“You Wouldn’t Stab a Child!”: A Discussion on Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Miss Saigon

A conversation between Paige Adams, Liv Donofrio, and Valerie Kraft on the 2014 revival of Miss Saigon.

Liv Donofrio: Okay, so we’re here to talk about the 2014 West End Revival of Miss Saigon, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. We’re probably also going to talk a lot of trash about Miss Saigon (laughs). Specifically, we’re going to discuss how the show uses people of color, specifically Vietnamese  individuals, as props to idolize whiteness. Essentially, we’ll be discussing the ways in which Miss Saigon weaponizes racism and sexism to uphold the supremacy of a white and patriarchal America.

LD: So I guess we can start by talking about, at least I am very interested in talking about, the American soldiers and the way that they are portrayed in the musical. Specifically how they are kind of seen as the standard of masculinity, especially with the entire plot revolving around this dichotomy of Chris (played by Alistair Brammer in the 2014 production)  versus Thuy (played by Kwang-Ho Hong)  as Kim’s only options. Because then it feels like what the musical wants us to do is see Thuy, who represents basically Vietnamese culture, as the villain. They want us to see him as like, the worst person ever. And like to be fair, he does try to stab a four year old, but it feels to me that the reason they’ve set up this dichotomy between Chris and Thuy is because they’re attempting to assert that the ideal is whiteness. She should be with this white man because this is the ideal is this white man, and they’re then implying with Thuy as the villain that her culture is bad, and Vietnam is bad, and so like what the musical wants is for us to root for and defend Chris, this white American soldier.

Valerie Kraft: Absolutely! The musical spends so much time building up sympathy for Chris, even from the very beginning. In the first songs of the musical, we see all the other soldiers in his troop completely happy to buy prostitutes, and yet, Chris is abstaining because he’s just so morally superior. And I think one of the biggest examples I can think of for the way in which we are supposed to see these American soldiers as completely forgivable, no matter what crimes and awful acts they commit, is through the character of John Thomas (played by Hugh Maynard). In the first minutes of the musical, we see him acting in a sexually aggressive manner towards these women who are unable to give genuine consent.

Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi and Hugh Maynard as John during “The Heat is On In Saigon”

VK: He literally purchases Kim (played by Eva Noblezada) for Chris, as if she is an object. And then in the opening number of the second act, “Bui Doi,” we see John running his new organization, and he spends the rest of the musical being this “hero” and kind man who is just so devoted to righting the wrongs of the war and “saving” these children from poverty and orphanhood. And in contrast, we don’t get any kind of redemption arc for anyone of Vietnamese descent – we hardly get any sort of sympathy for, you know, the hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese people that were left behind after the American evacuation, and yet they’ve spent so much time building up empathy for these men who have really done nothing to deserve any of the audience’s support.

Paige Adams: Yeah, I agree! And to go off of the soldier aspect that you introduced… These boys are leaving their families to go “make right” while they’re doing wrong (sometimes starting families accidentally with prostitutes- Yikes) but just like you said, Valerie, it’s okay because “boys will be boys.” Their behavior is excusable when it shouldn’t be, all while female behavior is not only not excused but also criticized. We’re looking at the prostitutes in such a harsh light without considering or focusing on what circumstances led them to that. Instead, we’re told that Gigi is unwanted because she’s considered to be a “slut,” but Kim is desirable because of her sexual purity. Meanwhile, these boys are doing God knows what to God knows who, and they’re totally offed from criticism and consequence in a way that women were (and still are) not excused from. There’s no double standard.

Kim, played by Eva Noblezada, during “The Heat is On In Saigon”

LD: Like Valerie was talking about, I think there’s also something to be said for the way that the musical gives us little sympathy for the Vietnamese people who get left behind. The only inkling that we get of that is in “Fall of Saigon,” like that very gratuitous scene of all of them falling to their knees and the camera panning over their faces over and over again. It’s like two to three minutes of these people being in anguish for our viewership, and like that is a real thing that happened to real people. To me, putting that on stage for so long and like really hammering that home the way that they do, especially considering that the fact this musical was written by two white men, feels to me more like trauma porn for American audiences than it does an accurate representation of what Vietnamese people were going through. So then it makes me really suspicious about how this musical is representing Vietnam and Vietnamese culture. And again, the way that they’re villainizing Thuy and upholding Chris, who has done nothing to deserve it.

