Don’t be Gay in Indiana (or as a Straight Man)

I first watched Netflix’s The Prom during winter break of last year, right around when the movie first released for streaming. I remember inviting one of my friends over to my Blakemore dorm (we both stayed on campus over winter break) one night to watch it, as I had wanted to see the stage show on Broadway before COVID happened and we’re both gay. We played it from her old MacBook while sitting on a soft, fleece blanket spready out on the floor, and I vividly remember us having a blast with the movie’s enthralling set design, energetic choreography, catchy musical numbers, and just the fact that it was a cheesy, feel-good teen flick.

However, not even I with my shameless love of tasteless teenage films can look past the movie’s idealistic and poor depiction of the LGBTQ+ community and their struggles. None of the movie’s flashiness can’t make up for its lack of depth and nuance with regards to two of its primary queer characters, Emma Nolan and Barry Glickman.

Starting off with the lesser of the two evils, Emma Nolan isn’t actually the worst depiction of a lesbian teenager possible, it’s just a horribly idealistic one, largely due to Jo Ellen Pellman’s portrayal of the character. Emma’s introductory number “Just Breathe,” establishes her as a severe optimist, and this is hammered in through Pellman’s constant grin. No matter how sarcastic I was about being gay in Indiana, I would not be smiling if I just got verbally berated in a crowded school hallway. Pellman’s smile undermines the horrific nature of the homophobia she just experienced and makes it hard to relate or understand her pain since it seems like she’s not even feeling any pain at all. Especially since she is the only out lesbian in the entire school, I have a hard time believing she is taking her situation this well and with that big of a smile. It doesn’t help that principal Tom Hawkins supports Emma, which seems rather unrealistic for a highly conservative high school in small-town Indiana. Had absolutely no one been on Emma’s side, we would have seen a whole new dimension to the daily struggles LGBTQ+ people face that The Prom completely skips over.

Another instance of Pellman’s questionable acting is right before and during the number “Alyssa Greene.” Yet again, Pellman maintains a smile as she confronts Ariana DeBose’s Alyssa Greene. It’s hard to believe that Emma is actually mad at Alyssa when her face does not match the words coming out of her mouth, and it is even less believable when she grins while walking with Alyssa during the musical number as if they didn’t just have an intense argument. Here, Pellman’s and Debose’s great chemistry work against each other as Alyssa’s pain is simply not reciprocated by Emma, and even when Emma breaks up with Alyssa I don’t believe that Emma actually wants to break up with her. The smile Pellman maintains while saying “it hurts too much” does not show at all that Emma is hurting, but quite the opposite. This overly positive portrayal of a traumatized teenage lesbian doesn’t provide a platform for real life gay teenagers to relate to because most kids aren’t optimistic about the trauma they face, and they need representation that shows them that it is okay to feel depressed, angry, and even unforgiving.

While I don’t think Pellman’s portrayal of Emma is particularly relatable or realistic, there still is a certain charm to Emma’s hopeful optimism that might work better if it wasn’t in a story that wants to talk about the trauma of the LGBTQ+ community particularly in young adults. On the other hand, James Corden’s Barry Glickman is straight up insulting to the LGBTQ+ community and even less relatable.

The root of the problem with Barry’s character is that he is played by James Corden, a straight man. Corden cannot properly portray a gay character because he cannot understand what it is like to be gay in a straight-dominated world. It feels almost mocking to have a straight man play an overly flamboyant gay man as it plays into the stereotypes that straight men have typically used to oppress gay men. For example, Corden’s exaggerated arm movements and sassy gait feels very forced in the opening number “Changing Lives” especially when compared to Andrew Rannell’s Trent Oliver, someone whose sexuality is never explicitly stated yet played is by an actual gay man, who is much milder yet still sassy and dramatic in a natural. Barry’s suit is even a dazzling and sparkling teal blue, adding to his aggressive flamboyance, compared to Trent’s monochromatic red.

Another scene I take issue with is the shopping scene in “Tonight Belongs to You,” where Barry takes Emma to the mall to get a makeover for the prom. This scene pushes more harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated by the fact that Corden is a straight man singing these words. The lyric “you can borrow all my makeup” reinforces two gay stereotypes, in that gay men are into makeup and lesbians aren’t to be more “masculine.” This coupled with Corden’s overly affectionate and exaggerated acting create a character that doesn’t seem realistic and only serves to perpetuate stereotypes. This scene in general implies that a gay man is better at dressing someone of a different gender simply because they are more feminine despite not being able to completely understand a woman’s experience (just like how a straight man cannot completely understand a gay man’s experience!). Hearing Barry call himself “Miss Glickman” is also particularly uncomfortable because when said by a straight man, it again plays into the stereotype that one’s sexuality makes them an expert on genders that aren’t their own. It is absolutely possible for gay men in real life to fall into these stereotypes, but in real life James Corden is not a gay man, and watching him act this way only pushes straight-male dominance.

Beyond Corden’s portrayal of Barry, I take issue with the way Barry’s main plot line of his parents not accepting him resolves. Barry’s mother surprises Barry in the school hallway. While Barry is hesitant at first, his mother is quick to admit her wrongdoings and they make up. Unfortunately, not every gay person gets to reconcile with their homophobic parents. In fact, it could have easily been a very dangerous situation for Barry to meet up with his mother in case she hadn’t changed, which many parents never do. Though an incredibly heartwarming scene, this feeds into the glittery optimism that underlies the movie, and while I love cheese and happy endings, wrapping everything up in a neatly tied bow doesn’t work with how serious of a story and subject matter the movie is trying to tell.

When the entire film is full of messy plot lines that get resolved too quickly and too cleanly, it’s hard to view the individual struggles the queer characters face as realistic. The struggles these characters face only end up grazing the surface of the trauma LGBTQ+ individuals in the real world face and get resolved by sparkling glitter and spectacular dance numbers, which no matter how well-intentioned will never reach the heart of traumatized queer folk to relate to.

Stereotypes Imbedded Into Barry Glickman; The Prom


    The musical The Prom, Ryan Murphy’s version, was an attempt at tackling larger scale issues of the LGBT+ community; however, the gender stereotypes embedded in it slowly took away from the message. The musical starts off with four broadway stars: Dee Dee Allen, Barry Glickman, Trent Oliver, and Angie Dickson, who all attempt to clear their name by working for a cause. They travel to Edgewater, Indiana, where a prom is being canceled as result of a teenager being homosexual. Emma experiences intense bullying by her peers as they place items in her lockers with notes and hold a private prom, not including her. Eventually, in the end, there is a school prom with everyone and the main characters all end up in a relationship they were longing for, like Barry and his mother, Emma and her girlfriend (Alyssa), and Alyssa and her mom. However, as all of this is taking place, the four broadway stars still find a way to make every situation about themselves. The storyline and the casting of actors causes the scenes to not reflect Emma and her hardships. Although the musical The Prom was intended to tackle the issues striking the LGBT+ community, stereotypes are built into the formation of Barry Glickman and heteronormative belief is proved to be dominant. 

    First and foremost, the character Barry Glinkman was created based off “gay” stereotypes. He was excessively flamboyant, loved shopping, used hand gestures majority of the time, and had a feminine touch to his clothing. Barry’s mannerisms and affectations took away from the relatability of him and further caused a disconnect. The reason why these stereotypes were generated were due in large part to the choice of casting for the role. Barry Glinkman was played by a heterosexual male, James Corden. Corden tried too hard to seem as though he was homosexual that he ended up just perpetuating the common stereotypes following gay men today. Also, he brought no real-life experience or pain into the role. Corden could not relate to his character or the struggles the character would go through. This is shown when Barry and Emma’s grandma are at the dining room table, and he says “I left before they could do that,” before they could kick him out. While saying this, the pain in his voice is not there. His voice is more high pitched, and he tries too hard to incorporate certain mannerisms. The issue was, in real life, he has never had to come out to someone and does not know the fear of doing so. Furthermore, James Corden picked the moments he wanted to be more flamboyant, raise his voice, and emphasize a hand gesture. It wasn’t built into the character’s personality, and when this happened, it took away from the message each scene was trying to convey.  An example of this is when Barry and Emma are in her living room talking about his prom and her prom. He flashes his hand out when he says, “And I promise you are going to have the night of your life.” At night and life, he moves his hand out in a downward pattern that emphasizes those two words. Personally, I saw this part as unnecessary and ultimately distracting. I was paying more attention to the bad acting and the stereotypes going on then Emma’s story. After Barry says that, he starts to lean back on the couch and asks what her date is wearing. It looks as though he “forgot” to do a hand gesture because he jolts his arm out quickly and stops leaning back into the couch just to do that. These gestures weren’t natural, and they were also based off how people think a typical gay man behaves and should behave. 

    The lyrics and the choreography in Barry Glickman’s two main songs, “Barry is Going to Prom” and “Tonight Belongs to You”, continously demonstrate “gay” stereotypes in Emma and Barry. In the song “Barry is Going to Prom,” he says “who cares if you’re just a big old girl,” which in my opinion is just a very interesting line to begin with. It places Barry in this feminine light and plays into gender norms. It defines the way Barry acts and things he is passionate about as girly, and by him calling himself a big old girl, he is essentially saying that everything he does is what a typical woman should do and a man should not. Also, after that line, Barry states “Just get into that gym and twirl.” This once again shows a “gay” stereotype as it highlights that a homosexual man has to have twirling and lyrical moves as their form of dancing. He can’t just be in there and dance anyway he wants to; the character has to verbally express the idea held as standard and then go and demonstrate it. Throughout this song, Barry is prancing around on his tippy toes and doing over the top movements with his arms. He throws both out to the side high in the air as he moves in a more jazz style. An example of this is when he sticks his head out of the top of the limousine. As he belts “the prom,” he throws both hands up and to the side. He places an emphasis on certain words, where his hands move out and down to convey that. Following this part as he exits the limo, he does a salsa move as he says the big old girl part. A lot of these moves are dramatic and try to emphasis that Barry is gay. I will emphasis once again just because the writers of The Prom wanted Barry to be gay does not mean they needed to do these over the top motions since it reinforces stereotypes. In this scene, the directors also had Barry and the younger version of him be in completely different suites compared to the rest of the crowd. It accentuates the belief that gay men must be into fashion as their costumes were more thought out and fashionable. 

    The song “Tonight Belongs to You” incorporates stereotypes about both Emma and Barry. The song begins in a scene where Barry is taking Emma shopping, which defines two standard beliefs that gay men like fashion and lesbian women do not, and a lyric example of this would be when Barry states “you can borrow all my makeup.”  Emma is asking Barry for advice on how “to sell it,” and Barry is telling her how to flirt. It seems as though Emma does not know how to act or flirt because she is lesbian, which was conveyed due to the lyrics of the song. From the very minute the song starts, Corden’s choice of hand gestures for Barry becomes apparent. This is shown when he shuts the car door. He doesn’t just push the door in; he instead has all of his fingers lined perfectly next to each other and pointed up as he elegantly pushes forward. As he looks through the dresses, he pushes them with his middle finger, ring finger, and pinky all pointed up. His thumb and pointer make a circle and flick. Nothing was normal about the movements he was doing as they seemed forced and unauthentic. Another important part of this scene is when Barry and Emma are looking at the shoes. Barry is throwing pair after pair behind him as he sees a better shoe, and then when Emma tries them on, she walks like a statue. Barry is the one looking for shoes; the one interested in something fashionable, unlike Emma again. Also, it makes me question the reasoning behind making Emma not know how to walk in heels. Is it because she’s lesbian and they want her to be seen in a more tom-boy manner? Or is it because she has never had the opportunity to wear them before and just simply never learned? These elements of questioning once again distract me from the plot of the musical. 

    Overall, the musical had the grounds to accomplish way more than it did. The backstory of Emma was on the path to that but ended up being overcrowded by the gender norms and stereotypes displayed. With a better casting position for Barry, there would have been less controversy and more focus on important messages. This wasn’t all to do to James Corden though as the lyrics and choreography did emphasize these. The stereotypes of how a gay man should act, dress, and talk only redefined how a typical male and female should behave. 

Gender Representation in The Prom, But Give it Some Zazz

I’m going to be honest. I didn’t care for The Prom. It’s a recent film adaption of the Broadway musical on Netflix, with Ryan Murphy of Glee directing. The plot was all over the place and most of the characters were not likeable. But for an attempt at being a progressive film which ended up being a mainstream version of an LGBTQ+ film designed for straight people, it did have complex and nuanced depictions of gender in its effort to challenge the current social narratives. The most surprising part is, they come in the form of two side characters, Mrs. Greene, and Principal Hawkins.

The Prom is a satire on Broadway itself. It tells the story of four Broadway actors in need of a career boost, who attempt to help a girl named Emma who wants to attend the school prom with her girlfriend. Mrs. Greene, the PTA president, cancels prom to prevent Emma from attending, which is where Dee Dee, Barry, Angie, and Trent step in to try to help Emma for publicity. The four of them along with Tom Hawkins, the school principal, help Emma get the prom that she deserves.

Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins may seem like typical characters with nothing interesting at first glance. Their outfits are plain and their personalities ordinary next to the eccentricities of the Broadway actors. But their gendered behaviors and actions provide a complicated and nuanced depiction of gender that challenges societal ideals. So, for once, the Broadway stars won’t be the stars of this analysis, no matter how much they try to shove themselves into the narrative (except for maybe just two guest appearances from Dee Dee.)

Let’s start with one of the most obvious representations of gender, physical appearance. Mrs. Greene, president of the PTA, is always wearing business clothes, in varying shades of pinks and purples. The film emphasizes her position of power despite being a woman in her appearance, with her pink blazers helping her stand out amongst the crowd and reminding you of her femininity. Her makeup is always perfect, paired with earrings and a classic hairstyle. These are all typical portrayals of femininity.

Principal Hawkins’ character follows suit (literally), by dressing in a masculine style, wearing almost exclusively suits and sporting a beard. Both characters are stereotypically masculine and feminine in their appearance, which doesn’t challenge the current expectations of gender expression. However, it is their behaviors and actions which contrast with their standard looks that make you realize why the producers made this choice.

Mrs. Greene being the strong-willed president of the PTA needs to be authoritative. She stands up for her beliefs and is charismatic enough to rally the rest of the parents behind her. The way she acts contrasts with her feminine appearance, as she takes on characteristics that are more often associated with men. However, this is in part by her being in an authority position. Women must be more assertive to be taken seriously, even if it leads to them being deemed bossy or controlling when the same is not said for men in positions of power. The choice to have her wear stereotypically feminine colors undermines and contrasts the more masculine undertones that come with her being an authority figure. Women in higher up positions in the workplace usually dress more masculine, in blazers and pants and dark colors, rather than anything too feminine since masculinity is associated with power and leadership. Mrs. Greene embodies the ideals of being a strong and assertive woman in power, while also reclaiming her femininity in her position.

On the other hand, Principal Hawkins, also an authority figure, acts less like the usual men that we would see in these roles. In his first encounter with Dee Dee, she says that he doesn’t fit her usual demographic of gay men, to which he replies that straight people like Broadway too. Our first impression of Principal Hawkins is that he not only likes Broadway, but is an avid fan and isn’t afraid to admit it. In Dee Dee’s experience, she has seen that men liking Broadway is seen as effeminate and is associated with gay men. Later, when Principal Hawkins and Dee Dee are on a dinner date, he opens up to her and says that Broadway provides an escape from his everyday life through a soulful solo number. Despite outward appearances, Principal Hawkins shows a level of depth and vulnerability that is not often seen from men in film in general, let alone for a side character.

This opposing gendered behavior between Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins does raise the question of favoring men over women. We have Mrs. Greene as a strong woman who made it to being the president of the PTA, and who is not afraid to stand up for herself and her beliefs. We have Principal Hawkins showing that there’s nothing wrong with men being vulnerable and showing emotion. But are we not made to favor Principal Hawkins over Mrs. Greene, despite them both breaking stereotypes? The obvious answer is that Mrs. Greene is the antagonist whose homophobic beliefs leave little left to be admired about her, while Principal Hawkins is the voice of reason and is just trying to help Emma get to prom. It’s just the role of their characters in the plot, so what’s the big deal?

If audiences see Mrs. Greene as the enemy, then are we not also seeing a woman in power as the enemy? Principal Hawkins’ character is praised for his vulnerability and breaking the mold by getting a romance story and a happy ending, while Mrs. Greene is almost constantly shown in a negative light. We learn from her daughter Alyssa that her husband left her, and ever since she’s been pushing Alyssa to be the perfect student in hopes that he will come back. Besides this one small glimpse into her personal life and her redemption at the end of the film when she accepts Alyssa’s identity as a lesbian, we are made to despise her throughout the entire film. In fact, her homophobic beliefs make it uncomfortable to like her as a character (assuming you don’t share her beliefs), so how are you to like anything else about her? She is a homophobic mother who initially couldn’t accept her daughter coming out and is no stranger to personal attacks when it comes to upholding the conservative beliefs of her town. She is also a woman who made it to a position of authority, and a single mother whose husband left her for reasons we are not privy to. Yet both parts of her are antagonized in the film whether intentionally or subconsciously.

On a lighter note, everyone’s favorite part of musicals: romance. But this time, a subplot between Principal Hawkins and Dee Dee, which presents a complete 180 on the traditional musical romance. From the get-go, Dee Dee gets Principal Hawkins to take her out to dinner, subtly making the first move. Later, Principal Hawkins finds out that Dee Dee and the others originally came to help Emma for publicity, and he leaves her. To win back his favor, Dee Dee goes all out in a performance of his favorite song performed by her on Broadway.

Their roles have been reversed. Instead of the boy losing the girl and then fighting to get her back, Dee Dee has taken on the role of the boy in love and challenges that old trope. Their love story also avoids the objectification that often comes with traditional Broadway romances. Principal Hawkins, although perhaps given more depth to serve as a more compatible love interest for Dee Dee, still serves other purposes in the plot that make him a stand-alone character as well. In fact, he is the one who solved the original conflict in the film. He worked with the state attorneys and helped win the legal battle against the PTA cancelling prom. His purpose in the plot is greater than to just be a love interest. Their romance goes against the traditional narrative and flips it on its head by having Dee Dee and Principal Hawkins switch roles.

Through all of this, remember that Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins are side characters. They are hardly a part of any of the musical numbers or spectacle. Even in Principal Hawkins’ solo number he is singing about being entranced by the fantasy world and escape of Broadway. They are spectators just like us. It reveals the nature of the “real world” outside of the Broadway world and makes their stories more directly applicable. The setting of this musical reflects our own society, so any challenges to the default narrative suggest ways of change in our society. This raises a lot of questions that we are left to ponder.

We have seen how Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins show a nuanced representation of gender and don’t fit neatly into the stereotypes often seen in the media. But their representation isn’t perfect and still reflects the dominant narratives in our society. What about patriarchy? Mrs. Greene has less agency than Principal Hawkins as a woman and a single mother. For Principal Hawkins, he has a choice over how he acts and chooses to embrace the more emotional and vulnerable aspects of his personality. Mrs. Greene feels that acting more masculine is her only option to keep putting up a front in order to get her husband back. We aren’t even told her first name like Principal Hawkins. She is still tied to her husband’s identity through her last name and does what she does for him.

The Prom has complex representations of gender roles, but it still shows how those representations function within the dominant frameworks of our society. Gender roles can be challenged, and successfully so. This film normalizes the breaking of gender stereotypes by using Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins to ground the film in realism. But we must keep in mind the intersectionality of one’s identity, and how it can be harder for some people to challenge narratives than others because of the amount of agency they have. Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins are cisgender, straight, and have conventional gender expressions; they only break stereotypes through their actions. In reality, people have such complex identities and face prejudice from multiple systems at play. Nevertheless, perhaps changing the narrative is one aspect of this musical that doesn’t have to stay within the make-believe world of theater.

Modern Femininity, Mama Rose, and Why She Deserved a Dream for Herself.

I’ve been trying to decide for years now if it’s messed up that “Rose’s Turn” is one of my pump-up musical theater songs.

Everyone has that playlist of songs that you go to before a competition, a job interview, a performance, or really anything that they need a boost of adrenaline and confidence for – or if you’ve just had a terrible day and need a pick-me-up to get through the next four hours of classes and assignments. “Rose’s Turn” is easily one of my top picks from my version of that playlist.

Like yeah, sure, Mama Rose is literally having a nervous breakdown in song, and I’m definitely not supposed to root for her or think she’s a great person, and I’ve just watched her inflict some serious psychological damage on her kids for two hours… and yet… “Rose’s Turn” is one of the most exciting, adrenaline-pumping, satisfying musical theater ‘I want’ songs EVER. Why is that? Why am I obsessed with this song? Why is it one of my go-to songs to screlt in the car when I need a boost?  

Hear me out – it’s because Bette Midler’s iconic 1993 performance of Rose’s Turn reads to a modern viewer as a fiery show of self-acceptance, a rejection of cultural norm, and a discovery of non-traditional femininity. It’s no secret that Rose doesn’t exactly embody traditional femininity, especially not in 1959, when Arthur Laurents wrote the book to Gypsy and Jules Styne and Steven Sondheim turned it into the classic musical. Traditionally, women are demure, beautiful, nurturing, and soft-spoken. They are not too confident, and while they may have goals, they aren’t working too hard or getting in anyone’s way to achieve them. They are subservient to men. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Mama Rose is none of those things. She’s bold, brash, confident – she is not afraid to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. In the first scene, we see her barging into an audition and ordering everyone in the room around to make sure her daughters look like the stars that she firmly believes she can make them. She isn’t afraid to essentially ask Herbie to marry her in their very first meeting. She bribes and silver-tongues her way through every situation that dares stop her.

Mama Rose certainly tries to show us that she loves being this way. She exudes confidence. This is written into the book, but Midler also brings an anger and a passion to the character that makes her utterly impossible to ignore. She doesn’t care that she isn’t the star, that she often rubs people the wrong way – her character and perception are secondary to the success of her children. But throughout the show, we see little hints at Rose’s insecurities, in the way Midler delivers a line or in the ghost of a facial expression. Is she truly accepting of her lot in life? Is seeing the success of her children enough for her? As she slowly alienates all the people who love her – first June, then Herbie, and finally ever-devoted Louise, we see the cracks in her façade start to show.

And see, here’s the thing – I feel bad for Rose. I can’t help myself! Even though I am well aware that Rose is a toxic maternal figure, and she has not by any means done what is best for her children, I absolutely feel sympathy towards her. She has been forced to attempt to fit a mold that she will never conform to. Mothering is the “natural” occupation for women of this era, so where does Rose direct all of her dreams, her goals, and her ambitions? Onto her children. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it wasn’t commonplace for women to have their own careers while still being mothers. If you were a mother, that was your job. This was the age of the housewife and the picture-perfect nuclear family. I understand why Rose would’ve felt forced to direct all of her goals onto June and Louise – “don’t I get a dream for myself” was the cry of every stereotypical 1950s mother.

Today, it would have been far more societally acceptable for Rose to have that dream for HER, not for her daughters. Our modern concept of an “ideal woman” (at least from my perspective as a 22 year old who’s ready to get rid of gender roles) is unafraid to pursue her goals. She’s capable of juggling lots of different hats: mother (Rose), careerwoman (Rose?), dreamer (definitely Rose). She’s a master of networking, of finding opportunities where there are seemingly none, and getting to her end goal in whatever way possible. Midler’s portrayal definitely plays into this bold and almost conniving side of Rose in a way that shoves all those character traits front and center. And I ask you this, reader – if Mama Rose was Papa Rose, would we view the character differently? It’s appropriate for men to be pushy and know what they want. When men obnoxiously advocate for themselves, it’s seen as admirable and forgivable instead of unacceptable. Would these aspects of her character be seen in a warmer light?

Obviously, I’m not saying we should forgive Rose for the way she treated her children. She undoubtedly caused them a lot of trauma and stunted their growth and mental development. She was by no means a good mother.

However, Rose is a product of her time (and I usually hate that excuse). It’s so easy to see how these naturally occurring personality traits could have been warped by outward expectations and turned into the poisonous things that they become in Gypsy. And with that lens, it’s hard to NOT view “Rose’s Turn” as a satisfying and thrilling realization of what Rose has lost because of what society has told her is acceptable. It’s never been her turn. She doesn’t get a dream for herself. She isn’t allowed it. But God, she could’ve had it, and Midler makes that obvious. The showpiece that she makes “Rose’s Turn” gives us a vivid picture of how Rose could’ve turned her energy and charisma into an incredible stage persona. Rose is finally showing herself. She’s exploring her inner show woman. She is accepting herself as she is, while mourning what she has lost. And man, it is so satisfying. I was waiting for her to let loose from the first moment she sauntered into frame, and she finally does it here.

Yes, it’s a breakdown, but sometimes breakdowns are necessary to come to terms with important realizations. Who hasn’t had a screaming collapse in the worst moments of their lives, when all their buried frustrations are finally escaping out into the world? (okay maybe I’m revealing too much of myself here, but I digress…) That’s why I want to hear “Rose’s Turn” when I need to get my adrenaline going. It’s cathartic, it’s healing, it’s loud and, for the first time, it’s truly unapologetic.

When I hear “Rose’s Turn”, I want to do it for her, and all the women she represents, who didn’t get dreams for themselves.

Miss Saigon Shows More Power in the Form of a Broadway Musical than Pad Thai

(tho it’s funny that pad thai isn’t a vietnamese dish)

Ejew: This is Ejew Kim and I’m here with Megan Lin and Sally Kim to talk about race and ethnicity in the 2014 West End production of Miss Saigon directed by Laurence Connor and starring Eva Noblezaga as Kim and Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer. Based on the original production by writers and composers Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon (2014) illustrates the life of Kim, a Vietnamese orphan girl trying to reunite with her American boyfriend Chris who had fled to the US after Saigon’s fall, whom she met as the Engineer’s employee. Through the musical, we can see the tribulations the Asian characters go through due to racial disparities and how in light of these troubles, they show aspiration and power by fighting for themselves.

Ejew: Here’s my first question. In Miss Saigon (2014) which Asian characters stood out to you? For me, the Engineer really stood out. As a half-French, half-Vietnamese man, he owns the steady Saigon strip club, “Dreamland.” Already, from how he names his business, you can sense that he is a man full of aspiration. In fact, after Saigon falls, every action, every speech coming out of him is dedicated to achieving his “American Dream” of great wealth, fame, and authority. After Saigon’s failure, he receives no opportunities to achieve the wealth and fame that he wants because he is Vietnamese instead of American. Yet, he persists on trying to achieve his desires as he names his dream the “American Dream,” showing internal power in the form of persisting aspiration, standing strong against a helpless reality.

Megan: I think that the Engineer is interesting, especially with his determination to pursue the American dream, but I think that Kim is the character that really stood out. Firstly, I think that being a woman makes her life comparatively harder than the Engineer. Especially a woman with no family left in a war ridden country, Kim’s life is bound to be difficult. As the main character, Kim has more spotlight on her, which allows the musical to more thoroughly develop aspects of her character. Being a Vietnamese woman, Kim is surrounded by an environment where women are objectified and controlled by men. She has to conform to Vietnamese societal rules, never having the power to break free. However, she is still able to recognize and execute her inner power to fight for what she loves in this restricted environment. Kim’s life is full of tragedy, but she shows resilience and strength even in the face of despair.  

Sally: I was also able to notice how the Engineer and Kim are able to push through and fight for what they aspire despite all of the ups and downs they have been through in their life. In my opinion, they were the ones who have been through the most tribulations and experienced the most helplessness due to their race. However, they are able to find the strength to get past them.

Ejew: To bring the focus more on the acting, how do the actors’ movements portray power? Do they show helplessness in any way? Aspirations? I think the Engineer’s power comes from his sly, rather joyful—and sexual—body movements. His number “The American Dream” really emphasizes this: He seems to be really enjoying the vision, flying his hands up to the sky so many times and striking his head back to laugh hilariously at his fancy stipper ladies and showering money. At one point he grinds on “his” fancy white car, and this seems to be conveyed as his best, true-to-self expression of joy about his “American Dream”—all his life he’s been working with prostitution…how else could he have expressed pleasure? This level of joy he seems to show is quite amazing, especially to think about how much of a depressing time he is spending post-Saigon, earning merely 10 cents an hour under a boss—definitely something that a born-to-be-ceo, money-lover man would have a hard time with, and something other characters seem to not be able to show. And it’s this ability to keep dreaming—with positivity—in a devastating reality represents the Engineer’s internal power. 

Megan: Kim is very different from the optimistic Engineer. She is naive, innocent, and doesn’t have the same playfulness that the Engineer has. Yet she shows her own internal power in several musical numbers, such as ‘The Heat is on in Saigon” and “This is the Hour”. She’s only a 17 year old girl, yet she’s able to stand in front of all these people (the prostitutes and the American soldiers alike) and present herself to make a living. Just imagine witnessing the horrifying deaths of your family and your next best option is being a prostitute. Really just shows how helpless Vietnamese women were during this time period. So Kim having that amount of determination and strength after this tragedy, just shows so much about her character. The way that she holds herself and her straight posture shows that she has an internal power that is incomparable. Instead of cowering, acting submissive, or holding her head down, Kim looks ahead fearlessly. In “This is the Hour” her inner power manifests and fully emerges. She is willing to stand in front of her son, Tam, when Thuy is holding a knife to try to kill him. Then the scene that really took the cake was the scene where Kim actually holds a gun to fight against Thuy and she holds Tam right behind her. This scene was really powerful because it showed how she was willing to stand up against her cousin, someone who is her family, for her own son. She could have agreed to marry him and had an easier life as a housewife, but instead she decides to fight against him. Her determination and strength in the face of tragedy just go to show her inner power. 

Ejew: How do the songs and lyrics from the musical’s authors show the characters’ emotions? How does this contribute to the three factors of our discussion: aspiration, power, and helplessness?

Sally: Kim holds a lot of power internally and in the musical number “This is the Hour,” she is finally able to emit this power and use it to give herself a voice. Kim is willing to do anything for Tam. When he is in danger, Kim knows how to emerge from this internal power in order to save him. Kim’s strong vocals while singing, “You will not touch him” towards Thuy adds on to the demands that she is putting on him. Instead of potentially saying, “Please don’t touch him,” shouting “You will not touch him” has a stronger and demanding tone. Continuing on, she sings, “I’m warning you, for him I’ll kill” while holding a gun towards Thuy and before pulling the trigger she adds on, “You will not take my child.” In this number, the lyrics fully portray Kim’s fearlessness against powers who try to take control of her. The lyrics are way more adamant and relentless. In addition, the way she sings these lyrics by slightly belting and putting as much controlled power as she can shows how Kim is now able to go against those who have taken control of her in the past. I was so glad to see Kim portraying her inner power and not using any words that allow room for Thuy to manipulate and control her.

Megan: I think that the Engineer also really shows the three factors of our discussion. He has an entire song dedicated to his American dream (coincidentally named “The American Dream”), where he conveys his aspirations and shows his desperation to get to his goal. Many lyrics in “The American Dream” show the engineer’s dreams in America. One of the lines is: “In the states I’ll have a club that’s four-starred/ Men like me there have things easy/ They have a lawyer and a bodyguard/ To the Johns there I’ll sell blondes there”. I feel it that these lines really show his ambition and his belief in his own power to pursue his dream. This is especially because he doesn’t try to cover up anything and is very explicit with the lyrics that he uses. He also portrays his frustrations with his current living which is another he shows his aspiration and struggle for power. This is seen in certain lyrics such as: “I’m fed up with small-time hustles/ I’m too good to waste my talent for greed”. In these lines it once again shows his confidence in himself, while at the same time showing how the Engineer felt limited by the boundaries and helpless in Vietnam. He even asks why he had to be born as a citizen of Vietnam and that America was where he truly belonged.

Ejew: Last but not least, how do you think the set and costume design emphasize aspirations and power—against helplessness—in the characters?

Sally: I want to focus on the Engineer. Throughout the musical, the Engineer is seen wearing flashy costumes and also dresses in rags. As stated before, his number “The American Dream” highlights the power he holds and his aspiration for this ideal life. In this number, the set is decked out in flashy diamonds, with the ensemble dressed up in sparkly suits and bodysuits. The background is of a golden Statue of Liberty with gold pillars surrounding it. Most importantly, the Engineer is riding the convertible in a sparkly red suit with a deep v-neck blouse while the spotlight is shining on him. The design and costume in this number accurately depicts the American Dream, which is filled with overflowing wealth, authority, and fame. The shining lights, the sparkly outfits, the gold embellishments across the stage, and the bright and contrasting colors really brings this dream to life and you can’t deny the joy and pleasure it brings to the Engineer. The difference between this setting and his usual life emphasizes the struggles he goes through, but the Engineer’s ability to keep on dreaming and imagining this life despite them shows the Engineer’s internal power.

Ejew: Same!–the contrasts in artistic design that the directors implemented definitely caught my attention. The most interesting one for me was for the number “I Still Believe” by Kim and Ellen. This left a strong impression on me because of how the stage was constructed to contrast the two characters: Kim is literally on the lowest stage ground with dark and green lighting while Ellen is on a higher leveled stage under bright yellow lights—explicitly portrays how Kim is of a lower status than Ellen. In fact, Kim stays under a rusty shack, wearing torn clothes and half-sitting on her knees, while Ellen is on a silky bed with Chris, wearing flowery clothing and having city lights on her background. This difference in style highlights their financial gap, and suggests Kim as weaker than Ellen, and to be helpless about reaching her goal of reuniting with her love Chris—which means taking him back from Ellen.  However, I think eventually Kim demonstrates agency. We can see this by the clothes she pick for her son and herself right before she commits suicide in meeting Chris. She puts her son in a bright-red Mickey Mouse sweater and white cargo shorts—very noticeably different, very American—while she herself styles herself the exact way she did when she first met Chris. It strongly represents how she wants her son to have a better future in the US, while she remains in the past, in Vietnam.

Megan: Yeah. Overall, I think we all agree that Miss Saigon, through their Vietnamese characters, demonstrates aspirations, and both helplessness and power of the Asian race as a minority victimized under discrimination. The helplessness emphasizes the burdens that minorities—specifically people of the Asian race—face even today, but also gives encouragement to fight against racial injustice and help shape a world of better equity.

Ejew and Sally, synchronized: Yes! (Ejew thinks this is funny) 

Coming to You Live: The Wiz Live! Black Culture Released

By Chelsie Hall and Bella LaChance

Premiering live on NBC in 2015, The Wiz Live! is a new, adapted performance of the original Broadway musical in 1975. It was produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. The Wiz Live! presents the blues, soul, and R&B in a set of musical performances. The story of The Wiz Live! is not extremely different from The Wiz!, but it has a more urban cast and setting to it. This version of the musical was so important because of the Black cast that it had, including Mary J. Blige and Queen Latifah. Compared to the Wizard of Oz, The Wiz Live! has culturally brought together so many families. Children, teenagers, and adults all enjoyed the more upbeat version of Dorothy finding the Wiz. Through the dialogue, dancing, and singing, Black culture was thoroughly represented during the whole production of The Wiz Live! 

