Wait…The King and I is racist???

A critical dialogue on race and imperialism by Lindsey Caroll, Jasmine Jain, and Claire Duffy

JJ: “Okay so this is Jasmine Jain, Lindsey Caroll, and Claire Duffy responding to the 1956 film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, directed by Walter Lang.”

CD: “Our central question is ‘where is whiteness hidden in the musical’ and we are also wondering ‘how does Anna help display this whiteness’”

LC: “Which of us had seen it before?”

JJ: “I’d never seen it.”

CD: “I’d seen clips of it.” 

LC: “I’d seen it ages ago.”

JJ: “I had a completely different idea of what it was. I did not expect that at all.”

LC: “What was your overall impression of it? 

CD: “I was a little shocked. I mean, I know it was made in 1956, but I guess there were some things that were still a little jarring to me.”

LC: “Like what?” 

CD: “The dynamic they played between the people of Siam and the British. It really capitalized on the imperialistic idea of white is civilized and anything else is barbaric.”

JJ: “Yeah, I feel like it really showed the divide of how whiteness is elevated and people of color are below.”

LC: “I agree. The overarching themes I came away with were white supremacy, imperialism, and the white savior narrative. Anna (played by Deborah Kerr) definitely serves as a white savior. She’s bringing Western knowledge that is idealized. By the end of the musical when the King (played by Yul Brynner) dies and his son becomes the next king, they say, ‘You will take what you have learned from Anna and that will make you a good king’ because she’s brought Western knowledge that makes Siam more ‘forward-thinking.’” 

JJ: “Another thing that’s interesting is the slavery piece, right? His son ends slavery. Anna, this white woman they admire (because she’s white, not necessarily because she’s a woman), shares all these ‘amazing’ things about Western culture. Then, when the King dies, his son (played by Patrick Aidiarte) gets rid of slavery. It’s proving the point that, because Anna was his teacher, he was able to do these amazing things. They villainize the King through the way he wouldn’t outlaw slavery.”

CD: “Anna’s comment when she brought up Lincoln and the U.S. was something that stuck out to me because of what Jasmine was saying. She mentions how much she admires Lincoln, but, while she’s obviously not going to Siam to enslave these people, she is still upholding imperialism and racist ideas.”

LC: “This is overt in the musical when they talk about Britain making Siam a protectorate. Anna tells the King how to avoid this: they have to prove they’re not barbaric by giving up all their customs and culture. At the ambassador’s dinner, the King of Siam is the only person of color at the whole table. He invited all the significant white dignitaries there, and it’s all just one big show he has to do in order to prove he is ‘sophisticated’ enough to not be made a protectorate, which will probably happen anyway.”

“Getting to know you” and what it represents…

LC: “We can also talk about the song ‘Getting to Know You’ and the lyrics, choreography, and costuming. As for the lyrics, written by Oscar Hammerstein II, the whole premise is ‘getting to know you,’ as in ‘I want to get to know you.’ You could interpret that as ‘I want to understand you and your culture.’ But that’s juxtaposed with the irony of the whole song being she’s acculturating her pupils to Western ways of doing things as opposed to understanding them. A lyric that stuck out to me was, ‘Putting it my way, but nicely.’ I think that encapsulates the entire song in a way.”

JJ: “I think what’s interesting with the choreography is the fact that she goes to shake the kids’ hands. That’s not something traditional to their culture, that’s a very Westernized thing. Then each of them start shaking each other’s hands to show a change in thinking and behavior. Also, when she first stands up and her son comes toward her, they teach two people how to bow or curtsy. It’s interesting because the woman bows first, and then Anna’s like, ‘No, you need to do it this way.’ It’s very subtle, but it’s that idea of…”

LC: “Correction.”

JJ: “Right?!” 

LC: “I think this is going to blend into costuming, but there is a dance break that’s supposed to be their indigenous dance (whether or not that’s actually true because it was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, a white man). The dancer is doing the dance, then Anna’s doing it, too. But, ultimately, the dancer has kids come around her and form the hoop skirt. In this show, you cannot miss the hoop skirt — every production is going to have a huge hoop skirt based on the original costuming by Irene Sharaff.”

Anna’s Hoop Skirt

JJ: “It’s the first thing your eyes go to, and that’s so intentional.”

CD: “I think it really juxtaposes Anna and ‘others’ her from them.” 

LC: “I also think something interesting I hadn’t thought about before is how she gets the headpiece from the kid, and that’s appropriation because there’s a difference between, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna wear this thing’ versus ‘I understand the cultural significance of it.’ That’s her ‘Oh, I’m getting to know you, I’m gonna wear this thing’ moment, but she doesn’t know anything about it. Ultimately, there’s still the power dynamic of ‘I’m a white woman, and my purpose here is to teach you how to do Western things.’ 

JJ: “It’s interesting if you think about our modern world. We now learn about these different cultures, but even a couple of years ago there were people in my high school who were people of color who would continuously say, ‘I wish I were white.’ It’s still idolized, and this musical shows how rooted it is in our culture to want whiteness. In Indian culture, specifically, one thing I think about a lot is how some Indian parents tell their kids, ‘Don’t go out in the sun because your skin’s gonna get really dark, and you need to keep your skin white so people will want to be around you.’ After watching this, I see it’s ancestral and ingrained in our minds that this is the ‘right’ way and the other ways are wrong. I bet people in Thailand can relate to that.”


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