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.

2 thoughts on “The Choosy Challenger: Gender and Racial Tensions within the King and I

  1. “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.” YES. YES. YES. A thousand times YES!!! Alyssa, this piece put every thought I had about The King and I into words. Anna’s use of the white savior trope is extremely harmful to this community and to literally anyone who watches this show and is not educated on how harmful this can be. Many teachers today in America actually hold this view and to see it perpetuated on screen/stage only pushes them to continue to think this way which is so! dangerous! As a fellow Peabody student, I think that a lot of people could benefit from general Peabody education classes because they literally just teach you how to stop subconsciously (or consciously) disrespecting people who are different than you and their culture. I had also never even considered the fact that Anna and the King are the same size physically. This says a lot about power on the stage, and giving her that power along with her whiteness is so unnecessary. You did a fantastic job with this piece, and I can’t wait to see what your next essay unveils!


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