Bella LaChance (BL) is a freshman who is looking into majoring in Human Organizational Development or Communications. She currently is living in Nashville and is playing basketball throughout her academic career at Vanderbilt. 

Chelsie Hall (CH) is a senior, who will be graduating this spring. She majored in Human Organizational Development and had an amazing basketball career at Vanderbilt. Chelsie is taking her talents to Louisville to complete her graduate degree. 

On a beautiful Sunday morning on April 11th, Chelsie Hall and Bella LaChance came together to describe and talk about their love for The Wiz Live! More information about what they thought and analyzed will be presented next! 

BL: Hi Chels! I can ask you the first question about The Wiz Live! What did you think when you watched it for the first time? 

CH: Watching The Wiz Live! for the first time was really entertaining. I had never seen it before so I was excited to watch an all black cast perform. I’m usually not the biggest musical fan because of all the singing but I really enjoyed all the singing and dancing while watching The Wiz Live! And when I looked up the cast, I got even more excited to see that Ne-Yo and Queen Latifah were in it. The musical did not disappoint. From song to song, I was ready to get up and start dancing. I could listen to them all day and for once I wasn’t frustrated with hearing a song every 5 minutes. Was this your first time watching it too or have you seen it already?

BL: I totally agree with you on your analysis of the show! This was my first time watching it and I loved it! I thought it was way better than the normal Wizard of Oz. Funny story actually. When I was younger, I saw the Wizard of Oz in Canada and I fell asleep watching. Throughout this musical, I was singing and bobbing my head to all of the different songs. They were great dancers also, which is way more entertaining than usual musicals. I feel like in other musicals the performers are sometimes off beat. The most special thing about this musical was how authentic and real it was. How did you think this play portrayed black representation? 

CH: The dancing was actually insane!! I mean I feel like I can dance a little bit but definitely not as good as them. To have an all black cast, there is obviously black representation. I really enjoyed the way this musical showcased Black culture and how talented we can really be. It’s really encouraging to see Black talent solely being displayed especially in a positive light. I feel like the producers, Meron and Zadan, knew how important this musical was going to be for the culture and they wanted to make sure they represented the Black community in a positive light. It really helps when the producers and creative team understand the culture and really make an effort to display the uniqueness of it. You can tell how much effort they put into the casting, the costumes, and even the sound and lights. Black culture is represented everywhere in the musical. Also, the musical not only showed Black excellence but also showed social progress. Dorothy being an intelligent, caring, and charismatic, young woman who was not afraid to say what she believed and would hold everyone around her accountable, represented feminism. While also having the Wiz be a gender-bending character showing the Queer culture being openly embraced on stage. 

BL: I mean yes you and I both know you can dance more than just a little bit. I also focused on the Black representation in a positive light. It did feel so refreshing to see all the smiles and passion being put into this production by such special characters. I love your mention of the gender-bending character as well. Most musicals or entertainment businesses would be scared to put out characters who are not the normal gender stereotype. The Wiz Live! really checks all of the boxes regarding inclusion of Black culture and gender-bending characters. People who watch this musical will feel involved and accepted, which also brings more viewers to the show. That really was a great point that you brought up!  

CH: For a Black queer woman like myself, the Wiz being gender-bending was something really cool to see! I was actually confused at first because I knew Queen Latifah was supposed to be the Wiz and when she came out, I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be male or female. So, I did a little bit of research and realized that they actually did it on purpose. And I also learned that during the scene that Dorothy and her crew get let into Emerald City, the choreographer, Fatima Robinson, paid tribute to the art of Vogue which is a style of dance that begun in the Black queer ballroom in the 1980s.


BL: Wow I had no clue about the connection to Vogue! That makes me love this musical even more! I love that gif too. Speaking of dancing, what is your favorite dance number in the musical? Mine is “Ease on Down the Road.” The stage was set up incredibly, especially during the Flower scene where “Ease on Down the Road” was sung. It featured several other characters that were picked up by Dorothy throughout the song. As soon as the song begins, you can tell there is an R&B, soul, and blues spin on it. The lyrics within this song were very fitting to the rest of the musical. For example, when they sang, “Come on, ease on down, ease on down the road,” the repetition of the lyrics stuck in viewers’ heads for days. I was singing “Ease on down the road,” for like three days after I watched the musical. This updated version of the song “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” keeps the listener and watcher entertained because of the continuous changes of beats throughout the number. The tempo was more upbeat and fast paced compared to the original Wizard of Oz. The dance moves were on beat and filled with rhythm throughout the entirety of the number. There were a lot of stepping and hand movements that changed as the beat would drop. I mean look at the gif of the tin man dancing! 

CH: I think we can both agree that Ne-Yo did not disappoint as Tin Man, not only was his singing amazing but his dance moves were always on point. My favorite dance number would have to be “You Can’t Win.” At first it seems like it’s going to be a sad song because Scarecrow is trapped by the Crows but as the song starts to play, you hear the up-beat tempo. From the trumpets to the crows dancing, it makes this “negative” song seem fun. I enjoyed watching the crows flip around the stage and my favorite part was when Scarecrow started to buss a move. He was able to finally get down from the pole he was on and he was able to show off some of his moves. With the dark lighting and black costumes of the Crows, Scarecrow sticks out even more with his yellow undertones.  It was a really fun performance to watch, and it made me want to get up and start dancing too. And let me show off Scarecrow real quick. 


BL: Okay okay you win for sure with Scarecrow dancing. I loved the analysis we had talking about The Wiz Live! I hope we can work together again soon Chels! 

CH: So glad we got to talk about this amazing musical! 

After finishing the discussion, Chelsie and Bella were able to discuss the different tactics used by the writers and everyone involved with this musical to show Black representation through entertainment. Black Culture was highlighted throughout every costume, dance number, and song that was sung. More musicals like this in the entertainment business must be portrayed for everyone to see and love!

The Power of Black Excellence in a Musical Production

a conversation with Mya Swinton and Dylan Disu

The Wiz Live! is a new adaption of The Wiz, a 1975 Broadway musical that utilized the talents of Black cast members to retell the classic Wizard of Oz story. Adapted for television in 2015 by NBC, The Wiz Live! recounts the story of Dorothy, Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow along the yellow brick road to see The Wiz in Emerald City. Despite challenges along the way (THE EVIL WITCH OF THE WEST), Dorothy and her comrades eventually find their way and the items they need most in their lives. The production showcases many prominent actors and singers within the black community – Ne-Yo, Queen Latifah, Common, Amber Riley, and the QUEEN HERSELF Mary J. Blige (Mya’s personal favorite!!!). Assembled with danceable production numbers, singable songs, and a star-studded cast, The Wiz Live! leaves audiences with a timeless production that will be cherished forever by the black community. 

On a warm April afternoon, Mya Swinton and Dylan Disu met via a zoom link to discuss The Wiz Live! and to analyze how it provoked a variety of responses about the representation of race within a musical production. Although this conversation would never take place outside of this class, Mya and Dylan both enjoyed meeting each other and exchanging views. 

Some background  before we begin…

  • Dylan Disu (DD) is a sophomore studying Human and Organizational Development from Texas. He is a student-athlete and plays men’s basketball for Vanderbilt University. 
  • Mya Swinton (MS) is a freshman studying Human and Organizational Development from Florida. She is a student-athlete as well and plays for the women’s soccer team at Vanderbilt University. 

Let’s begin!

DD: Why was this production important to you?

MS: Throughout this course we have not been exposed to many musical productions that have a significant amount of black people in them. I think it was really important that Dr. Essin provided us the opportunity to view The Wiz Live! because it allowed me to actually see someone that looked similar to me. Although Dorothy can be innocent at times, it’s really cool to see her being a strong, bad-ass black woman when she needs to be. I love how encouraging she is, and how she steps up for people when they need her the most. Also, can we just take a moment to acknowledge that she killed two people in the span of 3 days. Anyways, I digress… Besides the movie musical Annie, I cannot really remember how many musical productions portray young, black female leads. That is really astonishing to me because we have such a large population of BLACK GIRLS who NEED to see themselves on television, movies, and other media outlets! Also, I just want to credit the producers of the musical because they decided to change the narrative on OZ’s character. It was awesome seeing Queen Latifah’s character (Mr. Oz) turn into a Ms. Oz, and I think it speaks to how women can play larger roles in big productions. I genuinely believe that representation matters and The Wiz Live! did a great job showcasing that.

DD: Yeah, I definitely agree with your point Mya. I am glad that you got to see yourself represented within this production. For me, I think what I enjoyed the most was how inclusive it was to the black community. Not only did it include cast members that I know of – Ne-Yo and Amber Riley – but even cast members that pertained to older audiences- Common, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige. The main reason this production will be remembered is due to the solidification of black excellence and culture through its cast members. This cast really exemplified what it means to be black, and I think that is the most important thing here. 

DD: What I really want to know is which production number was your favorite and why?

MS: One thing that I really enjoyed throughout this musical was the musicality of the songs. The songs really emphasized black music, especially gospel, blues, R&B, and soul. So, as a die-hard Mary J. Blige fan, I was ecstatic to see that one of America’s GREATEST R&B artists was chosen to play the role of The Wicked Witch of the West and would be singing the number “Don’t Nobody Give Me No Bad News”. This musical number was honestly my favorite because 1) it was hypocritical of her character, 2) it incorporated the basics of gospel music, and 3) it included Mary J. Blige (duh). In response to the hypocritical nature of her character, I think it was intentional of the lyricists because The Wicked Witch of the West usually is the bearer of bad news for the citizens of Oz. Secondly, I enjoyed the number because it used the classic “call and response” used in gospel churches and choirs. For example, after Blige sings “No bad news” in the chorus (call), the background singers sing it back (response). The song also relies heavily on gospel rhythms as well. It provides a tempo that is fast-paced, simple to clap with, and repetitive, creating the perfect mixture that you will definitely be humming/dancing along to. Lastly, Mary J. Blige kills any performance she does, therefore cementing my case in point.  

DD: Wow. Your love for Mary J. Blige is weird. Anyways, I would actually have to disagree that “Don’t Nobody Give Me No Bad News” is the best production number. I think that “Ease On Down the Road” is a better production number because it is the most relied on for the characters throughout their journey to Emerald City. I think it can be classified as a rally cry for the characters in this musical as well. The lyrics throughout the entire song captures what it means to continue fighting even when times are tough. I think most people in general would agree with the overall theme of the song, thus allowing it to be universal and most memorable. Although I agree that Mary J. Blige is an iconic singer, I think that the overall message in this song trumps her any day. 

DD: What did you think of the dialogue in this production?

MS: I actually found the dialogue in this production amazing but not because of what they were saying instead, how they were saying it. I loved the use of AAVE in this production and I know it is something that is small and may be unnoticeable to some but those who use it easily recognize it. Phrases like “don’t nobody bring me no bad news” or “mean ole lion” are sprinkled throughout the production and give a fresh new take on what dialogue can be in the theater. Typically Broadway and the theater world is a space that is predominately white and because of this they cater to this demographic. Meaning, there really is no need to use AAVE or include elements from other cultures and races because they are not watching. I think that if they continued this trend of uplifting black voices the audience will definitely grow and become more diverse.

DD: I agree and I was hoping you picked up on it. I think the use of AAVE in the production was extremely bold of the writers because it is not something we have ever seen in theater. Other than in past adaptations of The Wiz AAVE is not something that has had a place outside of the African American community. Although it has been in movies I think the reason is due to a much more diverse audience than you see on Broadway. Personally, I think the lack of black stories and diversity you talked about when discussing demographics is done to try and prevent others from entering this space that is dominated by white people. That’s why the use of AAVE in the production was so important because it highlighted black voices and what they really sound like. It is such a small thing but it has a huge impact because it is representing Africans Americans and their language in a positive light rather than a negative one. It is so common that kids are told by teachers not to use AAVE in schools and to talk properly and by using AAVE in this production it lets black people and especially kids know it is okay to be yourself, you don’t have to change in order to make it to this stage. 

MS: Yeah, that definitely makes sense and I agree with you about how AAVE is generally frowned upon in school and in the business world. This production was definitely a first step in normalizing not only AAVE but simply being yourself despite what others think. Were there any visual elements that stuck out to you in the production?

DD: Yes, and it caught my eye as soon as the play started and it was how Dorothy was wearing her hair naturally rather than permed/straightened. It is very unique to see African Americans wear their hair naturally in movies and theater because society has deemed it unprofessional. The only acceptable style is something along the lines of straight or wavy which is typically the natural texture of white people. I actually saw on Twitter a couple months back that a young black woman who played a large role in the series high school musical always wore headbands because they had no one on set who could do her hair which is crazy to me because it is not that hard to hire a black hair stylist. So seeing this character wear her natural curls on one of the biggest stages was a huge surprise since it is extremely uncommon.

MS: I agree. I also noticed a ton of other styles in the production like the lion instead of having a crazy mane, he had dreadlocks going down his shoulders which is actually a really clever design if you ask me. You also have Glinda the good witch’s crown of braided hair instead of a blonde wig that has been used in the past. And although it isn’t hair you have the tin man wearing a fitted cap(a staple in the African American community) that is spray painted silver. I think the costume artist did a wonderful job of representing black style and hairstyles and putting them on full display for the audience to appreciate. 

DD: Yeah, I think the hairstyles were just another example of this production creating a representation for young black children who do not see people who look like them onstage often. It lets them know that fairytales can include them too.

MS: Did you notice any differences in choreography for this production versus other productions we’ve seen this year?

DD: This production’s choreography was unlike any other we have seen to this point and it is not even close. Dancing is a huge part of black culture and this choreography team did an amazing job bringing this to the stage. In most other plays you have running and jumping and even tap dancing as the way of dance which to me is not really dance. However, The Wiz Live! does something completely new and fresh, they opted to go newschool and mix some moves that are trending on social media with the stage that is normally pretty vanilla.

MS: I usually hate watching the choreography in plays because it’s always so bland and boring but watching this production I genuinely loved the singing and dancing because it reminded me of a cookout where everyone is just having a good time and enjoying themselves. They had crows in the background doing the nae nae, munchkins hitting the quan, and even the tin man dabbed at one point. All of these dances were made popular by black creatives and it seems they are finally hitting the big stage where they can be appreciated by an even wider audience. I thought it was especially important for black creatives to get their shine because a lot of times black culture is just seen as a trend for others to hop on here and there when it benefits them. Or, like AAVE it begins to sound cool to white people and they begin to take over something they should not much like the last couple years. But, this is our culture and this is who we are, so it was nice to see black people doing black created dances on a stage that was meant to keep them out of the spotlight.

DD: I think these are all great points you are making about the nature of culture more specifically, black culture, being co-opted by other groups which is why I thought this production was an amazing show of black excellence put on by black people. However, I am not sure if we are going to see a whole lot more of this because a lot of people were not happy with an all black cast taking over their space and I think this could cause people to push back against diversity in the theater. I hope that we can continue to see powerful black shows in the future but I think it is going to be tough to see something as black as this production was again. 

______

Overall, the conversation between Mya and Dylan enabled them to look further into the importance of race in musical theater productions and also provided them the opportunity to bond over their shared interest in black excellence in media.

Jack + Rose (+ huge age gap + no love affair + no boat)

Jack Kelly is a guys’ guy.

Mama Rose is a guys’ girl.

How can a girl be “one of the guys”?

What.

The.

Heck.

And how could I include such a nasty patriarchal phrase in the first three sentences of my post?!?!?!

*crickets*

Same…

But really, Jack (played by Jeremy Jordan in Disney’s 2017 production of Newsies!: The Broadway Musical, directed by Brett Sullivan and Alex Calhoun) and Mama Rose (played by Bette Midler in the 1993 production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino) have a lot more in common than what meets the eye. Jack is different from the other “newsies,” and Mama Rose is different from the other women- and men. Why? Because they both exude masculinity like their lives depend on it. And not just the boy- being-boys- type of masculinity. But real power, control, leadership, confidence: what it takes to be a man of the men- a true, by-book alpha (*tips hat to society*). They know exactly what they want to accomplish, and they accomplish it by all means necessary- and unnecessary.

This is what I mean:

Girls like him.

And the guys do too- just look at the way they look at him. Jack could be reading a grocery list or giving a social movement speech, and those boys WOULD NOT CARE either way.

Oh, and he man spreads while standing AND sitting.

Here you have it: a dude shrugging at being a dude.

But seriously, Jack is charismatic, independent but loyal, bold, and ready to rally. He’s a leader. He’s got a big heart, but he’s ~ guarded ~ and tough. And it shows in the dance numbers. Notice how Jack isn’t hopping in and flipping around with the other guys? Yeah, that’s for a reason. Instead, he is strong in his step and what they call “stage combat”- not quite dancing or acrobatics- and the effect of the tap shoes (attention-demanding, louder and ‘manlier’ than ballet, etc.) only adds to the emphasis on his confidence in word and act. His steps follow his words which follow his practically inflated chest, emphasizing the importance of his words and giving them a bit of a pump-up background beat with the tap shoes. (I’m sure if you were in the audience, you’d feel the energy of his steps.) Sometimes we see Jack wearing a muscle-exposing tank top with suspenders and dirt smothered all over because guys do physical work, duh, but most times we see him all cleaned up, ready to serve his crew’s union a plate of justice.

We know from his backstory that Jack has had a rough upbringing. He wants to bring a sense of good and accomplishment to his newsboys, so by staying angry, he stays focused. Physically and emotionally, he’s pretty stiff, but if he wants to lead a group of young males into the fight for justice AND be victorious AND be an icon, he needs to. Jack knows he needs to “be a man” to fight for himself and for others. It’s dangerous work, certainly not for the faint-of-heart.

Mama Rose, like Jack, fights for what she wants. The only difference is that her “crew” doesn’t want her to, so she’s more of a self-elected leader than a group-wide-respected one like Jack is. Instead of having her dreams and desires amplified by that of the group, Mama Rose projects hers onto the group (aka her two daughters).

Mama Rose is a woman in charge; she is a not-to-be-messed-with, absolute queen of a character.

She’s wild.

She’s brash.

She’s determined.

She’s unstoppable.

She’s accomplishing and doing.

She is… being masculine.

Being masculine is exactly that- being it, not having it. We talk a lot about how gender is performative, but that’s because it is, or at least the stereotypical characteristics of masculinity are. Do these characteristics “belong” to males? Yes? No? The boys were confident first? I don’t know.   

But regardless, Mama Rose is the perfect example of gender as a performance. Why is she “crazy”? Because she’s relentless, unsilenced, strong, wild-eyed, and ambitious. She’s an absolute hellbender. In a masculine lens, Mama Rose is unwavering, praiseworthy, and hungry to achieve. In a feminine lens, she is desperate, manipulative, threatening, and selfish. Why? Because gender norms. Where a female Rose “forced” Louise into the burlesque number, a male Rose would have “volunteered.”

This is a character that would do anything for her daughters (compared to Jack and his newsies) to have the success she did not. Mama Rose is incredibly desperate to be heard, seen, and appreciated. But she doesn’t get the “thank you for sacrificing everything (including your sanity) for me.” We know how it ends…

In this plot, we see masculinity playing out differently in male and female bodies again: A female wanting appreciation is needy, but a male wanting the same is not respected enough. Jack didn’t need what Mama Rose needed because he had it; he was respected and looked up to and appreciated, but Mama Rose was not. Would she have been if she was more than “being masculine” (like physically a male)? I don’t know. But what I do know is Mama Rose is an atypical woman because of her masculine tendencies and characteristics, and because of her biology, “being masculine” makes her less of a woman. So she’s a successful guy’s girl but appears unsuccessful because she is cRaZy for acting out male characteristics in a female body, and Jack’s a successful guy’s guy who appears successful because he exists in a male body with strong male traits, and this is not the Titanic. Oh, and you can “be masculine” without being a man.

World’s Best Mama

About a month ago on a Friday night, I was introduced to a powerful, fierce, and desperate woman while lying in bed and snacking on some deliciously pre-made popcorn. While cuddled up in my cozy movie watching outfit, I pressed play on my laptop and started to immerse myself in the movie Gypsy.

Were there times were I wanted to fast forward through the movie? Yes. But were their times were I was genuinely MESMERIZED by Bette Midler’s performance as Mama Rose? Also, yes.

A little background for the people in the back who don’t know anything about this movie:  Gypsy is movie musical based on the memoir of the famed burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. Bette Midler, who actually won a Golden Globe for this performance, stars as Mama Rose, the world’s ultimate stage mom. Chasing fame, Momma Rose is destined to make her two baby girls the biggest stars in Vaudeville… no matter what the cost is. The musical features numerous production numbers that showcase the talents of various cast members including Peter Rieyer and Cynthia Gribb. Although written by playwriter Arthur Laurents in 1959, Emile Ardolino directs the 1993 version into a well-produced film that brings comedy and drama all into one place.

Okay now that everyone’s on the same page, let’s dive into what you came here for.

I think Gypsy allows audiences to engage with the idea of gender and sexuality in a positive way. So many times, we (women) are portrayed as weak minded and willing to do ANYTHING for men, even if that means giving away our biggest hopes and dreams. Although Gypsy doesn’t completely annihilate that entire ideology, we can see that women in this movie have a stronger role of being ambitious, unique, and headstrong bad-asses.

Some key elements within the movie that depict my clam include the musical number of  “Some People” sung by Rose. In this number, Mama Rose is singing about her dreams of making it into Vaudeville with her daughters through motivation. The song starts off with trumpets bellowing out, and you genuinely get the intention that the song is going to be fast-paced, energetic, and upbeat. Bette Midler then goes on for about a minute singing about how some people are lazy in the ways they go about success, but then she belts out the lyrics “But I at least got to try”.  In a usual film production, a female character would most likely continue the “Oh well, I tried” dialogue, but its enticing and different that Mama Rose is so driven to be triumphant in her goals. Thus, the lyrics and dialogue really show how ambitious she is; therefore, it emulates the positive representation of women in Gypsy.

Another example to support my claim of bad-assery among women includes the way Bette Midler performs Mama Rose. Everything about the character is over the top, and Midler delivers it with precision and passion, the only way that she knows how. Her ability to portray a mother who is in essence a shameless monster of a woman is admirable. She uses over-exaggerated movements to portray Mama Rose’s personality and excessive facial expressions to makes us believe in Mama Rose.

Lastly, the musical number that really stood out to me was the final performance from Rose “Rose’s Turn”. At this point, we’ve made it more than two hours into the movie, and we are waiting for Rose to finally have her turn in the spotlight. Before the song begins, Rose speaks about how if she ever let out her talent, “there wouldn’t be signs big enough, or lights bright enough” to even encompass her success. Overall, the song is chaotic. In the beginning, the lyrics and music are fiery and upbeat, and the way Midler performs as Rose, depicts how she is visualizing herself as a star. The second part of the song, Rose realizes that for the first time that she has to let go of the dreams that she has held for her daughters. The music completely changes and  for the first time, we see Mama Rose really become vulnerable with herself and this is shown when she whispers “Mama’s got to let go”. The third part of the song picks up again, and in a way Rose is angrier and continues to repeat the phrase “starting now…”. In the last part of the song, Rose finally realizes her potential and sees that she is able to be her own star and live her own dreams.

Overall, I thought Gypsy did a really great job at representing gender in a different and unique way that hasn’t been shown. I really felt connected to Mama Rose and was happy that she was finally able to let go and be the woman she always should have been.

Masculinity and its Many Forms in Newsies!

Disney’s Newsies!, directed by Brett Sullivan and Jeff Calhoun is just about a bunch of boys who ban together to sell newspapers…right? At first glance, the 2017 Disney production of Newsies may just seem like a fun story about a rag-tag bunch sticking it to the man. However, there are several intentional choices made by the creators and on-stage performers. These choices help subvert traditional images of masculinity that we tend to see in American musical theatre. For example, musical theatre is typically portrayed as something meant for gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys. Newsies! subverts this image by having a “traditionally masculine” lead. Through blocking, costume choices, and music, the production shows that masculinity can take on many forms.

From the opening number, “Santa Fe,” we are presented with two vastly contrasting images of masculinity. Jack Kelly is the heroic, brotherly figure who prevents Crutchie Morris from falling off a platform. He wears a sleeveless shirt that emphasizes his muscles as he hauls Morris back onto the platform. This costume choice was likely intentional, as Jack’s muscular physique helps paint him as masculine. Crutchie on the other hand, aptly named for his bad leg, wears a long sleeve shirt and baggy pants. This makes his body look like it’s getting swallowed up by his clothes. The costume choice, by Jess Goldstein, helps characterize Jack as feeble. The casting director, Justin Huff, likely considered physique when casting the actors. Blocking further emphasizes the contrasting nature of Jack and Crutchie. As “Santa Fe” builds, Jack stands on one side of the platform, and Crutchie stands on the other. The image this creates brings to mind a scale, as if relaying that the characters’ contrasting natures balance each other out. Additionally, the space created has to be closed by one of the characters. Jack closes the distance towards the end of the number in an effort to provide comfort to Crutchie. By rushing to his friend’s aid, Jack is further characterized as a heroic, masculine figure. The costume choices and blocking in “Santa Fe” juxtapose Crutchie and Jack to emphasize that masculinity comes in many forms rather than a one-size-fits all mold. 

Society tends to place masculinity in a rugged-heterosexual mold. Newsies deploys familiar stereotypes of masculinity to bring “traditionally masculine” characters to musical theater. For example, Jeremy Jordan, the actor who plays Jack, walks around with his chest sticking out. He makes strong arm movements to emphasize his points throughout the musical. In numbers like “I Never Planned On You/Don’’t Come A-Knocking,” we see Jack as a smooth-talking boy trying to impress his love interest, Katherine Plumber. Jordan’s movements help convey heterosexual masculinity. For example, he’s positioned so that he’s above the actor who plays Katherine Plumber, Kara Lindsay. This blocking choice buys into the stereotype that men are dominating figures in heterosexual relationships. The costume choices further assert Jack’s masculinity. Jack has on a dusty blue collared shirt for a large part of the musical. This contrasts with the colorful clothes worn by female characters. For example, in the number “Watch What Happens,” Katherine wears a pinkish-red outfit. Dark, cool colors are stereotypically masculine while warm, bright colors are stereotypically feminine. Thus, the clothing choices in the musical help reinforce gender stereotypes. The costume choices in Newsies!, as well as Jack’s blocking help emphasize his heterosexual masculinity. Characterizing the lead in this way helps subvert the stereotype that musical theater is only for girls or gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys.

As much as Jack is portrayed as masculine, he’s also shown to have a soft-side. In “I Never Planned On You/Don’’t Come A-Knocking,” he draws a picture of his love interest. Jack sings about how Katherine “stole his heart.” The music relays a sweetness we’re not used to seeing from Jack’s touch-guy character. Additionally, prior to the strike, when asked by Katherine if he’s scared, Jack faces away from Katherine as he says “ask me again in the morning.” There’s a look of hesitance in his eyes as he faces the audience. The musical uses blocking in moments like these to relay Jacks vulnerability. These moments help show that softness and emotional vulnerability can be coupled with masculinity. This is yet another way Newsies! conveys masculinity’s many faces.

The blocking, costume, and musical choices in Newsies!  helps subvert the masculine stereotypes often prevalent in American musical theatre.It employs “traditionally masculine” elements to show that musical theatre is not only reserved for girls or gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys. Additionally, it conveys the message that masculinity is not one-dimensional, but multi-faceted. Even characters like Jack, who appeal to stereotypically rugged images of masculinity, have a soft side. Ironically enough Newsies! subverts American musical stereotypes of masculinity by playing into societal stereotypes of masculinity. 

The Idealism of Jack Kelly

I’ve got to hand it to Disney– if they can do one thing correct it’s completely mischaracterize being a teenager, specifically in regards to romance. But in Newsies, we get to see teenagers devoid of dimension in a whole new century! Instead of a classic Disney Channel plot point such as dropping a science fair project the morning its due (gasp) or being rejected by your crush and also opposite-sex best friend to the big dance (aww), we see class consciousness, child labor, union formation and… the American Dream? Lofty undertaking, Walt. Don’t fret, though– it’s just as inaccurate of a depiction of the dynamics of adolescent relationships as we have come to love and accept of this particular company (monopoly?).

Newsies follows a group of, well, newsies, on their journey to fair treatment from the publisher of the paper they distribute. These boys live very difficult lives, having to steal food and clothes to survive and without families. These children, as young as eight, work for hours for unlivable wages from the greedy Joseph Pulitzer. This sounds like it could be the start of an inspiring case for ditching capitalism, but that’s a discussion for a different blog post. The newsies have essentially formed their own family, with unity being their glue. This show tackles not only this struggle for equality, but the relationships between these kids– all platonic of course (the Disney Corporation still maintains the official position that gays do not exist). These relationships all center around their leader, 17 year old Jack Kelly, who is the epitome of benevolent male leadership– a guy with integrity, charisma, power and empathy. While Newsies was definitely not made with the intention of being seen as a commentary on turn of the century gender relations and sexuality, I think that is exactly what makes it a good case study for analysis.

The depiction of Jack Kelly is very intentional– he is fit, attractive (heyyy Jermey Jordan), unassuming and looks like an overall good guy. He is meant, again, to be the best that masculine can be. He, along with his newsie counterparts, are deemed as overwhelmingly benevolent and masculine, with only good intentions– even during mess ups. What’s totally brushed over is the concept of toxic masculinity, which is very real, contrary to what Ben Shapiro may think. There are things that, for the most part, and looked down upon in male groups– one of these things being emotion. I would be lying if I said I don’t even slightly cringe when seeing a grown man crying or expressing his emotions in a less-than-masculine way, and I am a queer man in 2021. These notions of what a man can or can’t do or be are so ingrained in my subconscious, and I don’t spend much time at all in mascuiline groups. I bring these points up because, throughout the show, Jack has bursts of emotion and gives heartfelt monologues in rooms of his peers, and it’s just difficult for me to believe that a group of rough and tumble guys from 120 years ago would be so receptive to this, and it would not diminish his status. I am actually happy that Disney chose to do this– while I definitely don’t think it is realistic, they probably assumed their audience would be mostly children and young adults, so setting this example of acceptance of expression could begin to change the narrative. 

Continuing this conversation about the portrayal of masculinity, I just thought it was interesting to note how the song that encapsulates the entire theme of the show, masculinity and all, is segmented by a ballet-like dance break. “Seize the Day” is an overtly masculine piece, paired with masculine vocal and acting choices. This being said, the group dancing is something more connotationally feminine, but it didn’t feel like an emasculated performance. They were able to successfully portray feelings of power and revolution through, again, a ballet-like dance number, which is just an oddly more progressive display, in comparison to my view on gender as a whole is displayed in Newsies.

In terms of the dynamic of a male group of adolescents, this show falls very short in portraying a realistic one, in my experience at least. The one main component missing is competition, and in turn, jealousy. Jack assumes leadership with no opposition at all– and for a group of guys with the sole intention of standing up for themselves and knowing their worth, it is just a little odd to me that there is no one else vying for leadership. This aids in my describing these characters as one dimensional. The reason why this large component of youth masculinity is missing is because it isn’t relevant to the plot. The newsies really just seem to be bodies, there to echo what Jack says and react to his decisions. This being said, Jack takes pride in this comradery and his ability to lead, and never takes advantage of this power he was awarded. He is the ultimate “nice guy”. This just ties back to my broader take on masculinity’s depiction in Newsies— it is a sugar coated rendering, void of an addressing of the pitfalls or norms that come with the territory of being a man.

At the end of the day, I understand that this is just a Disney work, so expecting a nuanced take on gender and sexuality is rather naive. This doesn’t have to be how it is however. I love Jack and the group of newsies and their immense fraternity, but Newsies is not an accurate representation of what being a man is in the way that I am a man. Seeing groups of male friends like this, in all different forms, be so accepting of each other and under the leadership of such a great guy, always subliminally alienates me even more from my male peers, and makes me honestly jealous of what they have. While this show is about fun and revolution, we should overall start a move towards more nuanced representation, especially in media aimed for kids. Jack and his friends are an idealistic dream (especially when played by Jeremy Jordan), and it’s time Disney and all production companies alike start giving realistic and attainable representation to their audiences.

Newsies was a Dream, but Dreams can also Include Nightmares

As a straight woman, Newsies was a lot of fun to watch. Am I talking about the musical, or the newsies the musical was about? You’ll never know.

Watching men be athletic for close to three hours is always a nice way to spend your Sunday movie days with Mom. Within 2 seconds of the start of the show, I knew that I was in love with Jack Kelly. And I fell more deeply in love with him after every passing minute. I wonder why that was. I’m not ashamed to say that when it comes to romance and men, I’m a little old-fashioned in what I go for, and I would definitely say that Newsies portrayed Jack and his masculinity in an outdated way that really caters to me, except for a few problematic points I’ll get into later on.

The first thing that caught my eye in the first millisecond he was on the screen was his choice of clothing. Primarily, his well-fitting waistcoat, dressy shirt, and slacks. I italicized ‘waistcoat’ because that’s what it sounds like in my head when I see one. I go “waaiistcooaatt”, and the Victorian maiden inside me throws a fit. My own personal biases aside, the waistcoat was designed to emphasize the broadness of a man’s shoulders in order for him to appear more imposing, and, I suppose, manly. Jack is singled out from the rest of the newsies by his blue shirt, drawing attention to him as the star. I just realized, blue is also the color associated with the male gender. Interesting.

Aside from his waistcoat making his upper body look bigger, Jack exemplified the idea that men must be imposing by physically taking up space on the stage. Not only did his physique appear imposing, but in the way of his posture and stance, he imposed himself on the space around other people. And when he started dancing, the choreography only amplified his male body and how it took up space. The choreography showed off the lengths of his arms and legs, while high leaps tailored to the male body showcased his athleticism. 

Aside from his physicality, Jack oozed confidence, and almost confrontationally so. He stared every person he talked to dead in the eyes, looking down a bit in order to bring attention to his height and superiority. He spoke unapologetically, and was what I would call a ‘smooth talker’. He knew what to say to who, when, in order to get what he wanted. Because apparently real men get everything they want, even when they have to manipulate others to get it. Jack did use a lot of slang, but threw in the occasional Mister or Miss to keep it classy and set him apart from the rest of the newsies. 

Jack was shown to be a natural leader and a caretaker. He started the newsies’ strike and stole goods for the poor boys in the Refuge, while acting as an older brother to Crutchy. This of course was done in order to send signals that Jack would be able to provide for a family, which I would argue is important in general, but especially for a man in the time of Newsies because he is expected to be the breadwinner for his family. 

While strutting around like a peacock in his waistcoat, Jack retained humility, but only in the presence of women, and was only allowed to show emotion when he was alone. During emotional scenes and songs, Jack isolated himself so as not to compromise his masculinity and appear weak in front of others. Now, all this is fine and well, and I definitely enjoyed watching all of it, but I found myself asking why Jack’s friend Davey appeared to be presented as less overtly masculine than him.

