In The King and I, Anna, a white woman from England, comes to Siam in order to teach the children of the royal family English. She has a tragic history involving the loss of her husband, as well as a son who is accompanying her. This history, when combined with the differences between her culture and the culture of Siam, lead to her feeling out of place and disrespected, and is used in order to garner sympathy for her from the audience. Her son, too, feels this way, although his feelings are explored less than hers in this regard. Anna arrives in Siam and nearly immediately begins to confront the King of Siam in his demands for respect, as well as his enforcement of cultural customs, including his disrespect of women as autonomous beings. This leads to an extended complex relationship between the two, which seems at times romantic, and at other times like a brutal exploitation of power. Through an intersectional lens, examining both Anna and the King of Siam on the basis of race and gender, their relationship shows that Anna does not simply defend her personhood as a woman, but rather uses her womanhood as a tool to weaponize her whiteness, exploiting her racial power over the King of Siam in order to bend him and the rest of the country to her will.
The first scene of The King and I involves Anna arriving in Siam on a ship, along with her son. The staging is strikingly beautiful. The music swells, the ship towers over everything around it, the costumes are exquisite. It is a gorgeous opening to a musical – so gorgeous, in fact, that you almost don’t notice the Siamese marketplace coming into view just below the ship. Anna, in her English ship, coming to teach English to the poor people of Siam who have been robbed of the chance to learn it, sails in above the world she is going to be a part of. This staging accomplishes a couple of things. The first, and most obvious, is that it establishes Anna as separate from the background cast members. She is on a different level from them, and so the audience is forced to pay attention to her specifically. This makes sense – she is the protagonist of the musical, and it’s important to make an audience aware of that early on, so that they know where to direct their sympathies. However, the second thing that the staging establishes is much more insidious. Not only does Anna, flying in on a ship, exist on a different level from the Siamese, she specifically exists above them. They must look up to see her – cannot, in fact, avoid looking up at her, as she towers over everything – and if she chooses at them, she must look down, although there is no reason why she would have to make that choice. And yet, Anna is the one who, after disembarking, sings a song about how “no one will ever suspect [she’s] afraid”. It is a natural thing that a woman surrounded by foreigners should be afraid – so natural, in fact, that you can almost forget that she is the foreigner, not the default or the natural state of existence. Anna is framed as having all the power, but because the audience’s gaze has been fixed on her as the protagonist, and white audiences have been trained to sympathize with white characters, the audience sympathizes with her fear of the other that is, from all appearances, based on little more than the other being other.
To put it in simpler terms, what the framing of the opening scene establishes is Anna’s whiteness, above all else. She comes from England, and she is above everyone else, and she is a colonialist, and she is white. She is very clearly a woman, but that is only brought up in the context of her whiteness – the captain of the ship asks if she is sure she will be safe, a woman alone in Siam. The implication here has very little to do with her womanhood on its own and everything to do with how dangerous the Siamese may be to a white person. Once again, the musical draws upon racist stereotypes and beliefs in order to establish Anna as sympathetic and in need of protection. Her whiteness is more key to her relationship with any other characters in the show, especially the King, than her womanhood is, and the opening scene establishes that by placing her on a physical pedestal high above everyone else.
The King is, through a simplified lens, the opposite of Anna. He is a man, not a woman, and native to Siam, not white. And, contra-positively to Anna, his race is also what is key to his relationship with others, more so than his gender. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, part of his relationship with Anna is heavily based on her frequent demands for him to stop mistreating women, and her insistence that women are people. However, on closer examination, the musical shows that the reason he mistreats women and sees them as less than full people is because he is Siamese, not because he is a man. It is just the way that things are done in Siam, and Anna needs to get used to it if she is going to live there. Regardless of how accurate a characterization of Siamese culture this is – which does bear discussion, especially in relation to England, a country not known for its egalitarian treatment of marginalized groups – it frames the King of Siam’s race as much more crucial to his opinions than his gender is. If his degradation of woman were meant to be as a result of his gender, then there would be Siamese women who agreed with Anna and who were as upset as her about their mistreatment. But they are not, because they are used to it, because they belong to a culture that, in Anna’s eyes, and the eyes of the majority of the audience, at this point, is too primitive to know any better. Race, not gender.
The King and Anna’s relationship, then, must be reexamined through the lens of understanding that race is the priority. Anna refuses to prostrate herself before him, claiming that she will not be mistreated like Siamese women are. She refuses to put herself on a lower level than him, or to respect cultural customs, or to live in the palace as she is expected to do. According to Anna, all of this refusal is about self-respect. It’s about seeing herself, a woman, as a full person, and not someone who is willing to grovel. However, is that really true? She has all the power of a colonialist empire behind her, and the palace is reliant on her to teach its children English. She has all this power and she knows it – when she finally snaps and exclaims that the Siamese are actually barbarians, or when she threatens to quit if she is not treated exactly as she is expected to be, she knows what she is doing and what power she holds. She has the power to teach the court how to be respected by the English when they come to visit, and the power to take away that respect if she is treated differently than how she wants to be treated. She has the maps, the language, the knowledge of far off places. Rather than defending her womanhood, then, asserting her demands becomes about weaponizing her whiteness.
It can even be seen in the continuation of how the opening scene frames Anna. Anna enters the musical above the Siamese, and by refusing to bow to the King and actively protesting against customs to which everyone conforms, she does her best to keep herself above him. At first, he protests. He is a man, and so, says the overt text of the musical, he has power over her, and does not have to listen. However, he quickly begins to compromise. And this, says the subtext, is because Anna is white and he is not, and so it is an inevitability that he will succumb to her demands.
In fact, it literally kills him to disobey her. The King of an entire country is struck down as if by divine intervention when he attempts to raise a hand against Anna’s will. While presumably it is well agreed upon that whipping someone for disobeying you is wrong, it is not an internal realization of that wrongness that stops the King. No, it is Anna stepping in, Anna saying what is right, and Anna rebuking him with such force that it results in his ignominious death. This is the final display of Anna having all the power, and the King having none, and nobody questions it. To all intents and purposes, Anna kills the king, and nobody attempts to punish her or banish her from the kingdom. This is because she is white, and so her having that kind of power is assumed – by the writers, the audience, and the characters alike. In The King and I, gender is little more than a façade behind which to hide a racial dynamic influenced by hundreds of years of colonialism and the power of language.