering the glass ceiling. 

Although Fanny, based on the standards held by men, is unattractive, she possesses an alluring air of confidence throughout her musical numbers. While other slim, tall, and stunning Ziegfeld Follies that Fanny is constantly compared to merely stay in the background, Fanny uses bold and flirtatious—yet humorous—choreography during her performances to engage the audience. Sheridan Smith’s acting choices allow the audience to understand the humor behind the production, while highlighting the race and gender roles. The theatre industry, in particular, is critical of women’s beauty. Even the talented and amusing Fanny Brice could not find a job within the theatre industry at first. Mr. Ziegfeld originally cut her because she did not look like the traditional Follie. Woman are seen as objects of desire. In the song “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” the lyrics suggest that if a girl does not “shine in every detail,” wear a “standard dress,” or does not have a figure that a man’s “wife can’t substitute,” she should “dump the stage and try another route.” Men hold woman to an exceedingly high expectation within the theatre industry, which discourages Fanny. Still, she persists. Fanny breaks the typical “showgirl” stereotype. She does not have the same look or appeal as the Ziegfeld Follies that surround her; in comparison to their “ideal” height, weight, and facial structure, Fanny possesses traditional Jewish features that, although beautiful in their uniqueness, are not the typical conceptions of beauty. Unlike the other women on stage, Fanny dresses modestly: she does not wear short, revealing dresses; her outfits provide coverage and fit loosely. In one of the numbers, for example, the Follies are featured in short, seductive dresses that highlight their slim figures and long legs. Meanwhile, Fanny takes the stage in pants that are stuffed to make her look wider, a mustache, and glasses. The outfits that Fanny chooses to wear contrast the typical outfits worn by women featured on stage; she is redefining gender roles. She wears different styled clothing, and she is built differently, but she continues to embrace her own unique beauty.  

Fanny is not used to attention from men. Because of this, when Nick Arnstein demonstrates an interest towards her, Fanny quickly becomes uncomfortable and awkward. When Nick begins his fascination with Fanny, her body language makes her discomfort unquestionable. She constantly positions herself away from Nick, avoids eye-contact, and twiddles her fingers. She is clearly very nervous and tense around Arnstein. Fanny Brice typically uses humor to hide her true feelings. Fanny Brice can stuff a pillow under a wedding dress during a performance with confidence, yet romance and spending a night out with a man is daunting. Sheridan Smith chooses to appear bashful around Nick, which causes the audience to understand that Fanny still gets anxious and insecure despite the bold and comedic personality she presents on the stage. Nick Arnstein made Fanny Brice feel beautiful, which is something a man has never done for her. Nick breaks the societal norm that men uphold of lusting for beautiful, flawless Follie-type girls; instead, Nick falls in love with Fanny, who is uniquely stunning.  

In the performance of “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” Fanny goes off script and stuffs a pillow under her wedding dress. Additionally, she presents a hand-held mirror in front of her face. As she looks at her reflection, she mocks her own appearance by making an unattractive face, thus implying she is not beautiful, like the women that surround her. Since she is not considered attractive by society, she uses humor and comedic gestures to hide her appearance. She is confident, though not conventionally pretty. Sheridan’s acting clearly shows that Fanny Brice chooses to make a mockery out of her appearance. In fact, presenting herself as a beautiful Follie on stage makes her uncomfortable. The only way that Fanny is able to seem confident in her looks is through humor.   

During this time, there is a received idea that within a relationship, the women rely on the men. Fanny, however, redefined this stereotype. In Funny Girl, the roles are reversed: Nick Arnstein is dependent on Fanny Brice. Additionally, both Fanny and Nick are seen equally. While Nick Arnstein has a powerful name and is well-known within the theatre industry, Fanny becomes just as important. She makes a name for herself and allows her career to soar. Arnstein even admits that Fanny “scares him to death.” To be clear, Fanny Brice—a woman—scares the mighty, impactful Mr. Arnstein. Fanny is creative and entertaining. In fact, when she began to work for Mr. Ziegfeld as a Follie, she would not always remain obedient. Despite Mr. Ziegfeld’s stern tone and position of authority, she would create her own story; typically, it worked in her favor. For example, after the pillow incident during the wedding scene, her boss made her apologize. However, her boss also apologized and admits Fanny not only performed incredibly, but her spontaneity and imagination enhanced the performance. Fanny disregards the male dominance and sticks to her own instincts. Usually, women would be forced into a submissive role, allowing their male employers and those in higher positions to retain superiority. As a performer, Fanny is seen as brilliant: she is smart, independent, humorous, and confident.  

