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.