The Fifth Jew In A Room, Bitching

How Falsettos’ Trina Illustrates the “Women Are Trapped” Phenomenon

by maya parness

I’ve always been… I don’t want to say obsessed, but obsessed with unhinged middle-aged women and the stories about them. I always hated the assigned readings in high school because there weren’t enough complex female characters in them (turns out I don’t hate classic novels, I just don’t really care what dead white men with no empathy for women have to say!) and three out of four times I’ve been cast in works of theatre in college I’ve played, you guessed it, unhinged middle-aged women. I also am Jewish from New York City. So Falsettos by William Finn and James Lapine was written for me to hyperfixate on from the second I saw the revival in 2016. Set from 1979-1981 in NYC, Falsettos follows Marvin (played by Christian Borle), a Jewish man who leaves his wife Trina (Stephanie J. Block) and their son Jason (Anthony Rosenthal) behind for his male lover, Whizzer (Andrew Rannells).  Amidst the backdrop of  Jason’s upcoming bar mitzvah, Trina’s romance with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), the changing family dynamics of the ‘80s, and the AIDS crisis, Marvin tries to maintain his fantasy of a “tight-knit family” no matter how much destruction it will cause along the way. While this musical is technically about Marvin, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that Trina is the glue holding this musical together… and as is the case in many stories about men, they all steamroll her. Song after song and scene after scene, Trina struggles as the only woman central to the plot to keep herself and the men around her placated, and every step of the way they push her further towards insanity.  Trina’s situation within the wider context of Falsettos illustrates how women are trapped by gender roles, male immaturity, and ultimately, by the act of loving men in itself. 

Ah, gender roles. We know ‘em. We hate ‘em. Trina is obsessed with them. From the moment the musical begins, gender is an obvious driving force of the musical. The show opens with the four men of the show (Jason, Mendel, Marvin, and Whizzer) dressed in costumes reminiscent of Party City’s rendition of Moses as they sing about how they are “four Jews in a room, bitching.” Later in the song (consistent with the Passover theme), Trina comes onstage in regular clothing and holding a laundry basket, singing the words “slavery, slavery” as the men take off their prophet costumes and give them to her to wash. She repeats the “slavery” motif as she moves furniture around, the men all turn to her and call her a bitch four times, and she scoffs but continues cleaning. Then the men end the song with a count-off of “one, two, three, four,” and Trina reminds them of her existence by interjecting “five!” and only then do they acknowledge her as part of the story. Already, we have established the gender dynamic of this show. The men get to be prophets, dictating who does what as declared by the powers that be (the patriarchy), and Trina gets to be A Woman doing Woman Things like cleaning up after the mess the prophets make. 

In “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” and in much of the rest of the show, Trina is understandably upset about the tasks she feels obligated to perform. However, I say she is obsessed with gender roles because as soon as she can no longer fulfill them, she unravels. Marvin divorces her by telling her that he is a) gay and cheating on her with a man, b) a carrier for syphilis and hepatitis that he most likely gave to her, and c) expecting her to help him uphold his “tight-knit family” fantasy in which he and Whizzer still eat dinners with Trina and Jason that Trina will cook and clean the house to accommodate. We can assume that Trina begins to unravel relatively quickly, as Trina’s storyline opens with her at a psychiatry appointment with Mendel at Marvin’s recommendation. After that appointment (in which Mendel never once refers to her by name, hits on her, and cuts her off when she talks), we next see her in “This Had Better Come to a Stop,” after she has cooked dinner like A Woman who does Woman Things should do. She laments that “I was supposed to make the dinner, make it pretty on his plate / every wife should pull her weight / have it ready, make it tasty and love him” and wonders “who is responsible?” for her family falling apart even though it’s obviously Marvin. She recognizes her role as a wife and acknowledges that Marvin’s expectations of her are unfair and narcissistic, but still feels as though the mess her family is in is her fault. 