In the end, the men in Fanny’s life became reliant on her. Fanny Brice—the once overlooked performer—is now the star of the show. Mr. Ziegfeld, as well as Nick Arnstein, could not afford to lose her. After Nick Arnstein and Fanny Brice get married, Nick must swallow his pride as the provider of the family and accept financial help from his wife. Nick does not like the idea of having his wife support him financially. After all, the stigma is that the man supports his wife—never the other way around. He needs the help, but he is reluctant to accept it. He repeats that this aid from Fanny is a “temporary arrangement.” Nick does not make it to Fanny’s opening night. Rather than falling back to the typical “norm” of women at this time and remaining silent, Fanny expresses her anger, remains strong in her thoughts, and conveys how she feels towards Nick. She stands up for herself—she is defying old standards. However, Nick admits that he missed her performance because he could not swallow his pride—he is being charged with embezzlement.  

Instead of accepting that the husband messed up, Fanny’s mother convinces her that she caused Nick to commit this crime. After all, the man is the one who is supposed to have the money, the power, and the dominance within a household. Fanny, who has clearly become independent, financially stable, and successful, is hurting her husband’s pride. Her mother tells her that “a man wants to matter” and that Fanny “can’t make someone feel that small” if she wants the relationship to work. She tells her that she must “let him be a man,” implying that he needs to obtain the dominance and control within the marriage to fit the gender role. In response to the conversation with her mother, Fanny decides that she will make a change. She will make Nick feel like he is the boss. She will allow him to get his way. She will conform to the societal norms expected for her role as a wife. Fanny begins to believe that in order for her husband to be happy in their marriage, she has to change how she acts—she cannot be as independent and self-sufficient—or he won’t feel like a man. Before Fanny could make these drastic changes within their marriage, Nick decides it is best if they separate. He could not handle being inferior to Fanny—a woman.  

 While ending the marriage, Nick refers to Fanny as a “funny girl.” In turn, Fanny relates her worth to her humor. As she sits at her dresser, with tears streaming down her face, she repeats the word funny. She sarcastically makes remarks about being “good for a laugh,” even though she isn’t the right woman for Nick. Suddenly, the saddening, slow tone becomes more upbeat and livelier. Fanny begins to realize her own self-worth; she is reminded of who she is.  She beings to sing “I’m The Greatest Star,” which she also sang at the beginning of the musical to demonstrate her confidence as a performer despite her lack of conventional beauty. Once again, this song inspires confidence and dependence within Fanny. Her tears suddenly fade away, the power is back in her voice, and she is back on her feet. As she strips off her robe, her sparkling, eye-catching dress is highlighted—she looks and feels good. She sings the lyrics, “no looking back” and “get ready for me world, because I’m a comer,” in a powerful stance in center stage. Finally, she belts out that nobody—not even Nick Arnstein— “is going to rain on [her] parade.” Men do not define her. She has made it big. No one, including influential men, can ruin the success she has created for herself. 

Aside from gender roles, Sheridan Smith’s character as Fanny Brice changed the way that Jewish women were perceived at the time. The comedy and vast amount of humor was used to change Jewish mockery. Funny Girl provides hope, a sense of integration, and normalizes being both American and Jewish. The production features a successful, stereotypical American man marrying a Jewish woman. In addition to their marriage being uncommon because of the racial differences, Fanny, the Jewish woman, served as a provider for the family. While the American man, who was typically praised and known for his success and wealth, began struggling financially, Fanny gained wealth and became well-off financially. Additionally, as a Jewish woman, Fanny was able to live an “American” lifestyle. Funny Girl broke the stereotypes that were held against Jewish women and portrays a direct idea of what life as an American Jewish woman looks like. Despite her racial identity and the standards that come with it, Fanny is humorous, sharp, and self-reliant. Fanny never compromised her beliefs or her appearance in order to gain success. She simply worked around the fact that she was not considered traditionally pretty. Fanny is a proud Jewish woman; she serves as a representation for other Jewish women as well. She advocates for natural beauty and talent. Other Jewish women are able to look up to Fanny and identify with her because of her background. Back then, it was uncommon for Jewish females to be role models. Overall, Funny Girl makes a clear statement that Jewish people are also Americans. Despite being surrounded by Follies, who are gorgeous, American girls, Fanny makes a name for herself and becomes a star.  