A terrible screencap of “The Fall of Saigon”

LD: I also think there’s something to be said about the way that they cast Chris and John. It feels wrong that Chris has to be a white man. We talked about this when we were reading for this section, but the way that Broadway just does not do racially diverse casting at all, and if they do like they default to white roles. It feels like they’ve defaulted to a white role for Chris, and so they put John in this supporting role. But they also put John in a supporting role that is a sexually aggressive supporting role, so at the beginning in “The Heat is On In Saigon,” it felt very much like they were playing into racist stereotypes of Black men as being sexually aggressive. And so there’s another layer to racial representation in Miss Saigon that comes from the casting that I think was completely unacceptable. There’s no reason why Chris has to be white, but Chris is white because the musical is trying to tell us that white masculinity is the standard that we should be rooting for.

VK: Liv, I think that’s a great point, and I think when you talk about trauma porn, that speaks to the ending as well. The bottom, unspoken, line of the musical is that Kim was never going to get her happy ending because she is a Vietnamese prostitute. And even though that is not necessarily explicit from the beginning, knowing what we know about who is allowed to “win” and who is allowed to have a happy ending in stories that are written by Americans – and in stories that are written by white men – it wasn’t going to be Kim. So despite the fact that Chris’ wife, Ellen, (played by Tamsin Carroll) doesn’t do anything other than glorify Chris, it’s not an accident that she is the one that “wins” Chris in the end. And even when Kim’s dream of a happy ending is ripped from her, the musical shifts the audience’s focus from Kim to Chris in those final moments. It’s not solely because we see Kim’s dead body on stage that we feel grief – we’re feeling grief because of Chris’s reaction to her.

Another terrible screencap in which Chris is the camera (and audience’s) focus during Kim’s death

VK: Once again, even in her death, the feelings of white Americans are emphasized over the loss of a Vietnamese woman. Kim is sidelined, and Chris’s feelings are given priority, despite the fact that he was the one that abandoned her. In fact, anything that’s related to Kim always somehow goes back to Chris, which, once again, upholds the idea that white emotion is the most important, and thus, it is the white man who is the most important of all the characters. Whether it be John, a black man, or whether it be Kim and the other prostitutes who are Vietnamese women – they solely exist just to move Chris’s plot forward. It’s not about them or their experiences whatsoever.

PA: And strictly addressing the Vietnamese-American issue, whiteness is idolized to the point of suicide. It’s terrible because at the end, we are ‘taught’ that it’s better to be dead than to be Vietnamese. Our takeaways are that the victims are Vietnamese women, and the villains are Vietnamese men, and the Americans just sit back and reap the benefits of being considered the ideal. The Vietnamese struggle is downplayed by the emphatic greatness of being white and American. Kim would rather be dead than be Vietnamese (specifically non-American), and this is exactly what the white, patriarchal, American audience wants to hear.

LD: I think we also see that idolization of whiteness and that idolization of America in The Engineer (played by Jon Jon Briones)  a lot as well, like his entire plotline, is just he wants to get to America. And like, there’s another aspect that he wants to get to America specifically by exploiting women. I think we could honestly write a whole other essay on the Engineer, and we could probably write an essay just on “The American Dream” as a number, but we’ll touch on it a bit here.

Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer during Miss Saigon’s production number, “The American Dream”

LD: I’m honestly not sure if it’s placement in Act Two is ironic or not. I’m not sure if the musical is attempting to critique itself. While I was watching it, I had a little bit of like, “Oh, this is a little ironic that he’s talking about the American dream when we know that the American dream is literally crumbling for Kim in front of her eyes.”  So maybe that was the musical’s attempt to make an actual critique about American involvement in the Vietnam War. But what I think when you step back, what we take away is that the Engineer was obsessed with being American. He was obsessed with coming to America and it’s once again it’s this demonization of being in Vietnam, it’s calling the Bui Doi “raised in hell,” it’s pitting Vietnam against America and painting Vietnam as a place of “hell” without acknowledging the way in which American involvement made it worse. The only acknowledgement that we get of that is talking about the Bui Doi, but again, that is more of a plot point for Chris to establish that John is going to find Tam and not an actual critique of these American soldiers and their actions abroad.