We then witness her full-on breakdown in the appropriately titled “I’m Breaking Down.” As Trina cooks dinner for Marvin, Jason, and Whizzer, she word-vomits basically everything on her mind, which is understandably a lot. She misses sex, her whole world has been upended because her marriage was a lie and she still thinks she was the problem, she can’t sleep at night, she’s jealous of her ex-husband’s boyfriend (not even for being in a relationship with Marvin! She’s jealous of Whizzer because he’s happy!), her nerdy and non-religious son isn’t living up to her Jewish Mother expectations, and she’s in love with her psychiatrist who can’t actually help her because he wants to have sex with her. Trina grew up being told her place as a woman (“my father let me marry” in “Love is Blind,” “I was sure growing up I would live the life my mother assumed I’d live / very Jewish, very middle-class, and very straight / where healthy men stayed healthy men and marriages were long and great” in “Holding to the Ground”), and as soon as she loses her position in the family and in society that she was told it was her purpose to inhabit, she falls apart… and she keeps cooking anyway.

Eventually, Trina gets what she wants— she marries Mendel who is “sweet” and “not a maniac,” a relatively good stepfather to Jason (at least compared to Marvin), and loves her and will “have good sex” with her— but even though the gender role she is confined to is literally destroying her, which she knows, in the song “Making A Home” that describes their new life together, Mendel sings “She becomes a happy wife,” and Trina echoes with “he decides the role to assume.” I don’t think I need to explain that line. You get it. 

The problem with the men deciding the role they get to assume, other than the obvious stuff like *gestures at the rest of this essay*, is that the men are really immature. We know this because: 

  • They either cannot or do not clean up after themselves, as evidenced by  “slavery”/”bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch” debacle in the opening number
  • Mendel cannot keep it in his pants for even one (1) psychiatry appointment with Trina, even though it’s, you know, literally his job not to do that and definitely very weird of him 
  • Marvin expects everyone in his life to conform to his fantasy of being the Man Of The House 
    • He breaks up with Whizzer after Whizzer poses a threat to his masculinity (Whizzer beats him at a chess game, but Marvin expects Whizzer to do “what pretty boys should do” and let Marvin win at chess/have the masculine upper hand in the relationship) in “The Chess Game”
    • Despite himself initiating the divorce with Trina, he gets so upset with Trina for inviting him to her wedding to Mendel that he threatens to kill her and slaps her across the face, not after she did anything, but after the ensemble acting as a stand-in for his own internal monologue repeats his self-deprication that he is dumb back to him (“Marvin Hits Trina”)
    • He cannot take responsibility for anything! He blames Mendel for stealing the family that Marvin himself broke away from, leaving Trina and Jason stranded in a tug-of-war of which man the family belongs to
  • Jason is 12.

Finn and Lapine are also very aware that the men are immature. In fact, they wrote a whole series of songs about it! Here we have “Trina’s Song,” “March of the Falsettos,” and “Trina’s Song (Reprise).” This sequence starts with the lyric “I’m tired of all the happy men who rule the world/ they grow, of that I’m sure, they grow but don’t mature,” setting us up to hear Trina’s innermost thoughts and laments about how much she attends to these men (as they’ve decided to assume the role of Letting Women Attend to Them Instead of Being Functional Adults) because “They amuse [her]” or because she’s “wired” or because her life is entirely dependent on the whims of men (“I’ll wed and change my life”), and also setting me up to take a trip to Spain without the S. So, Trina is alone onstage singing this heartbreaking song about the contradictions between her dissatisfaction with men and her inability to live without them, and then the men arrive just in time for “March of the Falsettos.” A blacklight washes over the stage, rendering Trina indistinguishable from the rest of the backdrop, and the men appear onstage wearing fluorescent tee-shirts, shorts, goggles, and propeller hats. If that wasn’t weird enough, all of the adult men open their mouths to sing a song that would be well within their belting range in a falsetto. Except for Jason, who is 12. Although weird, this is intentional— these fluorescent adult bodies are the embodiment of the men’s psyches and inner voices, and those inner voices are in falsetto in order to match the pitch of a 12 year old. This way, the men can “keep replaying their adolescence” and perform hypermasculinity for one another while they do so. Then the light comes back on, revealing Trina once again, who has now decided to commit to a better life for herself (insert the “good for her” meme here) and move on from Marvin and the toxic lifestyle she lived with him. 