In her revolutionary depiction of realistic beauty, despite being surrounded by women regarded as more beautiful and objectifiable, Fanny Brice utilizes her limitations to avoid the glass ceiling set by women who are outwardly more beautiful. Her depiction of intelligence, humor, and ambition reflects the ideal role model for women striving to find their identity while surrounded by negative influences in the media giving them insurmountable expectations to meet to be considered “beautiful.” Funny girls truly break glass ceilings.

The Weapon of Womanhood

In The King and I, Anna, a white woman from England, comes to Siam in order to teach the children of the royal family English. She has a tragic history involving the loss of her husband, as well as a son who is accompanying her. This history, when combined with the differences between her culture and the culture of Siam, lead to her feeling out of place and disrespected, and is used in order to garner sympathy for her from the audience. Her son, too, feels this way, although his feelings are explored less than hers in this regard. Anna arrives in Siam and nearly immediately begins to confront the King of Siam in his demands for respect, as well as his enforcement of cultural customs, including his disrespect of women as autonomous beings. This leads to an extended complex relationship between the two, which seems at times romantic, and at other times like a brutal exploitation of power. Through an intersectional lens, examining both Anna and the King of Siam on the basis of race and gender, their relationship shows that Anna does not simply defend her personhood as a woman, but rather uses her womanhood as a tool to weaponize her whiteness, exploiting her racial power over the King of Siam in order to bend him and the rest of the country to her will.

            The first scene of The King and I involves Anna arriving in Siam on a ship, along with her son. The staging is strikingly beautiful. The music swells, the ship towers over everything around it, the costumes are exquisite. It is a gorgeous opening to a musical – so gorgeous, in fact, that you almost don’t notice the Siamese marketplace coming into view just below the ship. Anna, in her English ship, coming to teach English to the poor people of Siam who have been robbed of the chance to learn it, sails in above the world she is going to be a part of. This staging accomplishes a couple of things. The first, and most obvious, is that it establishes Anna as separate from the background cast members. She is on a different level from them, and so the audience is forced to pay attention to her specifically. This makes sense – she is the protagonist of the musical, and it’s important to make an audience aware of that early on, so that they know where to direct their sympathies. However, the second thing that the staging establishes is much more insidious. Not only does Anna, flying in on a ship, exist on a different level from the Siamese, she specifically exists above them. They must look up to see her – cannot, in fact, avoid looking up at her, as she towers over everything –  and if she chooses at them, she must look down, although there is no reason why she would have to make that choice. And yet, Anna is the one who, after disembarking, sings a song about how “no one will ever suspect [she’s] afraid”. It is a natural thing that a woman surrounded by foreigners should be afraid – so natural, in fact, that you can almost forget that she is the foreigner, not the default or the natural state of existence. Anna is framed as having all the power, but because the audience’s gaze has been fixed on her as the protagonist, and white audiences have been trained to sympathize with white characters, the audience sympathizes with her fear of the other that is, from all appearances, based on little more than the other being other.

            To put it in simpler terms, what the framing of the opening scene establishes is Anna’s whiteness, above all else. She comes from England, and she is above everyone else, and she is a colonialist, and she is white. She is very clearly a woman, but that is only brought up in the context of her whiteness – the captain of the ship asks if she is sure she will be safe, a woman alone in Siam. The implication here has very little to do with her womanhood on its own and everything to do with how dangerous the Siamese may be to a white person. Once again, the musical draws upon racist stereotypes and beliefs in order to establish Anna as sympathetic and in need of protection. Her whiteness is more key to her relationship with any other characters in the show, especially the King, than her womanhood is, and the opening scene establishes that by placing her on a physical pedestal high above everyone else.

            The King is, through a simplified lens, the opposite of Anna. He is a man, not a woman, and native to Siam, not white. And, contra-positively to Anna, his race is also what is key to his relationship with others, more so than his gender. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, part of his relationship with Anna is heavily based on her frequent demands for him to stop mistreating women, and her insistence that women are people. However, on closer examination, the musical shows that the reason he mistreats women and sees them as less than full people is because he is Siamese, not because he is a man. It is just the way that things are done in Siam, and Anna needs to get used to it if she is going to live there. Regardless of how accurate a characterization of Siamese culture this is – which does bear discussion, especially in relation to England,  a country not known for its egalitarian treatment of marginalized groups – it frames the King of Siam’s race as much more crucial to his opinions than his gender is. If his degradation of woman  were meant to be as a result of his gender, then there would be Siamese women who agreed with Anna and who were as upset as her about their mistreatment. But they are not, because they are used to it, because they belong to a culture that, in Anna’s eyes, and the eyes of the majority of the audience, at this point, is too primitive to know any better. Race, not gender.

