Racial and Gender Driven Narratives in Miss Saigon

By Abigail Parker and William Lopes

Below is a transcript of our recorded dialogue essay. We hope you enjoy!

A: So let’s first talk about the character of Kim. So how old is she?

W: She’s 17 at the beginning.

A: So she’s 17 and her family dies in the war and she’s left with no other option but basically resorting to prostitution and I think that the portrayal of her innocence at the beginning is really interesting.

W: yeah for instance her innocence is prescribed to her. How much is she actually innocent or is it what’s forced on her from society? ‘Cause, she talks about how she’s betrothed to this man and she’s looking like she doesn’t have agency in that and then also it’s talked about how in the first scenes where we meet her with the engineer and eventually with Chris, she’s there because her family died so she has nothing and now she has to find some more work so her innocence was only there because she’s being told what to do. 

A: Definitely! Who knows what she would have done if she was in control of her life and you can see that at the beginning when she first walks into the brothel she’s wearing shorts under her dress which are ripped off of her, she’s wearing a white dress, her hair is in a bun, she is very like tidy and I guess just the overall stereotypical depiction of innocence. and then, that sort of goes out the window when she gets involved with Chris and they get married. She’s left alone with her son and so you can see as her hair goes from being a bun to kind of messy and down it’s just like the progression and loss of her innocence as she works towards gaining agency at the final like the conclusion of the play so she becomes more and more unraveled in her physical appearance.

W: Also I think it’s interesting, this might be a little tangential, but I feel like there are two depictions of Asian women in American media. One is the innocent model minority – you know the type – and then the other is the promiscuous type you know like you always hear about that in Southeast Asia and the poor nations of Asia.

A: Yeah and not just with women but also with men. So you can see the contrast between Thuy and the engineer. The engineer’s made out to be this conniving, evil, slimy character and then the cousin is more of a stronger soldier depiction. In essence, he is more of the model minority but with the masculine overtone so there’s that dichotomy with both female and the male perspective, the model minority like you said, and then also sort of just this last fall from innocence. 

W: I would the engineer kind of also fits the model minority in the way that he is trying to attain the American dream. It’s kind of this stereotype that like the Asian community will work. That’s why the model community is a stereotype because they will work, they will try to fit into our society as best they can because they know how to succeed in each environment.

A: Yeah I agree but I think that his fascination with American culture sort of detracts from his own culture, and it’s putting across the message that American culture is better and superior to Asian culture. This is where I think that this musical fails first. Beyond the stereotyping that we talked about, but the almost ranking or hierarchy of cultures. He views America as the land of opportunity where there’s no need to resort to the prostitution that the engineer and Kim and all the other women in the show are involved in.

W: Yeah there’s definitely that aspect I see, but also it is coming from the perspective of the character that they are portraying as dirty conniving. So I mean I agree with you overall but I think it’s just interesting that the character they have romanticized America is also the one that we hate and that we are made to hate ’cause he’s conniving again and backstabbing.

A: OK OK … Now let’s talk a little bit about Kim’s relationship with Chris.  It was a little weird how quickly it progresses. I mean it’s in a time of crisis where he’s isolated from his family, she has lost her family, and it’s also in a place where marriage isn’t the same as what we view marriage. For instance, she was already arranged to be married to someone so marriage isn’t viewed in the same light as traditional American perspectives and that’s where the odd nature of Chris’s infatuation with Kim stem from. 

W: Yeah no I definitely think the height of emotion is definitely why it happened and I think that probably there are a lot of are these faster-paced relationships during times of war, but I think the weirdest part to me is at the beginning of the first scene where Chris says she’s just a girl or a little kid. I mean he is made to look older in the production, but given the historical context, he is probably actually around 18 or 19 or 20 (you know the age of conscripted people), but he characterized as an adult in the show and she’s characterized as a child. He remarks about this difference and then he still has sex with her and is infatuated with her after – which is again probably not too off from what actually happened – but it is just weird given the contrasting depictions. 