Although this is promising, there are three major caveats here: the first is “Trina’s Song (Reprise)” begins with Trina apologizing for “Trina’s Song,” emblematic of how women frequently feel the need to apologize for taking up space. The second is that Trina’s train of thought was interrupted by men, as is so familiar to so many women. And the third is that almost as soon as Trina commits to a better life where she gets over the anger she feels towards Marvin, Whizzer and Marvin get back together and Trina must yet again reinvent the family dynamic while the men insist on being prioritized, drastically reducing her chances of reclaiming her destiny and independence. And because Trina is exceptionally good at playing the part of Woman, she does it! She creates a family dynamic where they all begin to care about one another… once Whizzer gets AIDS and is on his deathbed. Jason chooses to have his Bar Mitzvah (much to Trina’s relief) in Whizzer’s hospital room, symbolizing all of the men finally, truly maturing because they are confronted with their own mortality. So all of Trina’s hard work pays off, despite the male mediocrity and immaturity in her way, and just as she comes to terms with who she is and what she wants her life to be, Whizzer dies and it shatters all over again. And because she is Woman surrounded by emotionally stunted men, we know she will bear the burden. 

Falsettos is about Trina. It is about how Trina is trapped by the men and notions of masculinity surrounding her. So trapped, in fact, that we think Falsettos is about them. Finn and Lapine have tragically, and ingeniously, trapped Trina inside her own musical. She links the stories all together— without Trina, there is no Jason, let alone a relationship between Jason and Marvin. Trina goes along with Marvin’s “tight-knit family” fantasy, creating the key relationship between Jason and Whizzer that sets the groundwork for all the men to finally grow up. She marries Mendel, which connects him to Marvin and Whizzer in a personal rather than professional context and gives Jason the closest thing to a positive male role model she can find. But in creating all of these connections, she has tangled herself in the middle. Trina could have pulled a Doll’s House and left, sure— left behind Jason and Marvin, never met Mendel, never paid Whizzer any mind, and shed the gender roles that came in a package deal with them along the way. She could have avoided years of serving these men with no reciprocity, years of being strung along and left out to dry by their every immature whim, years of not knowing her own worth and being treated like a commodity. But she doesn’t, because she loves them. She loves them so much that she loses her mind when they leave, that she cannot fathom an existence without them, that she associates the men being near with the appearance of “happiness and love.” Gender roles and male immaturity are pernicious societal forces that push Trina (and so many other women) into the deep end, but the true tragedy of Trina is that it is her love— whether it’s programmed by society, manifested because she’s bored, or genuine— that the patriarchy weaponizes to hold her underwater, crying out “five!” in the hopes that any of the four Jews in the room will stop their bitching long enough to realize she’s about to drown. 

Reference

Falsettos, BroadwayHD, 2017, http://www.broadwayhd.com/movies/AW2GubDEpx3F9_4AqewY.

Fiddler on the Roof Makes Me Proud to Be a Jewish Woman

A Closer Look at the Coexistence of Tradition and Choice in Judaism

BY MAYA PARNESS

Growing up as an Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose family has been in the United States since the early 1900s (a classic Eastern European ancestral Jewish cocktail of Russian, Ukrainian, and Austrian), Fiddler on the Roof has the magical ability to make me feel seen. Now, my practice of Judaism, at least on the surface, is very different from the Jewish practice that Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein, and Sheldon Harnick present in Fiddler. My denomination, the Reform movement, is relatively secular and rooted in individual autonomy within Jewish practice.  “So Maya,” you may ask, “how exactly does Fiddler on the Roof speak to your soul this much if it’s so different from the Judaism you know?” The answer to your question is because it’s really not that different. In many ways, Reform Judaism and the Judaism presented in Fiddler are very similar— significantly, they both hold ideas of tradition and choice at their core. To a non-Jewish audience, it might seem as though notions of belonging in Fiddler on the Roof are dependent on the ability of individuals to strictly adhere to Jewish tradition by way of community norms around ethnicity and gender. However, the Judaism presented in Fiddler on the Roof is, in its own way, revolutionary in that it redefines who belongs in the community through its definition of what belongs in the community. In creating space for tradition and choice to not only coexist but to strengthen one another, Fiddler’s Jewish community in turn creates space for anyone to belong so long as they do not actively undermine the community’s core.