            The King and Anna’s relationship, then, must be reexamined through the lens of understanding that race is the priority. Anna refuses to prostrate herself before him, claiming that she will not be mistreated like Siamese women are. She refuses to put herself on a lower level than him, or to respect cultural customs, or to live in the palace as she is expected to do. According to Anna, all of this refusal is about self-respect. It’s about seeing herself, a woman, as a full person, and not someone who is willing to grovel. However, is that really true? She has all the power of a colonialist empire behind her, and the palace is reliant on her to teach its children English. She has all this power and she knows it – when she finally snaps and exclaims that the Siamese are actually barbarians, or when she threatens to quit if she is not treated exactly as she is expected to be, she knows what she is doing and what power she holds. She has the power to teach the court how to be respected by the English when they come to visit, and the power to take away that respect if she is treated differently than how she wants to be treated. She has the maps, the language, the knowledge of far off places. Rather than defending her womanhood, then, asserting her demands becomes about weaponizing her whiteness.

            It can even be seen in the continuation of how the opening scene frames Anna. Anna enters the musical above the Siamese, and by refusing to bow to the King and actively protesting against customs to which everyone conforms, she does her best to keep herself above him. At first, he protests. He is a man, and so, says the overt text of the musical, he has power over her, and does not have to listen. However, he quickly begins to compromise. And this, says the subtext, is because Anna is white and he is not, and so it is an inevitability that he will succumb to her demands.

            In fact, it literally kills him to disobey her. The King of an entire country is struck down as if by divine intervention when he attempts to raise a hand against Anna’s will. While presumably it is well agreed upon that whipping someone for disobeying you is wrong, it is not an internal realization of that wrongness that stops the King. No, it is Anna stepping in, Anna saying what is right, and Anna rebuking him with such force that it results in his ignominious death. This is the final display of Anna having all the power, and the King having none, and nobody questions it. To all intents and purposes, Anna kills the king, and nobody attempts to punish her or banish her from the kingdom. This is because she is white, and so her having that kind of power is assumed – by the writers, the audience, and the characters alike. In The King and I, gender is little more than a façade behind which to hide a racial dynamic influenced by hundreds of years of colonialism and the power of language.

Anna and Chris: Feminizing the East, and the White Savior Complex

When I watched The King and I and Miss Saigon, I was confused. People were acting as though the racially accurate casting somehow erased the stereotypically written Asian characters. The shows particularly reminded me of the black actors that broke into the early Broadway scene by wearing blackface and making fun of themselves. I’m all for oppressed groups reclaiming the terms of their oppression, like myself and the LGBTQ+ community reappropriating the term “queer” or the black community with the n-word, but these shows feature no Asian empowerment; only Asian actors playing disempowered, victimized, or otherwise unflatteringly written characters. With that, I noted how racially accurate casting highlighted the problematic nature of the few white characters- The characters of Anna and Chris, from The King and I and Miss Saigon, respectively, perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters and fulfill the inherently racist role of the “civilizing” Westerner.

Despite being opposite genders, Anna and Chris each serve the same gender-focused purpose in their show——they each feminize their Asian cast-mates by comparison. At the beginning of The King and I, Anna is an English governess with a flare for aggressive behavior, as demonstrated in her reprimanding of the king’s advisor. When she enters Siam, she finds herself surrounded by hyper-masculinity and femininity. King Mongkut is aggressive and impulsive, his wives are beautiful and quiet, and his children are obedient. Rather than become emasculated herself, Anna “tames” the masculinity of the King, modeling his new character after the docility of an Englishman (but more on that later). In her own right, Anna brings a positive and empowering air, akin to Mary Poppins’ decisive and rigidly sophisticated nature. Chris takes a similarly masculine role in Miss Saigon, and through him the character of Kim is further feminized. By the beginning of the show, Kim is already a victim of war, and her autonomy is stripped of her when she is forced to turn to prostitution. She plays an obedient and extremely submissive role in her own story, and that fact is exacerbated by the active and assertive role that the muscle-bound Chris plays. He takes power from her particularly when he sleeps with her, not as a lover, but as a buyer. And why is it that Chris falls in love with her, anyway? He explains in the show that his trauma from the war turned him to despair, and that she was one good thing in that hell. It’s a sweet sentiment, but a little less sweet when we consider why exactly she caught his eye. Kim was “not like the other girls” because she was a pure, teenaged, virgin. She was made docile through her trauma and was taken advantage of by her supposed lover. This moment of equating Kim’s purity and worthiness to her virginity and naivety was demeaning and objectifying then, and by today’s standards it is downright sexist. Ultimately, the actions of both Anna and Chris serve to take masculinized power away from the Asians in their lives, furthering the disempowerment of Asian cultures through feminization. 

