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.

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