After all, Davey is well educated, well dressed, and is shown to have taken the initiative of caring for his family. Davey is confident, and even able to inspire confidence in Jack when Jack forgets to be a man for a moment. Davey also wears a lovely waistcoat and is arguably better able to control himself than Jack, and composure was shown throughout the musical to be a hallmark of manliness. 

Why then, is Jack portrayed as being more manly? 

The answer to that question is the problematic part of this piece that I promised you earlier.

Jack had a woman, and Davey did not.

In his relationship to Katherine, Jack was the sexual aggressor, and pursued her until they ended up together. It looked a bit forced to me, but I might just be jealous. Anyway, the notion that what makes a man truly a man is his ability to pursue and catch a woman is rather concerning. It looks as though Newsies propagates the idea that in order to have attained all facets of masculinity, one must have the complete opposite(a woman) to compare them to. 

Davey, while smart, kind, confident, and almost everything else Jack is, is not shown to be as sexually bold as Jack. He spends the musical taking care of his younger brother and family, as he supports Jack. I would say that he is effectively in Katherine’s friendzone, and the way the musical frames it, that means he’s less masculine. The thought that because he does not sexually pursue a woman, Davey is less of a man is an uncomfortable one, especially for me as a woman. Defining masculinity as engagement with the opposite sex enters dangerous territory, and I for one, felt uneasy with that insinuation. Keeping this definition of masculinity in mind, Newsies brings up the question of whether men who may be attracted to men instead of women are still masculine. And to what extent the term ‘man’ applies to men without a woman and the resulting family.

What shocked me the most was that while Davey did not engage in the sexualization of women, his pre-teen brother did. In fact, the show was put on pause for several moments to point out the way in which this child gawked at womens’ legs. Does this insinuate that the child is more of a man than his older brother? See, problematic. I told you. 

Now that we’ve established that Jack is King Manly Man and Davey is his Slightly Less Manly Sidekick, I’d like to draw your attention to the way Jack continued to be seen as manly, even when he ‘chickened’ out on the strike and was ready to abandon everyone the plot had set him up to be the caretaker of. My analysis of this phenomenon is still a work in progress, if you’ll bear with me. Does Jack just have so many other masculine qualities that this one moment of cowardice was cancelled out? Does it not count because he snapped out of it? Or is this a demonstration of his token ‘sensitive side’? I’d like to propose that this is none of the above and say that this lapse in masculine judgement is a way to solidify some of Slightly Less Manly Sidekick’s masculinity, and show that even though he had a brain fart, Jack can still be convinced to be manly again and then sneakily take the spotlight away from Davey in order to consolidate himself as the alpha male of the musical. It’s a win-win situation. Davey gets manly brownie points, and Jack gets to be the hero again. 

Now, personal taste is personal taste. I will lose my mind over a waistcoat and I appreciate qualities in a man such as education, confidence, humility, and the ability to know whether he would take care of our kids. Notice how I said “qualities in a man”, as opposed to “manly qualities”. Any quality is accessible to any person, and it becomes worth noticing when a combination of qualities are set as a guideline for how men/women/anyone outside the gender binary can claim their identity. It becomes worrisome when the failure to meet such guidelines results in ostracization or ridicule. In the case of Newsies, Davey was missing the key element to being fully recognized as a man, and was therefore sentenced to being the sidekick that supports the ‘real man’, who has every quality deemed necessary and a sidekick to help him if he falters. 
As a woman, it feels weird that in the context of Newsies I would only be considered an aspect of masculinity for a character, but I enjoyed the musical and the tons of waistcoats nonetheless. I’m going to excuse myself before I flip out over how much I love it when men can sing and dance(seriously, this musical was heaven for me. Also, note that singing and dancing aren’t traditionally masculine traits), and I hope I’ve given you some things to think about.

What a Man, What a Man… Wait, Which One Are You Talking About?

Sophie Cohen

Let’s get one thing straight: not a single heterosexual female would look at the cast of Newsies and think “Cute. Anyways, not a fan.” If you are one of the few who thinks like this, I applaud you and your self-control. I mean, we’re seeing the epitome of rag-tag New York newsboys showing off their muscles and showing the ladies that they’ll fight for every mistreated child in New York. Major swoon right there. But if any of these characters truly existed in the real world, which one would fit in the most with the present-day male stereotypes?

If you think like most Newsies fans, the obvious answer would be Jack Kelly (or, if you’re thinking of minor characters, the Brooklyn baddie Spot Conlon is the most accurate). This seems contradictory, since most people wouldn’t consider a bunch of singing and dancing male Broadway performers as manly. So, what is it, then? The muscles, the strong New York accents, the knowledge that this isn’t reality and so dancing men are perfectly capable of acting masculine? Are they even “real” men at all? If you think about it, every performer in Newsies represents some form of masculinity in their own way, and I would strongly argue that each newsie represents one aspect of masculinity that either breaks the boundary of masculinity or continues to define it.

Hear me out. The 2017 musical production of Newsies, directed by Jeff Calhoun and Brett Sullivan, and produced by Thomas Schumacher and Anne Quart, is a phenomenal viewing experience featuring actors that take on the persona of very different male characters. The musical takes the viewer on a journey through the streets of New York in 1899, when newsboys were tired of being treated unfairly on the job and advocated for their new union (and don’t forget the Romeo and Juliet romance on the side). The beloved Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan, and newcomer Davey, played by Ben Fankhauser, seem like polar oposites. As the musical continues into Act II, their personas seem to switch for a short time before both taking on similar masculine stereotypes.

Let’s start with the lovely Jack Kelly, shall we? He enters the Newsies stage singing about his hopes and dreams in Santa Fe with his friend, his brother, Crutchie. And wow, what an opening to the show. From the start, we know Jack values brotherhood. He embodies the idea that men stick together, which somehow makes me think of men playing golf or watching a football game together with beers in their hand. Okay, okay, Jack doesn’t seem like the guy to reach that extent, but you can see a resemblance. The newsies are a brotherhood that sticks together through thick and thin. We can’t forget about the love story, though, especially because it reveals so much about how a man should approach a beautiful woman. The second conversation between Kelly and Katherine, played by Kara Lindsay, is an interesting moment. We can hear Jack singing about love, and he even drew her a picture (anyone else thinking of Titanic? Just me?) while we hear “Don’t Come A-Knocking” in the background. Typical, the man keeps pushing for the girl, flirting to the best of his abilities, while the girl wants nothing to do with him, as implied with this song in the back. We see this representation all over the media today; so many movies and shows focus on the man who’s trying to get the girl. But there must be more to Jack’s masculinity than his romance and brotherhood, right? Of course there is… but we need to compare the rest of these qualities to another man in the show, Davey.

Ah Davey, the more passive of the newsies, at least at the start. He’s so different from Jack they might as well be the perfect example of “opposites attract”. I feel like I should start off with their clothes. As a side note, though, incredible work by Jess Goldstein as the costume designer. Jack and the newsies are wearing dirty clothes with open vests, and their sleeves are rolled up like they’re ready for a fight… which I guess they are. Davey, on the other hand, wears a clean outfit, a buttoned vest, long sleeves that are not rolled or wrinkled, and he’s got a tie. How proper. One man is scruffy and laid back, the other is a proper gentleman who stands up straight and doesn’t like lying. Jack moves with swagger and much more extravagance, while Davey is very timid with his movements and rarely makes grand gestures. Both men, though, represent two types of men who are equally masculine. Jack Kelly is the independent man that doesn’t like relying on others, goes for the girl, and acts incredibly tough, the embodiment of today’s man. Davey is the family man, which we know is true because he’s working to make money for his family, with proper mannerisms.

The turning point for Davey occurs when the ensemble sings “Seize the Day”. Davey shines in this song, transforming from the gentleman we know and love to a Jack Kelly type. He gets more excited about the idea of a union and acts as the brains behind the strike. Does his intellect still classify him as a gentle man? Yes. Is he a true man nonetheless? Absolutely. Davey breaks down the barrier of stereotypical masculinity by becoming both a tough guy and a brainiac (Who knew being tough and smart could coexist in a man?). Both are men, but different types of men.

Now, Jack takes on a more complicated definition in the second act, when he is more conflicted with his emotions and we get to see more of his art (where painting is also manly). He cries in “Santa Fe”, as a man should if he feels like it, and goes through a small crisis where he must decide to continue with the union or protect himself from the law and run away to Santa Fe. And sweet Davey changes his costume and has no tie or a buttoned vest. Is this the character progression I was waiting for? Jack acts more passive and unsure of his decision, while Davey starts to toughen up and take charge of the union. They switch roles but both remain men. At the end of the musical, Jack is back to his old self and Davey assimilates into the newsie friend group for a happily ever after Oh, and Jack gets the girl, of course.

What’s the point of all of this, then? Why am I describing all these changes that Davey and Jack go through? Well, these changes represent a spectrum of masculinity that all fall under the umbrella of being a man. Whether one is a family man with values of loyalty, or a tough guy that also knows how to flirt, all can be described as men. Newsies emphasizes the idea that not all men are the same, but they’re still masculine. Even disregarding the fact that they’re singing and dancing all the time, the personalities of each character shows how varied masculinity can be. Being masculine is not defined by current stereotypes. The contrasts between values and attitudes are what break stereotypical barriers and reconstruct them everyday. Jack Kelly and Davey move along this divide, shape it, tear it down, and rebuild it throughout the musical. In short, the definition of a man is constantly evolving and Newsies helps to emphasize this.

Well, I think I’ve dumped enough information out here for now. Major takeaways: Masculinity is constantly redefining, Jack and Davey represent different types of men on a spectrum, and I might watch Newsies again as soon as I’m done with this post.

Bring Back Manly Men

A real American man– he is driven, strong, demands respect, and is not interested in frivolous behavior… or at least that’s what has always been represented in the white American male. And because white has been presented as the “norm” in the United States, that is what we expect from “real men” in general. As the lovely Candace Owens would state, “bring back manly men”, and Joseph Pulitzer from Disney’s Newsies the Broadway Musical is a prime example of such an American man. Meanwhile, Rose as played by Bette Midler in the 1993 Gypsy, possesses surprising similarities to Pulitzer’s character despite being a woman. Rose owns the same ambition and authority that Pulitzer displays while still maintaining her feminine characteristics, showing that the attributes of “real manly men” can belong to women too without sacrificing femininity. 

Let’s first begin by examining how Pulitzer is the epitome of unsympathetic, career-driven, “all business” masculinity, the perfect man of the patriarchy. Below is a compilation of scenes of Steve Blanchard playing Pulitzer in Disney’s Newsies, successfully portraying the hardened businessman. You can watch just the beginning to get a sense of the character since he stays relatively the same throughout the entire production. 

The first time we see Pulitzer is with his feet up on a table as his hair is getting trimmed. His first line opens with “gentlemen”, not only addressing a handful of men, but a woman as well. Clearly, we can see who’s presence he’s feels is necessary to acknowledge. His posture does not claim grace, as a woman would be expected to exude, but rather an authority to sit and to do as he pleases.  He then proceeds to vent about how Teddy Roosevelt wants to ban football for being too violent, showing how he values some “rough competition”, as a man should. Pulitzer dresses in a suit, which is generally associated with business, in a masculine way. (Thank goodness. Could you imagine if he wore a dress instead??) During the first song he sings, the choreography designed for Pulitzer is stiff and in many ways is not dancing at all. He walks around his office with authority and stands tall, putting his hand on his hip at the end. He is a serious man whose words are more important than dancing around the stage.

Pulitzer’s lack of vulnerability in his business and his emotions (besides anger) is maintained throughout the majority of the musical by a generally serious expression by the actor, Blanchard, even in response to an attempted joke by another character. Any such vulnerability would reveal weakness, which would be unacceptable as an important businessman. The only vulnerability we catch a glimpse of is at the very end of the musical when Pulitzer implies that he cannot afford to lower the costs of the papers back to their original price. He doesn’t actually say this, however, but simply tells Jack that there are “other considerations”, therefore admitting weakness without truly admitting any weakness, which would be devastating to his strong, manly reputation. 

Then we have Rose, the mother desperate for her daughter’s success, clinging to her role in bringing Louise fame. At first glance (see her picture below), she may not seem like she’d have the stoic personality that Pulitzer has, and honestly this assumption would be true. She does not hold the same reign on her emotions, but she is, however, more alike than one might think. 

Rose is a woman in charge. From the beginning of the 1993 production, we see that she would do just about anything for the success of her daughters when she threatens the theater producer into letting her daughters perform their act. Sure, Rose may not seem career-driven in the same way that Pulizter is with his business, but it is her own ambition that drives her to make up for her own unsuccessful performing career through one of her children. Later in the musical, Rose is volunteering Louise to do the burlesque performance. Rose holds her chin high as she speaks to the men to show that she’s not afraid of them and that she believes she knows best. She even points her finger at the two men, conveying power and showing them “who’s boss”.

Where Rose starts to veer from her similarities with Pulitzer is how she reveals her own desperation, especially through the acting of Bette Midler. After making a deal so that Louise will perform the burlesque act, she enters the dressing room breathlessly and reaches up to grab some fabric, turning around and raising her eyebrows in excitement. It’s like a giddy child, so excited to have a glimmer of hope of stardom again for her daughter. Going into the number “Rose’s Turn”, Rose yells and screams about how she made Louise a star because she couldn’t be one herself. Bette Midler flails her arms showing her characters outrage. Finally bursting into her own show-stopping solo, Rose shows the world she really is a star. Previous actors playing Rose had given the character a bit of a “crazy” look in this moment, as though she had really finally lost it. Bette, though, shows the audience that rather than having lost her mind, Rose is finally releasing her disappointment and anger from her past. For once, the bold and ambitious (and slightly power-hungry) woman doesn’t need to sacrifice something else- her brain. 

In this number, we get to see Rose not only shine as a star, but she loosens her ruby red dress to give the audience a little cleavage, showing she’s embracing her womanhood in her most climactic moment. Steve Blanchard as Pulitzer very clearly never strayed from his masculine identity and yet somehow we see two quite similar characters here. Bette Midler as Rose steps into the musical scene and demonstrates that a person can be both “manly” in the sense of being commanding and driven while also embracing a feminine identity. The two need not be mutually exclusive. Maybe the manly men we really need are actually present within women right now. So yes, we’ll give you manly men, but it just might come from women instead.

Rose: The Flawed Masterpiece of a Mother

Binula Illukpitiya

I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a discussion with my theatre friends about the greatest musical character. Every time, I’ve stuck to my guns and rooted for Sweeney Todd but with watching Gypsy, I cannot help but change my answer now to Mama Rose.

The 1993 musical was directed by Emile Ardolino based on the life of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Taking place in the 20s, the story is of a theatre performing family where the mother, Mama Rose, and her two daughters, June and Louise, are fixated on the prospect of making it in show business. Louise, the neglected daughter, is able to find success in life despite her mother, who has her parenting clouded with delusions of fame, creating an emotional and psychological environment not conducive to success. The lyrics of Stephen Sondeheim, composed music of Jule Styne, book written by Arthur Laurents, and production between All Girl Productions, Storyline Entertainment, and RHI Entertainment work together in harmony to paint a story that acknowledges American art of burlesque and theatre while radiating the American dream and perseverance through struggle.

Although ‘Gypsy’ (the stage name of Rose’s daughter, Louise) is the title of the play, Mama Rose is undoubtedly the most dominant actor in the play. She’s neither monster nor angel but rather, something in between. Without question, she is a horrible, monster of a parent who is willing to emotionally manipulate her daughters to have them reach fame. But on the flip side, it is without question that she cares for them and is willing to dedicate everything in her life to them. The relationship she has with Herbie is loving and genuine however, clouded by her greed and ambitions. The brilliant contradictions between the awful and amazing sides of Rose make her. Rose smashes the traditional role of a woman by creating a truly unique identity riddled with both awful and amazing characteristics while also challenging how important sexuality and romance can be compared to other priorities.

When trying to understand Rose, it is of utmost importance to first contextualize her life. We aren’t given too much into her early life however, we are told of her mother leaving for life outside of the home. The result of this as seen throughout the musical is Rose having abandonment issues that seep into her romantic and family relationships. She spent June’s childhood dreaming for her to be a star and desperately wanting her to become famous. However, when the best opportunity to become a star came for June in the form of getting to go to acting school, Mama Rose refuses. The act and June were the only things Rose cared about in the world. They were her life. To me, it was clear that the refusal of June to attend school was from fear of abandonment.

Rose’s entire identity in the musical is centered around her being a mother. That being said, Mama Rose is far from a perfect mother. In fact, she is abusive. It is not of a physical nature, but rather chronic emotional and psychological harm done through the years is significant and should not be overlooked. She spends the majority of Louise’s childhood neglecting her in favor of her daughter June, practically forces Louise into stripping along with depriving the two of what they truly desired in life. This is completely different from the stereotypical female mother role that we are accustomed to seeing in theatre.

Rose may not fit into the traditional gender role of mother; however, the musical does not cast this in a negative light. Instead, she is able to thrive as an ambitious yet imperfect mother who goes on a journey of self-development. We see her being the ambitious and driven through everything she is willing to give up and sacrifice in order to make her dream come through. We see her being fun and passionate during the rehearsals that she puts her heart and soul into. She isn’t afraid to be loud and let her voice be heard no matter who is in the room. The feminist inside me lights up from seeing how much of a strong, proud, independent, and goal-oriented mother Rose can be especially considering this takes place during the 20th century where the traditional stay at home wife without a career is the norm. Through the good and the bad, we see Rose time and time again shatter traditional gender roles.

The other aspect of Rose that we get to see play out in the musical is her as a romantic partner. We are told multiple times throughout the production that Rose was married to two different men in the past. Seeing as her entire life seems revolve around achieving fame for a daughter, it seems out of character for her to have invested so much in relationships. However, this is where I found Rose to challenge what sexuality and romance truly mean.

In most media, sexuality has traditionally been a form of showing affection and setting up a romantic dynamic between characters. I do not doubt one bit that Rose had an attraction and love for Herbie however, her ambitious nature shines here again. Despite her three relationships, Rose’s heterosexuality seems almost utilitarian. Herbie is dragged around for years helping with booking the act being a manager for the performance all in hopes of one day marrying Rose. She was always willing to delay a wedding if it meant even the slightest step forward to accomplishing her dream. On the other hand, all of the women in Gypsy put an elaborate display of their heterosexuality. June’s performances on stage always took advantage of her being the ‘pretty blonde’. Tulsa and Louise had their romantic scene moment dancing in the street together. The burlesque strippers and eventually Louise had large displays of their sexuality through dress and performance. Rose on the other hand, nothing. The essence of her character was trying to follow her dreams while sexuality and relationships were on the backburner. Watching this almost two decades later, I can’t tell if this deviation from the norm is an intentional feminist is move or the production failing to imagine an older mother figure with a sexual nature.

While it is not a complete resolution, we do get to see Rose’s reflection of herself at the end of the film through the song “Rose’s Turn”. Louise, having now turned into the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, and Rose end up in an argument that causes Rose to start singing about her life and what it has amounted to. In the end, she realizes that she always claimed that everything she did was for her daughters but in reality, it was for herself. In the end, she finally stops projecting her own dreams and desires through her daughters. Through acknowledging her desires and seeing how living vicariously through her children was her entire life, Rose grows as a mother and as a character. When Rose talks about wanting to see both her and Louise on magazine covers, it shows that Mama Rose hasn’t thrown away the dreams of fame she had. Instead, she is more open about it and able to talk and laugh it off without hiding behind the premise that it is a wish for her daughters. This level of character development paints Rose as woman still learning about herself and a parent still learning how to be a better mother.

Altogether, Gypsy paints a beautiful tale of the personal growth of an incredibly unorthodox female archetype. The flawed but still amazing Mama Rose rewrites our notions of what a woman can be through challenging the traditional role of a mother, exploring how romance and love does not need to be the defining quality of a woman, and through challenging the value we as a society places on sexuality and the display of it. In the current times where we strive to perfect and categorize every aspect of our being, Mama Rose is a reminder of how a successful and realistic character can thrive when room for nonconformity and personal change is given.

The Patriarchy Works Hard but Bette Midler Works Harder

I truly believe that most issues can be blamed on the patriarchy. Whether it be the lack of pockets in women’s clothing, the “not all men” narrative, dress codes, or the absence of women in politics, the patriarchy sucks. I could go on and on about all the ways the patriarchy makes life worse for women, but that is not the point of this post so I shall refrain. The part that is relevant to this post is the lack of accurate female characters because they are all written by men. The 1993 made-for-television production of GYPSY the musical starring Bette Midler is an excellent example of this. This show stars women, but it is written by men. How can I man accurately characterize a woman when they have no idea what it’s like to be a woman? Answer: they can’t. At least not Jule Styne who wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics, and  Arthur Laurents who wrote the book for GYPSY. Their characterization was flawed, but Bette Midler saved it. Let me entertain you with how she did it (haha get it)….

First, let’s discuss the overly confident characterization of Mama Rose. She is, of course, a single mother. Single mothers are always characterized as being confident because they have to be (according to popular entertainment). No one can argue that Mama Rose is not an incredibly bold character. From the first scene where she walks onto the audition stage and directs the backstage cast, tells the orchestra what to play, and threatens the director, I could tell that she was an incredibly bold and confident woman. All of the songs that she sings help to further characterize her as an incredibly bold woman. For instance in “Small World”, she is very flirtatious and forward with Herbie. She is basically asking him to marry her in a song when they first meet. You can’t get more bold than that. In all of Rose’s songs (there’s a lot of them), she is accompanied by strong, powerful music. Full disclosure, I don’t know much about music or official music terms, but Rose’s songs have powerful instruments that inspire confidence in her character. She is also always looking to the future in her songs and talking about the next great thing she is going to do.  The men did a great job of writing Mama Rose as an incredibly bold woman who never falters. You cannot knock them there.

GYPSY - Everything's Coming up Roses - Bette Midler 1993 - YouTube

However, the idea that Mama Rose would be incredibly bold and never faltering is flawed. Let me explain. By just listening to the cast recording or watching the first couple scenes, one would think that Mama Rose’s boldness translates to internal confidence. However, Bette Midler let’s the audience know that that’s not necessarily true. Specifically in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, Bette Midler adds insecurity to Mama Rose’s character. Her facial expressions and hand gestures make her seem as though she is having a near psychotic break because she doesn’t know what to do after her star June leaves. She also seems to be convincing herself that it will work to make Louise the star of the show. She ignores Louise and Herbie for most of the song as well as not singing to the cameras which show that she is talking mostly to herself rather than trying to convince them that this will work. These subtle choices by Bette Midler help to show that Mama Rose is more insecure than her traditional characterization shows her to be. I believe that Bette Midler chose to characterize Mama Rose as secretly insecure because that is significantly more realistic.

Amazon.com: Gypsy: Bette Midler, Peter Riegert, Cynthia Gibb, Edward Asner,  Christine Ebersole, Michael Jeter, Andrea Martin, Linda Hart, Anna McNeely,  Jennifer Rae Beck, Jeffrey Broadhurst, Tony Shalhoub, Emile Ardolino, Bob  Weber, Bonnie

Bette Midler works incredibly hard in this scene to show that Mama Rose does have insecurities and isn’t overly confident all of the time. Why does she work so hard you might ask? Because, you guessed it, the patriarchy. As I’ve said, Mama Rose’s character was written by three men. She obviously knows what it is like to be a woman much more than these men do. She knows that Mama Rose would never actually have the unbridled confidence that she is written to have because Mama Rose is a woman, and the Lord knows the world beats women down and makes us doubt ourselves for everything we do. Especially because Mama Rose is living primarily in a “man’s world” as the advocate for her daughters, she would be incredibly beaten down by the patriarchy. Being told that you aren’t good enough and will never measure up takes its toll on a person and eventually causes cracks in the bold, confident exterior that Mama Rose portrays. The men who wrote this, while they might understand this idea, cannot fully conceptualize it because, well, they are men. Bette Midler does understand this though which allows women watching GYPSY to actually relate with Mama Rose. Am I saying that for women to be realistic they need to be insecure? Absolutely not. Well, actually, maybe? I’m not sure, but I do know that the way Mama Rose was characterized as unwaveringly confident is not accurate. The idea that women can’t be confident is wrong, but the idea that women are unwaveringly confident is also wrong. Both of these ideas characterize women as one dimensional without the ability to have more than one emotion at the same time. Bette Midler saw that Mama Rose was characterized this way and said “this isn’t going to work.” She took it upon herself to add insecurity and therefore dimension to Mama Rose’s character. She saved Rose and made her so much more relatable to the audience as well as redefining what it means to be a woman. In summary, the patriarchy works hard, but Bette Midler works harder.

by Emma Alexander

Chloe’s Crushes: an article about her varying taste in men and how they perpetuate gender roles

By Chloe Hodge

While no man stacks up to my love Tommy Shelby of Netflix’s Peaky Blinders, two have come dangerously close recently, and they are none other than Davey Jacobs from Disney’s filmed version of Newsies (2017) directed by Brett Sullivan and a young Hugh Jackman as Curly from Oklahoma! directed by Trevor Nunn. Okay. What? These two fools are nothing alike. One wears assless chaps and the other a sweater vest—what’s going on here? Well I’ll tell ya. They’re both stereotypical manly men, which I occasionally fall prey to (see: Tommy Shelby). But if they’re so different, how do they both portray a stereotypical version of masculinity? Follow me down this dusty path (think Oregon trail type dirt road or a New York City back alley, your preference) and I’ll walk you through it.

Let’s examine how both Davey and Curly perpetuate the stereotype of masculinity first, I think that’s a great place to start. Both Davey and Curly make their respective entrances with a bang. Curly comes in singing, and Davey comes in basically fighting. (Not really, but he’s got some serious sass for him to clearly not know what he’s doing). Both entrances demand your attention; they create the immediate impression that these two men are going to stand out in their respective shows. Davey starts off as a hard-headed know-it-all. Curly? Well…same. Davey refuses help and claims he can figure out how to sell “papes” all by himself, while Curly does…whatever he’s doing. 

Hugh Jackman as Curly

Attempts to woo Laurey even though she’s said she’s not interested like 10 times already yet he refuses to back down? 

I don’t know. He supposedly has a job, but he always seems to be hovering around Aunt Eller’s house to me. 

I digress. Both men are VERY sure of themselves and their rightness. Davey has to mention multiple times throughout the play that he and his brother are only taking this job because their dad lost his job, so they’ve become the primary breadwinners. Stereotypical gender role? I think so. The masculine figure is supposed to bring in the money for their family, no matter if that masculine figure is only a teen and also babysitting his little brother? What are his parents doing? They better be on a job search. Curly, though he has literally nothing to his name except the clothes on his back and a lunch basket at one point, is just known to be the breadwinner in he and Laurey’s relationship, no questions asked. He was prepping to be the masculine-type breadwinner for his future family even before his wife liked him back.From the beginning  of the play, it was evident that he was saving up money working as a cowboy (see: assless chaps), but when poor Laurey finally gave into his pestering, he did note that he’d have to sell all his cowboy gear (he already sold it all to buy her lunch basket that had perishable items but was not in an icebox, but I guess he forgot this) to buy them stuff to settle down on a nice farm somewhere that he, of course, would tend to.

More traditionally masculine roles between these two, you ask? Say no more. 

Davey takes care of his younger brother, he is the protector in this relationship (very manly), while Curly is Laurey and Aunt Eller’s protector from weirdly perverted and very creepy Jud Fry, the farmhand. At one point Curly even takes his protective role on so hard that he attempts to talk Jud out of wanting to take Laurey to the barn dance by singing a song about how everyone would miss Jud and talk great about him if he were just dead…and follows that by pointing out that sturdy rope hanging from the ceiling. Like, come on Curly, that was just a little tone-deaf, even for a weirdo like Jud. 

Curly and Davey’s respective stereotypes of masculinity didn’t always have such nice parallels throughout the two musicals, like Davey’s traditionally masculine leadership position in his organizing and rallying together of the newspaper strike and Curly’s general respect in the community just for being a manly man, but their traditional masculinity stereotype parallels will converge one last time in this post in the form of their front and center dance numbers!!!

What’s a musical without shutting the hell up sometimes and just dancing??

Boring. That’s what.

And in these musical dance numbers, it is pretty traditionally masculine to be in the lead. Davey’s big dance break was in the tap number “King of New York,” where he took on a masculine leadership position among the other newsies by dancing in the middle of them with Katherine, but also kept his position as “one of the boys” by dancing alongside everyone else. Hugh’s, oops, I mean Curly’s dances were a few more in number, but my favorite example to watch was the dream ballet sequence, AKA a good fourth of the entire musical (really, why was that so long?) Curly comes in and immediately literally sweeps Laurey off her feet. He waltzes with her, leading of course, he spins her, he lifts her, he smiles that dreamy smile at her, he LEADS. Stereotypically masculine. Perpetuating gender roles. Curly leads, Laurey follows. Davey leads, the other newsies follow.

Okay, no sense in beating a dead horse. On to my next point, the breaking of these traditional gender roles through these characters! Whaatttt? Yeah, it needs to be addressed, my argument still holds, but these are good points as well.

Neither character does it frequently, but Curly only has one instance in which I felt like his actions or character didn’t just scream traditional masculine role at me through the TV, and that was near the beginning of the musical, before plot advancement, when he was clearly more interested in Laurey than she was him (or so it seemed). Stereotypically, the girl is the one who is crazy over the guy, and she has to convince him to settle for her (see: the beginning of Grease, Grace from Peaky Blinders, etc.) but Curly was putting his manliness aside for just a second to pine over a girl. 

Davey had a few more instances of breaking the stereotypical masculinity mold; first and most obviously, he stuck out in appearance like a sore thumb amongst the other newsies. While they had this rough, gritty, work-hard type manly appearance, Davey rolled up with a crossbody satchel and a nicely fitted, totally buttoned up plaid vest (I was wrong earlier, it wasn’t a sweater, but pretty close and equally as nerdy). 

Ben Fankhauser as Davey

 Not that this isn’t totally rockin’, not to mention very practical for his first day on the job, but traditionally, the masculine stereotype is the dirty hands, sleeves rolled up, not caring about appearance deal, so Davey’s matching fit threw him off from the rest of the group. Another aspect of Davey’s character that didn’t quite fit the traditional masculinity role is, admittedly, also an example I used for his perpetuation of the traditional masculinity role; taking care of his little brother. While it is traditionally masculine to be the protector of the family, it is not stereotypical of a masculine role to care for younger siblings or act as a babysitter of sorts. Taking care of younger children is usually a feminine role. Davey taking on this role and looking after his little brother breaks the stereotypical representation of masculinity the rest of his character portrays.

Alright. Now to wrap this bad boy up. I have reached my last point: I thought it would be interesting to address what masculinity was considered to be at the time of these musicals being written and see how that reflected in these two characters. Oklahoma! was written in 1942. For those of us who are not good with historical dates (personal callout) this was smack dab in the middle of World War II. How do we think this affected the portrayal of what was masculine and not? Well, the hardy, muscular soldier (you can just go ahead and translate this directly to that scene where Hugh Jackman comes out shirtless with suspenders on and knife in hand) definitely became sought after, but according to nationalww2museum.org (thanks Google!), there was another group who wanted to be sought after just as much. The men who did not get drafted into the war created their own home-made version of what masculinity is through the muscley laborer man (i.e., same thing, minus the uniform) who did all the work the women couldn’t do back home, so no matter if you were actively in the war or not, you were perpetuating the same masculine stereotype as the ideal figure. Personally, I think this can be seen almost exactly in what Curly was written to be. He is a hardworking, good ole American muscle man who takes care of his women. Newsies, on the other hand, was written in 2009. Although the Iraq War was going on at this time, the wartime era was definitely not as prevalent throughout the nation as it was in 1942. Maybe this was reflected in Davey’s character being a little less stereotypically masculine. Maybe this tiny difference was because gender roles in 2009, though heavily present still and very stereotyped, were not quite as in your face as they were in 1942. Who knows. Either way, it was interesting to look at.

Seriously, I’m wrapping things up now, I promise.In conclusion, both these guys, though written in different times and set in different times, perpetuate stereotypical masculine gender through their characters even though they seem to be nothing alike. Are there some slight variants from this at times? Yes. Does that cancel out the rest of the perpetuation? Nah. Are these characters a product of their time? Yeah probably. Does that make it okay? No. It’s annoying and a bit bland. Do I still think they’re cute? Yes. I do. But not as cute as Tommy Shelby, and that’s the real takeaway. Hope I didn’t bore you to death.

Tommy Shelby, supreme leader of the hot guys

Till next time

Paving The Way for Strong Women

Women ruling the world? Surely, you’re kidding.

But if you’re in Oz, that’s exactly the case.

The Wiz Live!, a televised musical produced by NBC in 2015, directed by Kenny Leon, adapted by Harvey Fierstein, with original book by William Brown, choreographed by Fatima Robinson, and with musical directors Harvey Mason, Jr. and Stephen Oremus, put women in power, with Dorothy, all four witches, and the Wiz being written as women. The production featured Queen Latifah as The Wiz, Mary J. Blige as Evillene, David Grier as The Cowardly Lion, Ne-Yo as Tin-Man, Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow, Uzo Aduba as Glinda the Good Witch of the South, Amber Riley as Addapearle, Common as The Bouncer, Stephanie Mills as Auntie Em, and Shanice Williams as our heroine, Dorothy.

This production of The Wiz directly challenges gender stereotypes by putting powerful women on the stage at every turn. Female tropes of pliability, fear, innocence, and modesty are transferred onto male characters such as the lion, the scarecrow, and the tin man, who all believe themselves incomplete, and who Dorothy convinces to travel with her to Oz in order to be made whole again.

The Dorothy in this production is not the innocent, frightened girl we’ve seen in The Wizard of Oz. Instead, she is confident, brave, and an inspiring leader to those around her. In fact, she leads the musical’s men around, rounding up the incomplete lion, scarecrow, and tin man to go to the Emerald City to be made whole. The image of a confident, courageous, and smart girl leading a group of men is not one that is regularly seen, and it’s an important and progressive take on The Wizard of Oz.

Upon reaching the Emerald City, Dorothy and her friends encounter the court in “Emerald City Ballet,” which is full of references to ball culture, which was a refuge for LGBTQ+ people, and especially those of racial minorities, with the creation of underground ball culture as a response to the racism of earlier balls put on by white men (Buckner, n.d.). The ensemble are dressed in lavish, ‘80s-inspired geometric outfits that accentuate their poses as they dance, incorporating voguing, another nod to ball culture. There isn’t any singing, and the only words that are said are slang from ball culture, such as “slay” and “serve.”

In a fitting extension of our introduction to Emerald City, we first meet the Wiz as a drag king, complete with a totally badass outfit, sharp makeup, and an attitude and authority that frightens even our brave heroine Dorothy. It’s important to note that, even when the Wiz is later discovered to have faked the fire-casting and other intimidating elements of her performance, she still has enormous love and respect from the citizens of Oz, as shown in the scene near the end of the musical when she leaves to go back to her home. Even more remarkable is the fact that such respect is given to the woman behind the stage makeup, who previously embodied the typical brute-force power of a masculine character who ruled by fear without ever even being seen.