First, I’d like to define what the Eastern European Jewish tradition interpreted by Fiddler actually is and how it got to be that way. In the song “Tradition,” Tevye outlines pretty clearly what everyone’s role is. The men make a living and study Torah, while the women care for the family and keep a “kosher” (read: Jewish) home. It’s clear that these roles are very gendered, but it’s important to understand that these gender roles are not oppressive. In Jewish text, women are seen as inherently more spiritual than men and thus are exempt from certain commandments in order to focus on nurturing the cultural identity of the Jewish people which is centered in the home. Being exempt does not mean being forbidden. Women do not have to go to synagogue, but if they have the time and would find it meaningful to do so, they may. Additionally, the spiritual work of women (upholding Judaism in the home) is viewed as equally important to the spiritual work of men (studying at synagogue)— neither the synagogue nor the home are considered more sacred than the other. Women in Fiddler’s Jewish society have a lot of agency and value within their observance of tradition, evidenced by the song “Do You Love Me?” in which Golde decides she loves Tevye who is a stand-in for tradition, therefore choosing tradition despite being exposed to the different choices her daughters have made. How Jewish women are oppressed in Fiddler is no different from how the men are oppressed, in that the oppression as perpetrated by the Russians is due to their Judaism. Many of the gendered and insular traditions of this community come from centuries of persecution that have resulted in relative segregation from non-Jewish society for safety concerns along with specific delegation of roles to preserve faith and tradition despite everyone around them wanting them assimilated or exiled at best and wiped out at worst. 

Alongside the everpresent backdrop of tradition in Fiddler on the Roof is the pervasive force of choice, particularly the choices made by Tevye’s family and those who come in contact with it, and this change actually strengthens Jewish tradition as opposed to dismantling it. We can look at Tzeitel’s love story as emblematic of this phenomenon. When Motel asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel, Tevye’s knee-jerk reaction is to comment on how two young people making a pledge for each other is “unheard of” and “absurd,” but not against tradition. But when Motel’s strong assertion makes it clear that Tzeitel will not starve, which Golde and Tevye both identify as an important factor in their decision to accept Lazar Wolf’s offer, Tevye points up at G-d and yells “Tradition!” and then shrugs, as if to say, “this new idea and tradition can coexist.” He then accepts Motel’s proposition, leading to the most beautiful show of Jewish tradition and its interaction with choice in the entire musical: the wedding scene. 

In wedding scene, we see the whole community, even Yente, come together over the union of Tzeitel and Motel, each of them joining together for an emotional chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset,” in which, sung and dressed in relative unison, reflects on the inherent change that occurs with the passage of time as individuals grow up and come into their own lives and choices. Once they are married, the whole community breaks out into dance, which initially is separated by gender, but eventually, Perchik challenges the community to consider another choice they can make— to break shomer negiah, the Jewish practice of abstaining from touching members of the opposite gender to whom one is not married or related. And then they do. Hodel dances with Perchik, not to reject tradition (during the first time they dance together, Hodel decisively asserts “we like our ways!”) but to add to what tradition can mean. Tzeitel and Motel dance together, Golde and Tevye dance together, and then the whole crowd does the same. Hodel even starts to dance with the Rabbi, who makes his own choice to remove the element of touch by extending a handkerchief to Hodel but still continues to dance with her. Here, we see the Jewish community make a choice to change the external manifestation of tradition, the practice of shomer negiah, in order to strengthen the internal reason for the tradition in the first place: joy and celebration. This show of a change in the tradition is not any more or less joyful than the celebration before the change was put into place— the dances are just as percussive and joyful, the ensemble claps and smiles just as much. The tradition was strengthened (though not necessarily improved) by widening the definition of what tradition can include. It’s also notable that this change in tradition was not what stops the wedding. The two events that put a damper on the joy of wedding are attacks on choice, namely Lazar Wolf’s attempt to assert his own dominance over Tzeitel’s choices when he argues that this was supposed to be his wedding, and attacks on community itself, i.e. the Russians starting a literal pogrom, causing the community to scatter, and then destroying the town, including throwing out pieces of paper from inside Jewish stores (read: Jewish text/law) and burning down buildings emblazoned with Jewish stars. 