These characters also exist to perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters through comparison, and to display the White Man’s Burden on stage. Anna is the clearest example of this cultural violence; her purpose in Siam is to educate and civilize. It was clear in her wiseacre demeanor and assertive behavior that she initially regarded the Siamese as less sophisticated than the English, and she never came to truly respect Siam as its own nation. Through the show, her only genuine respect seemed to come when King Mongkut acted European or was dying. She becomes open to understanding the people of Siam in the song “Getting To Know You,” but even in that, she only concedes that the people of Siam aren’t all that bad- she never celebrates, appreciates, or even recognizes their traditional culture as legitimate. Her only respect arrives in achieving her goal of “civilizing” and bringing European values and cultural pieces (clothing, dances, phrases, etc) to Siam. And the moment the King moves to discipline the deserting Tuptim, Anna jumps right back to calling him a barbarian. Interestingly enough, Victorian England carried the same penalty of death for desertion, whether it be for love or not. Soon after, when the King is dying, Anna’s respect for him comes out of a place of pity and guilt, yet never from a place of appreciation of legitimization of Siamese culture. Chris, meanwhile, embodies the white savior complex in a more subtle way. His role in the Vietnam war was, most simply, about protecting Western, capitalistic values and stopping the spread of communism. What he ultimately brought to Saigon was an idolization of Westernism and a negative association with the East. The Engineer actually verbalizes this negative sentiment of his own race on a couple occasions, including his lines, “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs,” and “Greasy ch*nks make life so sleazy.” Chris’ whiteness, whether or not he intended it, became a symbol for success and prosperity, and by contrast, non-whites gained the association of the opposite. Theatre critic Diep Tran described in her americantheatre.org article I Am Miss Saigon, And I Hate It how the characters of the show fall into this trap of American imperialism and white savior discourse, particularly “idolizing whiteness to the point of suicide.” Through Chris, America became synonymous with success, and Vietnam with disaster. 

Still, much of this can be chalked up to the (white) men that wrote these shows without our modern respect and understanding for multiculturalism and gender studies. So how did the actors that played these imperfect characters portray them? All in all, I thought they did a pretty good job with how the characters were written. Kelli O’Hara blended traditional masculinity into femininity, yet could only do so much to improve Anna’s questionably written character. Then again, as I said earlier, her blending of gender norms had some consequences regarding the negative feminization of the Siamese characters, but I digress. I also appreciated that she tried to portray a greater respect in the song “Getting To Know You,” even if the song itself lacks celebration of Siamese culture. She could certainly have taken a stricter, more hard-as-nails approach to the character, and I felt her softer side was well developed, making her a more likeable character than she is otherwise written. Alistair Brammer brought Chris to life as a troubled and traumatized G.I. As written, Chris is not condemned by the show for anything he does, for instance paying to sleep with a 17 year old girl with whom he has an obvious power imbalance. Yet the show wants us to regard him as a “good guy” and strives to focus on his giving Kim money in the opening number, or on his (initial) refusal to sleep with her or another prostitute, or even his return to Bangkok to see her. I felt Brammer and his production did an excellent job of adding focus to the questionable things his character did; for instance, by threatening someone that wanted to use a public telephone with a gun. It would have been easy to play Chris as a simple good guy, but Brammer portrayed him as a character with depth, flaws, and regrets. Again, both the characters of Anna and Chris are highly flawed in their writing, but I believe Brammer and O’Hara each did excellent jobs bringing some modern positivity to unavoidably problematic characters and shows. 