When I watched The Wiz Live, I was pleasantly surprised by the overt and extensive elements of queer culture in these sections of the musical. As an LGBTQ+ person, I wasn’t expecting a musical based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to positively pay homage to the history of those who paved the way for my rights and freedom to express that aspect of my identity. It was also refreshing to see references to ball culture including Black performers, since, over time, ball culture has become a safe and affirming space for Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people (Buckner, n.d.).

Later on in the musical, when the Wiz is “found out,” she becomes an approachable character audiences are able to grow fond of in a different way. She and Dorothy debate over the idea of home and what a good life entails, which again emphasizes Dorothy’s confidence and tenacity, and eventually the Wiz is convinced that it’s time to leave her solitude and go back to the real world.

By creating an array of strong, powerful, and respected female characters, The Wiz Live! works to undo gender stereotypes and the tired, sexist depictions of women in mainstream entertainment. I would even go so far as to say that it succeeds in making people think about what makes this musical different from the things they usually watch, and in giving girls traits to aspire to beyond timidity, modesty, and pliability. I cannot stress enough how crucial this is in current times, when everything from diet culture to politics seeks to knock women down and take away our power. The world needs representations like this, and The Wiz Live! has, pun intended, paved the way.

Bibliography:

Buckner, R. (n.d.). Underground Ball Culture – Subcultures and Sociology. Subcultures and Sociology. Retrieved March 15, 2021, from https://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/subcultures-and-scenes/underground-ball-culture/

Shakespeare Would Hate the Hopeful Ending of Gypsy

“Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here’s Rose!”

            Thus begins the most famous nervous breakdown in theatrical history. But we’ll get to that later. First, some context.

            Gypsy is a 1959 musical classic with music by Jules Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Based loosely on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous American burlesque performer and striptease artist, Gypsy tells the story of crazed stage mother Rose as she tries to turn her two daughters, June and Louise, into vaudeville stars.

I’ve always been a little obsessed with Mama Rose, though for a long time I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I’m not a middle-aged narcissistic stage mom, and there’s realistically very little I should be able to relate to in Rose’s story. If anything, Louise or June should be more up my alley, considering I’m a late-adolescent theatre kid. But there’s something intoxicating about Rose’s ferocity and ambition that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I first saw a production of the show nearly 5 years ago. Fortunately, in my most recent viewing of the 1993 TV film version of Gypsy, starring Bette Midler as that lovably monstrous mom, I was finally able to parse through why I love Mama Rose so much as a character- and why I think you should too.

But before we get too far into things, let’s start with an important note: Rose is an abusive mother. There is no denying that. The things she does are terrible, and they result in permanent psychological damage to her two daughters. I do not intend to excuse her behavior. In fact, I find the ending of Gypsy somewhat disappointing because Rose never quite gets what’s coming to her, which I’ll discuss in more detail later. I don’t think Rose should be forgiven by any means, but she does deserve to be understood.

The most obvious contributing factor to anyone’s Mama Rose Mania is the sheer icon status of the character and of any actor who has ever taken her on. Over the years, Rose has been played by such superstars as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Imelda Staunton, and Bernadette Peters, among others. The star power required to belt such anthems as “Some People”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, and “Rose’s Turn” is second to none. So perhaps you might be asking if it’s not the character with which I connected as a young aspiring performer, but the roster of incredible actors she represents. And I think you wouldn’t be entirely wrong in that assessment. In my mind, the sheer act of portraying such a complex, challenging, unapologetic woman is an act of feminism on the part of the actor, regardless of the character’s many sins. Plus, she’s an alto lead! However, I think there’s more to it than that. Mama Rose isn’t just an opportunity to showcase female talent, she’s also the embodiment of what patriarchal systems do to women who don’t fit them, and how the pressure to conform can rip a woman- and her family- apart.

In particular, I want to talk about Rose’s identity as a mother. It’s so essential to her character that she’s come to be known almost exclusively as “Mama Rose”, even though she’s never actually called this in the text of the musical. Even we as the fans have given her no identity outside of her motherhood. The society she inhabits is no different. We learn that Rose has had two husbands, both of whom left her when June and Louise were still very young. As a single mother, Rose is expected to put her own ambitions aside and devote herself entirely to her daughters without the financial or emotional support of a partner. But ambitions don’t just die out when they turn unhelpful. They continue to linger and fester. This is revealed in the first number of the show when Rose sings to her father, “…I at least gotta try! When I think of all the sights that I gotta see and all the places I gotta play, All the things that I gotta be at. C’mon, papa, what do you say?” Rose is haunted by the thought of all she wants to see and do, and Midler’s frantic energy and fiery eyes further enforce Rose’s longing for a life of her own. However, she never gets the chance to pursue these dreams because her daughters must come first. The two men who left her (presumably the respective fathers of June and Louise, though it’s unspecified) receive no repercussions for being absent in their children’s lives. This leaves Rose alone to frantically try to combine her identity as mother, as defined by society, with her existing ambitions. She could’ve kept pursuing a career in show business for herself after her children were born rather than forcing it on them, but this likely would’ve been looked down upon as a selfish thing for a mother to do. Women are frequently asked to put their own careers and ambitions aside for their children or partners. The ironic part is that if Rose had chosen to pursue her own career while raising her children, June and Louise likely would have been much better off. But she doesn’t. She does what she views as the selfless thing by putting her daughters’ careers above all else. Her identities as mother and manager fuse together. When we meet her in the musical, she is no longer just Rose, she has become Mama Rose, and that identity is the direct result of societal expectations of what a single mother should do, namely, sacrifice everything for her kids.

At the end of the show, we finally come to “Rose’s Turn”, the iconic and powerful finale in which Rose must confront herself. She pleads with the audience, “Someone tell me when is it my turn? Don’t I get a dream for myself?” This is the sentiment that has been slowly bubbling under the surface from the first moments of the show. Rose just wants a dream for herself. And the suppression of that dream, as a result of her status as a mother and the expectations of that role, results in her failure to connect with her children and her complete emotional breakdown in the finale.

Which finally brings me back around to the show’s ending. I told you I’d get there eventually. Though “Rose’s Turn” is the last song of the show, a brief scene afterward between Louise and Rose gives the audience a sense of hope that the two might reconcile. In the Midler version, Louise gives her mother a gentle smile before exiting, and Rose lingers for a moment longer to gaze at the stage, as though taking one last look at her dreams before moving on forever. I, personally, hate this ending. I mean, c’mon! Rose is the ultimate tragic figure! Her ambition is her fatal flaw, just like Macbeth! And she descends into madness after being rejected by her daughters, just like King Lear! Her story deserves a Shakespearean ending! It’s not that I want Rose to be unhappy, but I definitely don’t want her to give up on the ambition that has defined her nature from the first moment of the show. Shakespeare would never backtrack on a character’s defining feature like that.

I think the musical should end with Louise cutting her mother out of her life entirely. Hear me out. This would still be a hopeful and in some ways empowering ending because Louise is able to cut the toxicity out of her life and forge her own path. But it would also be the ultimate tragedy for Rose, whose biggest fear is abandonment. What better way to demonstrate the pitfalls of the theatre industry and the damage done to ambitious women by patriarchal systems than by giving us an ending Shakespeare would applaud? I want a tragic heroine!

Regardless of the moderately disappointing final scene, I think I do have a clearer grasp of why I’ve been so drawn to Rose for my entire life. She is fundamentally unable to change who she is for anyone. Of course, that ultimately has disastrous consequences for her family, but that’s also the fault of the systems they had to navigate and fit within. I don’t really think Rose was ever meant to be a mother. But I think her kids would’ve been a lot better off if she wasn’t expected to put aside her dreams for them. And what about those absent fathers, huh? Why don’t we ever blame those guys?

I think I relate to Rose’s inability to be anyone but herself. As a queer person, I’ve found identity to be both fickle in some cases and utterly immutable in others. Rose’s story is that of an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object, with the immovable object being the theatre industry and the patriarchal expectations set upon her as a mother. And I, for one, think we need to drop the “Mama”. She is Rose. Just Rose. And that’s more than enough.

“How Do You Like Them Eggrolls, Mr. Goldman?”: Female Sexuality as a Means to Power in a Male-Dominated World

Ethel Merman. Bernadette Peters. Patti LuPone. And, of course, Bette Midler. Such musical theater giants have all taken on the iconic role of Mama Rose, and productions of the 1959 musical Gypsy, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim,are often noted specifically for their leading ladies. In fact, with so much emphasis on Mama Rose and her daughters, there are few male protagonists present in the musical, and their actions do little to impact the plot, with Mama Rose often ignoring their input. Despite the heavy emphasis on women’s roles in this musical, Rose and Louise are often placed at the whims of male producers and audience members with fairly small roles in the musical as a whole. Consequently, I believe this musical, through the perspectives of Rose and Louise, does an excellent job of showing how, when men control the means to success, women often must cater to the desires of men in order to gain mainstream recognition, particularly in the entertainment industry.

In the 1993 television production of Gypsy that we watched for class, Bette Midler played Mama Rose, and much of how she portrayed the character involved her immediately asserting her dominance over men. From the opening scene of the musical, she marches into an audition that her daughters June and Louise were at. Despite the man running the audition’s adamant refusal to allow mothers into the auditions, clearly trying to avoid this very situation, Rose refuses to leave and tells Louise to “sing out.” In this scene, she repeatedly ignores the orders of a man in a position of power over her. Simultaneously, in her lines that she is interrupting with, she is also encouraging her daughters to be outspoken like her as she tries to improve Louise’s stage presence. However, these actions of ignoring a more powerful man also have immediate consequences for her and her daughters’ success, considering that they do not get cast in the variety show, presumably at least partly because of Rose’s interference in the audition. In the very first scene of the musical, Rose has already shown that she is willing to break gender stereotypes by fighting against powerful men, but the musical has also shown that there will be consequences to her success as a result of these actions.

Notably, the only time we see Rose herself, not Louise, find success in promoting her daughters’ careers is portrayed through the song “Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone”, in which Rose is extremely ingratiating to a casting agent, to a comical extent, in fact. Rose and Herbie’s success at getting June’s act onto the Orpheum Circuit is marked with a song about Rose trying extremely hard to be a good hostess, offering Mr. Goldstone anything she can think of. Though throughout the rest of the musical, Rose fails to book her daughters’ acts, on the one occasion she does succeed in reaching her goal, her success is portrayed through a number in which she essentially sucks up to a powerful man and ultimately assumes the role of a traditional female hostess, albeit in a comical fashion. Contrasting this, when June is offered a contract on the condition that Rose leave her, Rose tries to argue with the producer, Mr. Grantzinger and forces June to not sign the contract. Once again, Rose cannot become successful because she refuses to let powerful men control her, turning down a potentially lucrative offer because it puts power over her and June in the hands of a man that already has power within the entertainment industry.

Perhaps most importantly to the plot, Rose refuses to listen to men even when they are close to her and when she seems to love them. This is demonstrated through her relationship with Herbie, a relationship that lasts several years but finally ends when she signs Louise on to become a burlesque dancer without consulting Louise and in the process postpones her long-awaited marriage to Herbie. Although the immediate cause for Herbie deciding to leave could be taken as Rose’s decision to force her daughter into becoming a burlesque dancer, it also seems as though Rose’s demeanor has long been upsetting to Herbie because of her domineering nature, and this was simply the last straw. Also important is that, in making this decision, Rose has clearly placed her and her daughter’s success in their careers over her relationship with Herbie since she is postponing the marriage. Rose’s domineering of Herbie has occurred throughout the entire musical, with their first meeting being Rose pressuring Herbie into becoming her and her daughters’ agent through the song “Small World”. Though Herbie eventually agrees with her, and the song becomes a duet, it begins with Herbie being uninterested in her offer since he had recently stopped being an agent. In fact, Rose has such a domineering position over Herbie that their main love duet in the musical is titled “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and is sung directly after Herbie threatens to leave her because she cares too much about the act. Though the song is portrayed in a mainly light-hearted manner, it is a clear early indication in the musical that Herbie thinks Rose cares too much about her and her daughters’ careers and that she has the power in the relationship, as is demonstrated by the title of the song itself.

Throughout the musical, we see Rose continually ignore Herbie or intimidate him. One of the most obvious examples of this is when, in the song “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, Herbie seems almost scared of Rose as Louise clings to him. The actor who plays him, Peter Riegert, seems to have made a clear decision to portray Herbie as stunned, concerned, and intimidated during this scene through the use of his body language since he stands to the side and looks on, unable to affect Rose’s scheming. Meanwhile, Bette Midler plays Rose as physically domineering, gesturing very widely with her arms and physically taking up space on the set. The expression on Riegert’s face seems to convey that Herbie feels powerless to stop Rose’s decision to make Louise a star. However, Rose’s power and refusal to fit into the gendered norms of a heterosexual relationship do eventually drive Herbie away several scenes after this, which has a negative impact on her own personal life. She is unable to stay in a relationship, and the musical implies that this is her fault for being too domineering in a way that is unexpected for a woman, especially in dealing with a male romantic partner. Not only is Rose’s professional life negatively impacted by her willingness to stand up to men who would traditionally have power over her, but her personal life is also hurt by her domination.

Louise’s eventual rise to stardom through burlesque creates a sharp contrast to Rose’s unwillingness to bend to men’s demands. Louise becomes more powerful than Rose ever does, but she is only able to do so because she bases her career around pleasing men. We see that, when she performs for the first time, she is terrified of catering to the men in the audience, which Cynthia Gibb portrays through her acting choice by walking very tentatively and, at one point, turning back to her mother in fright, who in turn encourages her to keep going. However, eventually, through the montage shown in the reprise of “Let Me Entertain You”, the audience both in the show and the real audience watching the movie looks on as Louise, now going by Gypsy Rose Lee, grow in confidence, much of which is shown through her body language, which Gibb now makes much smoother and more decisive, and through her spoken dialogue between verses of the song. Her willingness and level of comfort with her career catering to men’s sexual desire is shown through the jokes she makes as part of her act. At one point, her jokes even reference the fact that her entire audience is men since she addresses the audience as, “monsieurs and monsieurs”, implying there are no women there. She has clearly realized that, by appealing directly to men, she has become financially successful and is seen as a celebrity, and as a result, she has decided that it is worth overcoming any sense of shame or embarrassment she was feeling at the beginning of the montage.

Rose’s and Louise’s contrasting views on catering to men’s sexual desires in exchange for success finally come into direct conflict when Rose comes to Louise’s dressing room after one of Louise’s performances and begins an argument with her, clearly upset that Louise has become successful without her. One of the first things Rose does to start this argument is call Louise a stripper, clearly contrasting Louise’s own view that her career has given her power in some ways, giving her financial and social success as she becomes famous. Instead, Rose still sees her as a stripper, which Louise, in “Let Me Entertain You”, had said did not apply to her because she was well paid. By calling her a stripper, Rose is combatting Louise’s position by saying that her job, however much success and acclaim it has won her, is still using her own body to cater to men’s sexual desires. While Louise views the career as positive since it has allowed her to gain wealth and fame, Rose sees it as degrading because it is, by nature, catering to powerful men. In this scene, we see these two characters’ viewpoints on interacting with men in power directly clash. In doing so, Laurents’ book demonstrates how women had to be submissive to men in the early twentieth century in order to become successful. Rose has refused to do so, and as a result, she never gained commercial success. Louise has made the opposite decision, and she has been rewarded with wealth and fame. In “Rose’s Turn”, we see that Rose acknowledges this fundamental truth of gender politics by unbuttoning the top of her dress while saying, “How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”, calling back to the one prior time in the musical that Rose capitulated to a powerful man’s demands. Now, by pantomiming Louise’s strip routine while calling back to that previous scene, Rose connects all acts of fulfilling men’s wishes in the musical, while singing a song wishing for fame, clearly demonstrating the theme of women being submissive to men as the only way in which to achieve mainstream success.

Through Rose and Louise’s differing attitudes towards powerful men, the musical Gypsy illustrates the position the entertainment industry, and society in general, placed women in during the early twentieth century. One of the main reasons Rose cannot find success in her professional life, and to some extent her personal life as well, is because she never allows a man in a position of power to control her. If a position seems too beneficial to the man she is dealing with, Rose will refuse to participate, even if that means a potential loss of finances, as her refusal to allow June to sign Mr. Grantzinger’s contract demonstrates. Contrastingly, Louise takes a job that some, including Rose, would call denigrating but becomes massively successful because of it. Because men control much of the cultural capital in patriarchy, for a woman like Rose or Louise to succeed in a public career, they must perform and behave in a way that fits into these men’s expectations and desires. Unfortunately, while women are beginning to control more cultural capital over time, this is still somewhat true today, as actresses and female singers are often expected to be beautiful as well as talented. Though Gypsy is set nearly a century in the past, it teaches an important lesson about limitations that can still be placed on women who wish to be in the spotlight today.

Through Rose-Tinted Glasses: Looking at a Descent Into Villainy

Main characters exist so that we know who to root for. But the minute you press play on Emile Ardolino’s 1993 film production of Gypsy, Arthur Laurents takes every expectation you’ve ever had about a strong female lead and turns it on its head. What we know about sacrificial mothers gets dragged through the murky story of Mama Rose and her two daughters until we aren’t sure which way is up or who we were supposed to root for all along. 

In Laurents’ case, this means taking the standard character of the strong, controlling mother and pushing her to madness. Because of her gender, we expect Rose to be loving, kind, and selfless but instead we discover she is obsessive, rude, and abrasive, and we don’t quite know what to do with her. 

The first time I saw the production, I found it so difficult to let go of this idea that Rose had to be the hero somehow. She is a mother, she cares for her children, and her children even love her back sometimes. I waited through every harsh word, selfish decision, and delusional sabotage, searching for that clue that would tell me when her redemption arc was about to begin, but never found it.

It took me until the closing scenes to finally sit there and say, “ok, fine, maybe she is the villain.” This confusion, where Laurents actually forces his audience to consider the characters and their choices, is what makes Gypsy so powerful. We expect one thing based on the stock characters we have encountered a thousand times before, and when they don’t follow the path we expect, we have to decide how to deal with the aftermath. 

At the first introduction, we see Rose as a caricature of a stage mom, a helicopter parent, a woman who fights hard for her children. Sure she’s comically overbearing and a bit intimidating and nobody knows what to do with her, but that’s just because she’s a powerful woman. Hey, we like powerful women! Feminism! After all, it’s about time we grew past characters like Laurey of Oklahoma! who have hardly a personality trait to call their own, and on to women like Katherine of Newsies who seem to fill the strong female roles America has been calling for. Girls who talk back and tap to keep up with the male ensemble. Girls who act more like boys, but still primarily support the male character arc.

But Rose is another beast entirely. She is larger than life. She is everything and more. And she is terrifying. 

“Some People” is our first hint that Rose may not be the loving mother we want her to be. The song is not a soprano lullaby, nor even a defiant belt. Bette Midler’s delivery is gritty, passionate, and clearly limited by the silver screen. Her voice nearly drowns out the beautiful orchestrations, contrastingly abrasive to the ear in all its power. The song is meant to be belted to the second mezzanine, where it slams you back in your seat and demands to be listened to. Midler steamrolls through the set as she sings, delivering sharp gestures and lyrics like oaths. Everything she does radiates power. 

At the Act I finale, when the curtain goes down after “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” you find yourself sitting there in shock and horror wondering not how these characters will fix this situation, but what atrocity this fearsome woman will commit next. The song setup is typical of the “belted act 1 finales of female self-assertion” genre that audiences have come to know and love.1 However, we are not left empowered or invigorated like we would be for “Defying Gravity,” but instead shaken by the display of madness so blatantly subverting what we know about female leads in musicals. 

This is no Laurey we have in front of us. 

Every expectation that we had for how this female should act is left in the dust as Rose blazes forward like a white hot bullet. Laurents has taken the stereotype of stubborn middle-aged women and pushed it to its breaking point, yet you still find yourself sitting there wondering what redemption will look like. We are blinded when we see that she’s a woman, she’s a mother, and deep down she probably only wants what’s best for her kids. This is what makes it so difficult to recognize and reconcile Mama Rose’s descent into villainy, even while we watch all the clues unfold before our eyes. Theres a reason WatchMojo ranks it as the hardest female role to play on Broadway. 

1 Wolf, Stacy Ellen. Changed for Good: a Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1–18. 

Beautiful All Along? Gypsy, Beauty Standards, and Expectations of Femininity

By Valerie Kraft

Ah, the age-old trope: give a girl some contacts and a hair straightener, and suddenly you’ll discover she was Beautiful All Along! Just with some minor adjustments, of course.

But beautiful to who? Herself – or to the male gaze and the beauty standards that have been forced upon her since birth?

These were questions I struggled with growing up as someone who looked identical to the “before” picture in every teen movie makeover scene. I think back to a young me – with frizzy hair, braces, and glasses that definitely did NOT suit me, and remember watching movies like The Princess Diaries. As the infamous Paolo holds up photos of the “old” Mia at the end of her makeover and remarks, “only Paolo can take this and this and give you a princess,” I realized that I was the “this” in the equation – not the princess.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, such a realization is insignificant. I wasn’t devastated or suddenly obsessed with beauty or begging my mom for makeup, but such messaging isn’t so easy to shake off. When my mom and eye doctors mentioned contacts, I jumped at the chance. And as I got older and my hair grew even frizzier with age, I adopted the painstaking routine of straightening it daily. I grew more confident in my appearance – but was it because I truly liked the way I looked better? Or that I had been so brainwashed to view certain looks as beautiful?

I don’t blame The Princess Diaries for this. Hell, I didn’t even think about The Princess Diaries as I slowly adopted these new practices. But the fact of the matter is this: the beauty ideals set forth by the film are the ones Western society has deemed essential for women. Popular media continuously dictates that every woman should meet (or strive to meet) these expectations, lest she fall into the curse of undesirability.

So as I settled in to watch the 1993 made-for-TV musical film Gypsy, I knew I was in for the same kind of beauty “propaganda” that The Princess Diaries toted. After all, I knew a brief background of the plot: it was the biographical story of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, from being sidelined from the spotlight as a child to her burlesque stardom. Surely such a story would inevitably require some instance of transformation: after all, how could a shy, background child star become a confident burlesque queen?

With a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (adapted from his book of the stage musical Gypsy, which in turn was adapted from Gypsy: a Memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee herself) and music by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim (composer and lyricist, respectively), Gypsy follows the story of the dysfunctional Hovick family and their increasingly desperate attempts at achieving stardom, as forced by matriarch Rose. Rose, played by Bette Milder, is a classic “stage mom,” obsessed with seeing her children become famous so she can live out her dreams of stardom vicariously. She totes her two daughters around the Vaudeville circuits with a cutesy routine starring “Baby June” and the obviously less talented Louise, a clear contrast established within the opening scenes of the film.

June (played by Lacey Chabert and later by Jennifer Rae Beck) is the perfect picture of expected femininity for a young girl. With her bouncy blonde curls, frilly dress, squeaky voice, and bubbly disposition, baby June dazzles audiences with her infectious happiness and dedication to entertaining the crowd. Yet, just steps behind her stands her sister Louise, who will one day become the famous Gypsy Rose Lee. Louise (played by Elisabeth Moss and later by Cynthia Gibb), in contrast, is stripped from her femininity. Unable to model the cutesy feminine persona of her sister, Louise is barred from being feminine at all – instead, she is resigned to the chorus, where not only is she barred from her sister’s spotlight, but she also is dressed as boy, referred to as a boy, and in one performance, even forced to wear a beard to embody Uncle Sam.

Such an exile from female identity is unnecessary– despite her lack of talent, there’s no reason the act couldn’t have been “Baby June and her Newsies,” or some other gender-neutral term rather than “Baby June and her News Boys.” Why does Louise have to lose her female identity simply because she lacks the feminine persona of June? The answer is simple: women who fail to meet expectations of femininity are barred from it. If Louise can’t properly “behave” in the way young girls should, then she shouldn’t get to be a “real” girl at all – at least, not in the way June is. Sure, Louise is still expected to be submissive, demure, and nurturing (of course, as all girls should be), but she is barred from other aspects of femininity, such as beauty and courtship (by a male, of course. Yay heteronormativity!).

This is further highlighted as Louise and June age, but the act remains the same. Now a grown woman, Louise is still stuck in her sister’s shadow, but this time, she is now literally dehumanized in her new role as Caroline the Singing Cow. Face covered and voice removed (with the exception of a few “moos”), Louise is hidden by her mother simply because she does not live up to the standards of femininity embodied by June.

Ah, but remember – by the end of the film, Louise will transform into the beautiful Gypsy Rose Lee. And while the film needs to make clear her original deviance from femininity, it can’t go too far, because of course, she will still need to be attractive at the end of the film, despite her shaky beginning. So alright – she can’t be sexy and “beautiful” yet, but we still need viewers to know that she’s Still A Girl (and still available for heterosexual desire) – so we’ll throw in a random song to show her feminine, nurturing side! Let’s give Louise a baby lamb and have her sing “Little Lamb” so the audience knows for certain she’s still a girl under all of those male costumes and cow casting. After all, only girls have that nurturing, mothering instinct, right?

Though just in case any viewers start getting the wrong idea, the film makes it quite clear that Louise is still NOT beautiful or desirable (at least not yet). When one of the actors, Tulsa (played by Jeffery Broadhurst) fantasizes about breaking away from the act and starting his own, he sings “All I Need Is The Girl.” Despite being completely alone with Louise, despite literally having a girl available to him, ignoring Louise as an option quite firmly cements her as not “girl” enough to be desired. And though Louise is able to perform the dance – the only real requirement Tulsa needs – he still does not see her as an option. Instead, Tulsa later elopes with June, the ultimate proof that in order to be desired by men, one must fulfil the expectations of femininity and beauty.

So what changes? How does timid and “not desirable” Louise become the gorgeous and sexy Gypsy Rose Lee? The answer, of course, obvious: a good old fashioned beauty transformation.

With the help of burlesque performers who coach Louise on how to captivate audiences (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”), along with Rose’s insistence that Louise fills in for a missing performer, Louise is finally forced to mold herself to fit societal beauty standards. Following her mother’s directions – “young and girlish, pure” and “your hair’s all wrong – it can’t just hang there like spaghetti” – Louise dresses herself in makeup, a dress, and jewelry for the first time in her life. As she catches her reflection in the mirror, Louise stares in shock. “Mama, I’m pretty?” she wonders, as she traces her curves with her hands and smiles, finally concluding, “I’m a pretty girl, Mama.”

This – this is the moment where Louise disappears for good. Where the film makes a sharp distinction between acceptable and desirable femininity – the beautiful Gypsy – and the shameful, childish past of Louise. It is in this new identity that Gypsy’s worth and value as a woman is affirmed.

Interesting, isn’t it, that Louise only receives love and acceptance after becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, and by extension, achieving the expected ideals of femininity? Interesting, isn’t it, that Louise only becomes confident and adored after discovering that she too can be beautiful (with the proper modifications, of course)? And though Louise lacks a singular love interest throughout the film, the heterosexual desire of men is finally “granted” to her when she sheds her Not-Quite-A-Girl skin and fully dedicates herself to fulfilling beauty expectations. It is this heterosexual desirability – the male gaze seeing and accepting Gypsy and her appearance – that serves as the ultimate proof of femininity’s achievement.  

And so the cycle of beauty propaganda continues, timeless as always. And just as The Princess Diaries did to me, Gypsy communicates the same age-old message to female viewers: that you are undesirable in your cocoon, but one day, if you embrace femininity and transform yourself, you too can be a beautiful butterfly deserving of (heterosexual) love.

You too can be Beautiful All Along.  

(The Expectation of ) How To Be Your Own Man

“Be a man. You must be swift as the coursing river. Be a man. With all the force of a great typhoon. Be a man. With all the strength of a raging f-.” Oh sorry. Wrong Disney film/musical. Or is it? I would not be surprised if somehow Newsies playwright Harvey Ferstein met with the creators of Mulan at some point in his life and bounced off ideas. It is not like he didn’t play a certain character called Yao…Sure, Mulan and Newsies are two completely different stories. I mean duh one is literally in China during a war with the Huns while the other is set in New York where the newsies are fighting for their labor rights. That said, both show the audience the expectation of what it means to be a man. The ones doing all the fighting are practically all males because well they are expected to be tougher and more capable fighters. In Mulan, they make it clear that there is no room to be soft because it is a killed or be killed world. Newsies offers a similar perspective but at the same time also challenges the audience to expand their perception of masculinity. 

One of the first characters that the audience gets introduced to is Jack Kelly. He would be considered the typical stereotypical standard of what it means to be a man. Whoever oversaw Jack’s costuming made a specific choice to introduce Jack with an outfit that showcased his big muscular arms when we first met him. In comparison to Crutchie, Jack obviously stood out as the physically superior character as they sing in the number Santa Fe. As the strongest, it only made sense that Jack would be the leader in this musical if we continued to follow our expectations of what a male should be; the strongest are the alpha in the pack. It’s no surprise that Jack was often occupying a huge part of center stage. Jack’s the one people listen to. I mean everyone instantly woke up when Jack yelled at them to get to work in the morning. In fact, he yelled quite often throughout the musical. Jack was also the one who was out here yelling at the top of his lungs these phrases when he had his brief solo moment during the number “The World Will Know.”:

Pulitzer may own the world, but he don’t own us!

Pulitizer may crack the whip, but he won’t whip us.

As if that was not enough, Jack came out during this number whipping around a bag and making a lot of fist and arm movements. I swear most of the time this musical was more of an arm muscle contest where Jack would always be the winner. Another similar powerful moment was when Jack was giving that passionate speech to convince Scabs and his crew to join the strike. It was here that I noticed the iconic power pose that many superior males in our modern army do. With his hands on his hips and smoldering look, Jack immediately told others through his body language that he was not someone to mess around or disagree with. He stayed true to that when he stood his ground and glared right back when people tried to get into his face. Other male leader qualities Jack exhibited was his eagerness and willingness to be aggressive when his leadership is being challenged especially when any of his boys are being bullied or threatened. For example, Jack immediately beat up the two boys they encountered as they headed to work that morning because one of them took away Crutchie’s crutch while the other threatened another newsie. 

Is being a male all about the brawn and aggression though? Should we expect males to meet the same kind of masculine image Jakes does? Absolutely not. Davey Jacob showed us that being a male can also have a tender and tactical touch. But I first got to admit it was a bit difficult to shake off my previous conception of a man. I was a bit underwhelmed by Davey’s character because I had gotten used to the toughness and wildness of Jack’s character. I had a specific expectation of masculinity and expected to see that reflected in all men. The first time we met Davey was when he ran in with his little brother Les. Unlike Jack, Davey’s appearance was more scholarly and civil looking with his buttoned-up vest and long-sleeved shirt. His speech pattern had an apologetic and unconfident tone which was quite a contrast to Jack’s dialogue which was rougher and more impulsive. In addition, sometimes I like to refer to Davey as the “Dad” figure or the family man because he always had this strong sense of responsibility to family (and was overly protective of his brother) like a father would. I mean he practically stated in the beginning that this newspaper job was only temporary because they were only there to help make some money for their struggling parents. 

So, what changed? Sometimes I wondered if Davey was pressured during his time with the newsies to be the same kind of male as everyone else. Considering that his little brother picked up Jack’s mannerisms real fast, it would not be a surprise if Davey felt the need to be more of a man. However, being this brawny, aggressive male just did not cut it for him. Instead, Davey found another way to be an assertive male. That began when he decided to join the newspaper strike despite expressing concern about the potential consequences during the number “The World Will Know.” Davey found his place as the strategic planner for the strike. To be quite honest, without Davey’s brains, I think the strike would have failed. Remember it was Davey who cut in saying that they needed officers, a secretary, and a statement of purpose for their union to be recognized. When the strike seemed like it was going to die, it was Davey who stated that “we can’t back down now” during the number “Seize the Day.” In fact, it was in this number that Davey showed that being a strong male leader was having the ability to empathize with their people. The number stood out from the rest because of its softer and motherly tone which you would normally not associate with a male-lead number. But I found this choice refreshing and soothing which served Davey well to renew hope in the newsies. He slowly and gently reminds the newsies that “courage cannot erase our fear.” Instead, “courage is when we face our fear.” Dang, Davey so poetic.  Also, is someone cutting onions? 

I would like to point out another moment where the ideas of masculinity are again being challenged. During the “Watch What Happens Reprise,” we see Davey attempting to bring up Jack’s spirits who remained shattered from the failed strike. It is a surprising turn around for Jack, who had always been so headstrong, confident, and aggressive during Act 1. That said, this moment showed that behind the macho man image was an individual who struggles to come to terms with their own personal fears. It is an important realization because our expectation of masculinity may be pressuring males to be someone they are not. We inadvertently erase the humanity that is behind them. Davey Jacobs again demonstrated that they are not obligated to approach a situation through brawn like someone would expect a male to. He encouraged Jake to look at the situation differently. Instead of thinking that the opposition had power for bringing the police, it would be helpful to consider that they brought the police because they were afraid of the power of the newsies. Mind blown! I did not think of it that way until Davey said that.

So again, what does it takes to be a man? Well, if we look back at the character development of both Jack and Davey, there is no set way of being a man. In fact, perhaps it is better to think about how a male can find their own definition of masculinity. With Jack, we saw this tough man who everyone looked up to. But I saw it more as a survival mechanism to cope with the tough job of being a newsie in New York. We know from the very beginning that Jack daydreamed of going to Santa Fe and leave behind this miserable lifestyle. So, it might be safe to say that for him to be “happy” in New York, he had to adapt to the rough lifestyle. This is only my interpretation though and there are for sure many others out there. On the other hand, Davey had a much easier time figuring out what kind of person he wanted to be. Although, Davey did have the advantage of coming from a stable household so that is a different topic to discuss another day. Regardless, Jack and Davey were two characters that demonstrated that masculinity has a wide range of interpretations. It is up to an individual to determine what kind they want to be.

Jack and Crutchie take on NEWSIES!

Watching and listening to the popular musical Newsies! brings about a thought. This has to do with white masculinity with a little bit of spice. If you have watched this musical directed by Jeff Calhoun and Brett Sullivan, you know exactly what I am talking about. Newsies! shows a difference in masculinity between two different characters, Jack Kelly and Crutchie Morris. The smallest detail throughout this musical shows us how dependent it is on masculinity. 

Jack Kelly, the so-called leader of the pack, displays masculinity from all angles. The way he walks with his chest up right, full of confidence, and even stomping when he dances like the man he is shows masculinity. Each and everyday, Jack gets all of his Newsies together and explains how they are going to attack each day. He is a role model and is essential for selling papers each day. His masculinity, as well as his gender, is what carries the Newsies success from day to day. How would this group be different if it was led by a female or femininity? This is an interesting question because the Newsies would operate differently. There may be less violence and fighting, and more brainstorming and action for improvement. 