A: I definitely agree. While contrasting Chris and Kim’s relationship with his relationship with Ellen, it’s definitely an entirely different nature than you see with Kim and Chris together. Even in the musical number “Sun and Moon,” they’re on top of each other practically the entire number and they’re drawn to each other but then when you see Chris with Ellen it’s much more like a respectful and equal relationship. Kim is trying to make something out of Chris so that her life can be something else, and even when she has her son, she is really pushing even harder. Kim and Chris’s relationship is rooted in passion but also necessity they want human connection but she needs support and she needs family. Ultimately, she’s alone, but he has a whole other world to return to.

W: Yeah I definitely think the emotion is what makes the difference between these relationships just how we’re talking about the heightened emotions of war is close-to-death experiences I think that probably is why they’re so different because of the context in which they came about. I also agree with the point you made about how Ellen and Chris are more equals and Kim and Chris were more of this weird power dynamic type of thing where he’s the savior kind of like the concept of the white savior concept.

A: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the poem “A White Man’s Burden” by Kipling. It’s all about how the white man is burdened with making peace in these foreign countries and it’s his responsibility to bring civilization. But, you see that even when Chris returns when he gets word of his son like it’s a burden for him to go there, and he goes as far as saying that he will just be fiscally responsible for his son without uprooting his new life. I think it’s a parallel with the war and with the American perspective on other countries.

W: Yeah that’s actually a very interesting point, but at the same time, I honestly don’t think Chris consciously understands the difference between race in this instance you know.

A: OK no I agree that Chris isn’t entirely aware, but we are looking at a musical where people were making conscious decisions. While the character of Chris may not be aware of it the producers and writers were. But also, that sense of being unaware, the sense of being naïve is what a lot of Americans are: we are naïve of how harmful American dominance is and how we view ourselves as the protector of the world, and that ideology is harmful to other people.

W: But at the same time, I’m trying to think of to what extent Chris actually thought of as a protector. He was going to pay for his son, but he ultimately wanted to forget and leave them in Thailand.

A: I think he was a protector. He wanted to be a protector at the beginning of the musical when he wanted to save Kim from working in prostitution for the engineer. He wanted to get her out of that place, but then you know he leaves, he forgets – well he doesn’t forget about her but he’s out of sight out of mind, and there is no follow-through. 

W: Also I think it’s talked about in Ellen’s first song when she sings “now that I’ve seen her like everything is different.” Kim becomes dispensable to Chris and Ellen. 

A: Yeah, because before the letter Chris is completely unaware of what happened to Kim. She could have died. Kim is just a memory to Chris, and to Kim, it is her reality. He is her husband he’s the father of her child and she’s sort of left alone to fight and defend her family.

W: Now that I’m thinking about it, that is so true. It is so much more real for Kim ’cause she knows the reality of the situation. For Chris, it was like two days that they spent together. I’ve talked to people for a lot longer and just forgotten about them, you know. I mean I didn’t have a marriage ceremony or whatever but still. 

A: But also he’s not really clear on the reality of the marriage ceremony. 

W: Yeah exactly it’s not clear and so now that– you know, thinking about it, I’m like I probably wouldn’t have come back– maybe I would have come back but like it’s different 

A: You wouldn’t have uprooted.

W: Yeah and if I knew I had a son, obviously yes, I would, and I think he would have been the same as me, and he did come back after he found his son, but like, it was like 2 days you know. 

A: Yeah.

W: So it’s like, to what extent he owes her that or is it just that the situation sucks, more than that it’s someone’s fault, you know?

A: Yeah no I agree. OK uh, we’ve talked about that um let’s talk a bit about how Chris was unaware of the wedding. So in the ceremony song, he sort of dismisses his confusion by saying they didn’t really know what else to sing. Kim says this is what they always sing at weddings which startles him but then he brushes it off after she says that’s the only thing could think of to sing in this situation. But also, as we previously talked about, the concept of marriage is very different in the United States or in the American culture. It’s out of love for the most part and it’s something that would probably take more planning and time before the actual wedding than in an arranged marriage, you know?