But let’s back up. Does any of this actually matter? In short, yes. I said earlier that Anna and Chris perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters and that their roles are, albeit to varying extents, inherently racist in theory. Anna is a governess meant to bring English “civility” to Siam, and Chris is a drafted G.I. serving in Vietnam to instill Western economic, cultural, and social values. But do I think these reasons should cause the shows to be shunned or retired? Absolutely not. Although the playwrights may have perpetuated some unfortunate stereotypes in their shows, it is up to modern actors and producers to take those shows and perform them respectfully, with dignity, and with a focus on the timeless narratives they aim to tell. Understanding their production’s implications in race, gender, and other social areas is integral to accurately, successfully, and positively performing a piece, and it is for that reason that we as theatre and social critics do what we do.

Exploring the Varying Levels of Gender and Race Relations Across Musicals

Charlotte Lange

Built upon the pillars of oversexualization, extravaganization, and objectification, Broadway performances quite literally demand their place in the spotlight of controversy. From the vapid, sensually dressed Ziegfeld girls without independent ambitions or responsibilities to the dehumanizing depictions of Blackface across minstrel stages, musical theater has a grisly history of failing their spectators by portraying regressive gender and racial representations. Generations of Broadway musicals have abhorrently and forcefully diminished female actors into secondary roles, solidifying the paradigm of women being dependent upon men to command the stage, to dictate their lives. Michael Mayer’s Funny Girl revival starring Sheridan Smith, set in the World War I era, details Fanny Brice’s unconventional journey to stardom as she simultaneously navigates her turbulent relationship with an imprisoned husband. In stark contrast, Bartlett Sher’s The King and I portrays the cultural and romantic adventure that ensues widowed schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, played by Kelli O’Hara, after she agrees to tutor the king of Siam’s royal court in 1862. Despite their difference in setting, time period, and casting diversity, both hit musicals Funny Girl and The King and I make progress to break the norm of portraying women stuck in docile supporting roles in order to disprove female reliance on men and revolutionize the cultural appreciation depicted on-stage. 

The musical Funny Girl characterizes Fanny Brice as an unconventionally attractive performer who initially struggles to meet producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s outrageous yet popular standard of beauty, where his characteristically shimmering showgirls were pale, thin, blonde, luxuriously dressed women silently and meekly sprawled across the stage to be objectified. Brice starkly contrasts the ideal Ziegfeld girl in every way: she is a confident, bold, ambitious force in musical theater and demands for a chance to be a leading soloist, rather than a mediocre background dancer. At the end of the musical, Brice even leaves her husband after funding his risky business endeavors throughout the plot – a daring action that breaks the stigma of women being much more successful in their careers than their husbands and legitimizes the feminist values of the book. By shattering the norm against women who aren’t the customary depiction of femininity, Funny Girl provides a bold societal statement to free female actresses from the confines of conventional, unrealistic, and outdated beauty standards, while encouraging wives to pursue their own dreams and aspirations in an era where women still make eighty-one cents to a man’s dollar. 

The journey Sheridan Smith embarks upon with the striking character of Fanny Brice is the classic coming-of-age story; by earnestly taking the reins on the lead solo “Cornet Man” rendition at the show Brice had just been fired from, Smith exemplifies the blossoming confidence Brice begins to experience as a female actress and effectively conveys Brice’s deeper transition towards career and personal independence. As Smith intentionally shoos away fellow dancer Eddie Ryan, who had assisted her with the choreography, she makes a boldly critical decision to launch Brice’s character into the successful career she’s felt called to embody since she was young. This performance-within-a-performance concept offers a unique opportunity for Smith to overemphasize Brice’s demonstrated confidence – the poise she, too, must exhibit as a forefront actor. Smith’s choice onstage parallels the choice she’s inevitably experienced as an unconventionally beautiful female actress breaking through the glass ceilings of a male-dominated industry. In becoming a Broadway starlet, Smith has undoubtedly had to refuse the patronizing assistance of men who believe women require their help to succeed – men who, like the rest of mass media spectators, have been perpetually and systemically convinced of female inferiority. Given the scope of the riveted audiences they influence, director Mayers upheld his essential cultural responsibility by engaging in Smith’s inclusive and progressive depiction of women. The unconventional casting decision of Smith provides twenty-first century female theatergoers with the epitome of an empowered, independent woman to revolutionize the way they value themselves and their ambitions.  