As Tzeitel and Motel’s story is an example of a transition from challenging previously held notions in Jewish tradition to communal acceptance, there is another story of eventual acceptance into the community— Chava and Fyedka. When Chava first tells Tevye of the close relationship between them, Tevye reminds her, “you must not forget who you are and who that man is,” referring to the fact that Fyedka, as a Russian, is part of the group that actively oppresses the Jewish people of Anatevka, and, as we are reminded by this exchange occurring outside of Tzeitel and Motel’s house, are willing to destroy them. He then says, “a bird may love a fish, but where will they build a home together?” These are not statements made in anger, these are statements made out of genuine concern for Chava’s wellbeing. He understandably does not see how someone of an oppressed community can have a truly equitable and safe relationship with one of their oppressors. Of course, his tone is angry once she officially says she and Fyedka want to get married, but his face is shocked and confused. “Marrying outside of the faith? Do you know what that means?” he asks. He is asking her if she knows it could lead to her losing her faith and her culture via assimilation into Fyedka’s values. This is why it makes a lot of sense when Tevye declares Chava to be dead after she elopes with Fyedka, through a Christian wedding no less— in his eyes, she has lost her culture and therefore she has lost herself. Historically, if Jews will do anything to stay alive, they convert to Christianity. But most Jewish people, like the Anatevka Jews, choose to continue practicing Judaism despite the misfortune that will befall them because of it. Tevye posits that Chava is dead to him not because he’s angry that she’s disobeyed him, but because for Tevye, if you marry the oppressor, you stop being Jewish, so you might as well have died because you are not you anymore. 

This leads me to the community’s acceptance of their marriage. It’s easy to conflate the exile of Tevye from his home with a release of communal expectations that resulted in his begrudging change of heart. But that’s not what’s happening in that scene— note the moment where Tevye drops his resolve. Tevye avoids eye contact with the couple until Fyedka says, “We cannot stay among people who do such things to others,” and then Tevye looks at them. This moment of eye contact is an acknowledgement. He realizes that Fyedka is not interested in upholding the dominant oppressor culture through complicity, and therefore will not require Chava to sacrifice any part of herself. This moment allows Tzeitel to wish Chava and Fyedka goodbye, and with no hesitation, Tevye adds, “and G-d be with you.” He accepts Chava and Fyedka because Fyedka has rejected the ideology that directly undermines the Jewish community and therefore the ideology that undercuts Chava’s very personhood. The community doesn’t seem to have a problem with them either— nobody pays Chava and Fyedka much mind as they walk away. They’re all in the same boat— forced out of their home, in one way or another, by Russian othering of Jewishness. And by accepting a marriage so out of the norm as Chava and Fyedka’s, Jewish tradition has done what it does best— reaffirming everyone’s personhood. 

In Fiddler on the Roof, it’s so easy to think that change and choice are enemies of tradition. We can take a surface-level look at Jewish tradition and conclude that Jewish women are oppressed, that every choice made that doesn’t explicitly fall within tradition is actively undercutting it, that exile from Anatevka was a hidden blessing because it provided a backdrop in which social norms fall to the wayside and allowed Jewish people to embrace more progressive values. But this surface-level take is a trap. It’s what people like the Russians want everyone to think, so it seems that Jewish tradition is an outdated and backwards ideology and that only assimilation into modern ideals can set Jewish people free, because then it’s easier to dehumanize us and destroy us one way or another. But if we think about tradition, choice, and change as things that amplify and uplift one another, we see Judaism for what it really is— a people that reaffirms the humanity of all that do the same for them. Jewish tradition is living, breathing, and ever-changing, and it makes space for everyone to have value and everyone to have agency. This is the tragedy of  “Anatevka”— the community was learning and changing together, just as they were from the opening notes of “Tradition,” and exile, or, destruction of Jewish community, leaves just one fiddler on a sad, cold, and gray screen, playing the same melody, but playing it alone. 

The Silence of White Violence: Racialized Perceptions of Masculine Aggression in Miss Saigon

By Maya P.

“Sir, is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see her?” For Miss Saigon characters Chris and Thuy, I am disappointed to say that the answer is both. The 2017 Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil and directed by Laurence Connor (all of whom are white men), is a story of an ill-fated romance between Kim, a young Vietnamese orphan, and Chris, a white American GI during the Vietnam War. In the show, Kim and Chris fall in love before he abandons her, and we watch their separate stories progress until their tragic reunion at the story’s conclusion. During Kim and Chris’ whirlwind romance, Thuy, a cousin to whom Kim was promised by their parents in their youth, is identified as an interfering force in their romance as he constantly tries to track Kim down and claim her as his own. In pursuing Kim romantically, Chris and Thuy similarly threaten and enact physical and emotional violence against Kim – but because Chris is white and Thuy is not, this violence makes Thuy a villain while Chris gets to remain a protagonist. 