W: Yeah and it’s also specific to this culture they’re portraying–it’s less it’s more formulaic and there is less effort needed in establishing a relationship you know, it’s more about money I guess. And western cultures up until probably, what, like 100 years ago was the same way but also it’s kind of more like a promise ring to me as a concept than a marriage. I don’t think she was trying to trick him into a marriage you know, they were just doing a ceremony, but then I guess what’s the point of the ceremony. If it’s not marriage then what is it? Because Thuy from before comes in and looks at what’s going on says “You broke the vow your father made” or whatever so he understands it as a marriage too.

A: Yeah I think that’s just showing the discrepancies between the cultures

W: No yeah I definitely agree. Okay, maybe we should talk about the songs now.

A: Yeah let’s talk a bit about the “American Dream” which was– I really liked that song.

W: I was impartial.

A: Or no “If you want to die in bed” that shows the grit and true character of the Engineer and how manipulative he is of Kim. I think it really explains the situation of how he’s taking advantage of Kim and he knows it and he’s going to get himself to America.

W: Yeah he’s definitely like a parasite. But no I definitely think it’s like it’s interesting in the context of his life but it doesn’t like me doesn’t make me like him anymore, I still have the same opinion of him.

A: Oh yeah he’s still slimy, but now you understand his thought process.

W: It adds dimension to his character. 

A: Yeah and I think the melody just in of itself it was like 

W: Oh yeah 

A: It was fun to listen to and that’s what adds that dimension to the Engineer. Obviously, you hate him, he’s a terrible person, but I loved watching him on the screen. His numbers were probably the most extravagant propswise. “The American dream” had the car and the big dance numbers with all the women in wigs and short skirts, and it was just like a big production. Whereas in “I’d give my life for you like it’s just her on the stage with her son. There’s just very different choreography and production choices and that goes to show you the differences between the characters and what they value.

W: Also I think their difference in upbringing is shown in the fact that Kim lived a rather average Vietnamese life for the time. She was by our standards, but probably pretty close to standard for Vietnam at the time. She grew up in a traditional place and family was her priority. The Engineer, however, was alone for a long time with no money and had a difficult experience in the military, so it’s understandable how he became such a lone wolf and his priority was to fend for himself.

A: Maybe you should start us off with “I’d give my life for you” since it’s your favorite.

W: AH yes, one of my top three favorite musical numbers definitely. It really shows where Kim stands and shows her agency or lack thereof I guess. It makes you think about how the agency of Asian women is being portrayed, like is it her choice to value these things in a certain way, or imposed on her by society. I would assume that most parents would say they’d give their life to their kids, but Kim’s whole value seems to be based on other people. Throughout the entire show, whether it’s her father, Thuy, Chris, or her son she is always characterized by her relationships with other people and like that’s her ultimate fate– dying for another person.

A: It’s also interesting that her suicide, which could be seen by some as an ultimate act of agency, can also still be characterized as an obligation she feels. It’s because of Chris that their son is going to be forced to stay in Bangkok, but that is only on the condition that Kim is there to take care of him. It’s just interesting how this one-act can be viewed in such opposing ways.

W: It is her choice ultimately, but it’s also how she views the situation and how the situation was something essentially handed to her. None of her choices have really led her to this situation, it was all reactions to things happening to her. The situation with her son having to stay in Bangkok wasn’t even life or death for him, but she still valued the apparent better life he would have in America higher than her own life and ability to raise her son. It’s just really crazy to think about.

A: I think it’s that Kim views it as a life or death because here she is stuck. She is working as a prostitute for the second time, she has no other options, she’s lived her entire life in service to other people and has never had true agency. Ultimately, Kim doesn’t want that for her son, so she would rather not have a life than have to live knowing that her son will have the same fate as her.

W: Yeah, that is very true, and I think we were talking about the romanticization of America before for warring countries or refugee situations, but at the same time it really is. America is this place where people can come and succeed to some extent like specifically with the Vietnamese women in America.  I just watched this video about how so many nail salons are owned by Vietnamese women. At this point, it’s all because some person went to Vietnam and taught people and then they came back. It’s just crazy the opportunities that can be afforded in our country. I don’t want to be super pro-American because that is not the whole truth but there is some truth in the romantic view of the American Dream.