Another way that Jack Kelly shows masculinity, in more of a toxic way, is the way he handles his crush on Katherine Pullitzer. Almost every time he sees her, Jack looks her up and down, which leads Katherine to have butterflies in her stomach. In modern times, when men catcall or look women up and down, it is seen as utterly disrespectful instead of a turn on. Aside from Jack’s looks and looking women up and down, he finds a way to display his masculinity through his outfits. Although he is poor, Jack finds a way to wear a nice vest and dressy shirt to look put together. This could be to put on a show for the ladies or to sell more newspapers. The world may never know! 

Jack’s leadership style is a part of his personality by the way he talks, moves, and lyrics he says during songs in the musical.  The musical authors of this number were displaying Jack’s masculinity through the songs, lyrics, and dialogue in NEWSIES! For example, Jack goes chest to chest with one of the fellow Newsies who was going to quit the group. He is showing that he is not backing down and loyalty is necessary. Following this, as the Newsies reunite because of Jack, they all start chanting, with Jack leading, “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!” in the song “Seize the Day.” Another line from this song is, “You’re still our brothers and we will fight for you.”  “Seize the Day” shows the ruiniting and determination that the Newsies gained because of Jack. As Jack is saying, “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!” this is setting up for the Newsies big break: to create their own Union. As complications occurred, a fight broke out! Jack is not scared to sacrifice his body and fight for the ones he loves. By the way he fights and shows these masculine qualities, he is looked at as a father figure or older brother. 

On the other hand, there is another guy who is looked upon as a boy, named Crutchie Morris. The form of masculinity that Crutchie displays is different than Jack. Lacking the dominance and physical strength that Jack has, Crutchie shows masculinity in his determination and how positive he is. He values the Newsies as his brothers and looks at them as his ride or dies. 

A fun fact about Crutchie and where he gets his name from is because he has to carry a crutch for his bad leg. Instead of using that as a negative or disadvantage, he uses it in a creative way. For example, when the Newsies first decided on going on STRIKE, Crutchie used his crutch and made it into a sign that said “STRIKE” on it. I thought this was a smart move on the producers part of the show because it is inspirational. Crutchie not giving up and continually fighting is rather inspirational. 

The musical authors were smart when it came to Crutchie singing the song “Letter From the Refuge.” One of the lines in the song was, “Hey but Pulitzer, he’s goin’ down! And then Jack, I was thinking we might just go, like you was sayin’.” This shows how much Crutchie believes in the Newsies to keep going and take down Pulitzer. I also personally love how this song was written in a “Dear Jack,” form because it is seen as personal. Crutchie looks at Jack as his best friend, role model, and older brother. 

The most interesting part of masculinity and gender that came up during NEWSIES! Was between Jack and Crutchie. They are the best of friends and Jack continually supports Crutchie, although he is not the same as everyone else. I felt a personal connection to Jack and Crutchie’s relationship, but through femininity. I have an aunt who is handicapped, like Crutchie. Although she cannot walk and talk, she continually keeps fighting like the strong woman that she is. I feel like Jack in this situation because she looks up to me and I will always be determined to help her and other women in my life. I try to show my femininity through the way I live my life. I try to influence and inspire others who are younger than me to make an influence, just like Jack does.  Although Crutchie and Jack are different regarding the way they display masculinity, they are both essential to NEWSIES! Without the leadership, motivation, and determination, the Newsies group would not be together anymore. I wholeheartedly believe that Jack leads by his voice and leadership, while Crutchie leads by example and inspires others.

 

Gypsy asks: Are you REALLY unbiased?

By Ejew Kim

For the first time I was glad that I missed a class to binge on K-Drama, and that I got so angry at that one overprotective villain mom that I refused to leave my room for 3 days straight. Or else I wouldn’t have been able to understand Rose Hovick in the 1993 televised film Gypsy as a mother nor her daughter Louise as a girl who loves her mother, and be left hating on one of the most popular productions of all time.

To give a quick introduction of Gypsy before I slowly get into the why: Originally based on Arthur Laurents’ book Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Gypsy (1993) by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Songheim features Bette Midler as Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Rose’s daughter Louise. The musical illustrates the journey of Rose, full of dreams to be a star actress and trying to make her daughters one, through the Great Depression and the collapse of vaudeville, in which eventually one daughter leaves and her remaining daughter Louise becomes a stripper. In Gypsy, Rose and Louis represent femininity as encompassing power and complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias.

However, my first watch of Gypsy in BroadwayHD, plus the first week thinking about it, it was a horribly sexist film. Rose’s stubborn pushing of her daughters seemingly showed that women getting out of their way to try to achieve dreams are a pain while Louis’ “glow-up” seemed to scream that femininity equals being pretty for men. I had plenty of reasons why:

Rose. I bet everyone admits at some point in the movie that she’s a cringe. And from my first watch, she is a cringe that gets worse. The acceleration point is when Rose performs “Everything’s Turning Up Roses”: The way how her eyes were enlarged so much as she built up her determination and excitement to make Louise her star, and especially how she opened her eyes in a way that the audience could see so much whites of her eyes, portrayed her so full of energy and fierce determination that it was almost scary. Her body is so tensed up throughout the whole song, and her singing as well. She scratches her voice for an aggressive effect (ex. “coming up ROses”) and she gives a lot of strong accent to the beginning of almost every line, especially whenever she looks in a new direction and turns her body aggressively (for example, “NOw you’re, IN it”). The aggressive energy adds to her characterization of determined, focused, full of energy—all in a crazy way. And this is especially scary because this comes right after she gets depressed learning about June leaving—it’s disturbing that Rose cannot stop pushing her dreams even after seeing what it does to not only her daughters but herself as well…I feel an urge to distance her. Her stubbornness continues: Even after she finally admits that she pushed her children for her own dreams, she still does not let go of them; instead she sings her last number “Rose’s turn,’ which ends up with her getting angry—“When is it my turn?”—and repeated lines of “For me” plus a series of bows. She is so self-endorsed, still wanting to fulfill her desires that have been hurting so many people—Louise who just wanted a normal family life, Herbies whose promise for marriage was joked at, June who lost her chance going to acting school, etc. What we want to see at this point is annoying Rose to stop pushing people around, marry Herbie, and become a housewife like normal women of that time, like how everyone around her—her father, Herbie, and Louise—wants her to be. The film projects the idea of women trying to assert power to pursue their dreams, as something that causes issues—a definitely problematic depiction of gender roles for today.

Louise, from the very start, is that character the audience sympathizes with: Compared to her blonde (“thus pretty”), better performing sister, Louise has darker hair, smaller and lower voice, and a stiffer body—she has less of the typical “feminine” qualities and therefore is characterized as inferior. Even when she becomes mom’s new main actress after June leaves, she wears pants, a blazer, a black captain hat…even her blonde wig reminds me of 18th century old white men. She could have totally passed as masculine. The sad part for sympathy is that Louise herself believes in her “lack of femininity” and inferiority: Whenever she talks about June (not herself) being the star, she says it with such strength and positivity in her facial expression and voice (and with zero bitterness/sadness) that she seems very confident about this claim—the confidence missing most of the time, especially when performing. 

But when Louis puts on her dress for her spontaneously-booked stripper performance and looks at the mirror, she experiences a change in self-image. As she slowly freezes in front of the mirror with shock, the strings in the music vibrate rapidly at a high note, creating sudden tension—like the sudden ding of the bell when shocking information has been presented. And yes, it is confirmed in the following Louise’s dialogue that the shocking information here is “Mama, I’m pretty..!” Then a sweet melody of a softer and more positive tune plays right after, at the right timing as Louise touches the side curves of her body. And then she puts on a firm, determined face and walks out to the backstage behind the curtains, looking head straight, gaze forward, and open shoulders—she’s confident alright. And though that very first performance went pretty rough with her nervous stiffness, she soon starts moving with more courage. The later performances as the now famous Gypsy Rose Lee shows a clear boost in confidence—voice projection, a relaxed smile, wide strides, on beat, and moving in a way that she seems to make every movement very precise and intentional. And this change-up, along with her fancier outfits and makeup, definitely make her shine more. This overall improvement seems to suggest that Louise was able to become successful because she started being more feminine and pretty-looking. 

This is especially more fun to watch in the audience’s perspective, because Rose, such a stubborn and annoying character, is taken down by her daughter when she pleads to leave her alone—the very nightmare Rose was avoiding. Honestly, this breakdown was a relief—a relief that seems to be there to aid the sexist idea of ‘successful femininity = pretty’ to come through, and support the objectification of women that follows as a consequence.

And that was going to be my whole essay…except I watched the musical again after thinking about that overprotective K-drama mom (long story short, she was mean to her daughter’s boyfriend/potential husband who she thought wasn’t good enough because he lived without parents), and realizing how all she wanted, despite just wrong assumptions, could have been her daughter’s well-being. And then I thought about how it could be the same for Rose—her annoying actions being good intentions paired with unwise assumptions, and how maybe the film is not actually trying to say women should stay at home, pretty, and then I started thinking about Louise again…and here starts the flipside:

Think about Rose’ background. She was abandoned and hurt by her mother at a young age—she probably doesn’t want to repeat that traumatizing event, by doing the exact opposite for her own children: Never leaving their sides. When Gypsy pleads in the waiting room, “Mom, you gotta let go of me!” Rose’s face and voice suddenly softens as she responds with a heavy breath, “Let go?”—Rose never became this low in energy in the film, which shows that she’s truly hurt by the idea of leaving her daughter. Is it possible that Rose is just trying to do her best for her child? Consider the perspective of a mother: She believes that being a star is the best thing in the whole world—her eyes shine bright whenever she even mentions the word “act.” When Herbie suggests June and Louise go to school, Rose refuses by responding: “And be like other girls, cook and clean and sit and die.” This was the reality in the past—especially during the Depression: Not only was the idea of women working not accepted, but with not enough work for men, there was certainly not enough work for women. Being a star instead and being free and rich definitely can seem better for not only Rose in particular, but other women as well. Rose also seems to swallow up her own sadness and vulnerability for her children: For example, when Herbie finally leaves her, she seems truly sad—despite having to urgently prepare her daughter for her first-time stripper performance, she sits down, singing a softer version of “Small World.” She almost cries and pauses her singing after saying “Lucky, I’m a woman”—this seemed to demonstrate how Rose was devastated to no longer being a woman loved by a man (whom she enjoyed being seen..she would always dance with him!); but then still hands over the gloves to her daughter, though with a downed tone and drooping shoulder—despite her lack of energy, she still pushes on her job of making her child a star. She may be annoying, but she cannot help it to ensure the best future for her children. She had good intentions, but the environment shaped her with the wrong behaviors and methods for her to accomplish those intentions.

For Louise—or Gypsy—you can see that what mattered to her was not her becoming pretty and acquiring accepted femininity. I mean, it does matter because she repeatedly looks into the mirror, going “look at me mama, I’m gorgeous and I love it.” But what really lingers is Gypsy’s love and reception of love with her mother. Consider the series of Gypsy’s stripping performances. Interestingly, the film shows her performances after her switch up for quite a long time, while probably that last full performance in the red dress was enough to show how good of a performer she became…then why show several? One thing that really stands out is the fact that “Let me entertain you” is still and repeatedly used for Louis’ strip show number. The number(s) is (are) exciting because it really shows how much Louis changed, but it’s also like she’s mocking her mother, who’s not even her boss anymore, that she can do better off with her…almost. The length seems to give us time to think about the new Gypsy Rose Lee and her unbelievable turnout: Why is she suddenly so good? Why is she repeating “Let Me Entertain You? Perhaps it’s an indicator that she cannot escape her mother—she still loves her and references her—perhaps she’s finally getting her mother’s attention that she has always wanted. And at this point it’s not how attractive and confident Louis seems after her career change up, but how her childhood/internal experiences left her a hole that she needed to fill in…a pretty complex woman character, huh?

I think it took me quite a long time—despite my deliberate be-analytical-for-class view—to find out how the woman lead characters have more to them than submitting to gender roles because of my gender bias: I assumed, because this was a decently old Broadway show, that it would present negative gender roles; also, Rose seemed simply annoying even when showing a wide range emotions and conflicts because I, guiltily, assumed her to be a typical woman with problems controlling her emotions. Only when I started seeing Rose as a person, a mother, I was able to see Rose and Louis’ complexity. The film therefore, by showing how Rose and Louis represent femininity as complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias, encourages us to ignore our “educated” mindsets and consciously reflect our own gender biases once again.

Laurey, What Happened to You

What does it mean to be an American? Is it ethnicity? Is it inextricably tied to whiteness? Is it culture? Common beliefs, ideals, and experiences that unite every single person under one cohesive identity? Oklahoma! the musical highlights aspects of American identity under a period marked by whiteness. Whiteness, as we have discussed in class, sets the cultural norm for our American society. Whatever is considered “white” is considered normal. If I can recall from my A.P. U.S. history class, manifest destiny was the big thing in the 19th century, highlighting the superior morals of white folks as they stole Native American land and ventured further west. As small towns kept popping up throughout the western frontier, the societal hierarchy was ever more important in keeping a town running. With most towns, there were men, women, and children, and each played a vital role in developing and maintaining a town. Roles that were always needed like farmers, merchants, cops, teachers, mayors, and so on. 

So… we have all these roles, and we have a stellar cast. That begs the question: who should play what? Well, as seen in Oklahoma!, most of these roles should be played by men apparently. No woman was a lawyer or a merchant or a mayor. Most women in the musical were teachers or simply played the part of “woman”. How boring is that?? Most of the women played the expected role of a woman at that time: to be an object of sexual desire for the male main protagonist. –Note the emphasis on male– Women had no other purpose except to be eye candy and to be fought over by men. This is most exemplified by Ado Annie, the young naïve teen that falls for any man she sees because “she can’t say no.” Oklahoma! reinforces the societal role of a women in 19th century America through Ado Annie’s character. Yet, it also interestingly features Laurey Williams, the female lead of the show. 

While Laurey Williams functions as another “woman” character in the musical, she is also the niece to Aunt Keller. She also works on the farm and wears masculine attire throughout the first act of the musical. Wow, she’s an actual somewhat developed person. As seen in the opening number “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” by Curly McLain, she is seen sporting jean overalls and a flannel. Traditionally an attire fit for a male farmer, she herself breaks the feminine stereotype embodied by Ado Annie. Covered in dirt, she continues with her business, ignoring the advances of Curly in “People Will Say We’re In Love.” She denies her attraction towards Curly as she continues her business on the farm. As Laurey states “don’t throw bouquets at me,” she rejects her role as an object of desire and in turn, rejects the traditional notions of womanhood. She rejects the heteronormativity of being a woman, where a woman’s sole value is tied to their heterosexual relationships with men.

Even back then, young people were getting it on, specifically heterosexual young people. Because of this, a woman’s value came from validation by men. *shocker* Men sought out women for sexual pleasure. Womanhood emphasized feminine features, feminine clothing, and feminine mannerisms. Woman were subservient and dolled up for the sake of men in this heteronormative era. A woman’s identity was inextricably linked to their sexuality because their sexuality gave them value in 19th century America. While Laurey Williams rejects the basic idea of womanhood as in she chooses not to dress so feminine, she partakes in a work intensive occupation dominated by men, and overall does not act very feminine, she gives in to her heterosexuality. By giving in to her heterosexuality, she eventually gives in to 19thcentury America’s idea of womanhood. 

Laurey Williams ends up being an object of desire by the main protagonist of the musical, Curly McClain, and the second lead of the musical, Jud Fry. In first act of the musical, she acts for herself and for her Aunt. Her main priority was the farm and its success. By the second act of the musical, her character shifts priority entirely; she buys into her heterosexuality. Her feelings for Curly is something she can no longer ignore. As she acknowledges her feelings, she becomes jealous when “supposedly” Curly finds a romantic partner. By becoming jealous, she embodies her role as a woman. She begins to act lady like, going so far as being courted by Jud Fry to the town dance. She ends up becoming an object of desire! The rest of the musical becomes a war of attrition by Curly and Jud as they try to win her attention and most importantly her heart. 

Now, I personally love dances as much as anyone. And as we know, dances and more so prom is the quintessential American experience. It defines our American youth. This age old tradition can be seen in Oklahoma! where the town dance is the focal point of the story. It very much drives the plot of the musical because it is where Jud and Laurey’s relationship as well as Curley and Laurey’s relationship is fleshed out. By trying to make Curly jealous, Laurey entertains the idea of being with Jud. Even if she never wanted to be with Jud in the first place, she still chose to go with him. She knows she is desirable as she channels that towards her feelings for Curly. From her jean overalls, she dons a dress. She wears a beautiful white dress as she waits in the fields for her “Romeo”. With the other ladies around her, she gives into her femininity. She plays coy and acts all flustered as she daydreams about the dance.

The Laurey Williams we meet in the second act of the musical is very different from the Laurey Williams we meet initially in the first act. She goes from a hardworking farmer unfazed by Curly’s advances to a doting woman trying to make Curly jealous. She goes so far as to put herself in a vulnerable position with Judd, even acknowledging she might be sexually assaulted by Judd in order to make Curly jealous. After the town dance, where she cries out to Curly after her traumatic attack from Judd, she embodies the female stereotype of 19th century America. 19th century America defined a woman as a damsel in distress. Someone to be saved. Someone to be fought over. Someone to be desired. Laurey now seeks a strong man (Curly) to protect her. As she is cradled in his arms, she cries out her raw emotions. How she dislikes Judd and more so, how she really feels for Curlly. She misses him. Period. What a dramatic climax to this “love story.”

Laurey William’s character arc throughout Oklahoma! highlights the relationship between gender and sexuality. A woman’s value, expectation, and overall societal role was defined by her sexuality. If a woman wasn’t heterosexual, she had no value. No man would want her. She wouldn’t be a mother. She couldn’t play the motherly role. Laurey Williams tried to be a feminist icon, refusing to be wooed by a man and more so, choosing to set her own path. Ultimately, when she chose to confront her sexuality and her feelings for Curly, she became the very thing she tried to avoid, a subservient woman claimed by a man. While Ado Annie simply plays into the stereotype of a pretty and naive girl, Laurey Williams growth throughout the musical calls attention to how heterosexuality defines womanhood. One could argue that to escape womanhood and make true societal progress, womanhood should not be tied to heteronormative relationships and bearing children. 

So then, what can Oklahoma! teach us about gender and sexuality today??? What can it teach us about progressing woman’s right and the feminist movement? When a woman falls in love, she plays into the motherly role where she is expected to bear children and raise a family. Does this mean falling in love hinders women’s rights and the feminist movement as a whole? No, it does not. More so, the expectation that follows falling in love like raising a family should change. In order for us to progress, womanhood should not be tied to their sexual preferences and in turn, not be tied to their childbearing abilities. For a woman to pursue her dreams of being a farmer, a lawyer, or whatever, society needs to forget about her sexuality and only judge her for her character. Sexuality, specifically heterosexuality, should not be tied to a woman’s worth and societal expectation. 

Interestingly, society today is hypersexualized. As seen within the rap genre, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj has fully embraced their sexuality and rather, uses it to advance their platform. They are considered powerful icons because they talk so openly and brazenly about their sex lives. They lend their voices to other women and their own sexual experiences. The feminist movement is at an interesting point where sexuality does not restrain a woman, it rather empowers them. Nicki Minaj and Cardi don’t play into the doting housewife stereotype yet Laurey Williams does when she confronts her own sexuality. Laurey Williams goes from potential feminist icon to subservient housewife. What’s the difference then? While Laurey Williams lets her heterosexuality define her worth and role, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj let their sexuality empower their careers and ambitions.  

Not So Blonde After All

By Elise Darby

In Legally Blonde: The Musical – The Search for Elle Woods, Elle Woods is perceived by many as a typical blonde sorority girl. However, she remains driven and proves everyone wrong; she accomplishes what they would have deemed impossible for her. As a Harvard graduate at the top of her class, she becomes an independent and fearless woman; she no longer seeks self-worth in men after coming to the realization that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to on her own.  

Elle Woods dreams of marrying Warner Huntington III… the “campus catch.” Her love for the man becomes part of her identity—she can’t live without him. Her sorority sisters encourage this relationship in the song “Omigod You Guys,” telling Elle they are a “perfect match” and that her “future’s taking off” only once he proposes to her. In turn, Elle believes that her future revolves around the proposal; without Warner, she doesn’t have a plan. In society, it is common for the woman to seek their identity in a man. Additionally, it is stereotypical for women to care more about fashion, love, and the materialistic goods rather than making a future for themselves. As the song continues, the sorority sisters tell Elle that her and Warner make the perfect couple because they “both have such great taste in clothes.” In addition to their materialistic comment, the girls seem more excited about the “four carats” and “princess cut” of the “huge engagement ring” than the actual validity of the relationship. Continuing, the sorority sisters excitingly sing that “now that a man chose [Elle], [her] life begins today.” They also told her to “make him a happy home” and “strive not to look [her] age” or else he will not be as interested. Women face a certain stereotype that they need to keep the house well kept, be eager to please the husband, and be beautiful in order to have a successful marriage and happy husband. Additionally, her friends are telling her that her life only begins after a man proposes, implying that until there is a ring on her finger, the rest of her life is a waste. A man should not, and does not, define a woman’s life. Similarly, a man should not get to choose his wife, they must mutually want to be together.  

At dinner with Warner, Elle is expecting a proposal. Things take a complete turn, however. To begin, Warner tells Elle that all men dream of finding a girl who looks like Elle. Did you notice how he complimented her physical traits rather than what is on the inside? He tells Elle that he needs to date someone serious. In the song “Serious,” he defines this by telling her he needs someone who is “less of a Marilyn and more of a Jackie” and somebody “classy and not too tacky.” Warner is basically claiming she is not sophisticated or smart enough for him, she is only good for her looks. She is not a serious girlfriend that he, a Harvard student, should pursue, rather she is seen as another dumb blonde. Warner, like many egotistical men in our society, talks down to Elle and makes her feel inferior. Elle concludes that in order to win Warner’s love, she must become the type of girl Warner is looking for. She makes a plan to change her whole life… a plan that many women feel pressured to make in order to please a man. In the song “What You Want,” she explains that she is going to go to Harvard to show Warner that she not only has the looks, but the brains too. She will “impress him with [her] high IQ.” Elle, like other women, is living her life for a man, not for herself. She is eager to please Warner. The gender roles and societal stereotype that have been formed within society is evident: a woman should live to make their man happy.  

Elle attends Harvard for a “love [she] has to win.” While she can live “without sun or valet,” she can’t live without Warner. Her existence and identity are centered in him. Everyone doubts Elle, but she works hard and is accepted into Harvard. As she enters the university in her bright, pink outfit, she informs Warner that she is a student now, as well. Warner is in disbelief and did not think it was possible for his airhead, sorority-obsessed ex-girlfriend to get into such an academic institution. Elle simply acts like it was easy to be accepted.  

Mr. Callahan, an intense Harvard professor, instructs her first class. He announces that he hires four interns each year from the class to work at his law firm, and each student will leave with a guaranteed career. Elle was told she had guts by the intimidating professor and was kicked out of class on the first day for not doing the reading. At this point, Elle is far from earning the internship, but she does not let that bring her down.  

After class, Warner introduces his new girlfriend from Harvard to Elle. Immediately, Elle searches for new ways to be the girl Warner desires. In the real world, although it is saddening, it is not uncommon for women to search for ways to make a man fall in love with them, seeking love and validation rather than self-acceptance. In Elle’s circumstance, she decides she should go brunette to please Warner. Afterall, if she is a brunette, she won’t be labeled as “dumb blonde.” She tells the hairstylist, Paulette, that she must make her a brunette because “that is what Warner wants.” Not only did Elle change her lifestyle and living situation for a man, but now she wants to change her appearance, too. Luckily, Paulette convinces Elle to stay blonde.  

Vivian, Warner’s girlfriend, invites Elle Woods to a party, but out of spite, she tells her it is a costume party. Elle shows up in a pink, revealing bunny costume, while everyone else is dresses nicely and modestly. After seeing Elle, Warner admits that sometimes he misses the old days. As always, Warner belittles Elle, and reminds her that she has no chance of getting the internship with Callahan. Due to Warner’s criticism, Elle wishes she “were dead” because “instead of a wedding in love,” she is a “total laughing stock” and someone people can “just mock.” Elle wants to succeed for Warner, not for herself. Her existence and happiness, at this point, is based on Warner. In general, women let how men perceive them affect them in great ways and will change themselves to win over a man.  

Emmett, a law student that wants to see Elle succeed, tells Elle that she needs a “chip on [her] shoulder” to make it through school. Emmett puts Elle on the right track: he helps her study and convinces her to take advantage of the education in front of her. Rather than focusing on looks and beauty, he wants her to start working on her brain. Instead of going home for the holidays, Elle stays and studies with Emmett; he is pushing her and encouraging her to learn. Elle Woods is going to show everyone what she is made of and prove everyone wrong. In the song “Chip On My Shoulder,” Emmett points out that each time Warner is present, her “IQ goes down to 40, maybe less.” Warner is the obstacle standing in between Elle and her success. This realization sparks a fire within Elle, she now has a chip on her shoulder and “instead of doodling hearts” she is ready to show Warner everything she is made of. She is going to put success and education first and prove everyone wrong. In fact, in the next class, she wins a case against Warner. Her intelligence is now shining through. She is slowly becoming less of the stereotypical “dumb blonde sorority girl,” and becoming more of a Jackie. After class Callahan even asks for her resume for his internship. 

The day Warner proposes to Vivian in the classroom, Callahan simultaneously posts his lists of interns. At first, Elle was saddened, but then she notices her name on the list. In the song “So Much Better,” Elle’s worth is evident. Immediately, the proposal is not as important; Elle is finding that she is an independent woman. This internship is the validation and security she needs to recognize her worth. She tells Warner that she got the internship, and he can’t even believe it. Elle, who is booming with self-confidence, sings to Warner that making the list “beats the first time that [they] kissed.” She is able to see her self-improvement and points out that Waner’s “judgement was poor” when he thought she was dumb. Elle finally knows her value; she is no longer dependent on a man. Instead, she is an intelligent young woman, who is making a name for herself and moving onto bigger and better things in life. 

As the musical progresses, Emmett and Elle become closer. She buys him clothes and tells him it is a “payment in kind” because he always “saw beyond all the blonde to [her] mind.” Unlike Warner, Emmett never saw Elle as a dumb blonde; he saw her potential.  

When Paulette becomes interested in the UPS guy, Elle and her sorority sisters teach her how to do the “bend and snap.” This oversexualizing dance suggests that women must display their bodies in order to get attention from men. In fact, the song “Bend and Snap” starts with the line “look at my ass, look at my thighs.” The song suggests that attention from a man must be gained through their bodies. A sorority sister insists that “the more you jump and scream, the sexier you seem” in the eyes of men. In society today, the gender roles between men and women are similar: women are often seen as objects. Men often lust after women’s bodies, and in turn, many girls feel pressured to use their sexuality to attract men.  

Returning to work, however, Elle is part of the legal team for a murder. Elle makes an amazing case, which leads to the winning of the round. Callahan applauds Elle for trusting her gut and announces that she has shown more “legal smarts” than most of his staff members. He tells her she is not only a good lawyer, but a “great one.” Warner, on the other hand, was told to “be useful” by getting a cup of coffee for Callahan. The underdog is taking over. Elle is doing better than the man that thought he was too good for her. The roles have been reversed.  

After everyone is gone, Callahan forces a kiss on Elle, and she slaps him in return. Since she did not allow it, she is fired from the internship. In the song “Legally Blonde,” Elle is ready to call it quits. She is ready to go “back to what [she] was before” and just be “legally blonde.” She feels defeated and hopeless. Saying bye to Paulette, she tells her that she is only seen as “one big blonde joke.” With some words of encouragement, Elle changes back into her glamourous pink attire and is ready to fight. She is going back to the trial and not giving up. This time, however, she is going back in her own style. The phrase “legally blonde” is turned into a positive thing. Elle, being the powerful woman she is, wins the murder case for her client. 

After the impressive trial, Warner—the man who once broke her heart—proposes to her. While this is everything that she wanted years ago, she has grown. She declines his proposal; she has been able to see how much she can accomplish without him. In the end, Elle came so far: she is the Valedictorian at Harvard and proves so many people wrong. Warner on the other hand decides to quit practicing law and models. Elle, who was told she was not serious enough, now has the big career. In her final speech, Elle thanks those who doubted her, because it taught her how to prevail. Then, Elle proposes to Emmett, which once again switches up the gender roles. In the end, Elle took matters into her own hands. Although proposals are usually done by the man, Elle is a strong woman and does not need to live by societies norms.  

Everyone doubted Elle Woods. At times, even Elle Woods doubted Elle Woods. After some self-reflection, however, she discovers her value. She lives life for herself now—never a man. Her perseverance and strength empower women and provides a beacon of encouragement for all those who are consistently told they can’t.

BOGO: Rose Colored Glasses for Sale in Hamilton!

By: Cheyenne Figaro

I’ll be the first to admit that I never planned on watching the musical Hamilton. Something about its massive success made me think it’s too good to be true. It turns out I was right and wrong. Both on and off stage (and screen, more recently) Hamilton presents itself as a challenge to American social norms. The musical, brought to stage by composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2015, is most famous for its color conscious casting of the founding fathers, and it’s clear from the start that race isn’t something to be ignored in the show, instead being amplified and celebrated. Surely, the musical could have been done with historical accuracy, but that would’ve meant an all white cast aside from any slaves or servants. For, too often period dramas take people of color out of the narrative completely unless they’re showing them in bondage or another traumatic circumstance. Hamilton serves to place people of color back where we belong: in the center of America’s history. However, revising history through a modern lens has its drawbacks. While Hamilton uplifts people of color through meaningful representation, it also undermines itself by ignoring the disadvantages of people of color not only during the colonial era, but also in modern day society. Furthermore, while the musical makes waves for racial progression, it makes a failed attempt at women’s empowerment which begs the question: if women don’t win in actual history or rewritten history, exactly when is our time to shine?

At its very essence Hamilton is an underdog story about “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore” who defied the odds in front of him to become a founding father. Hamilton is an immigrant and an orphan, but Miranda makes it known that he isn’t bound by those labels. In “My Shot”, he finds a community in the revolutionaries of New York City. They proclaim, “I am just like my country/I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” and the words resonate not just because they hold true for the characters, but because they hold true for the cast. People of color can relate to having to fight against convention for a respectable place in this world. Mulligan wants a revolution for social mobility, Lafayette for a more stable society, and Laurens because he’d like to see the slaves freed from bondage. Especially in America, there is a universal experience amongst marginalized groups of desire for more. Desire for more rights, more opportunities, or just the desire for more visibility. Although the show is based on the lives of white, heterosexual men, their struggles and their visions take on a deeper meaning when applied to people of color, and this scene specifically conveys the idea of building a community out of a struggle, something that many people of color can relate to. Yet, past this proud display of diversity the musical does little to reflect BIPOC and women in America, at least not in America outside of the Hamilton universe.

A director of a show must know their audience to appeal to them, but unfortunately for this production, Miranda (Accidentally? Intentionally? Who knows) appeals to the more revisionist and idealist side of America. The show is the perfect gift for Americans who can confidently say that racism ended in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. They deny the effects of systemic racism and honestly believe that any person of color who is unsuccessful is unsuccessful because they didn’t apply themselves enough. Now Lin-Manuel Miranda, a proud Puerto Rican-American Democrat, doesn’t believe any of those things. So why does Hamilton enforce this idea over and over and over again? Hamilton’s immigrant status is brought up so many times as if equating it to being an immigrant today. Hamilton may have been an immigrant, but he was White and the country wasn’t even formed yet when he arrived, making his immigrant status marginal to the rest of his identity. Thus, he easily “Got a lot farther by working a lot harder/By being a lot smarter/By being a self-starter,” in ways that many people of color in real life have tried and failed to do. Miranda as Hamilton, Leslie Odom as Aaron Burr, and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson present an illusion of the man of color, who once educated, can get through any doors he sets his mind on. However, this illusion is so grandiose because the entire main cast is diverse, that it blinds the audience from reality. A person of color who has an unstable household, works multiple jobs, and lives in poverty will actually see the effects of these disparities in their life. Whether they have less access to quality education, or less time to pursue passions, they will not have the life of Alexander Hamilton who was put in charge of a trading charter at fourteen, and who gained access to the President of the United States because of his revolutionary ideas.

Contrary to the experience of POC in America, one can ignore mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other forms of systemic racism when watching Hamilton, because no people of color face challenges because of their race. The color-conscious casting created a color-blind musical which reinforces the idea that any immigrant or person of color who loves this country more than life, and who is willing to put endless amounts of work into contributing to American society will be exceptionally successful. The narrative pushed by the story is that “patriots” of any color belong in this country, and that’s a distasteful message to promote in 2020, a time riddled with valid social unrest. It was this narrative that made me the most uncomfortable because I should be allowed to be a Black woman in America who can criticize the country and still belong in it. The message appeases White Moderates and Conservatives while condemning the liberal person of color, a counterproductive move on Miranda’s part.

Furthermore, the success stories of POC are imaginary in the context of Hamilton, as the diversity of the cast is in place of the Whiteness of the real people, but even if they weren’t only a few POC would have reached success while the rest were slaves. For the musical all but ignores the fact that slavery was rampant during the time period, but then goes a stretch further to paint the main characters as abolitionists, when Hamilton himself owned slaves. In many scenes, the ensemble are definitely playing slaves or at least servants, wearing minimalist off white garments compared to the lavish coats and garments of the main cast. Yet, they’re hardly given a second thought and it begs the question: how was slavery erased in a musical set during slavery? Well, I guess Miranda couldn’t have the entire main cast look like the hypocrites their real-life counterparts were, the audience was supposed to believe in these characters after all.

Yet, at least Hamilton attempts impactful racial representation on the stage, for it certainly falls short in uplifting the women of the story. Although the Schuyler sisters play a pivotal role in the story, their characters can be broken down into two main tropes. Eliza is the good wife: white passing and compromising. Angelica is the modern-day woman: independent and headstrong. One would think from their introduction that the Schuyler sisters were included to bring a woman’s perspective to the show, but at times this feminist approach feels forced and most times it is non-existent. Much like he does with slavery, Miranda addresses misogyny in Hamilton by bringing it up once and brushing over it for the rest of the production. The lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident/that all men are created equal/And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”, followed by a collective “Work!”, are meant to empower the women in the audience, to emphasize the fact that women have been and still are fundamental to the fabric of the country. The entire “Schuyler Sisters” number redefines the colonial woman as someone who was knowledgeable, who looked for a man who suited her desires, and who wouldn’t settle for just anyone. So color me surprised when Eliza and Angelica spend the rest of the musical doing just that, throwing empowerment to the wind. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly at this point, this is when the show gets a little racist.

