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. 

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