VK: I think one of the best examples we get about the way that America and whiteness are shown as superior to Vietnam and “Asianess” is Thuy versus Chris, because essentially those are Kim’s two options. She can either go with Chris, she can go with Thuy, or she can die, which is what ultimately happens. And Chris – and let’s not beat around the bush here. Let’s call it what it is. Kim was bought for Chris. Kim is underage. Chris literally raped her – Chris is still painted as “the good guy.” Oh, he’s just so kind, he’s going to take care of her, he’s gentle, he’s not like the other soldiers. And in contrast, we get this villainization of Thuy. As we learn in “Thuy’s Arrival,” Thuy betrayed Kim by siding with the communists and abandoning her. We see Thuy act violent and crazed, and like Liv mentions, even willing to kill a child just to have Kim as his wife. And of course, this violence and attempted murder is horrible, but I feel like this is a very intentional dichotomy that the musical writers set up. It would be one thing if Thuy was Kim’s childhood best friend and she simply just didn’t love him the way she loved Chris. But to continuously make Thuy the villain, and in the same vein, gloss over all of the reasons that Chris is a terrible person seems to further emphasize that white soldiers are “good” and the Vietnamese characters are “bad.” Because it’s something that is highlighted over and over with Thuy – and perhaps even with his ties to communism, which has historically been villainized and portrayed as the most “un-american” ideology possible. And this dichotomy of “white/good” and Vietnamese/bad” is even further exemplified by the character of The Engineer. The Engineer profits off of the sexual abuse of women, and the American troops are not only complict in this, but active participants. Yet, only The Engineer spends the production being characterized as sleazy, whereas the American soldiers – who literally rape these women – very quickly are absolved of this and spend the second act of the musical portrayed as respectable Americans that have bravely fought for their country. Even John, who is shown as the epitome of sexual aggression and sexism in Act 1 is polished and refined in Act 2, an honest man in a clean suit working hard at his organization, completely absolved of his violence from before.

PA: It really just further reinstates the problem with depictions and realities of America- to be honest- and the American dream. We all encourage each other to pursue the American dream, but what we don’t discuss is that the pursuing is at the expense of someone else. America is the land of the free at the expense of people’s freedom (even still). It’s the land of opportunity because it took opportunities from others. I’m not sure if Miss Saigon is necessarily critiquing that or satirizing it, or if it’s simply encouraging a realist view that you have to be selfish to not be exploited in American culture, let alone accomplish what you want and achieve the great American dream. And perhaps the attraction to Chris symbolized the attraction to the American dream, despite how problematic it is? (Problematic favorites @ week 1, am I right?!)

LD: I just want to make one final point– I also think we have to recognize that this musical is adapted from source material which has been around forever and is rooted in stereotypes of Orientalism and this American fascination with the “exoticism” of Asian women. And we need to ask ourselves, why? Why is this a story that needed to be revived in 2014? Why did we need to make Madame Butterfly from a play to a musical to an opera, and why did two white men (Boublil and Schönberg) have to do it? Why are they so obsessed with this kind of tragic prostitute story? We saw them do it in Les Mis in “I Dreamed a Dream,” and there’s major parallels between “I Dreamed a Dream” and “The Music in My Mind.” Why is this? Why is this a story that we keep repeating when it is so obviously rooted in American imperialism?

Katherine Deserved Better: How Newsies Fails at Feminism

I first discovered Newsies when I was fourteen years old and in the prime of my awkward years. I fell in love with the energy of the show– the kind of playful, energetic, can-do attitude of these kids as old as me who were changing the world. And they were men! Who could sing! And dance! That’s what teen girls do isn’t it? Fixate on good looking, talented men? What more could a fourteen-year old ask for in a musical?