Eliza, the white-passing sister, is of course Hamilton’s wife and mother to his child. Angelica, played by Renee Elise Goldsberry, entertains Alexander’s affection behind her sister’s back, perpetuating the stereotype of Black women being hypersexual and deceptive compared to White women, an idea built upon by his mistress Maria Reynolds. Even more offensive, Angelica spends half the musical stroking Alexander’s ego in letters and the other half picking up her sister after a tragedy. Where was her storyline? I’m aware she was a side character, but every other side character was alluded to having an important task at hand when off stage, while Angelica’s only purpose was to worry about Hamilton and Eliza.  This heavily conveys the idea of black women having to bear the burdens of society without anyone supporting them. Hence, the feminist tone in “The Schuyler Sisters” looks extremely performative in comparison to the portrayal of women in the rest of the musical. Moreover, the jubilant “Work!” which is shouted throughout the number is almost a mockery of the BIPOC women who coined the term, since their representation dwindles from that moment on. Even in Hamilton, a show revising history, the women of color didn’t really belong, at least not in their own independent, nurturing spaces.

Aside from covert racism, Hamilton’s misogynistic angle is established through the absence of character development for the women leads. Eliza isn’t really given much character besides caring mother and loving wife, but this is exaggerated to the point where she decides to “[erase] herself from the narrative” when she finds out Hamilton cheated. Phillipa Soo does an amazing job portraying Eliza’s defiance through her tone during “Burn”, but even that performance begs the question: was it really defiant for a woman not to speak out against her husband in the 1700s? And was the audience supposed to be shocked when she took him back after their son died? I truthfully have so many questions on what Eliza’s character was meant to convey. For a musical that took so many other historical liberties, this portrayal of the textbook colonial woman was disappointing and offensive. It seems less like Eliza was erasing herself, and more like Miranda was erasing her from the storyline out of convenience to the plot. Eliza embodies the misogynistic ideals of colonial America that women are relevant only in the context of being someone’s wife or daughter. The script only revealed Eliza the mother and wife, and never gave insight into Eliza the person until the very end of the musical, and only after Hamilton dies. Audience members can’t name one thing Eliza did during the musical besides teach her son piano and return to Alexander after he cheated. Even Angelica, who is introduced as a character looking for a man with ideals and a vision, falls into the trap of Alexander’s “charm”, and then only shows up in the musical when their relationship is mentioned and when she comes to console her sister- both events revolving around Hamilton. What exactly is this musical saying about women? Honestly, I have no fucking clue. Because all that the audience gets in the two hour and forty minutes is that Eliza was a humble woman who served as Alexander’s doormat (Was her pain supposed to be empowering? Because a majority of her scenes were spent crying and not one minute of that made me think: Go Women!), while Angelica was a supportive and wise sister who was sometimes morally ambiguous, and in the end the two spent the years until their deaths working to preserve Alexander’s legacy, as well as the legacy of the other men he worked with.  “Who Tells Your Story” becomes a rushed history lesson reminding that audience that Yes! Eliza did in fact have a life outside of Alexander. But this revelation is too little, too late, and Eliza never gets the relevance she deserves. 

No questions asked, Hamilton deserves the accolades that it’s received for the outstanding acting, choreography, and lyrics of the musical. What’s clear throughout the entire production is that the cast performed with well intentions to instill pride in BIPOC across America, reminding them that they are a visible, integral part of America. The rapping and the grit of the characters reminded me of New York hip hop culture in a way that made me homesick. Nevertheless, the show falls short in its representation of women and BIPOC in so many ways and this deserves as much acknowledgement as the positives of the production. The truth of the matter is that one show can’t tackle everything, and no show is going to be perfect no matter much thought and intention is put into it. Miranda wants others to use Hamilton as a blueprint, but not the end all be all. Diversity in casting is important, but more important is the impact of this diversity on the messages conveyed in a production, and this is where future shows must expand past Hamilton’s limits to create a much more authentic representation of Americans and America itself.

Did Real Community Exist on the Upper West Side?

By: Morgan Baxendale 

Back in the late 1950s, the world and its view of culture was in a whole different place than it is today. The 1950s was a decade that was marked by post-World War II, immigration laws, but, more importantly, racial and ethnic tension. An Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City was the home of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, which were two teenage gangs and of completely different ethnic backgrounds. In Jerome Robbins’ 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, the main idea was centered around which group was going to have control over the neighborhood. The Jets, which consisted of the local white kids, were not in favor of the immigrants that were moving into their territory. Many of the Puerto Rican immigrants belonged to the other main gang, the Sharks. Both groups of people dealt with hardship and tension in the musical, but none greater than the Latinos. Through all of the misunderstandings, fights, and hatefulness between the two groups, each gang was able to bond and get closer in some way. Throughout the entire musical, the Puerto Rican community during this time had to deal with racism, discrimination, perceived differences in ethnic identities, and hurtful comments, but the way the musical plays out emphasizes the status quo on a more intense and realistic level. 

The Jets was started by a young man by the name of Tony. His vision for this group was to bond with a group of guys that were similar to each other and have a good time. However, Tony’s best friend, Riff took over the gang because Tony didn’t want to be involved with all of the mischief that was going on between the Jets and the Sharks. Throughout the first few scenes in the musical, the Jets bonded and danced over trying to figure out how they were going to gain control over the territory and the Sharks. You could see how comfortable they were in their environment and how much confidence they had in one another. Even from the very first song, you got a taste of what it was like to be a part of their group. The “Jet Song” emphasized the superiority and arrogance they thought they had, “When you’re a Jet you’re the top cat in town, you’re a gold-medal kid with the heavyweight crown.” They didn’t care what it took, they were going to gain complete control of the territory somehow, someway. It’s when Riff confides in Tony about a potential dance between the two groups; that changes the entire course of the musical.

Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, has only one aspiration in his mind, carve out the territory as a sense of identity for himself and his other Latino friends. This group didn’t come to America with a lot, and the Jets and other white folks in this area make them well aware of that. This group was dealing with strong stereotypes as well. The Puerto Rican men were seen as poor, violent, and uneducated. The women were seen as loud, obnoxious, and feisty. All of these stereotypes were exaggerated and emphasized when they were in the presence of the Jets. It is clear that the two gangs are fighting and struggling for a given territory, but are also carrying out socioeconomic and racial confrontation. The Jets feel as though they should rule and be number one in the community, because of their all-white identity and the background in which all of them reside. When the musical gets to the middle of Act 1, is when both groups decide to attend the neighborhood dance and that their real battles between each other become much more interesting. 

All of the dancing numbers in The West Side Story tell a story and have a distinct tone to them. This musical has some of the most unique and elaborate dance moves that I have ever seen, and also emphasizes the relationships between the different characters and the gangs they were in. The “Dance at the Gym” number showed how competitive the two gangs were being towards each other. The toughness and tension that occurs on a daily basis on the outside of these gym walls, is happening within the dance. Even when they were told by an authority figure at the dance to switch partners, both gangs didn’t follow that and stayed with their own kind. No matter what anyone of them did throughout the number, they were going to make sure they were better than the other. 

There were many aspects to the “Dance at the Gym” number that grabbed my attention, but the choreography, attire, and the ethnic identity that was expressed from each gang really stood out to me. This number emphasized the perceived differences and stereotypes in the ethnic identities portrayed by the Jets and the Sharks. This scene focused on a dance-off between the Jets and the Sharks that created moments of pure tension and competition, but also allowed a significant moment of joy for one member of each gang, Tony and Maria. You could distinctly see the difference in the choreography and dance between the two gangs. The Sharks danced more in rhythm, style, and confidence, they were the ones who definitely owned the dance floor. They all looked to be in their natural element and dancing in great connection with one another. The Jets looked to dance more mechanically, with not as much freedom and focusing on themselves, not the entire group as a whole. Puerto Ricans are known to have more soul to their dancing and, in general, are known as good dancers. The Jets, I believe, were fully aware of these notions and seemed as though they were trying their best to maximize their moves to keep up with them. All of these decisions that Jerome Robbins made about the choreography related to the perceived ethnic identity that was present between the two gangs. “Not all stage movement is choreography, but all stage movement has purpose.” There was also a fine line between how both groups dressed. They were defined by the colors they wore, which directly relates to cultural codes. Most of the Latino women wore warmer colors like red and purple, while the American women wore cooler colors like yellow and orange.  Both gangs are unified during this number, but it was emphasized more in regards to the Sharks than that of the Jets. 

Because of the events that took place at the dance, Tony from the Jets, and Maria on the side of the Sharks were able to meet. This interaction sparked passion, connection, and ultimately a strong love between them. Their love was igniting many conflicts between the two gangs, but Tony and Maria didn’t care, they wanted to be together no matter what. In this setting, their culture was encouraged not to mix with another culture, especially American culture. They were both criticized by everyone around them, and ultimately both groups paid a large price. Maria’s brother, the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo was killed along with her lover, Tony, as a result from the constant hatred and disagreement between the groups and this particular love conflict. No matter what any of the Sharks or any other Puetro Ricans did at this time, they were never going to escape the hardships they were facing. All immigrants at this time experienced some type of hardship and criticism, and they knew this was out of their control. The American culture was definitely a “privilege” and the white Americans that were part of the musical, always seemed like they had the upper hand over the other communities of people. You could see that the Jets bonded and felt together as a group because of this very “privilege” they felt that they deserved.

With the events that occurred at the dance, Tony and Maria’s love conflict, and the reoccurring hatred between the gangs; all of it accumulated to resulting in a final showdown at the end of the musical. Bernardo from the Sharks and Tony from the Jets ended up paying a heavy price because of hatred and disrespect that was ever present between the gangs. When Chino, another member from the Sharks, shoots Tony, Maria makes a bold statement that I believe puts the entire musical into perspective. Maria tells everyone that was standing around Tony that “all of them killed Tony and the others because of their hate for each other, and, now I feel that I can kill too because now I have hate!” It was amazing to see how two groups of teens could have so much resentment and disgust for one another that they would even kill someone for it. After this moment in the musical, all of the members from the Jets and Sharks realize that all of the fighting and hatred had to come to a close.

The West Side Story showed how such a small difference can make a big impact. When you look at the whole picture, the two groups didn’t have many differences, but the ones they did have were magnified and caused many problems. Both groups did bond and come together as a group, but not all for the right reasons, and at the very end of the musical, that was clearly exposed. Once Tony was gunned down, every member of both gangs gathered around Tony, portraying that the battle was now official over between them. It’s unfortunate that it took for two of their own to be killed for them to realize how they were acting was wrong and the reasons for their actions were unacceptable. I believe both groups know what to do and how to act moving forward with these issues in the back of their mind, but will never forget what both experienced and lived through. The Sharks and Latinos in general, know in this setting that they will never escape adversity and stereotypes in this culture, but have bonded in a way that is unbreakable, powerful, and beautiful to see. 

Strangely enough, this white lady doesn’t belong…

by Matthew Arcuri

Meet Anna

In the musical The King and I, Anna, played by Kelli O’Hara, moves to Siam from England with the express purpose of tutoring the royal Siamese children. A widowed king rules his patriarchal dynasty keeping concubines and a polygamous family wrapped in privilege within his palace. Siam is entering the 1860s and British imperial rule expands its reign while a newly powerful yet tumultuous United States grapples with the ethical disentanglement of slavery. The audience quickly discovers that Siam’s Eastern ideals clash loudly with colonialism, and Anna carries a Western torch of morality. Anna loses herself as she falls in love with her job, the people, and her new community. She wrestles with conflicting morals and norms, while always holding her own as highest. Embracing her role as teacher, she loses herself as she corrects “inappropriate” cultural thinking and expression as much as she possibly can. This leads her to a surprising intimacy with the King, the very one who represents the misogyny and patriarchy she detests.

Meet Fanny

In the musical Funny Girl, Fanny Brice, played by Sheridan Smith, breaks the barrier of sexy entertainment to deliver the never-before-seen occupation, a funny female. A 1936 New York City bustles with all types of amusements to spend your hard-earned cash on, but each and every one of them guarantees a “gorgeous” feminine spectacle. Fanny, born to entertain and light up a room, sets her sights on conquering every heart in the city. In her longing to participate in the entertainment industry, society limits her options to the role of tall, skinny flirt–a simple formulaic set of material specifically catered to men. She knows she has what it takes to sell tickets, so she goes after her dream. Determined, yet clueless of her innate departure from feminine charm, she stumbles into the chance of a lifetime. Behaving as contrary to traditional femininity as possible, she stars in the world-renowned Ziegfeld Follies NOT as the typical sexualized female background prop but rather as the comic relief. This diametrically opposed femininity carries into her personal life and she gets lost as the first of her kind- an entertaining, stout, far-from-womanly, successful woman. 

A Shared Fate

Both Fanny Brice and Anna consciously live countercultural lives, teaching themselves and their respective audiences just how strange whiteness and masculinity really are. The only way to make “normal” visible is to make normal appear strange to the audience. When you are other, when you break norms, it is empowering and freeing and exciting. But, sometimes you are ahead of society. Sometimes the more you break the rules the more you push away from not only societal norms–but also from society itself. The lyricist of Funny Girl, Bob Merrill, wrote the truest words, ‘people need people.’ But the lives of Anna and Fanny serve to warn that that simple phrase may be an oversimplification. Yes, people need people, but, people need humanity. People need to feel a part of humanity– with relationships, a purpose, and integrity. AND, when you other yourself, it’s hard to bring humanity with you when you don’t play by humanity’s rules, or worse, when you make your own rules for others to follow.

Fanny’s Fumbling Femininity

Fanny is set on intentionally living her life as an example and incentive for others to break the norms of masculinity and femininity, but she often falls into the traps she preaches about avoiding.

When Fanny finally gets the guy of her dreams, we realize that the man she is in love with is not only visually the prototype masculine man, but he also carries himself with the paradigm of masculinity. AND,the way he makes his money couldn’t be more masucline if he were a testosterone salesman. Nick makes his dough by gambling. When Fanny meets Nick, her future husband, she cannot comprehend how a man like Nick could be interested in a woman like her. When she finally believes him, she breaks out into a love ballad… and then goes back to enforcing the same rules of manipulation and masculinity that put her on an intersecting and conflicting path with societal norms.

Don’t Rain on my Parade

The lyrics Merril wrote, and the movements Smith makes fit the audience’s expectations of Fanny’s anti-feminine personality. Rhyming “Just sit and putter” with “ball of butter,” Fanny is hamming it up the way everyone has come to love and anticipate.

There is simply no way to describe the amount of space Sheridan takes up when she sings this, but I will give it my best shot. It is the choreography equivalent of ‘man-spreading’ on a crowded subway. She beats her chest, she points at every person right in their eye, she mimics playing craps, which almost looks sexual in nature- shaking her fist and throwing out imaginary dice. (At least I hope that’s what she’s mimicking…)She ends the song throwing her hands up, and in the last second she even winks and licks her lips like the big bad wolf.

BUT, the message of the song could not be more far removed from her masculine portrayal. She is singing a love ballad about the most tragic-feminine-heroine cliche ever seen on stage: a ballad about risking it all for a guy–possibly giving up her career, going against the advice of her girlfriends, and following after a guy the minute after he says “I love you.”

Fanny is the model of a modern woman. She doesn’t care to be feminine, she has her own job, her own wealth, and ownership over her own sex life. But, she happens to be extremely attracted to the stereotypical masculine man. Her attraction to Nick’s masculinity breaks the audience’s expectation, it is uncharacteristic and is the first time we see Fanny act in a traditional way. It doesn’t break any barriers, nothing about it is revolutionary, or modern, and it seems to follow feminine troupes Fanny systematically rejects.

Fanny the Prophet

When Nick finally convinces her his love is honest and true and they tie the knot, she uses it as an opportunity to spread her ‘revolutionary’ message: ‘If I can do it, anyone can.’ In Sadie, Sadie Fanny talks about the life she will lead as a married lady. It is a complete departure from the Miss Independent, anti-feminine Fanny the audience grew to love. She sings about waiting for her husband to get home from work. She props her feet on the sofa and puts on a robe. She day-drinks and gets giddy about the possibility of starting a family with a baby.

But this ideal housewife dream does stick around for too long. After her first baby, Fanny decides to go back to work. Fanny immediately encounters a small dilemma. Nick declares he needs to miss her first day back at rehearsal in order to secure a business deal. We see a defensive vulnerability come out in Fanny. She starts spiraling and throws her hands into the air and acts frazzled the way only a damsel in distress can. Nick counsels her like a big strong husband should, but she begins to manipulate the situation. When the tiff is over, Nick resigns to stay home and be supportive and miss out on his business opportunity. Fanny may be mascuiline, and she may be bold, but just like all people, she needs people. And, she’s willing to manipulate and even sabotage her man to get what she thinks she wants.

Personal Vs Professional

It is easy for an audience to forget Fanny is a woman. That may seem like an abrupt observation for me to make, but it is important for us as viewers to realize just how unconventional Fanny is.

Before Fanny got married, Fanny became an award-winning comedian, Fanny traveled the world surrounded by beautiful women and Fanny earned inordinate amounts of wealth. If given just that information for 1930’s America, any layman would assume “Fanny” undoubtedly is a man.

It is strange Fanny is a woman.

It is important to realize Fanny broke every barrier possible in her professional life, and her masculine disposition aided her in that aspect. But Fanny is a woman, and even though her masculinity brought her professional success, her deepest needs had to be met from her relationships with people. And when it came down to it, Fanny wanted a relationship that broke no norms, that wasn’t revolutionary, and that relied both on feminine vulnerability and masculine strength. Fanny longed for this kind of relationship. She sang “People who need people, Are the luckiest people in the world.” But Fanny is extraordinary, she was destined for success not dependence.

Accidental Emasculation

Fanny loves Nick partially because of his masculinity and partially because he makes her feel like she is finally a woman. This all crumbles when she begins to work behind his back to make him feel like he is needed- not only by her, but by society. Part of what makes Nick the man he is, is his ability to provide for the family financially. When Fanny begins to manipulate his environment to make him feel like he can become the primary breadwinner again, he discovers her plot and feels betrayed and emasculated. His masculinity was all smoke and mirrors, and Fanny was a puppet master all along. This leads him to make drastic plans to win back his masculinity by winning back his money, but his plans are far from legal and he lands in prison.

     After Nick is released, Fanny is elated they can be back together again, but Nick ends their relationship. He claims neither of them can change, and they should call it off before they hurt each other any more.

I Feel Pretty

     Fanny Bryce was successful because she truly believed that you don’t have to be feminine and beautiful to entertain the world. But, when a man came along that made her feel pretty, she had to keep him. She desperately obsessed to keep him close. And sadly, the thing that made him so attractive, his strong masculinity, is the one thing that she destroyed by keeping him close. His masculinity deteriorated when put up against her success. He didn’t feel needed. He felt like a child’s puppet, kept clean and well groomed by a little girl.

     Fanny longed to be a person who needed people. She knew in her heart that relationships with people are just as important as personal success and fame. She assumed her masculinity would be able to stay compartmentalized in her professional life and not shape the way she could lead her personal life. But, Fanny’s masculinity was a part of her, it wasn’t just an act. Any man knows he can have a family and a career, and his job is to keep each aspect of his life in a box. But Fanny is a woman. There was no blueprint for her to follow. Her success was unprecedented in the literal definition of the word.

She was so successful as a woman in a life made for a man that she was not able to understand where she fit in society. How were her relationships supposed to function? How was she supposed to love? If she had a man’s success and a woman’s needs, where is the rule book for how she is supposed to love people?

Fanny Needs Fanny

In the end, Fanny sings her silly love song to herself. Submitting to the idea that she was made for something extraordinary, and she doesn’t get to be one of the luckiest people. She doesn’t need people.

Anna Begins Her Journey 

Even though she is responding to the call to be a teacher, when she is thrown into the Eastern culture, she has to rely heavily on norms of which she is not even aware. This can be seen through her complex relationship with the custom of bowing to her superior. Not only is she not used to this ordinance, she also heavily opposes the implications it suggests. Many questionable situations emerge without her acknowledgement, and she goes into passive mode, responding to each situation that knocks her between external societal expectations of her (both from Siam and from her British homeland) and her own expectations to change the world through inspiring others with goodness and decency. Throughout the musical, Anna’s response to the simple protocol of bowing to superiors evolves and shapes how she engages with the king and his children.

Anna Learns to Bow

Her first direct confrontation with her consistent dissent from Eastern norms occurs in the presence and at the service of the king himself. As he explains to her the proper repose one must take in the presence of power, she earnestly and thoughtfully heeds his gentle warning and rebuke. He explains that one’s head must always be lower than the king’s.

The King Learns to Smile

Anna- as the archetype of grace, charm, tolerance, intellect and champion of the ideal human potential-  quickly ensures that although the conversation textually remains about their power differential, the overall tenor of the conversation (and soon following, their relationship) slowly transforms into that of old friends. Whether through her innate loving nature or due to her educated and Western status, Anna is a worthy companion. This is by Eastarn standards almost an act of defiance in itself. Without ever overtly speaking against the king’s wishes, she begins to subtly joke with him about the absurdity of this mandate. As a fact of humanity, existing outside Eastern or Western norms, when two people share a common joke they are, at least in that exact moment, equals. The audience and perhaps even Anna, herself, cannot tell if this is a calculated manipulation or an innocent act of friendship that reveals her consistent proclivity to always acknowledge everyone’s shared community.

Where Does Anna Rank?

Soon after Anna is schooled on bowing obedience, the audience is confronted with a subtle yet surprising visual indication that Anna may be consciously or unconsciously beginning to accept her position of status in this, her new hierarchical environment.

Even though we know Anna to be adamantly against the arbitrary elitism wielded tyrannically in Siam, she is seen to accept her superiority over the servants in the palace, subtly but definitively. Whether it be her unwavering insistence in her status as a free woman(owning a home) or her confidence in her higher education, something about her identity leads her to become idle when subtle Eastern cultural practices conflict with her strongly held beliefs in human equality and opportunity. So begins an internal conflict that plays itself out to the end. The same implicit bias from her Western ideals and education that tell her love and liberty matter is the same one that provides her privilege and status as a white Western, educated woman in the presence of a “servant.”

We See Inaction in Action

A servant enters the room in which the King and Anna are conversing, and, obvious to all who see, the servant lowers his head not only lower than the king but lower than Anna. The audience experiences, much to their chagrin, Anna’s distinct and surprising inaction in this moment. Anna does absolutely nothing to correct this subservient action. This inaction indicates that she accepts her superiority over this servant, perhaps only performatively in front of the king, but this sends a message we would never expect her to intend.

Whatever the case, Anna agrees that her natural inclinations toward Western thinking comes with a sense of superiority that she Does. Not. Deny. She lets another man declare himself as lower than she. As an educated, white, ‘friend’ of the king, she does not object to her position, having climbed the social hierarchy morally and legitimately in her mind.

Reminder: She is a teacher

Just as I took a quick aside to remind you that Fanny is a woman, I’d like to take a moment to remind you that Anna is a teacher. She constantly transforms mundane moments into teaching moments. She brings the citizens of Siam and the audience along with her through song and dance in order to answer ordinary questions and teach simple tasks. Her absolute instinctive nature is to teach. Even the very first song Anna ever sings serves as a lesson. I had to reiterate her inclination to educate in order to enhance the points that follow. I beg you to consider how Anna “teaches,” through never suppressing her natural inclinations even within the society of which she disapproves.

Teaching Love

Although, for most of the musical, Anna never speaks directly against the injustices she so obviously detects, she teaches compassion, love, and care every day. She takes a simple question about love and responds by transfixing dozens of spectators with a ballad. She takes a private moment of gratitude and teaches the whole room how to express thanks. Does she stick to non-confrontational lessons because she is afraid the Siamese would consider her objections an act of colonization and stop her? Is teaching the children with love and care her strategy to colonize the Siam with Western ideals? Is it her endearing heart that wants to make sure every child knows love- even children of a barbaric, polygamous, patriarchical society? Does she want to be a savior? Or a colonist? Or neither? Is it just in her nature to love and teach?

As a woman, she has no power to speak out. But as an educated woman, she has the knowledge to know how to speak out. But as a Western woman, she struggles with self doubt in regards to whether her objections are morally justified or coming from a sense of colonization.

While struggling to figure out how to survive between her self-imposed expectations and society’s, she continues in her role as teacher. She resolves to teach the children. As she loses her compass to navigate between these two sets of expectations, she directly and indirectly teaches the children HOW to love and care in a way that transcends Eastern and Western ideals. Again, this is seen in the staging and dialogue regarding bowing behavior.

A King’s Final Lesson

The audience doesn’t need to have experienced the on-stage “lessons” with the king’s children in order to recognize that Anna has found her way into the children’s hearts as much as she has the king’s. During his final moments of life, the king grants simple express permission for his children to enjoy being with Anna while he takes his final breaths. This is all the evidence the audience needs to know the impact Anna had on the king’s heart. And, on a personal note I began INCONSOLABLY sobbing when I heard the king selflessly allow his children to experience joy while he was in his darkest hour. And even with his last breaths, the audience is shocked to see a tender-hearted king reach out to his son in a way that mimics a more Western way of fathering. The king asks his son what he will do when he becomes king. While this transfer of power is not in question, the father-son exchange throws the audience into the same awkward space that Anna so often finds herself. Walking the line between respecting Siamese, Eastern ideals and imposing Western ideals. Let us look at their dialogue simplified for your viewing pleasure.

King What will you do as king?

Prince: Make decrees.

The king physically and emotionally struggles to urge his son to push his authority, knowing that the royal children have been taught “better” with Anna.

King: What decree would you make?

Prince: I would decree that during New Year’s Day, we have fireworks and boat races.

King:  Why boat races?

Prince:  Because I like them… And I’m the king.

The king pushes him one more to dig deeper. Could it be that the prince is simply too young to understand, too hedonistic from his royal upbringing? Did the responses disappoint the king? Why?

King:  What would your second decree be.

Prince:  Well, from what Anna has taught me, I now realize that bowing is demeaning and dehumanizing and physically and emotionally crippling.

The prince decrees the citizens shall no longer be mandated to bow to the floor in the presence of the king.

The king’s last act before dying was to confidently and intentionally release his son into the loving arms of his caretakers. Both the king’s acts of nurture and the Prince’s decree serve as evidence that even with all of the obstacles her identity brought, Anna made an impact in the royal family, and the whole nation.

The final Bow

The final lesson that we as an audience learn from a bow is heartbreaking and beautifully complex.

As the king dies we watch Anna throw herself to the ground at his feet. The lowest point of his body. This is action encapsulates all of her feelings for him and I would not dare rob you of watching this moment for your self. Draw your own conclusions, but the moment Anna spends bowing at the kings feet manifests the end of her intricate internal turmoil.

Obediency? Respect? Love? Heartache? Whatever she was conflicted about, has washed away and she is fully present in that moment.

Anna and Fanny!

Dear Anna and Fanny. Two very different women, both stuck between societal norms and their drive for autonomy. Both find themselves in situations that force them to assert that which they do not understand in ways about which they are not aware. This limbo, this “space” between naivete and manipulation, spills into their personal lives, and, of course for musicals, this means their love affairs. As tragedy comes, they both are forced out of this limbo-cocoon and confronted with the reality that all they have is themselves. While they may believe they have changed for the better, they discover they didn’t even know what “better” meant. Is this a tragedy lightened up by hope of a love affair or a love affair blasted into pieces by tragedy? I don’t know. Let’s just sing about it.

I Am Chris: An Exploration of (White) Empathy

When it comes to theatre, I’m not very empathetic. You probably aren’t either.

I’m not trying to offend you. Heck, until last week I would’ve considered myself an exceedingly empathetic viewer. When it comes to musical theatre, in particular, I’m an emotional liability. I can’t remember the last musical I watched that did not make me cry, which I thought indicated my empathy. I was wrong.

Here’s why: I used to think empathy just meant sharing in the pain of someone else——walking with someone through their hurt. But is that really the full definition?

As I began to consider this question——to reassess my definition of empathy——I thought of an author I love, Brené Brown, who speaks on this topic. She says, “Expressing empathy or being empathic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.” 

I re-read this quote and I literally thought phew. Score. I’m off the hook, I’m definitely empathic. But, to my momentary disappointment, the quote continued. Brown writes, “Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” 

So if empathy is a choice, that means it is active. As viewers of theatre, we must be active to truly engage with the material, which I am. But my tears are not active. My tears might erase some makeup, but they leave me relatively unchanged by the time I finish my post-matinee dinner. And that’s where I think you and I are probably the same. If my “empathy” only extends so far as outwardly expressing itself with stained cheeks, it probably isn’t true empathy. Sympathy, perhaps. But not active, engaged, sacrificial empathy.

My——probably our——lack of empathy may already be overwhelming you. Maybe you feel guilty right now. Or perhaps even shameful. Before I proceed to deepen that wound, I want to affirm that shame is never the goal. But once I started down this rabbit hole of self-assessment, I couldn’t stop.

What is distressing to me is that this “empathy” I thought I possessed varies between shows, between people, and——dare I say——between races. I know. I went there. I’m kinda scared, too. But hang with me, okay? I need moral support.

Last week——back when I thought I was an empathic person——many students in my Theatre class expressed that sure, Nick Arnstein sucks, but Chris sucks more. I agree with this. I was far more angry and disappointed in Chris than I was at Nick. At first, I reduced this to the fact that Nick Arnstein presents himself from minute zero as a pompous a**hole whereas we first encounter Chris in a considerably more virtuous state (yes, I am aware he is in a brothel, but he does step in to “protect” Kim) which makes him more attractive. 

I thought I was more angry at Chris, then, because I had higher expectations of him than I did of Nick. However, when I really thought about my anger, it was rooted in a deep sadness for what these men did to Kim and Fanny, respectively. If I have greater anger toward Chris, this reveals that I harbor more “empathy” toward Kim than I do Fanny. But why?

After hours stuck at this very spot in my blog, I’ve come to this conclusion. Ready? Me neither!

Here it goes: my inability to directly connect with Kim’s life makes her more foreign to me——more needing of my “empathy.” 

Miss Saigon wedges space between its white viewers and Kim from the very beginning. We enter Saigon to meet Kim as she has just fallen to the ground in the middle of an airstrike. A moment passes and we have transitioned into the Engineer’s brothel with women singing “one of us will be Miss Saigon.” At the first sight of an American soldier, it is clear how opposite these two camps of people are. I watched with a knot in my stomach as the Engineer slapped a dancer and soldiers boasted their money and citizenship. Saigon did not know freedom. Saigon is maybe the furthest thing from my life in Nashville, TN.

In many ways, Funny Girl, however, draws the (white) audience close to itself through its location. New York City is the emblem of freedom. Fanny Brice endures her own struggles, of course. I am not in the game to compare traumas, rather the act of viewership. And the act of viewing Funny Girl is significantly easier than engaging with Saigon, in part, because New York City is just so overwhelmingly normal to me. And that’s the bottom line. Most things in Funny Girl feel normal to me. The most critical being… yep, you got it. Race.

In Funny Girl, white is the norm, so it goes unnamed——it’s not seen as racial, because whiteness just is. Miss Saigon is the polar opposite. The entire musical——for better or for worse——is undeniably a performance of race. Kim’s “otherness” to me only deepens her victimhood. I feel sadness for Fanny losing Nick; I feel complete and utter agony as I watch Kim kill herself for her son. 

Hard as it is, here’s the truth. In many ways, I am Chris. I am the character I hate because it is my whiteness that begs me to express empathy toward Kim. In selfish catharsis, I cry for her.

Chris sings, “I saw a world I never knew / And through her eyes I suffered, too… So I wanted to save her, protect her / Christ, I’m American? / How could I fail to do good.” I’d be lying if I said this was dissimilar from my reaction to Kim. Through her eyes I suffer — the beginning of empathy. But, like Chris, I fall short.

My failure to truly be empathetic, then, holds a much higher cost for Kim than it does Fanny. Where my “empathy” is higher, I am being asked more of myself. So when my tears dry and my life returns to normal, I’ve done a greater disservice to myself and others by failing to act. At this point, you might be expecting me to wrap all of this up in a nice little bow. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t do that. I don’t have an answer to this. I think radical empathy begins with acknowledging that you’re not there yet. I’ve done that part. But what next? I haven’t come up with a way to fulfill the last step of empathy——to put forth genuine effort to act upon that which I feel sadness. But for now, maybe Miss Saigon isn’t asking me to do that. For now, I think I just need to sit in this development. For now, I think I need to study the ways that I am Chris.

Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist- and Broadway a Little Bit More

BY: Cheyenne Figaro

The Broadway stage is often heralded as a center of creativity, a celebration of culture; however, it is just the opposite. For decades, the very stages that had brought to life Upper West Side in West Side Story and Vietnam in Miss Saigon have also perpetuated racist stereotypes, sometimes as apparent as blackface or yellowface, and other times through the much more subliminal use of lyrics, choreography, and dialogue. The importance of racial distinctions is only built upon when other identities such as gender and class are also interpolated into musicals. For proof of this, look no further than Kim in Miss Saigon and Miss Anna in The King and I. While both women face obstacles because of misogyny, Kim’s race and class cost her much of her autonomy and opportunity while Anna’s whiteness and “civility” gives her the upper hand throughout the production despite often contesting with a monarch.

It would be remiss to venture into the racism and sexism of Miss Saigon, without first touching on the fact that those were fundamental principles of the production. The show is based on Madame Butterfly, a one-act play which follows the same storyline of a fallen Asian woman desperate to meet her white savior, and going to extreme lengths for him to take their child back to America. The show was widely popular, and turned into an opera that was just as successful, before receiving the modern updates that made it Miss Saigon. However, the production wasn’t a celebration of Asian culture as it should have been, instead choosing to go the more American route, making a mockery of an “exotic culture”, and presenting it in a way that made Americans feel like they had to save the China Doll from the woes of her broken down country. These ideals remain ingrained in the modern version, where Kim is presented as an innocent, lost girl needing a strong, patriotic, white army man to come sweep her up. Kim’s entire identity is formed around inferiority but also around her need to be controlled and guided. She is a seventeen year old virgin, and instead of paying for her and setting her free, Chris actually proceeds to have sex with her. Yet, this sordid act is made out to be one of romance, and one of the only times in which Kim is able to voice her opinions, she decides that she wants Chris to buy her, despite the fact that she doesn’t know him from a hole in the wall. This scene heavily conveys the idea that the white patriot is inherently positive for the lost Asian girl, who wants to go with him and be obedient and give him what he wants. Hence, despite prostituting herself, Kim is happy with the outcome of her tryst with Chris and quickly falls in love with him. They sing of staying together even if this is the “Last Night of the World”, because they see themselves as soulmates. Of course, this dream comes crashing down not even fifteen minutes later with Chris leaving Kim behind, but it was good while it lasted, right?