In order to understand the way in which Chris and Thuy enact violence against Kim, we first need to understand Kim’s situation. Kim, played by then 20-year-old Eva Noblezada, is a poor, seventeen year old Vietnamese girl whose parents are recent casualties of the Vietnam War. In order to get by, she turns to prostitution in a brothel. There, Chris’ friend John purchases a night with Kim for him, and from the first time they dance, it is clear that their love is written in the stars. They predictably fall in love, they get married, he abandons her when the Americans leave Vietnam, and she is left to care for their child in the ruins of Saigon while being actively pursued by Thuy, who is now a high-ranking Vietnamese army officer. Basically, Kim has every single odd stacked against her – she is young, she is orphaned, she is Vietnamese (i.e. not white), she is a mother, she is poor, she is a woman – and because of that, all of her actions stem from who she is, so she never has any agency and is treated as an object rather than a subject.

If Kim is a package with a “FRAGILE” label on it, the leading men in this musical are postmen who simply have no concept of the phrase “handle with care.” Thuy (played by Devin Ilaw) in particular inflicts overt physical violence onto Kim. When he barges into Kim and Chris’ wedding ceremony, he touches her face and smiles when he speaks to her, but when Chris makes himself (and his “claim” to Kim) known, Thuy seemingly turns in an instant. His face drops, he tenses, he hurls insults at the other women in the brothel. But upon closer examination, Thuy has had this violence within him from the start. He initially grabs Kim by the wrists and aggressively pulls her to him, and he’s simply allowed his violent “nature” to shine through when presented with a competitor. At one point, Thuy draws a gun on Chris, and Kim positions herself in front of the barrel to protect him. Though Thuy does not shoot, he holds the gun there for far too long to have not been thinking about it. He leaves as Chris “saves” Kim by chasing Thuy out at gunpoint.

There is already so much to unpack here. Thuy, a Vietnamese man (more on that later), is positioned immediately as an antagonist in Kim and Chris’ love story who is willing to use violent and even lethal force to get Kim, his “prize [he] can win,” because he thinks he has a right to “have” her. And then he comes back for more. Three years later, Thuy is an official in Vietnam’s communist regime, and with the help of the Engineer, he finds Kim hiding as she waits for Chris to return. He asks her again to marry him, and when she refuses, he orders his troops who had been waiting outside the door to tie her up and take her to a re-education camp, showing us that again, he is willing to kill her if she will not give him what he wants (what he wants being her). Kim is once again trapped with no options, so she reveals the son she had with Chris to Thuy, who once again threatens murder as he holds Tam at knifepoint, and Kim, because she is a mother, has no choice but to shoot Thuy with Chris’ gun. Thuy is shown as a relentless brute who will kill a white man, will think about killing a teenage girl, and will kill an actual toddler in order to get his way and preserve his pride and cultural ideas. His brutality and the way he gets in between Kim and Chris’ star-crossed love makes it such that the audience might even feel that he deserves his death, and even if they feel bad for him, they will hardly consider it a tragedy. 

Thuy also commits emotional violence against her. Even when he is not putting his hands on Kim in their initial encounter,  he invalidates her feelings for Chris, basically telling her that she “belongs” to him, and then dredges up the past trauma of her parents’ death in order to make her feel guilty about not wanting to marry him. And three years later, he forces her to watch as he holds her child hostage and almost kills him. Although it was Kim who pulled the trigger on Thuy, the fact that she had to choose between the death of her child and committing murder is an emotionally violent act in itself. Either way, she will be held responsible for the death of a family member. His entire character is based on a cycle of telling Kim he loves her and then threatening her with death, so, you know, a real stand-up guy.