Newsies was everything that I wanted, but nothing that I needed as a young, closeted queer woman. In a time where it’s critical to find positive role models, I attached myself to Katherine Plumber, claiming the character as my “ultimate dream role.” But Katherine is far from the pinnacle of positive feminine representation. Her #girlboss energy is superficial at best and performs several toxic tropes rooted in misogyny. And furthermore, her role in the musical serves little more than to insert a heterosexual narrative where none needs to exist, ultimately undermining the critical commentary on class Newsies claims to deliver. 

Most of my experience with (and therefore opinions of) Newsies comes from the original Broadway production, originally premiering at the Nederlander Theatre in 2012, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein. The stage production is nothing short of spectacular, with Jeremy Jordan starring effortlessly as hero Jack Kelly and Kara Lindsay as spunky reporter Katherine Plumber, backed up by an ensemble cast of incredibly talented men. Notably, in this original production there are no female newsies (besides honorary newsie Katherine), though as the show has transitioned off Broadway and rights became available for local theatres, there have been an increasing number of productions that incorporate female newsies.

I’m spending time laying out the casting choices because I think the musical’s original intent to have a cast of all male newsies is significant, and ultimately defines the portrayals of masculinity and femininity that we see performed onstage. From the beginning of Carrying The Banner, we get a sense of the heavily masculinized camaraderie shared by these boys as they tease each other while getting ready for the day. Most of this teasing is physical, with lots of shoving, tapping, spit, and swagger. The energy that is created is very “boys will be boys,” a picture of stereotypical teenage behavior– this is the default of masculinity in Newsies. Each character is allowed some moments of depth and vulnerability (only if they have a name in the show book, though), which is a step towards showing a more rounded vision of what it means to a man. However, these moments are fleeting (Race in particular gets about thirty seconds of depth in the opening number), and by and large Newsies makes it clear to the viewer that there are more important things that make these boys men: just look at their swagger! Their bravado! This is masculinity!

Enter Katherine Plumber: Newsies’ female lead. She is not the only woman in the show (shoutout to Medda Larkin who has one of the best songs and costumes in the entire show), but she is the only one who receives any sort of depth. However, all of Katherines’ “depth” and development is related in some way to another masculine character. She is a reporter, yes, but she is a reporter for the newsies, she is the daughter of Pulitzer, she is the love interest of Jack. She is presented to us as a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world, as she says herself in Watch What Happens  (“A girl? It’s a girl! How the hell! Is that even legal?”). Ironically, though, the show never really allows her this success or this independence. The article she writes gets shut down by her father, and her brilliant idea to print papers for all the laborers in New York gets carried out by Jack and the other newsies, who get much more credit (and in Jack’s case, a sweet job offer) than she does. Katherine’s existence is inextricably linked to the men in her life, which makes her feminist attitude surface-level at best: it’s as if Disney wants to promote feminism without actually promoting feminism.

Katherine is only respected as a woman in the masculinized space of Newsies because she is able to be “one of the boys,” a tired iteration of the very tired “not like other girls” trope, which is rooted in misogyny and ideals of male desire. She attracts Jack because she is smart and witty, because she is able to hold her own against him: unlike the other women he has been with, who he seems to see as disposable (“Girls are nice/Once or twice/Til’ i find someone new”). This is inherently sexist– Jack is revealing to us that not only does he not actually respect women as anything more than romantic playthings, but he believes himself to be superior to them. Katherine is attractive only because she is smart and independent and therefore different. This pits her against other women and reinforces the idea that being a woman means being what a man wants, as well as presenting femininity as an inherently undesirable state of being. 

Amongst the other newsies, it is much of the same story. She gains their respect because a) she is helping them with the strike and therefore useful and b) she proves that she is more “boy” than “girl” (because girls are dumb and weak, right? Am I right, guys?). In King of New York, she engages in a competition of sorts with the other newsies. She begins with a simple tap sequence and is subsequently booed. So what does she do? She hikes up her skirts and taps ferociously, symbolizing to the newsies and to us that she can be “one of the boys”– which, again, is implied as being better and more desirable than being one of the girls. Not a great message to send to teenage girls (the main fan base of Newsies) who are already struggling to find their place in a patriarchal society. This is the irony of Katherine– she is both emblematic of the struggles of young women and thus relatable AND a portrayal of deeply sexist ideas about femininity. She has the potential to be such a powerful character, but the way she is utilized in the musical falls so flat as soon as you give the lyrics more than a cursory glance. 