Further into the story, the race and power dynamics between Kim and Chris become more relevant and apparent in the story. Chris leaves Vietnam and one year later gets a new wife. Correction: he gets a new, white wife. In the biggest slap in the face to Kim, he decides that the only way to forget her is to get someone who is the opposite of her. The fact that white, blonde, and affluent just happens to check those boxes is a coincidence, right? No. Although Kim and Chris were married in a non-traditional way, they were still in fact married. His new marriage is a statement of what a real wife should look like: white, clean, and American. She can’t be a lowly prostitute and she isn’t just a fetish for white men as women of other cultures often are. Hence, Chris being bound to Kim through nightmares is supposed to evoke pity from the audience, as we are made to feel bad for this man who is now being “burdened” by his past. Of course, the audience feels bad for Kim’s minor inconveniences too– left with no job, no house, a three year old, and an obsessed army general searching for her– but still Chris. Kim’s being a burden is reiterated when Chris finds out he has a son and instead of beaming with joy is filled with sadness. His son is another burden, and as soon as Ellen realizes Kim is in love, they make a joint decision to leave Chris’s family, Kim and Tam, in Bangkok because that would be the most comfortable to their lifestyle. Thus, Kim has to beg on her knees, sing on her knees, and literally pull out all the stops until her suicide just to get a white man to listen to her, to consider her opinion. Kim, an Asian woman, only experienced freedom throughout her story when she was living in poverty with Tam, and even then she was singing “I Still Believe” and thinking of her white knight in shining armor, because the musical is an endless cycle of American praise. Her autonomy is limited in every way, and yet all of Kim’s decisions revolve around Chris- from having sex instead of running away, remaining in poverty instead of going with Thuy (even if he is her cousin), and lastly taking her own life so that Chris can acknowledge and help their son. Kim’s story is one of fallen glory, of giving your everything to your love (even if they try actively to forget about you for three years and only come back for their son). Yet, Kim is portrayed as a victim of her circumstances, but not as a victim to the racism and misogyny that placed her in those circumstances to begin with. 

Anna’s story juxtaposes Kim’s in so many ways you would think that Broadway is trying to say that white women are inherently better in the face of conflict. Oh wait, that’s precisely what they’re saying. When first introduced to Anna, the words WHITE-WHITE-WHITE flash before the eyes, because she could not stick out more as an embodiment of whiteness. “Whistle a Happy Tune” is all about keeping a poker face when one is afraid, a skill that Anna’s son needs because apparently he is afraid of anyone who dresses differently than him- in this case differently meaning in rags or you know- like they’re poor. Throughout the number, Anna’s class is amplified as she walks with her nose turned high above the common people, as they grovel and run around for the coins that she throws on the floor like they’re pigeons. Her costume, a blue, flowy skirt, white gloves, and a tilted hat, emphasizes her wealth in comparison to the people of Siam dressed in brown and red rags. This wardrobe decision is once again emphasized when Anna speaks to the prime minister. She is nicely dressed whereas he is “half-naked”, already tilting the conversation in her favor as she seems to be more put together (read: ideally Western) than him. If anyone else were to talk back to the Prime Minister they’d surely be punished, but Anna, a white woman, is accepted by the audience as being right in this situation. She’s allowed and expected to talk back, breaking the Siamese way of doing things, because she must invade the space with her whiteness in order to correct their barbaric way of doing things. Thus, the show automatically sets up the dynamic of a fine and proper white woman having to deal with “savage” and poor Asians.

Her relationship with the King is the most apparent example of how Anna’s whiteness makes her superior in positions where women like Kim would be at the bottom of the totem pole. When the King calls her a servant in front of the Royal Children and Wives, Anna responds no, she is not a servant, and she doesn’t have to be in Siam teaching. She is doing him the favor, and reminds him of that loudly, scolding him in front of a large audience and making a fool of him. Anna’s insistence that she is not a servant despite the fact that she is being paid for is a clear contrast from Kim’s role as a prostitute in Miss Saigon. Anna holds strong to the fact that her time and obedience can’t be bought, the opposite of Kim whose virginity is purchased and is sold by the Engineer for an entire day to Chris. Anna also has the autonomy to leave whenever she would like, something that she fully intends to do until the King’s wife has to beg her to stay because the King needed her help. The musical establishes Anna as the person in power in all of her scenes, giving her the same type of white savior storyline as Chris but adding in her femininity as a way of saying that white womanhood trumps even the highest status of foreigners, despite white women being the lowest of white Americans. This idea is reinforced time and time again throughout the musical, most notably when Anna is allowed to have her head at equal height with the King whilst everyone else must bow into tiny “toads” on the floor when he walks in a room. Anna’s equal height, and thus equal importance, to the King is a stark contrast to Kim who spends the majority of Miss Saigon on her knees and staring at the ground. This physical distinction conveys everything that needs to be known about their status and role in their worlds, but also the way that these characters, a white woman and an Asian woman are viewed by American society. Thus, it isn’t peculiar that the entire last scene of The King and I is centered around Siam becoming more westernized instead of the children losing their father, and the wives losing their husband. The King is dying, yet the headlights focus on the Prince reversing every “savage” rule the kingdom has, and the children bowing to Anna in a Western fashion. The lights and dialogue in this scene are meant to move the audience to praise Anna for essentially colonizing Siam without them even knowing. Because while Kim struggled the entire show to get someone to listen to her, Anna was given that privilege the moment she stepped off the dock as a white woman. She is the American that Siam has been waiting for. She teaches them out of their ignorance, she guides them out of their “barbaric” views on love, and she overall uplifts Siam into a more progressive (Western) position.

Both The King and I and Miss Saigon bring color to the Broadway stage as it had never seen before. Full ensembles of Asians and Asian-Americans were revolutionary, and the productions opened up roles for these underrepresented groups in vast amounts. Yet, all representation isn’t positive representation, and both productions painted the picture of Asians- usually poor and uncivilized- needing to be saved by their whiter, more Western counterparts. Though completely unrelated, juxtaposing the roles of Anna and Kim reveals the twisted stereotypes that are perpetuated by the shows, as Anna is given the upper hand throughout her entire show, whilst Kim continues to experience loss and disaster at any moment that she isn’t with Chris. Hence, both roles serve to establish white supremacy in the eyes of misogyny, for Anna’s being a woman never derailed her as much as Kim’s being Asian did throughout their stories.

A nightmare on Saigon street: Orientalism and the American musical

Priya Sankaran

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. But what if life drops bombs from the sky instead? What if life is living in a war-torn country, where your people are murdered, your nation is plundered, and you can’t wake up from the eternal nightmare that is your reality? Making lemonade seems pretty absurd then. 

The backdrop of Schönberg and Boublil’s musical Miss Saigon is this very nightmare. Life is a rigged game for Kim and the Engineer, whose fates have been decided from the onset of the story. You see, when your existence as an Asian refugee of war is held up against frameworks of white supremacy and imperialism that has ravaged your country, there is no winning. Miss Saigon’s heavy usage of Orientalist tropes characterizes Kim and the Engineer as the racialized, inferior “other” whose freedoms are inextricably linked to the white man. On top of the racialization of Kim and the Engineer, there is an additional gendered difference between the two. An underlying layer of regressive, misogyny taints Miss Saigon, making Kim’s role as a helpless, sacrificing mother markedly distinct from the Engineer’s role of unbound male sleaziness. On the other hand, the Engineer’s character is still subject to emasculation as an Asian male, despite the overarching patriarchal structure of the musical. Ultimately, Miss Saigon reveals that Orientalism and notions of an exoticized East serve to maintain Western hegemony and domination. 

Schönberg and Boublil present Kim to the audience as a 17 year-old girl who, after losing her family to the Vietnam war, is forced to prostitute herself as a means of survival. She is taken in by the Engineer, a Eurasian pimp, and joins the nightclub “Dreamland.” “Dreamland” caters to American GIs, specifically drawing on their male sexual fantasies of the exotic Asian female. In the song “The Heat is on in Saigon”, bikini-clad prostitutes are groped, prodded and thrown around like meat. They are degraded to such a position because they have no choice: their objectification and prostitution could be the ticket to their freedom. Kim stands in stark contrast to these women. Eva Noblezada’s portrayal of Kim involves using soft, feminized body language such as looking down and displaying shy facial expressions. Noblezada also sports a bewildered, innocent face throughout the show. Noblezada does not sexualize her body by exaggerating movements of her hips or chest, as the other women do. This acting choice reflects Kim’s most “appealing” quality: she is virgin. Chris, the white American GI/savior, who is jaded by his frequent visits to “Dreamland”, sings “I used to love getting stoned/ Waking up with some whore/ I don’t know why I went dead/ It’s not fun anymore.” Yet, Kim’s virginal naivety draws him in like bewitchment. Kim is extremely desirable in the eyes of Chris because she is weak, pure, and so obviously in need of saving. Assuming a position of civility and responsibility, Chris takes it upon himself to “protect” Kim. 

Next, Kim’s character as an Asian female, in particular, exacerbates her lack of agency and individuality. Because of her intersecting identities, she is bound to the meek, submissive Asian stereotype in addition to the existing ideas of female inferiority. Kim’s various interactions with other characters in Miss Saigon always follow this pattern. She is either a sacrificing mother to Tam, devoted lover/wife to Chris, subservient “sister” to the Engineer, or forced to sell her body through prostitution to men. Kim’s existence as a female is securely attached to all the males in her life, even down to her son. The song “Sun and Moon” highlights Kim’s dependency and need for a male to make her complete. Lyrics like “You are sunlight and I moon/Joined here brightening the sky” reveals a binary metaphor of the Sun and Moon, which are opposing elements like the East and West. Notably, the East and West are not part of an equal relationship. Orientalism is rooted in European white perspectives of white superiority and civility. The West invariably patronizes the East and the Orient is defined as the contrasting image to the West. If the West is civilized, powerful, and dominant, then, by default, the East must be savage, powerless, and submissive. Kim and Chris take on the respective roles of East and West. Sure, it takes two to tango. But in tango, one person leads and the other follows. There is an inherent power imbalance, so Kim and Chris’s relationship is not as wholesome or fulfilling as the song “Sun and Moon” suggests. The caveat of invoking binary language is that the value of each individual person is only recognized when in conjunction with the other. As a female, Kim must be perpetually tied to Chris for her existence to have value. Chris is concurrently tied to Kim, as her savior and protector. The only scene in Miss Saigon in which Kim displays agency is when she decides to take her own life for her son. But was her suicide truly her own choice or was she coerced by unfortunate circumstances beyond her control?

Next, in examining the character of the Engineer, the casting choice of Jon Jon Briones is very telling. Physically, Briones is a small, scrawny Filipino man of short stature. Although the Engineer’s career as a pimp affords him power, his physical features are not traditionally masculine when viewed from a Western perspective, and thus it renders him as less capable and visible when compared to his American counterparts. Miss Saigon portrays the Engineer as a selfish, sordid man, neurotically obsessed with leaving his destitution for America. However, unlike Kim, the Engineer is not punished for it. In fact, Miss Saigon adds a charming, comedic quality to his character. 

The Engineer is introduced to us as a ruthless pimp and owner of the nightclub “Dreamland”. In the opening act, he assaults several prostitutes, physically and verbally abusing them. He slaps them, grabs their breasts, rips apart their clothing, and screams at them. The Engineer’s freedom depends on his selling of vulnerable women and he works viciously to achieve that. In terms of acting choices, Briones plays the Engineer with incredibly dynamic facial expressions, moving his eyes, eyebrows, and mouth to portray intense emotions of fear, lust, anger, and compulsion. The Engineer compensates for his lack of physical masculinity through the exaggerated, over the top acting, which can be understood as a defense mechanism. In addition, Briones’s diction when delivering the Engineer’s dialogues has a nonchalant, arrogant tone. These acting choices ultimately paint a picture of a lewd, egocentric man, going to any length to achieve the American Dream. He manipulates Kim, seeing her son as a tool to get a US visa. Clearly, the Engineer is not a good person. When compared to the angelic Kim, the Engineer certainly looks Satanic. Yet, his toxic masculinity is celebrated. Throughout Miss Saigon, we hear the audience laughing and applauding the Engineer, which implies that the writers glorified his toxic attributes in a way that appealed to the audience. Most importantly, the Engineer is able to express his agency and power as a man on several occasions, most notably through the song “The American Dream”.  

“The American Dream” reveals how the Engineer imagines his future life:  a life of luxury, grandeur, and riches. The song features showgirls adorned in shimmering costumes, flashy male dancers in bright blue suits, and an extravagant car. A giant golden head of the Statue of Liberty looms in the background as the Engineer envisions opulence, capitalism, and freedom ahead. As the song progresses, we see the Engineer getting more unhinged and consumed in his fantasy. At the end of the show, the audience is left to speculate on whether the Engineer ever achieved his American Dream. Unlike Kim, a self-sacrificing mother who chooses her death, the Engineer has an open ended conclusion. In the end, his privilege as a male protects him.  

To conclude, Miss Saigon’s juxtaposition of Kim and the Engineer makes two generalizations of the Asian male and female. The Asian male is a chauvinistic opportunist that exploits women. The Asian female is weak and subjugated under the Asian male. Therefore, both seek liberation from the civilized West. In this way, Miss Saigon justifies acts of imperialism and US intervention in global wars as necessary for the moral good of humanity. There is irony in that the perpetrators of war and sexual exploitation, like Chris and the Engineer, are left unscathed at the end, however. Ultimately, Miss Saigon reveals how power derived from gender, race, or sociopolitical conditions, affords privileged people the authority to exercise their will over others. Understanding the nature of power relations is integral in understanding the context of a story, particularly when examining who writes the narrative, and for whose benefit the narrative is created. 

“Bread and Love” of Two Female Characters in American Musicals

         From the birth of musicals as a distinctive art form on stage in the early 1900s to the golden age in the 1950s, Broadway has witnessed an evolution of musicals. First, modern musicals remixed elements of music and gradually took the place of European operetta characterized by romantic light music. Second, encounters of culture arose more frequently and more people were available to go to theaters. All of above changes prompted musicals to focus on what intrigued ordinary people the most: bread and love. The musicals Funny Girl and The King and I emerged at this time. It is interesting to note that the main characters in both musicals were powerful females: Fanny, a Jewish American actress, and Anna, a British schoolteacher teaching in Siam royalty, both founded their bread and love yet ended up with a loss of balance between them, even though being in distinctively different geographical settings, one in the United States and the other in Siam in the far east. Through this intersectional lens on Fanny and Anna, the incompatible nature of bread and love still renders a tragic atmosphere on 20th century female.

         “Hello gorgeous,” with such an exhausted sighing, Fanny met herself in the mirror in a theater’s backstage room, and meanwhile met the audiences offstage. Fanny Brice in reality was a famous comedian, performing in the Follies in the 1920s, showing up in radio shows during the later years, and 13 years after her death, her glorious life was portrayed in the musical Funny Girl. However, at the beginning of her story, Fanny was just a funny comedian bringing laughers in the audiences, and a broken woman waiting desperately for her imprisoned husband’s return.

         In 1910s, Fanny represented millions of other girls from ordinary communities, not considered as a beauty compared to the popular appreciation of Ziegfeld girls. Being obsessed with Ziegfeld girls’ skinny body shapes, cute faces, and sweet dances — characters that Fanny barely owned, everyone concluded that a girl like Fanny “doesn’t spell success” and “gets only pity and pat” with such look. Fanny didn’t back down. She replied with a dramatic pose and a confident smile, “The whole world will look at me and be stunned!” Yet after this seemingly easy confidence was her repeated trainings for routines of the audition every night after everyone else was back home, countless falling overs followed immediately by standing up. Her perfect performances won her the chance to Keeney’s, and eventually on Ziegfeld. However, there were more obstacles on her way. Ziegfeld insisted to kick her out of Follies if she wouldn’t exaggerate on performances, and Fanny failed to convince him that she wanted audiences to laugh with her but not laugh at her. Therefore, the eventual success of comedienne Fanny, a “pregnant bride”, and later brilliant characters couldn’t show up without her iron will of singing, compromise, and conciliation at the very beginning. At an era when a delicate look determined a woman’s success, Fanny broke the barrier and won her bread.

         Meanwhile, the appearance of Mr. Arnstein after she stepped down the stage brought her infinite expectations of a glamorous future and infinite longlines when he was not there. “I imagined you every place in the world. You are like a character in the book to me.” After Mr. Arnstein’s leave for several months, Fanny realized what she really wanted is companionship. She was uncertain about this man, with uncontrollable hand shaking and avoidance in eye contact, but her courage and passion still pushed her to confront how she needed him. At the railroad station, Fanny decided to quit Follies performances and run after Mr. Arnstein, as she thought this was the one chance to catch happiness. In “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, Fanny didn’t utilized many singing skills, but instead expressed emotions, exulting in finding her happiness. Though with bright music, the first conflict between Fanny’s bread and love was rooted here. Her marriage life was in a much faster beat. Fanny made a compromise between her bread and love for the second time when she was rushing to return to the stage, so she made light on her husband’s debt trouble. Once again, she chose the fastest way, putting up the money secretly, to help her husband, which indirectly caused his anger, and finally hotheaded crime of embezzlement. Fanny was expecting an equal relationship with the man she loved, and she fought for it fearlessly. However, when she though that they were equally supporting each other, her husband was deeply hurt for receiving Fanny’s help and for feeling dependent upon her. This irreconcilable conflict ended their relationship, regardless of love between them.

         In the final scene, Fanny sang the melodies of Rain on My Parade again, with legs spread apart, with arms holding her chest, with pathos and decisiveness to look forward. She knew that she had to be even a stronger woman, supporting herself and her little daughter. But did she know why things turned out to be like this? No matter how much money and fame she earned from performances, how much inspirations she brough to the Follies and the development of musicals as a whole, or how independent she could be, she always had an identity that should be well memorized: wife. As a wife, she’d better support her husband’s career at least as much as to her own’s and avoid make her husband feel dependent upon her — or they would run counter to the general trend of the society.

         “I whistle a happy tune and every single time,” singing while holding her little boy’s hand, Anna Leonowens arrived in Bangkok, Siam on the other side of the earth. For the unknown journey in Siam where she could not speak any language and knew about no one, Anna sang this song to cheer herself up with courage. After landing, the half-naked outfit of the prime minister Kralahome, the invasive question he asked about privacy, and a group of concubines who messed around her luggage, all of these circumstances evoked Anna’s discontentment. But she bore and focused on her work. She devoted in teaching the children about freedom, equality, kindness, and other western theories. In “Getting to Know You”, Anna expressed her enjoyment making friends with the cute children and Thiang, along with the rising tone of the melody. Anna treated her job as a glorious mission, spreading knowledge and love to her students, thus rendering herself as a successful inspiring figure in the eastern world.

         On the other hand, the relationship between Anna and the king experienced tense moments, moments of reconciliation, and moments of attraction and rupture, eventually a woeful farewell. When the king disrupted her class, complaining about her teaching of “home”, she insisted on the promise of a brick house adjacent to the palace, and indicted that the king broke his promise. Throughout these times, she was never afraid of questioning his decisions or altering his beliefs, which deeply attracted the king. Anna was also aware of his transition, from scorn, weariness to listening to her suggestions in an open mind. Their admiration of each other climaxed after a European reception of the envoys. “Shall we dance?” These syllables repeated along the melody, like the transition from a questioning to a tentative tone between Anna and the king. Their careful affections were vividly depicted by their bodily languages: Anna’s enjoying dances, and the king’s unskillful steps. However, this affection could only be invisible, when the social status, race, and demand of freedom were desperately different between them. These hidden troubles experienced outburst when the king caught Tuptim, his “present”, dating secretly with her lover. He considered Tuptim as his belongingness, something that he could punish whenever he wanted, yet Anna, cherishing the valuable love in the deepest of her heart, tried to protect Tuptim. Both the dialogue and bodily expressions were explosive at this point, indicating that the king and Anna could never reach consensus.

          Throughout the king and I, Anna accepted the eastern culture, just as others embraced her fresh ideas, and along with her intelligence, courage, independence, she succeeded in. teaching the children, spreading thoughts of freedom, and finally helping cultivate the next king. However, she never got to speak her affections toward the king, nor did she get any chance to experience more with him. The king and Anna promoted the encounters of cultures in the late 19th century, but they could never overcome the barrier between their identities.

          Though Fanny and Anna lost their love in the end, the significance of their appearance as a representation of female in the 20th century should not be denied. Their self-confidence, self-reliance, persistence, and hard-working were the valuable traits for them to earn their “bread”, growing to be the iconic person in their field. By establishing these two female characters, the authors aimed to encourage more females to dedicate if they would like to pursue their own careers. In a nutshell, retrospection of Fanny and Anna’s life stories showed that the ceiling for females in the 20th century was the reason for their loss of love when seeking for power and independence, but let’s ponder what if they were born in 100 years later? With all the precious qualities they owned, and dedications they have made, there might be a different ending.

Live in Living Color: Miss Saigon’s ‘American Dream’

On the surface, Schönberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon is pretty. It is complete with all the frivolity of the classic American musical: from extreme and shameless objectification of its female characters to the reduction of its characters of color to stereotypes, this show has it all. Miss Saigon tackles themes of love, lust, parenthood, dreams, desire, all through the perspective of a couple of protagonists.

First up, we have Kim. Kim seems to be our hero, at least of sorts. In the show’s opener, we get a good idea of who Kim is. There’s a conversation between her and the Engineer that basically tells the audience that she’s a young woman who has recently decided to sell her body as a way to put food on the table. Simply put, she’s out of options. The opener to the show is the not-so-long awaited Miss Saigon pageant, (if you can call it that) in which the Engineer can be found hustling prostitutes to American soldiers that are fighting in the Vietnam War. 

In said pageant, Kim is clearly uncomfortable being viewed as just another piece of meat. This is something that  those around her do we have a great mastery of. “I’m Seventeen and I’m new here today,” she sings. “The village I come from seems so far away. All of the girls know much more what to say but I know, I have a heart like the sea! A million dreams are in me!” From the outset, Kim is depicted as the typical young, easily-influenced girl (with broken english) who doesn’t really know what she’s doing and seems to have gotten herself into a situation that she can’t handle. Say what you will about Kim, she is Not Like Other Girls. The show’s story takes advantage of the empathy that it tries to collect from the audience by putting this innocent girl in this precarious situation.

Miss Saigon does an excellent job of taking advantage of the “suffering woman” trope.  One complaint that many have about Les Misérables (also by Schönberg and Boublil) is that the female characters have little to no agency, meaning that they are acted upon rather than taking action themselves. For the beginning parts of Miss Saigon, this is more or less true for Kim as well. But, as a plot progresses, we see a new version of Kim who packs up and chases her son’s father. By taking a character whom the audience has learned to feel sorry for and using her to push the envelope on what it feels like to be wronged, at its essence, is exactly but every storyteller aspires to do. The problem with how Miss Saigon does it is that Kim is a very particular character from very particular context. It is evident that she’s being stereotyped and generalized into a place of such dire misfortune as a way of trying to evoke sympathy points from an audience. 

As for the actress that portrays Kim (Eva Noblezada), she is not Vietnamese. Wonderful? Yes. Talented? Oh, no doubt about it. I’ve bragged to friends about her being maybe the most talented actress I’ve ever seen perform live. But at the end of the day, she is simply Not Vietnamese. And that is important. To this day, Eva swears that playing Kim in Miss Saigon was the most fun she’s ever had as a performer and the most transformative role she’s ever taken on. I worry that she doesn’t see what I see. I worry that she doesn’t understand how she was used to perpetuate a stereotype. Worse yet, I worry that she does know and just doesn’t care.

Next, we have our wonderful, lovable Engineer. The Engineer is the only male Vietnamese character in the only popular Vietnamese show in America (more or less). Musical theatre, both historically and presently, tends to have mostly white audiences. That means that this image of a Vietnamese man will be the only one that a lot of people ever really see. That’s important. Performers of color get very few chances for representation, especially in musical theatre. That means that when they do get this kind of representation, they jump at the chance, they scream and they cry, they celebrate. 

That is, unless the representation is abhorrent and ill-fitting.  Miss Saigon depicts the Engineer as a money hungry, smash-and-grab, make a quick buck, slick talking guy who will do anything to achieve and attain the success that he knows is possible in America. I can’t think of a more damaging stereotype then the classic “America is the center of the universe” mindset that so many people (in life, musical theatre, and everything in between) take on. Using characters of color to  show off this narrative is as damaging as it gets. Moreover, it’s especially harmful because you can hide bigotry under the guise of providing opportunity for characters of color and for representation on the big stage.

As for Jon Jon Briones, (our Engineer) he is also… Not Vietnamese. That means that both of the main characters in this Vietnamese narrative are not actually played play Vietnamese people. For Miss Saigon to deface a people and a culture under the guise of representation, and then to not even actually give them that representation… there are few greater injustices in the performing arts world.

I want to take one more minute to discuss the character John, the fun-loving best friend. The (black) fun-loving best friend. John occurs at some bizarre intersection of token black character and bizarre generalization and thoughtful portrayal and complex human being. In a show that relies so heavily on the American Dream trope, it’s a little off-putting that the Engineer’s only real connection to American people ( through the military) is John. One thing that Miss Saigon never touches on, is whether or not the soldiers fighting in the Vietnamese War are a part of or living the American dream. In the original cast, John was played by a white man. I do not know what went into the decision of making him black, and I’m hesitant to argue against representation, (as I’m sure all POC in theatre are)  but I most certainly do have some problems with John being a black character. John. Is. So. Weird. He goes from singing about buying his friend a Vietnamese prostitute in the Act I opener to singing about saving the Bui Doi in the Act II opener. Character arc? Maybe. General Negligence? More likely. Hugh Maynard’s presentation of John is certainly a part of this equation. He’s this cool, caring, charming guy who likes to sleep with prostitutes but also wants to help babies. Nice.

But “so what?” you ask (and you should).  Well, here’s the thing. Here’s the kind of scary, bizarre, head-scratching thing: if you asked me what was wrong with Miss Saigon after my first watch, I couldn’t have told you. In fact, I would have recommended you watch it. For a long time, it’s been my mom’s favorite show, and she’s the one who got me into theater. After doing a really deep dive into the show and its themes, the first thing I did was call her and tell her that there was no way she could like it anymore (or at least, that she need be more mindful of what she was interacting with). 

Before critically analyzing Miss Saigon, I didn’t see an issue with it. I thought it was a fun story with fun characters and cool music.  I totally and completely neglected to realize that it’s an intentionally degrading story with caricatures of real people that were actually victims of some very heinous war crimes during the Vietnam war. This is what Miss Saigon does so beautifully but so tragically: it takes advantage of a mindset that is so ingrained into the general population, uses it to rise to general popularity, and stays there. It uses its engine and its Engineer to get into the good graces of the musical theatre world, at the expense of the people that it claims to honor.

The King and I: The Lab Report

In the world of reductionist scientific studies, scientists have created a pretty set system to determine if one thing has an impact on another or not. First, you want to eliminate confounding variables to ensure that the only difference in what you are looking at is the “independent” variable you put in place. This way, you can ensure that any difference in results, or dependent variables, between groups is due to the independent variable, not another factor. Even more importantly, if you find that there is no significant difference in results, then you can conclude that the independent variable doesn’t have an impact on the dependent variable you are studying, but this is far from the case when looking at the intersection of race and gender in The King and I. Anna, portrayed by Kelli O’Hara in the 2015 revival, is the new White and Western school teacher who comes to Siam, an Eastern oriental country, to teach the royal children of the king. Lady Thiang, as portrayed by Ruthie Ann Miles, is the first wife of the king, whose son is heir to the throne. From a gender standpoint, Anna and Lady Thiang look very similar in what is contributing to their roles and expectations as a female (this will be our results, or dependent variable). They are both middle aged, have a young boy, and both are doing seemingly well for themselves (confounding variables… accounted for!). However, they are of a very different race and culture (you guessed it: independent variable), and this difference does in fact cause a strong impact on the manifestation of their gender roles and characteristics. 

There are many examples where we see the contrast in Anna and Lady Thiang’s expected gender roles and stereotypes portrayed through both the show’s creators and the actors’ choices made in portraying their characters. Their external appearance, approaches to teaching, how the two interact differently with the king and the children, and their view on love are all areas where we see these differences in what it means to be a female for characters of a different race. 

The way women are expected to dress is a part of gender norms, and has been throughout time. This norm is not only constantly evolving, but is seen to be different across cultures and races. This is seen so clearly in the example of Anna and Lady Thaing. Although both are dressed precisely to their own culture and race’s expectation of gender, that expectation is different between the two of them. Anna is in a big skirt, almost obnoxiously wide. In the first scene where they meet Anna, the wives of the king run over to look at her skirt because they think she “wear big skirt like that because [she] shaped like that,” in the words of Lady Thiang. This shows that this is something they have never in their lives seen before, even though this is what is totally normal for Anna. It’s not just something acceptable for her to wear, but what is expected of her by the race she knows and the society she comes from. In contrast, Lady Thiang is dressed like the other wives of the king, very differently than Anna. Her dress falls with her body and she wears elaborate gold jewelry and accents on her dress, showing her wealth and status in a very different way than Anna’s beautiful silk. 

We also see a difference in their teaching style and actions in the song “Getting to Know You”. Lady Thiang’s teaching can be described by one prop: her stick. She is aggressive and points her stick at the map, then at the children, and not kindly by any means. She uses a harsh tone and insists that the children stay in line. Anna, when handed the stick, gives a look of confusion, and then laughs and puts it down in replace of a book, reflecting the opposite of Lady Thiang. The book shows she is educational, not strict like the stick. Anna smiles and nods at the children, encouraging them to learn and ask questions. She shows the traits of being personable, people-oriented, and good with children, she even sits on the floor with them and holds their hands. When the singing and dancing of “Getting to Know You” begins, we see these differences in their roles as women amplified. While Anna sings and interacts with the children, Lady Thiang stands in the back, hands folded, looking straight ahead. She only steps in when Anna interacts with the other wives of the king, getting them to act like her rather than Lady Thiang, which is communicated as unacceptable through her sharp scolds and clapping of her hands. Anna is the creator of the “unscientific” classroom the King describes at the end of the scene, while Lady Thiang is constantly trying to keep the obedience and order. 

Anna and Lady Thiang also reflect a great difference in their expected gender roles in how they interact with the king and the children. Lady Thiang does whatever the king desires. She is his servant. Anna, although she shows him respect, stands up for herself. She refuses to be a servant and won’t let him belittle her. She even shows a little sass towards the king in their first encounter not only by claiming to be 153, but also by giving him a half eye roll and holding her chin high in the air right after. This shows confidence and assertiveness to the king, and is something Lady Thiang would never do. These two women also interact very differently with the children. Anna is warm. She smiles sweetly at them, and always seems overjoyed to see them. She welcomes them by reaching out her arms. She is right in their mix, sitting on the ground, holding their hands, and even running with the children. Lady Thiang and the other wives of the king, although still loving the children, express that love in a very different way. When at school or in front of the king, they are much more cautious about their actions, and have much less physical affection for the children. Lady Thiang stays back from the children, keeps her distance, and portrays a very stoic persona. 

Anna and Lady Thiang also have very different perspectives on love and romance, which is one of the most stereotypical aspects of the female gender. Tuptim, the new princess who loves a man other than the king, finds a safe person in Anna, but not Lady Thiang. When Lady Thiang is speaking to Anna about this situation, she says, “another man” with squinty eyes and a dead stare, like she is warning, or even threatening, Tuptim. Anna, however, is all about the love Tuptim has for another man. She says “poor child”, describing Tuptim, with a pain in her voice. She looks away from Lady tiang like she can’t even bear to hear what she is telling her. Lady Thiang responds saying “it is strange for school teacher to talk so romantic.” To us, this is the opposite of strange. This is one of the most known stereotypes of females. Females are supposed to be boy crazy, wanting a romantic love, someone to emotionally sweep them off their feet. But because of the culture surrounding her race, to Lady Thiang this is strange. It is against the norm. Anna soon goes on to sing of Tom, her late husband, in “Hello Young Lovers”. This is a scene the audience has seen a million times. Think of “Hopelessly Devoted” in Grease, and every other scene similar. Girls in love, helpless over a man. But Lady Thiang has never seen this scene before, and that is revealed to the audience through the confusion in Lady Thiang’s face the moment Anna begins to sing and every moment after. She won’t take her eyes off of Anna, cautiously waiting for what she might say next.  It is almost as if we see Lady Thiang understand what love is the first time. 

In their first scene together, Lady Thiang refers to Anna as “Sir.” She knows Anna is not quite her definition of female. When Anna questions her on this, Lady Thiang says that it is because she is “not lowly, like a woman.” This shows what might be the greatest difference between the roles of these two women: where they find their worth. To Lady Thiang, the king is everything. Serving him, being obedient to him, whatever that may look like, is her life as a female. Anna is different. Her role as a female is to show love to the children and to others, while also staying true to herself. She is romantic and loving, the set female gender norm. Lady Thiang is obedient and devoted, and that is the set female gender norm, too, just in a different race and culture. With confounding variables accounted for, these many differences in gender roles and expectations portrayed through Anna and Lady Thiang (dependent variables in our two groups) are deemed significant, showing that race and culture are in fact significant independent variables when it comes to gender expectations. Looking at these two women in The King and I shows that the intersectionality of gender and race cannot be ignored. You can’t properly understand one without looking at the other. Race and culture impact the “norm” of what a gender norm is, and how that is expressed. In our “future directions,” we need to continuously recognize the importance of that intersectionality when reflecting on gender norms and expectations in all situations.

The Musical Fetishization and Appropriation of Asian Cultures

In Western musical academia, we assign certain modes and scales to Asian music. We direct actors to use offensive accents, dress them in stereotypical costumes, makeup, compose derivative melodies, and thus continue to reinforce these racist standards in our musical consumption. Two extraordinarily popular musicals, Miss Saigon and The King and I, rely upon such stereotypes. Kim, from Miss Saigon, is sexually abused, prostituted, and beaten down, reduced to nothing more than a sex worker and eventual maternal figure. The titular King from The King and I spends the majority of the musical proving that he isn’t a barbarian in order to grow close to his white love interest. These two characters are relegated to stereotypes- the savage and oversexed non-Westerner, an objectified prop for white people to “save” or “improve.”

In order to discuss how Miss Saigon and The King and I heavily fetishize Asian culture, we first must understand the conception and origin of these two musicals. There is a long and established performance history of white people portraying different races, decades before American musical theater became the conglomerate it is today. The performance practices for both of these musicals rely heavily on cultural appropriation. Both musicals were originally performed with white performers in yellowface whose characters wear traditional Vietnamese and Thai costumes. Three popular operas- Madame Butterfly (upon which Miss Saigon is based), The Mikado, and Turandot– were originally performed with white singers in yellowface. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical about an innocent Midwestern girl trying to make her way in New York City, features three Asian characters who are reduced to grotesque xenophobic stereotypes. The list of racist musicals is extraordinarily long, but Miss Saigon and The King and I are two of the most visible and relevant musicals. 

So why does the musical theater industry keep producing and performing these controversial musicals, when so much of the material is offensive? Recent professional revivals of these musicals have attempted to cast Asian people, but we still see white people in the majority of productions. High schools around the country perform Miss Saigon and place students in appropriative costumes and makeup. Is there a way to perform these musicals and be respectful of the cultures they use? 