Brice’s realized confidence and success, despite her displayed lack of traditional femininity, are evidence of the tailwinds white actresses experience while landing roles in musical theater. Neither Brice nor Sheridan had to work against their race during the casting process – in the production or in real life – because both women are white and therefore have innumerable more roles written for them. This allows them the chance to be ‘funny’, to be different, to stand out while still blending in with the countless other white actresses – an opportunity that non-white actresses are rarely afforded because of the headwinds they already face in getting cast. Brice’s girlish differences define her onstage against the other Ziegfeld beauties, but her race plays no part in the struggles she faces. Set around World War I, Funny Girl takes place in a regressive time period that displayed a blatant disregard for minority races and genders. Although written and produced decades later, Funny Girl holds no difference; Mayer utilized limited artistic freedom in his casting decisions, and all members of the musical are white. To further neglect the subject of diversity in musical theater, the issue of race isn’t even mentioned throughout the production, indicative of both the production’s prejudiced casting and the historical lack of representation in performers of the early 1900s. While Brice’s white privilege is prevalent throughout her bolstered rise to stardom, her Jewish identity offers a multifaceted approach to her identity. The musical significantly emphasizes Brice’s ethnic roots in order to advance her characterization as an outspoken Brooklynite with unmistakable Semetic roots. Brice’s deep pride in her religious identity energizes generations of Jewish audiences, providing them with a distinct on-screen representation of a typically marginalized culture. In this diverse portrayal of religious diversity, Mayers utilized his Funny Girl platform to provide Jewish actors with the voice that celebrates Jewish-Americans’ rich history and contributions to society while promoting ethnic inclusiveness.  

The King and I follows Anna Leonowens as she reluctantly embraces the culture of the Siamese royal court, while also cultivating their acceptance of Western practices. Throughout the musical, Leonowens struggles to understand the king of Siam’s polygamic practices, and even interferes in Siamese tradition by abetting one of his wives to engage in an affair with her true love, thus interfering in Siamese tradition. During the “Getting to Know You” scene, she contemptuously waves her hands in fake celebration when the children excitedly exclaim the king to be “the Lord of Light”; in mocking the enthusiasm the schoolchildren display, O’Hara deliberately demonstrates Leonowens’ own whiteness by refusing to acknowledge the authority of the king, and thus depicts the Siamese culture as weak, unempowered, and silly by comparison. Although initially magnifying the differences between Eastern and Western cultures as she tells the children that Siam had previously been a “little white dot” on a map to her, Leonowens utilizes her racial dissimilarity to explain the development in her cultural appreciation; she is now beginning to understand their traditions after interacting with them for over a year. This tendency to intrude upon and ‘civilize’ cultures with practices that vary considerably from Western systems was typical of the 1862 time period, and its position on Broadway fundamentally highlights the importance of bridging cultural gaps in the twenty-first century rather than ostracizing societies with unique values – a trend with contemporary significance given the recent emergence of politically-promoted demonstrations of xenophobia in America. The King and I, therefore, holds current cultural relevance in not only fostering tolerance but also in encouraging individuals who may inadvertently participate in stereotype perpetuation to investigate for themselves the beauty of diverse cultures, as Leonowens models. 

The production consistently juxtaposes the garb between cultures; Leonowens’ enormous hoop skirts adorned with frilly pastel lace, suffocatingly fitted corsets, and trailing puffy sleeves form a stark contrast to the draping silk robes that elegantly display vibrant floral designs. The intentional costume contrast throughout The King and I reflects cultures inherently different from each other, and the difference in temperament and autonomy is apparent between the women of the musical. Leonowens is strong, bold, and resolute in her decisions to live in her own house and remain independent despite being in the royal court’s jurisdiction; in the same sense, she demands control on stage by wearing such a large skirt that others must constantly make way for her colossal Western dress. O’Hara utilizes the costume choices to command production numbers, and her wardrobe makes it clear she is the center of each choreography routine. On the other hand, each member of the identically-dressed Siamese ensemble blend into each other and occupy minimal space onstage, forming an unvarying unit that moves homogeneously during musical numbers to reflect the overall lack of agency women have in the Siamese culture. Leonowens’ status as a widowed working mother represents a refreshingly empowered approach to portray women as self-sufficient; by characterizing her role as a single mother determined to support her son, O’Hara beautifully makes female viewers feel liberated and resilient, conveying the power that widowed mothers across the globe wish to channel into their own lives. 