And then we have Chris, played by Alistair Brammer. On the surface, he is the romantic lead! He is chivalrous, he is Western, he loves Kim and wants to rescue her from her tragic life in Vietnam. But he has the potential to be just as violent as Thuy; we’re just not supposed to think that he is, or at least, we’re not supposed to care. First of all, throughout Act I, he’s either in his army uniform or half-naked (read: having sex with Kim), meaning he’s either a symbol of war and American imperialism or sexually dominant at all times. Secondly, he’s also not particularly gentle around Kim when they first meet, either. Although he never lays a rough hand on her, he’s constantly using excessive force against other men who come near her, such as the other soldier who tries to assalt her or the Engineer, and he also doesn’t try to stop John’s sexual harassment against her, either. Though at first he pays her to leave the brothel, he eventually gives in to the pressures of toxic masculinity when John and the Engineer accuse him of not being interested in her – he takes her back to her room where he takes advantage of her naivete and proceeds to rape her (yes, she allowed him to, but as the musical makes both excessively clear through Noblezada’s portrayal yet also wants us to forget, she is a child). There are also multiple instances later on in the musical where he is an all-around violent guy, such as his pulling a gun on a man asking to use the phone, or spending his entire Big Emotional Solo pushing men asking him for help away from him. Even in moments where he was onstage with Thuy while Thuy was being actively violent, Chris was being violent as well! Remember, he chased Thuy out of the brothel at gunpoint after holding a gun to Thuy’s forehead over Kim’s cowering body. And before Chris leaves, he gives her his gun thinking he is protecting her, but as we later learn, she ended up using this gun to kill herself to ensure Chris took her son with him back to the States. Though he never physically lays a violent hand on Kim, the threat is constantly there. 

Chris also inflicts emotional violence on Kim from the moment he decides to pursue her. Not only does he take advantage of her youth and inexperience in having sex with her, he continues to pursue this relationship with a girl he knows is all kinds of disadvantaged. She is seventeen years old, she is traumatized (she tells him about how her parents were civilian casualties in Chris’ war and how she literally saw their faceless dead bodies, to which he replies, “Can I see you tonight?” and I proceed to vomit a little in my mouth), and she is a prostitute because she cannot afford to eat otherwise. I cannot imagine that anything but good old white American male entitlement could have made him think this was a relationship he could pursue while keeping her emotional stability intact. Although he supposedly loves her, he capitalizes off of her for personal gain (“I saw a world I never knew/ and through her eyes I suffered too/ In spite of all the things that were / I started to believe in her”), which in itself is violent by turning her into nothing more than a stepping stone for Chris’ personal growth. There is an image that I think about a lot when considering the relationship between Kim and Chris: they are alone, center stage, kissing passionately while bathed in an almost heavenly light – but the first thing you notice is Chris’ gun on his hip. Maybe it’s my recent viewing of Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means To Me” talking, but all I can think about while watching this interaction is how easy it would be for him to grab his gun and shoot her in this moment, if only he had wanted to. 

Both Chris and Thuy lord their ability to inflict physical harm over Kim’s head constantly and leave the lingering threat of violence in their wake wherever they go. They both treat her like property. They both use her as a stepping stone for fulfillment of their personal narratives. And yet, why do we hate Thuy and sympathize with Chris? The answer is..you guessed it, Racism! Thuy is introduced as Kim’s suitor via arranged marriage (bonus points: he’s her cousin), and believes he is entitled to Kim because of it. Kim states that “I am not a prize you can win” (yay women empowerment?), then turns to Chris and explains to him that they were promised to each other four years ago (to which Chris nods sagely and understandingly, as if to say “ah yes, your oppressive culture, I know of it”). Thuy is painted as an embodiment of Vietnamese culture and attitudes towards women, which are represented as repressive and primitive. Meanwhile, Chris in his army uniform represents American chivalry and progressive Western values (which we American women know to be true because we definitely do not have to worry about walking home alone in the dark. All I am saying is that you can tell this production was directed by a white man). The Western audience wants to believe that Chris is the good guy, that his violence is acceptable because he is a soldier, because he loves Kim, and maybe, just maybe, because we’re just so used to white male violence that we are blind to how it pervades our American culture and we (women) have to ignore and forget about it just to get through our day. 

Chris and Thuy are so similar. They play tug-of-war with this poor girl’s life, and in the end it tears her apart – she dies via Chris’ gun in Chris’ arms, and the tragedy of her death is overshadowed by Chris’ grief about it. In comparing the way these two men inflict physical and emotional violence onto this vulnerable woman, we are forced to confront how pervasive masculine violence is in our lives and how racism impacts how we see it. All men are capable of violence, but our white supremacist culture allows us brush it off or justify it when a woman is a casualty of fighting a culture perceived to be uncivilized, repressive, or just flat out wrong. Our perception of violence as something perpetrated by non-Western cultures, by men of color, lets us ignore the more sinister forms of violence enacted upon women (women of color in particular) by white men – violence that isn’t even subtle. It’s right in front of us, the gun is on their hip, and white supremacist narratives like this one convince us that it’s just not that big a deal. And pulling the trigger gets easier.