A: Yeah, but also, that dream and the opportunity comes with the racial disparities and the stereotypes that we’ve talked about so far. Yes, you will have a lesser chance of living in poverty, you have more choices but those choices are limited or those opportunities are closed off with these racist perspectives.

W: I remember reading about an Asian family that came here, and they accepted racism because they knew that that’s the trade-off, it is the cost of coming to the United States for a better life. The family accepted being called names in the street so they could give their kids more opportunities. That was the choice they made. 

A: Yeah it’s a choice. Do you choose a life for yourself or for your kids? Kim made her choice for her son. 

Moving forward, let’s talk about our reactions and experiences watching Miss Saigon and how we felt about the racial portrayals. 

W: Oh yeah. Honestly, this is probably from my white male perspective, but I didn’t see a lot of overt racism. Obviously, there was some blatant racism in the racial slurs being yelled out in the scene of the fall of Saigon. As they were leaving, there were racial slurs being shouted. Now, obviously, I don’t condone that but, like, I don’t think the structure of the show necessarily was racist. 

A: I agree at face value you don’t really see it definitely takes investigation or critical thinking. We watched this musical twice together. The first time around, I saw the issue of race but watching it the second time around you really delve into what these characters and their roles are. The second time you know the plot: you can look at the engineer as a tool and you can look at Chris as a tool, you can look at Ellen and Kim all as functions and representations of the larger historical and cultural narratives. I feel like it requires some digging to get to the racial representation or narrative but I do think there are elements of overt racism. Like you said the slurs and then just the way the American dream is depicted, I thought that number specifically was just wow America is really being portrayed as so much better than Asian countries and Asian culture and that was a little hard to watch and listen to. Overall, I think that they did a good job of starting the conversation but it definitely took some digging.

W: I don’t know. I think they did a good job of casting.

A: Oh yeah they did choose Asian actors to play the Asian roles which I think is a big step.

W: The bar is so low.

A: Yeah the bar is low. I would say that the conversation about race isn’t as obvious as it could have been the critique of racial stereotypes isn’t as overt as it could have been.

W: I think there is a lot of truth to this story and a lot of truth in how Kim acted. I don’t think that’s necessarily racist or playing on stereotypes, I really feel like someone like her who’s parents were just killed will obviously be stoic. I don’t know. I feel like it definitely doesn’t address the issue of cementing these stereotypes in the viewer’s mind, but also it’s like a Broadway show like it’s not entirely a critique of culture.

A: Yeah it’s supposed to be entertainment alongside critique. 

W: I guess racist notions of our relations like with Vietnamese people and Asian people as a whole also don’t really get into relations inside of America. The musical mostly deals with race outside America, but I think for what it is it does a good job. 

A: Thank you for listening to our dialogue essay! This is Abby and Will; have a great day!

Newsies: Is the Ideal Man Too Limiting?

Disney’s Newsies showcases the very definition of American masculinity with some catchy numbers and dazzling lights. Directed by Brett Sullivan, Newsies highlights the struggles of New York City newspaper boys as they rally together to fight for a fair price. 

What was particularly remarkable about the show was the absence of a feminine presence. In fact, Katherine and Ms. Medda are the only women in the spotlight for the duration of the musical. The production, instead, highlights the comradery and brotherhood amongst the New York City newspaper boys. Oftentimes, we see masculinity defined in connection to women, but the musical simply focusses on the young men. It delves into the questions “What does it mean to be a man?” and “How does American culture define masculinity?”

Jack is a character that catches the audience’s eye; he is placed in a blue shirt directly contrasting with the greyscale wardrobe of the rest of the cast. From the get-go, I knew that he was one to watch. Immediately, you can see manly traits start to define Jack Kelly, from with playful punches to his forceful moves in the musical numbers to even the confidence that he exudes. Jack has grown up with less-than-ideal circumstances – without a family and running from the Refuge – but he shows a sense of resilience and strength. Ultimately, he is a leader and mentor to the other young newsies, but he is cast in a light that makes him a role model to the audience. Jack Kelly is American masculinity on stage!