While both musicals succeeded in depicting starring women who have forged successful careers for themselves, the feminist ideals these shows promote are distinctly qualified by the writer’s insistence to center the plot around male relationships rather than around the leading women’s careers or their cultural implications. By writing Brice’s character to turn down the elite job opportunity in Chicago for her love interest, who is heading to New York, writers normalize the cultural expectation for women to abandon their own ambitions for men and starkly contradict the female empowerment they had previously promoted with Brice’s cheekiness and spunk. Similarly, O’Hara’s Leonowens was terribly limited by the overemphasis on her sexual romantic tension with the King, especially in a scene with the unprecedented capacity to bridge cultural gaps between the West and the East as two cultures melded to learn a common courting dance. This lack of independent career ambition provides viewers with a ravaged sense of how twenty-first century women should approach their role within working families and repulsively suggests to its audiences that a husband’s career is more worthwhile than their wife’s.

The two production titles again demonstrate the dominance of heterosexual romance plots over those that emphasize the importance of careers or cultural appreciation. The King and I’s title further relocates the attention away from O’Hara’s strong female lead, instead suggesting her relationship to a man of power will be the focus of the Broadway show. The writers responsible for such a regressive decision influence spectators’ preconceived perceptions of the plot, thus calling excess attention to Leonowens’ interactions with the King rather than her independent performance. Funny Girl, however, inclusively approaches the production name. Originally titled My Man, Funny Girl initially cut Brice’s starring role out of her own Broadway title, instead choosing to focus on her relationship with her husband, of which he is suggested to dominate. By intentionally changing the show to its current title, the writer rightfully shifted the musical’s focus away from Brice’s dependence on her passionate relationship in order to bestow her credit as the independent performing phenomenon she was, and thus encourages the audience to focus on her performance in its own right, rather than in its relation to the men on stage. This is essential for the imminent nominations and performance critiques any Broadway show will engage in – by justly shifting the title, writers subconsciously shift the audience’s favor onto Brice as a liberated leading actress, rather than onto her relationship with her fiance as a pair. 

With the writers focusing on how women fall into relationships with men, racial statements in the productions hardly take the forefront. Funny Girl does nothing to engage in race relations, and its silence on the matter by creating zero diverse roles speaks volumes about the pervasive lack of representation on Broadway. In contrast, The King and I develops an interracial relationship that fosters mutual respect and appreciation between cultures previously stereotyped to be at ideological odds. In its rich blend of Eastern and Western practices, the musical highlights the importance of cultural immersion to truly understand diverse races and ethnicities. With xenophobic and racist values contributing to current political division in America, musicals such as The King and I provide beautifully diverse perspectives on often underrepresented cultures in order to trivialize the bigotry that has disgustingly become the forefront of international relations. Although the musical provided beautiful diversity onstage, it still majorly centered around the white lead character and fell short of intricately developing the roles of the ethnic ensemble. Despite their different approaches to portraying racial diversity onstage, both Funny Girl and The King and I reflect an immediate demand for greater ethnic portrayal on Broadway. Broadway executives are partially responsible for this abhorrent lack of opportunity for diverse casts, as they cyclically decide to produce shows with traditionally Caucasian plots and are reluctant to take creative liberties when it comes to casting. Hamilton is ideal proof of this issue; as a plot centered around the white historical figures that stepped on the backs of minorities to achieve political success, casting directors made the intentional choice to utilize nontraditional casting practices in order to bring a diverse ensemble to the stage. While this was a necessary step away from the elitist Broadway casting norms, musicals such as Funny Girl highlight the ease in doing the opposite – filling roles with the white actors that the outdated, intransigent plots are biased towards. 

Musical theater’s history has time and time again proven Broadway productions’ unprecedented ability to reach diverse audiences, bestowing directors the unique opportunity to either shape or solidify the racial and gender stereotypes perpetuated in their shows. Although musicals have historically fallen short in their portrayal of independent, self-sufficient women and multicultural casts with equal stage times and character development, Funny Girl and The King and I propel relevant feminist ideals to set new standards for female beauty and ambition, and serve critical examples of positive female depictions for spectators to look up to, idolize, and replicate. Both musicals offer unprecedented representations of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity onstage, shining both a figurative and literal spotlight on the progressing race and gender relations across Broadway while simultaneously highlighting the necessary progress to be made regarding female dependence and diverse racial depiction.