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.”

Is Gypsy Rose Lee the new symbol of Feminism?

It’s almost spooky season, and that means rewatching Bette Miller’s iconic role in the classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus. Whoops! Wrong spectacle.

However, her performance in the 1993 made-for-television production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino, is iconic in its own right. At face value, this production is not an aspirational spectacle for young girls, but hidden behind its curtain are a plethora of feminist critiques. Bette Miller is the perfect embodiment of loud, gregarious, strong-willed Mama Rose—complete with fiery red hair.

Rose embodies her role as stage mother, acting as a true “Mama Bear,” striving for the best for her two cubs June and Louise (who later becomes Gypsy Rose Lee). Rose dedicates her life to making her girls stars. The beginning of the film resembles many “wannabe” Broadway stars’ struggles to stardom. She begins as somewhat of a nobody in Seattle, Rose’s ambition rewards the girls with consequent gigs around the country at any Vaudeville theater that will have them. In her role as a mother, Rose defies the traditional gentle, dainty, proper female stereotypes in all aspects of her character.

Rose’s first solo number titled “Some People,” written by Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim sets the stage, exhibiting her “go-getter” personality. Rose is not like “some people.” In fact, she is very much not like what a woman was “supposed” to be during the musical’s 1920s time period. As reminded by her father and future love interest quite often, she should be married (to a man, of course). The world expects her to have a steady family, with her children in school and her husband making money to support their family. She certainly should not be living in her Papa’s house as a middle-aged woman with two young daughters begging for eighty-eight bucks. In this regard, Rose’s character does not conform to social norms. At that time, it was unacceptable (or at least unusual) for a woman to have dreams beyond motherhood. While Rose is a devoted (albeit sometimes misguided) mother, her nurturing techniques are rather unconservative.

Rose has bigger dreams for her girls. Even when offered a hand in marriage to a man she arguably loves, she chooses the single route. Again, Rose defies gender stereotypes by denying what most would see as the obvious decision. The gender roles in Rose’s romantic relationship are almost reversed. Herbie, Rose’s love interest and agent, portrays the gentle, subversive partner, while Rose calls the shots. Herbie chases Rose, in this instance.

While Mama Rose is undoubtedly a strong female character, some of her parenting choices and treatment towards her daughters are questionable. At the beginning of the film, we see Baby June, played by Lacey Chabert (Chabert later stars as Gretchen in Mean Girls, truly embodying the role of “girly girl”) as the ideal, pageant queen, frilly, perfect female child performer. Her sister Louise, played by Elizabeth Moss, is there to ensure June shines on stage—whether that means dressing up as a cow or newspaper boy. Side note—June is in fact cast as a blonde and Louise as a brunette. I guess blondes do have more fun? Nevertheless, at the beginning of the film, Rose reinforces these role distinctions between her daughters, consistently doting on June, speaking words of confidence to her about her future stardom. Rose is so steadfast to follow her own path, why is she not more supportive of her daughters to defy the same gender norms she does?

The real kicker comes after older June (now played by Jennifer Raye Beck) decides to abandon both her mother and dreams of stardom to run off with a boy. Here we see another typical female giving up her dreams of a career (well, maybe they were Rose’s dreams for her) in the name of love. After Rose comes to terms with making Louise a star instead, the team arrives at a Burlesque theatre. While this rather mature theatre is surprising to the pure, innocent Louise (played by Cynthia Gibb), it is the place where she finds herself and her place in society.

Rewind to Baby June’s musical number titled “Let Me Entertain You.” Here we see an amusing, playful, childish upbeat song performed by Baby June. Dressed in a white, glittery, ballerina-like costume, with a bow almost as big as her head, June’s outfit paints her as an innocent, but talented little girl, somewhat like Shirley Temple. Were she a boy, she would not be able to capitalize on this aspect of her identity—or her female body. In this number, she refers to herself as a “bundle of dynamite,” highlighting her childlike demeanor. She then continues to boast about her ‘versatility’ and talents as well as her ability to make us feel good as she sings:

“I’m very versatile/ and if you’re real good/ I’ll make you feel good.”

Rose has June act younger than she is in the following scenes, having her continue to capitalize on her young female body (rather creepy in my opinion, having an adult pretending to be a young child). Viewed on its own, this song seems innocent enough, and simply explains June’s talent and ability to bring joy to her audiences.

Back at the Burlesque theater, Rose and Louise are both in shock when they see the audaciously unladylike performances occurring.

Rose is so appalled she attempts to make a run for it until Louise convinces her they need the money from the gig. Louise does her first “striptease” act as a backup for a missing performer where the announcer mistakenly gives her the name “Gypsy Rose Lee.” This is the beginning of a transformation of Louise’s traditionally prude, conservative female characteristics to use her body and femininity in her performance. After Gypsy adjusts to the role of “stripper,” viewers see her fully embrace this new identity of herself. Rose has mixed feelings about seeing her baby girl act in such a provocative way.

This transformation makes us question what a female is supposed to be.

Should she be a prude? Married? Independent? Sexy? A Stripper?

Gypsy’s ending transforms Baby June’s original “Let me Entertain You” number into Gypsy’s signature act. This new context transforms the meaning of the song. Gypsy sings to a room of mostly older men hoping to see her take her clothes off. Her “versatility,” and “talents” convey added meaning, as does her ability to “make them feel good.” It’s sexual connotations could objectify Gypsy. However, the song helps Gypsy embody the same traits of independence and rejection of social norms as her mother. Rose may not fully approve, but this new identity—a truly new identity with a name change from Louise to Gypsy—is Gypsy’s own. She is no longer the “company” of Baby June.

“Gypsy brings
attention to taboo
topics such as
women using their
bodies to their

But…. why is Gypsy’s only path to fame one of objectification and capitalization of her feminity? In this way, the movie reaffirms traditional female gender norms which emphasize physicality and beauty. Nevertheless, Gypsy not only brings attention to taboo topics such as stripping and the complexity of women using their bodies to their advantage. The musical explores the nuances within the traditionally female stereotype and makes viewers question their initial assumptions. Women are continually and regularly objectified and used for their bodies, but when they do it on their own accord, society labels them a “whore.” Shouldn’t a woman be able to be whoever and whatever she wants? I wouldn’t call Gypsy Rose the new face of the feminist movement, give her some credit for helping us consider these themes in a Broadway musical.

Thanks for reading 🙂