It isn’t very hard for the audience to see how deeply his friends and fellow newsies care for Jack; he thrives in his role as their leader, going on to represent them in the strike and taking Les and Davey under his wing without hesitation. The musical writers convey this sense of leadership and protectiveness by including lines such as “ain’t no way I’m putting them kids in danger” in response to the initial strike. He would rather lose everything than lose one of his newsies. Here, Kelly displays his stoic nature, a trait so crucial to what we perceive as Masculinity.

Masculinity has evolved to discourage any demonstration of emotional vulnerability. We can see this concept affecting Jack in moments like when he is asked if he is scared to strike. Rather than admitting to his nerves, he ambiguously responds with “ask me again in the morning.” Jack is hesitant to admit his fears and instead opts for a continued display of strength in hopes of inspiring his newsboys for the upcoming struggles. However, Jack does not feel entirely constricted by society’s gender stereotypes. He prompts Katherine with a question on what exactly was happening between the two of them, and his forwardness, ultimately, catches her off guard. The musical writers infuse a sense of duality to Jack’s character that demonstrates both the guarded and vulnerable sides of him.  

Jack’s caring side and positive attributes of American masculinity are contrasted with the character Mr. Pulitzer. Mr. Pulitzer’s arrogance and greed shows how dangerous the quest for masculine strength, power, and success can be; it can turn your heart cold. Ultimately, Pulitzer is a selfish bully, as Kelly calls him. When explaining his opposition to the newsies’ strike, Pulitzer exclaims that it is because they are fighting against him that he does not show his support. The production authors also display his arrogance with Pulitzer’s open legs and by placing his arms on his hips. This concept of taking up space and its correlation to power can be seen in our own society as men often sit with their legs widened to ‘mark their territory.’ Mr. Pulitzer represents the flaws in men: the aggression and gluttonous drive that allows for his success. Jack, on the other hand, is a good, old fashioned guy. He is like David fighting Goliath like Katherine so aptly describes. 

Cultural definitions can be extremely detrimental for many individual’s mental health, as the norm is not always normal. The idea that a man is defined by his family, his leadership skills, and his strength is an outdated concept. Instead, we should be celebrate each individual for what makes them unique. I think that this is a flaw in the character Jack Kelly. He is a role model that all of the newsies look up to and most likely the little boys in the audience. He is a captivating young man. I mean who could blame a kid for wanting to be like him. However, I think that the lack of focus on other characters and the extended centrality of Jack’s success and strengths conveys the message that in order for a boy to be a true man he must be like Jack. 

Watching this musical in a time where gender stereotypes are being blurred to a spectrum was particularly intriguing. Newsies sends the message that men must behave a certain way. However, every day the concept of gender is being talked about more and more. Some believe that gender is the very foundation of our society, looking back at works such as Newsies which showcases one of the masculine roles in society. However, others are taking a rather modern perspective and have fought to remove the concept of gender entirely. Watching this in the societal context and examining the role of masculinity makes me question the absence of women in the film. Rather than perpetuating a musical that celebrates a gender-driven divide, should we be including the range of genders that we see in our culture today? This is not to say that I did not enjoy the musical; the numbers were stuck in my mind for much of the following week. However, upon reflection it makes me pause and question why there is so little feminine presence or the necessity of the extremely dominant inclusion of masculinity. 

While Jack displays everything fundamental to the concept of American masculinity, he falls short in the idea of inclusion. Newsies aims to demonstrate a sense of brotherhood amongst the newspaper boys, but the boys in the audience are creating the idea of what it means to be a man as they watch the actors dance across the stage. While masculinity may be defined as strength, leadership, stoicism, and arrogance, the musical limits the concept to those qualities. In reality, a man can be anything or anyone, and Newsies works to perpetuate this culture of toxic masculinity.