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 musical. In 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.