Another sticking point for me is Katherine’s seemingly forced relationship with Jack. She goes from completely uninterested to being in love with him in a matter of 40 minutes real-time and about 2 days show-time. This fast turnaround is unsurprising when we consider that this musical has been funded and produced by Disney, a company notorious for creating stories that center heterosexual romance at the expense of strong, well-rounded female characters. In Disney-verse, life is only worth living as a woman if a man is in love with you. In recent years Disney has been on a more positive trend of feminine portrayals, but Newsies was produced at a time where that hadn’t started to happen yet: the pre-Frozen era, if you will. That being said, while it is unsurprising that the producing corporation felt the need to tie the plotline up with a neat heterosexual bow, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. 

In my opinion the Jack/Katherine romance serves three purposes: 

  • To ensure the audience that though this is a musical about close relationships between men, there is absolutely NOTHING gay about it. No, really, we promise! Look how straight Jack is!
  • To soften the labor critique aspect of the show
  • To keep the production in line with Disney values and give the whole plot a happy ending (because sad musicals have never been successful… Les Mis, anyone?)

Disney is maybe not the most gay-friendly corporation (though I did get an excellent pair of rainbow Mickey ears pre-Covid, so that counts for something… right?). So it’s unsurprising to me that they’ve inserted a heterosexual romance into a story that genuinely does not need one. But honestly, Newsies would be better if there was some sort of non-heterosexuality explicitly written into the script. By forcing this narrative of heterosexuality, Newsies is implying that homosexuality is incongrous with masculinity– or at least their version of it. Would it really be so bad if Jack was gay? What is it adding to his character to make him explicitly heterosexual? What does it add to the plot, for that matter?

The more insidious answer is that the ultimate function of Jack and Katherine’s relationship is to undermine the labor critique that the plot is based in. Yes, we are supposed to feel bad for the newsies and root for them to take down Pulitzer, but I believe that Newsies (and by that I mean Disney) doesn’t want us getting any ideas beyond the action portrayed onstage. At the very end of the musical, Jack is gearing up to leave for Santa Fe. But he stays… in part for his brotherhood, in part for Katherine, and in part for the sweet cartoonist job that Katherine’s father, the man we spent the entire musical rooting against, offers on a whim. Notably, Katherine is the one who first questions Jack’s impulse to leave New York (“What’s New York got that Santa Fe ain’t?), therefore becoming the driving force that convinces him to stay. It’s implied that Katherine is an important part of his decision (though she does offer to travel with him), and thus she becomes a part of the reason that he accepts a job with Pulitzer. This acceptance of the job is really what undermines the labor critique that the entire plot thus far has built. Jack’s activism ends with the strike and he becomes a part of the same system that he just fought against. Therefore Newsies reminds us that though strikes are exciting fodder for a musical’s plot, Jack hasn’t really changed the system– and we shouldn’t either.

So, if Katherine as a character is being used to perform heterosexuality and create a happy, non-radical ending for the story, what does that say about women? Are we just men’s plot devices to make messy situations more palatable for a wide audience? Do we ever get the opportunity to exist apart from that purpose? The answer is yes… just not in Newsies. The more I’ve written about this show, the more upset I am about the missed opportunities for strong character development and an actually progressive message. There are plenty of other musicals that do these things so much better than Newsies. But as scathing as my words may have been, that has not stopped me from listening obsessively to the soundtrack for the past three weeks straight. It has not stopped me from attempting to learn the Seize the Day dance break, newspapers and all, and it has DEFINITELY not stopped me from crying tears of joy while recording Katherine’s part in Once and For All for the Original Cast’s semester revue. That is to say, Newsies may not have been what I needed growing up, but it remains a deeply important piece of nostalgia and a genuinely enjoyable show– as long as you acknowledge it for what it is, which is a piece of media produced by Disney whose commentary on gender, class, and sexuality is dubious at best. I’m going to go listen to the soundtrack again… but maybe I’ll skip Something to Believe In.