Miss Saigon’s female lead Kim is a prime example of white fetishization. From the first downbeat of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical, viewers are assaulted with hypersexualized images of scantily clad Asian women. The lyrics in the first song, “The Heat Is On in Saigon,” reinforce this oversexed scene, referring to the women as “slits,” relegating them to walking vaginas and dehumanizing them. The Engineer, the resident pimp, does his best to sell the women to the American soldiers who frequent Dreamland. Kim, our sweet, virginal heroine, is traded and sold like a piece of prime meat at the market, offered to the highest bidder. Chris, our strapping American G.I., waltzes into the Dreamland brothel and sees Kim, coming to the realization that he has to “know her” (both biblically and platonically).  Kim’s character toes the line between innocent and slutty, and seemingly regains some of her feminine virtues when she assumes the proper role of mother to her son Tam. Miss Saigon is a white savior story that glorifies the sacrificial nature of motherhood and demonizes sex workers. Yet, without Kim, Gigi, Mimi, Yvette, and the other sex workers, we would have no plot. Miss Saigon has to fetishize these characters, or we have no one to save with our whiteness. 

On a similar note, The King and I also uses sex as a means to demote and divide the characters along racial lines. Anna, our white and widowed heroine, has one child and remains steadfast to her late husband for the majority of the musical. The King, conversely, has multiple wives and numerous children. During a conversation with the King’s head wife, Anna says that the King is a polygamist, but not a barbarian, hinting that Western marital standards are superior to those practiced in Siam. This perspective neglects the fact that polygamy is practiced in parts of the West: while it is certainly viewed as unorthodox, it is a far cry from being labeled as “barbaric.” The wives in The King and I function only as objects meant for sexual gratification and childbearing, just as the women in Miss Saigon are used. A prime example of such characterization is Tuptim, the gifted slave destined to become yet another wife to the King. We also see the forcing of Western culture onto the members of the King’s court. In the second act, the ladies of the court wear Western dresses, but neglect undergarments, so when Sir Edward raises his monocle to examine them, the ladies blush in embarrassment and fear and raise their undergarments over their heads, exposing themselves to the men. 

Both Miss Saigon and The King and I do a remarkable job of perpetuating the concept of the “white savior” – Chris is Kim’s hero, and Anna is the King’s better half. Both white characters must change the fates of their Asian counterparts. Costuming and makeup is a key part of both of these characters’ journeys. Kim from Miss Saigon is forced to wear revealing clothing as she works in Dreamland, clothing that is not Western; the other Dreamland prostitutes wear Western swimwear designed to flatter and show off the female body while barely covering genitals and breasts; the King and other court members wear costumes that mimic Thai traditional dress. Both the King and Kim were characters originally performed by white people (e.g.Yul Brynner). Pictures from the first production show Brynner with exaggerated eyeliner, clad in a robe, sash, and loose pants. 

If Kim is merely a sex worker, one iteration of a traditionally undervalued and belittled profession, then why do we continue to tell her story? And why do we tell the tale of the love story between the King of Siam and Anna? These tales echo relationships and situations found in our boring, everyday lives. Unrequited love, the loss of a parent- these traumatic archetypal events become almost easier to digest when pulped, processed, and seasoned with some cultural appropriation. It allows us, the viewers and white colonizers, to accept what we have done to a shocking portion of the world- we stripped it down and demeaned the indigenous populations, remaining unwilling to empathize with different cultures and using traditionally Christian morals as an excuse to obliterate thousands of years of history. Sex, love, and death act as catalysts for unity across cultural divides, but it doesn’t mean that we should have to boil down characters like Kim and the King in order to confront the consequences of colonialism. 

Kim’s tragic ending allows us to pretend that for a minute, we actually care about what Americans did during the Vietnam War, and allows us to repent for the sins of our forefathers. The ending of The King and I lets us escape to a fantasy world which lets us say, “We didn’t cause any harm to this culture!” But, we did, and we continue to mock survivors’ and descendents’ trauma by performing these musicals with white actors. While it is important to perform them, we must also be willing to discuss why exactly they are so problematic. We are compelled to sugarcoat the colonization and transform it into a peppy musical in order to assuage our white guilt and fragility. We are still absolving the sums of our collective guilt through the consumption of this art medium. Even though it is possible to continue to perform these musicals, they must be viewed not only as works of art, but as the imperialist propaganda they fundamentally are. 

Men & Power: Funny Girl and Miss Saigon

By: Cassidy Johnson

Power. Both a concept and a goal that has been around along as there was life on this planet. Yet, the way we as people view power is changing in terms of accessibility and who should have it. The default picture of a person in power largely remains a man. Because art often reflects the ideals of the society that created it, this same view of power is seen in characters on Broadway: men retaining power over women in the stories that are told. In Funny Girl and Miss Saigon, one or a few men hold the power. In Funny Girl it is the charmer Nick Arnstein, and in Miss Saigon, the Engineer. The journey of these two men in their attempts to attain or maintain a modicum of power drives their stories. The difference between them is that Mr. Arnestein is a charming, well-to-do white man in America, while the Engineer is a conniving, man, prone to violence in Vietnam. Though the motivations behind their actions may be similar, their different identities impact the way they are represented in the musicals.

Funny Girl is a 1960s musical from Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics), and Isobel Lennart (book). Each of these individuals is white. Given the racial identity of the and time period of the authors, it is no surprise that Mr. Arnstein is a white man. Nick Arnstein is the epitome of status and power at the beginning of the twentieth century. We’re given a man who will do anything to maintain his comfortable life in America. Miss Saigon was also written by white men (Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg). While they create a musical that gives a glimpse of what life might have been like for those left behind in the Vietnam War, there are no positive depictions of Asian men in the entire musical, the Engineer included. He only has power over those who are worse off than him: women. We’re given a man who will do anything to get to America. In fact, the Engineer’s dream life is not too far off from the life Nick Arnstein lives before meeting Fanny.

The audience is first introduced to Mr. Nick Arnstein as an admirer of Fanny Price, who uses his reputation and status to increase her salary. And though his last name is traditionally Hebrew, the character includes no obvious Jewish depictions or features. Fanny even questions his heritage at one point when he doesn’t know the meaning of a Yiddish word. Arnstein is for all intents and purposes a white man. He uses charm and seduction to gain (romantic) power over Fanny. In fact, he seems to have a similar effect on every woman he meets admitting that he has been with “merely dozens, nothing serious.” He is a perfectly suave man who goes after what he wants. He is established enough to carry casual conversational with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. As an entrepreneur and gambler, Nick Arnstein moves through the world with ease, playing games and making connections across the country and even internationally in places such as Monte Carlo. For Arnstein, his sense of power is directly tied to money. Everything is alright in his world until he finds himself in need of serious cashflow to avoid going bankrupt.

Initially, Fanny’s fame and power do not matter to him; as long as he has his own why should he care? As soon as that hurricane wipes out his casino development in Florida, we see a different man. This Arnstein is not simply acting on wants, he is acting on needs. And when he is in need of cash, who does he go to? Other white men. Does he go to his rich wife? No. Even when Fanny offers him a check he puts up a resistance. To him, these men, these white men are the only acceptable sources he can to for help. They might currently have more money, but they are still comparable to him, on the same level. While he loves Fanny, he cannot fathom actually asking her for help. What man needs help from his wife, let alone financial help? When Arnstein yet again finds himself in need of more money, instead of asking Fanny who he knows would not refuse him, he seeks funding from illegal sources. Criminality is more appealing that comprising his perception of himself as a man. Fanny’s mother later puts things plainly for her daughter, telling her that her husband “needed his own money.” That was so integral to maintaining his sense of self, to him feeling that he still had power, that he compromised his freedom and family. His wife made him feel small constantly offering help and support. Nick Arnstein didn’t love Fanny as much as he loved feeling powerful.

Darius Campbell, the actor who plays Nick Arnstein has no trouble portraying a good looking suave man but adds depth to performance with his obvious trepidation during Arnstein’s most trying moments. His voice is softer and his hands are tightly balled up as he pleads “Please Fanny don’t hold so tight, give me some air, give me some light” as she’s about to hand him a check. In the same pensive moment, he tells himself, “Nicky you’ve got to just set her straight” because he cannot reconcile that the source of money is his wife. However, as soon as the check is in his hand, his expression lightens. Campbell immediately enters the musical number “Temporary Arrangement.” With cold hard cash in his hands and signing contracts, this is the most expressive the audience has seen Mr. Arnstein so far. He sports a full-face smile and largely performs the same choreography as the dancers on the stage. Of course, the other men he’s interacting with on stage are white men too. The audience can see his confidence build back up again as he uses his fresh power to cement his plans. That is, right before he gets the devastating phone call.

The Engineer has immediate power over Kim and the other women in the club from the start. The power comes from making the women fear him, as shown by his threatening interactions with Kim and Gigi. The Engineer, like Mr. Arnstein, is a man who goes after what he wants. The entire musical, he is doing everything he can to get a visa to the United States., where he believes he can possess the ultimate power. There is no mystery or surprise regarding this character; the Engineer has no depth. His entire journey is simply trying to gain more power in every situation he finds himself in. Kim (and Tam) are special only for what they can do for him. He did not like needed them, but he made it work for him.

The Engineer is a Vietnamese man who is entirely one-dimensional. He is a scoundrel. He is a predator. The actions he willing to take better his circumstances are criminal and abhorrent. He begins by pimping women to GI’s in Saigon, controlling them with violence all while hoping to attain a visa. He escapes the grasp of Thuy and the military by murdering and donning the uniform of a soldier. In Bangkok, he is still pimping out women, now using Kim and Tam to get his beloved visa. Yet, despite having power over women and Kim in the entire production there are those who have power over him — other men. The GIs who the Engineer is hoping to get a visa from in Saigon, then Thuy, then his boss in Bangkok, and even Chris making a decision about Tam. No matter how much he tries, he is still constantly subject to someone else’s whim. That someone either a white/American man (the GIs) or another Asian man who is no better than he. He will never get what he is desperate for without the help of an American. His boss in Bangkok is also a pimp, and Thuy is arguably worse than the Engineer, wanting to murder a child.

The actor who plays the Engineer, Jon Jon Briones, does bring flavor to this foul and scrappy man. A man of Asian descent, Briones adds humor to his character. There are instances throughout the production where the audience laughs after Briones directs sarcastic quips or exaggerated facial expressions towards them. As a result, the audience is able to enjoy Briones’ portrayal of the Engineer without actually enjoying the character himself. Without adding any intrapersonal depth, Briones is able to vary the way in which he interactions with different characters on the stage. He often grabs women roughly, but tentatively places his hand on shoulders on GIs hoping they will help him out. His energy is drastically different when he is trying to get customers in Bangkok compared to when his boss accosts him and Kim backstage. But Briones truly shines in the number “My American Dream.” For the first time, we see the Engineer free with glee living his dream. Briones is enjoyable to watch as he cavorts with the dancers on stage and humps an American-made vehicle. It is such a strong performance that it’s own of the musical highlights.

Both men break the law in the pursuit of power, the consequences and resolution differ as much as their race does. Nick Arnstein gambles and commits embezzlement in order to maintain his status as a successful businessman, and really a successful man. His downfall is at his own hands and the only victims of his actions are his family. The Engineer’s crimes are on a whole other level. He facilitates prostitution throughout and even murders a soldier. His downfall is at the hands of white men: the United States when they abandon Vietnam, and Chris and his wife when they chose what is “best” for Tam and Kim. The consequences he faces are partly the result of other’s decisions. Mr. Arnstein gets out after 18 months. He is remorseful and does not want to hurt Fanny any longer. There is no resolution of the musical for the Engineer; the audience has no idea what happens to after Kim dies (but we can assume he never gets that visa).

On the one hand, we have a well-to-do white man who is given depth, likable from his first line, and is at least given a shot and redemption in the end. On the other, we have a Vietnamese man in a war-stricken country who is deplorable from the start and receives no resolution. Both are criminals. Both are primarily concerned with having a sense of power and willing to compromise those around to get it. But the white man is given the sympathetic edge. Arnstein can garner sympathy from the audience during those inner monologue moments because he is raw and real. The Engineer is not given those same latitudes. Even when he addresses the audience it’s in moments of humor and self-grandeur. During the glimpse into his disturbing childhood, Briones’ sings in such a detached tone that sympathy is not easy to feel. The audience is provided the chance to like one and can’t feel anything but disdain for the other. This is the tragedy of Broadway. It would not be such a problem if the Engineer was a white or even just an American man. But he is an Asian man in a country destroyed by the West. He makes horrible decisions because of his horrible circumstances. I want to feel bad for him, but I cannot because of the way he is written by white men.

The White Woman Will Always Win- How White Privilege Hinders Feminism

How is it that the heroine of the 1951 musical, The King and I, is far more empowered than the heroine in the 1989 musical, Miss Saigon, despite the 38 years of feminist activism and expansion of women’s’ rights that occurred between the openings of the two Broadway productions? The answer is in the race and ethnicity of these two characters. Kim, from the musical Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and Anna, from the musical The King and I by Oscar Hammerstein II, are both single mothers that are in trying to make a living in Asian countries with their sons. The only distinct difference between these two characters is that Kim is a native-born Vietnamese woman, and Anna is white and British. This small difference between Anna and Kim’s ethnicity and race translates into a world of difference in the way that the playwright and actresses in the musical wrote and performed each character. 

To understand the disparity between the performances of Kim and Anna on stage, viewers must acknowledge the patriarchal relationship between western and eastern cultures that elevates white women and degrades women of color. Western nations have a history of demeaning and interfering in eastern affairs to gain power and impose their practices on the citizens of these foreign nations. The King and I demonstrates this patriarchal relationship in the way that Anna patronizes the people of the Bangkok court. From the moment that Anna first meets members of the Siamese court, she convinces the audience that she is a superior and more civilized character. Anna first proves her superiority when she encounters the prime minister, Kralahome. Anna is shocked that Kralahome can communicate with her in English. The irony in the fact that Anna is surprised by Kralahome’s knowledge of English is the fact that the audience is not supposed to be shocked that Anna does not know the native language of Bangkok. Anna is in Bangkok for a job teaching the royal children, and the fact that she cannot speak the native language of the land is strange. However, instead of seeing her lack of knowledge as abnormal, the audience accepts it because people speak English in many western nations. This notion that “normal” people speak English dehumanizes the people that do not (many people living in the east) and allows the audience to ignore Anna’s flaw. Anna goes further to patronize Kralahome by repeating, “the King says,” after he says, “the King say.” This correction makes Kralahome look half-witted while Anna sounds well educated. The audience expects Kralahome not only know English but to speak it well to prove his intelligence, while they see Anna as intelligent despite not speaking the Central Thai dialect. This double standard allows the producers of the play to make Kralahome look inferior to Anna despite his intelligence and Anna’s lack of knowledge. Through Anna’s appearance of greater intelligence that the members of the Bangkok palace, creators Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein make the western world look intellectually superior to the eastern world. They also demonstrate this patriarchal relationship between the western and eastern world when Anna attempts to help the palace residents act British so that the British and the western world would not regard them as “savages.” Anna explicitly calls the native customs savage compared to the western way of living. Anna, an average white widowed woman, is given authority over the king of Bangkok and the entire Bangkok court at this moment. The subordination of the Bangkok court is synonymous with the patriarchal power men use to oppresses women. The description of the Bangkok people as uneducated and submissive to Anna, who is a western woman, enforces the hyperfeminization of eastern Asian people and the hypermasculinization of their binary, the western world. 

The patriarchal relationship between the western and eastern worlds and sexism also work to undermine Kim as an Asian female. This oppression is what makes Kim weak and helpless in the play compared to Anna, who is strong and independent. Kim demonstrates her helplessness as she sings the song, “I’d Give My Life For You.” The lyrics of the song perpetuate the stereotype that East Asian women are intensely loyal and always helpless. Within the lyrics of the song, Kim sings about Chris (the white American soldier who is the father to her son and left her in Vietnam) and how she is sure that he will return to her and give their son the life she cannot provide for him. These lyrics imply that Kim is not capable of improving her situation and taking care of her son on her own. Her only option is to wait as long as it takes for Chris to come back and fix her life for her as he did before. This behavior conveys the message that eastern women are desperately willing to rely on a western man with fierce loyalty. This stereotype allows men to fetishize Asian women as are dependent, easy to control, and desperate. Kim sings the song to her son about how she would give up her life to ensure him a better future. The audience sees Kim as a woman that is willing to sacrifice for love, but they do not consider how unreasonable and degrading this sacrifice is. Kim must take her own life for her son to go live in America with Chris and his new wife, Ellen. This decision determines the value of Kim’s life as a rational trade for her son to live in America. Kim’s entire life is determined by the men in her life and she is left with almost no agency of her own choices. Anna, in The King and I, on the other hand, can make independent choices that do not rely on the male characters in the musicalIn fact, the King of Siam was dependent on Anna to make him and his country civilized and educated with western knowledge. Anna is free to leave Bangkok or stay and she makes that decision for herself, not for her son or the king. The producers make Kim inferior to Chris in Miss Saigon because she is an Asian woman, and Chris is a white man. Anna, however, is made to look superior to the King of Siam, even though Anna is a woman, and the King of Siam is a man. This reverse of these roles is possible because Anna’s performance of whiteness allows her to overturn the constraints of being female in a sexist society. Anna’s identity in her race permits her to display authority and autonomy over other Asian characters. 

Another indication of the superior power that Anna’s character possesses in comparison to Kim’s is the casting of the actresses. In the 2018 adaptation of The King and I, 42-year-old Kelli O’Hara plays Anna. O’Hare appropriately demonstrates the power and wisdom of her age in her performance on stage. Eva Nobelzada, a 5′ 2” 20-year-old, is who producers cast to play Kim in the 2016 adaptation of Miss Saigon. Nobelzada’s young age and small stature fit perfectly in the role of Kim, who is 17 at the beginning of the musical. O’Hara uses the control of her voice in a disciplined and sophisticated way that helps establish Anna’s civilized character. However, Nobelzella, a young and less experienced actress, brings Kim’s youthful wide-eyed character to the stage. O’Hara’s facials are confident and proud, clearly expressing annoyance and anger at times to the King and other men in the production. Nobelzada’s facials remain soft, passionate, and confused in the musical leaving her lips slightly ajar in a pitiful pout to show Kim’s childlike purity.

Another difference between these two actors is the way that they sing. O’Hara is always elegant with her head held high in her songs. She sings in a very sophisticated and controlled voice while dancing joyously. However, Nobelzada does not sing in the same controlled manner. Nobelzada allows her voice to be full of passion and emotion. While she belts out, her pleading face is towards the audience. Nobelzada’s voice is also very youthful and almost childlike, which adds to the innocence and helplessness of Kim in the musical. The drastic contrast in the castings of Anna and Kim goes beyond the written characters. The casting of O’Hara, an established and accomplished actress, as Anna emphasizes the sophistication and the maturity that Anna brings to the stage, while Nobelzella, a young actress in her first major musical, brings Kim’s feeble innocence to the production. These contrasting characteristics are used to elevate white women to a place of high status and power and stereotype Asian women as helpless and weak. These productions show us that because of the binary relationship between western and eastern cultures the portrayal of women of different races on stage and in society will never be equal which will inhibit the progression of feminism as a whole. 

The stark contrast between Anna and Kim’s characters in their respective musicals conveys that activists cannot resolve the issues of feminism without also addressing issues of race. Anna demonstrates how white women receive privileges that Asian women cannot receive because of western and white supremacist beliefs detract from the oppression they face as women. Kim exemplifies how society treats Asian women as inferior because of the subordination of eastern culture in addition to their subjection as women. Women cannot achieve equality with men when there is still a disparity in the way that society treats females of different races. Activists must integrate advocation for racial equality and feminism to end the societal institutions that oppress all women.

Just Another Cinderella Story-Esther Ayoade

We all know the story of Cinderella: she is abused by her evil stepmother, she meets the prince at the ball, loses her glass slipper, yada yada yada, then she lives happily ever after with her charming prince. Miss Saigon takes a similar turn; Kim is orphaned as both her parents died, she meets Chris, they fall in love, yada yada yada, and they live happily ever after…. Wait no they don’t. Kim is an Asian woman. Miss Saigon, made in 1989 by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, was written in a way that represents the intersectionality of being an Asian woman by portraying Kim as an inferior character with limited amount of choices, while portraying Chris, a White man, as a superior character who has full control of his own life with the many choices he had. When such musicals are written this way, it makes it seem okay for society to adopt the many harmful stereotypes and beliefs embedded within, such as Asian fetishes (also called yellow fever). In this preference still practiced today, White men are greatly attracted to Asian women due to the physical attributes and characteristics stereotypically attached to them: helplessness and submissiveness. This causes Asian women to feel worthless because they are not loved for who they truly are. This is portrayed in the musical when the writers make Kim kill herself not only as a sacrifice to her son, but also as a way to show that her life was never meaningful in the first; it was especially not meaningful when Chris, a man of power and privilege, disappeared from the picture.

In society East Asian women are often labeled as these “China dolls” because of the suggestion that East Asian women are dehumanized to the level of a doll that is supposed to sit, look pretty and allow the White men to play and control them however they want. The idea of Asian fetisization is highlighted within the musical when Chris instantly “falls in love” with Kim because of her virginity but later leaves her for his White American wife, Ellen. The issue is that Chris did not actually love Kim, but lusted for her instead. They only knew each other for a few days and the initial attraction was due to the fact that she was a virgin, but the later attraction was due to the fact that he felt the need to protect her, after she portrayed herself as helpless and vulnerable. Chris confirms this in a later duet with his wife Ellen claiming, “so I wanted to save her, protect her Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?” This further shows that the fetish he had for Kim was real because he felt like it was his job to protect and comfort her not only because he is an American (white savior), but also because it helps him feel better about himself, considering it enhances his masculinity and superiority.

This play begins with many Vietnamese ladies in a club wearing skimpy lingerie, performing sexual dances as GI soldiers touch them inappropriately. Then Kim, a virgin and orphan walks out wearing a white dress that covers her legs and shows nothing but her arms as a way to portray her purity, the stage lights then turn white and shine on her center stage. Eva Noblezada, the actress who plays Kim, was chosen for this role because at the time of release she was a 20 year old girl with a soprano voice. The producers purposefully chose a girl like Eva, with an angelic voice, rather than another girl with a raspy voice, to go along with Kim’s characteristics of being innocent, as innocence is a key part of her identity and it is what draws Chris’ eyes in the first place. After the performances are over and Miss Saigon is announced, the Engineer, an Asian man, viscously grabs her by the neck and arm so she can attract more men, then a random GI background character, a White man, attempts to rape her, and finally, Chris’ friend John, a Black man, inappropriately humps her. Here we see three races, Asian, White, and Black, take advantage of Kim all because they share a common power: being a man. In this musical, men are shown to be hypermasculine and able to get whatever girl they want, while Kim is a woman, portrayed as a weak girl that is not able to defend herself. That is why throughout the play Kim relies on Chris to improve her life, because she sees this White man as her only ticket out of helplessness and out of Vietnam. Examples of this are when she begs Chris to take her out of the club in the beginning or when she runs after him behind the gate of the embassy.

Kim’s femininity is not the only thing that paints her as inferior. A main factor and the reason why her story ends in a tragedy while Cinderella’s and Chris’ do not, is because she is Asian. The stereotype that East Asian women are helpless is what attracts the White American men is portrayed in the scene where Chris wants to leave Kim because he thinks she is like every other girl who just sleeps with soldiers to get a visa to America, but then Kim tells the sob story of when and how her parent were killed and how she is forced to work at a club to stay alive. She sings the phrase “I would rather die,” and this makes Chris feel empathy for her, so much so that his so-called “love” for her is enhanced and he asks her to live with him. Chris even kneels down and puts his head in her lap as a way to show his “deep love” for her. However, if we really think about it, it does not make sense for Chris to fall in love with someone in less than 24 hours. Instead, he lusts for Kim because she symbolizes innocence and purity and this will allow Chris to appear as a hero in her life who saved her from her terrible life in Vietnam. At this point in time the ball was in Chris’ court, he had all the power and all choices of how he could play or comfort his “doll.” The phrase “I would rather die,” was added by the producers to foreshadow her demise, but also to paint Vietnam in such a bad light that it alludes to the fact that America is superior to Vietnam, the same way Chris is superior to Kim. 

In the duet “Last Night of the World,” Chris sings the lyrics “there’s a place your life will have worth, I will take you” then Kim replies with “ I will go with you.” These lyrics were added by the producers of the play to imply Chris’ superiority over Kim. It reiterates the idea that Kim, because of her Eastern culture and identity, does not have a meaningful life, but when she goes to America, even though she is still East Asian, her life will magically have worth. The play is written in way that insinuates that America is such a great place for any race that lives there, when in reality being a person of color in America comes with facing discrimination and not being given the same privileges and opportunities as other White people. They purposefully write Chris to be blind to the negative situations other races experience in America because his whiteness allows him to live a good life. Unfortunately, Kim’s ignorance adds to the perpetuating false belief of America’s superiority over Vietnam. She does not know that America has its own problems that she would also have to face, especially because she is a woman of color. The authors made Kim oblivious because it parallels with how many immigrants who long for the American dream, have a false notion that America is the land of milk and honey, when in reality that is only the case for native born White Americans. We see Chris exemplify this “White male dominance” again on the day Saigon fell; Kim says that she wants to go with him but he makes the final decision that he thinks it is best if she stays and waits for him to come back. The fact that Kim never makes it to America and dies at the end of the story ingeminates the idea that Kim was worthless from the very beginning and was only awaiting her demise, solely because Asian women are, and will always be, inferior to White men.

Throughout the musical Kim has portrayed her inferiority through her Vietnamese identity, but in the musical number “This is the Hour,” it is the first time Kim shows her strength and power which lies in the love she has for her son. She makes it clear that her son is what brings her joy and she will do anything to protect him and give him a better life than the one she has. Kim’s power is illustrated in the music as well, because when she is duetting with Thuy, the baseline of the accompaniment along with her pitch, gets higher and higher and eventually overshadows Thuy’s voice. Again, in the lyrics she shows her dominance when Thuy proclaims she is not a killer but she responds back with the words, “what I must do I will,” and then five seconds later she actually kills him, knowing the consequences. Her words and actions reveals her heightened power over Thuy and the sacrifice she is willing to make for her son. The only reason why Kim was able to overpower Thuy by killing him and face no repercussions, is because Thuy is also Vienamese. If she had gone toe to toe with any other White male like Chris, she would have failed. This is because the authors of the musical wanted to portray Thuy as the villain and Chris as the hero. It goes back to the idea that having white skin and western cultures is a more dominant and appreciated feature than being East Asian. However we must keep in mind that just because Kim was able to dominate over Thuy in that specific moment, does not make the portrayal of East Asian women, generally in this play, dominant. The fact that she has to make certain sacrifices in the first place, like killing other people or even killing herself, shows that she never gets to control how her own life plays out and she must always depend on the power of others to protect herself. 

The musical’s portrayal of the two main characters Kim and Chris serves to normalize and validate the stereotypical characteristics of submissiveness and helplessness in East Asian women along with the power and privilege in White men. The main way Kim demonstrates this stereotype is by constantly relying on Chris to take her and her son Tam to America, when she waits three years for Chris and when she kills herself. Chris, on the other hand, exhibits his dominance by fetishizing for Kim’s purity and vulnerability, which in turn makes him feel like the savior and enhances his masculinity. In order to end the stigmatization that men are superior to women and White people are superior to people of color, musicals must be written in a way that diminishes those harmful stereotypes. They need to portray a certain character’s dominance, not through their skin color, but solely through their actions and thoughts. If and when this occurs, there would be an alternate ending to this tragic musical. Kim would be Cinderella. Kim would not have to sacrifice her life for her son to live in America. Kim would get to live with her prince charming, Chris, along with her son Tam, in Vietnam.

Miss Saigon, Where Do We Go From Here?

When I found out that I would be watching the musicals Miss Saigon and The King and I for an academic class, I was more than excited to experience these productions. Not only had I not seen a production of these musicals before, but I was eager to see a minority culture represented on the Broadway stage. After some conversations surrounding representation and musical theatre with my own friends, I was made aware of the significance the show held for some of my Southeast Asian friends. I had assumed that Miss Saigon and The King and I were just as significant to my friends as Dreamgirls and The Color Purple are significant to me. And while Miss Saigon and The King and I do have some great storytelling aspects and stellar performers, the stereotypical sentiment towards Southeast Asians, specifically Southeast Asian women, continues to be portrayed in modern productions.

Miss Saigon transports audience members overseas and into 1970s Vietnam and Myanmar. Despite the foreign location, the production supplies spectators with a specific, Western-centric insight into the people and the culture inherent to these regions. Miss Saigon portrays a war-torn landscape where the native women are willing to do almost anything to escape their circumstances and pursue a better life in America, even if it means being whisked away by an American soldier whom they were pimped out to. When broken down analytically, the production itself offers intriguing commentary on the intersectional experience of being Asian and being a woman. However, most of these depictions draw upon negative stereotypes, and originate from an exclusively Western perspective. Kim, the lead character in Miss Saigon, is a prime example of a character whose femininity is accentuated to conform to the stereotype of the perfect, Asian woman. This notion becomes even more complicated as Kim’s expressed femininity comes into comparison with Ellen’s role as Chris’s American wife. The differences that exists between Kim and Ellen not only inform the gendered roles that they assume, but also lends itself to creating an intersectional crossroad of race and gender that specifically affects how Kim is depicted. As a result, Kim’s actions become a performance of otherness whenever juxtaposed with Ellen, a performance of whiteness.

Prior to Miss Saigon’s original Broadway debut, the terms “geisha girl” and “china doll” were grossly utilized to define characteristics that were expected of Southeast Asian women. These terms perpetuated the idea that these women were the epitome of submission and docility, more so than white women. These submissive and docile characteristics were molded to fit the Western, male-centered expectations of femininity. Subsequently, these stereotypes were subtly, and purposefully, integrated into Miss Saigon’s plot, characters, and the other storytelling elements. From the very beginning of the musical, Kim is depicted as a mere object of the existence that surrounds her. She almost always exclusively operates as a passive recipient, arguably only fulfilling the role of a direct decision maker during the final moments of the performance. From the very beginning of the production, Kim is lead away from her homeland and thrusted into the frenzied backstage of a strip club. When instructed to be the sexually desired object of a group of American soldiers, Kim meekly follows the Engineer’s commands as the men chant “the heat is on in Saigon, the girls are ready to screw.” These two contrasting images corroborate the submissive stereotype that have been inflicted upon women of Southeast Asian descent. The brash chants of the soldiers vocally assert a dominance over the women in the bar. Their forceful tone matches their physicality as they move their muscular bodies across the stage and lunge after the prostitutes that inhabit the bar. As the men intentionally graze up against her, grab and caress her arms, and lead her by the hips, Kim continues to be an object of their desires. It isn’t until Chris, one of the American soldiers, intervenes on Kim’s “behalf” that this behavior comes to a halt. The show itself doesn’t provide Kim with any agency of her own to redeem herself from this unsettling and overtly male dominated situation. Instead a white, American soldier must rescue Kim from her circumstance, suggesting that Kim alone does not have the power to advocate for herself. Even while she resides in her own country, it takes the authority and masculinity of a foreigner from the Western world to ease her struggle. In other words, Miss Saigon insinuates that the only way out for Kim and the other Vietnamese women working for the Engineer is to be submissive to an ideal, mostly white, American man.

The implications of race and gender in Miss Saigon continue when the audience is introduced to Ellen, Chris’s wife whom he marries several years after leaving Vietnam. Her first appearance during “I Still Believe” seamlessly intertwines Kim’s and Ellen’s individual storylines despite the characters not having any direct interaction at this point. While both women sing about Chris, Ellen is positioned lying in bed next to him wearing a simple, seemingly silken nightgown with a marriage band fastened her left ring finger. Conversely, Kim kneels on the ground below in soiled clothing with dirt smudged across her face, clutching the only remnant of Chris that she has. Kim’s circumstance, depicted by filth and squalor, warrants sympathy from the audience. Ellen’s condition, however, cements her status as Chris’s legitimate wife, almost refuting the establishment of Kim and Chris’s prior relationship. Complete with a marriage ring and a marriage bed, Ellen represents the traditional woman that awaits an American soldier once he returns from war: blonde, white, and ready to get hitched. Ellen even expresses her spousal commitment to Chris as she closes the song singing, “I’m your wife now for life until we die.” Kim mirrors Ellen’s final words, instead singing “I’m yours until we die.” Once again, the simultaneous comparison of Kim’s and Ellen’s inner thoughts aim to create sympathy for Kim. While Kim fantasizes about rekindling her relationship with Chris, Ellen lives out this fantasy in reality. Kim’s inability to acquire any of the physical signifiers of traditional marriage, unlike Kim, delegitimizes her relationship with Chris. This feeds into the concept of Eastern exoticism as Kim, previously desired and feminized to the upmost degree, becomes replaced for a more traditional, American woman.

The emphasis on Kim’s otherness reaches a peak during “Room 317,” the number where Kim meets Ellen for the first time. When Kim enters the hotel room, Ellen immediately dismisses her as cleaning personnel. In this brief moment, Ellen doesn’t consider Kim to be a person of significance. Even given the situation that brought her and Chris to Bangkok, Ellen never stops to consider if Kim is the woman Chris is looking for. Although this comment may have been made unconsciously, it calls Ellen’s reaction seeing a Southeast Asian woman entering her room into question. Her split-second reaction to Kim’s race and gender immediately labels Kim as just another person on her trip to Bangkok, someone who is there to merely turn the Ellen’s bedsheets for her convenience. If Kim had been a Southeast Asian man or a white woman, Ellen’s reaction would not have had the same effect. It is the combination of both Kim’s race and gender that this small comment carries as much consequence and insight as it does. 

As the conversation between Kim and Ellen continues, Ellen makes several, short comments and behaves in a way that reads as attempt to distance herself from Kim. When Kim implores Ellen to take her son, Tam, back to America with her and Chris, Ellen remains in her chair while Kim begs from the floor. Ellen is physically situated above Kim, affording Ellen more physical presence as well as control over the exchange. This dynamic leaves Kim depicted as the woman without any influence on the conversation. Given she has the upper hand, Ellen is visibly opposed to the idea and concisely remarks, “Chris is married to me, we want kids of our own.” Ellen’s remarks make it clear that she is married to Chris and the family she imagines does not and will not consist of Chris and Kim’s son. Ellen drives this point even further exclaiming, “He’s your child, he’s not mine!” This is Ellen’s most blatant attempt at otherizing Kim and Tam. In this moment, Ellen unconsciously reveals that Tam has no place in her American-born family despite being Chris’s biological son. Sending off a little money here and there is enough to meet Tam’s needs in Ellen’s mind, fueling her own white saviorism from the comfort of her homestead.

Both during its debut and its return to Broadway, Miss Saigon has been able to attract massive audiences, and it isn’t hard to imagine why this is. Eva Noblezada’s performance as Kim during the West End revival is more than good reason to invest in watching Miss Saigon. Her and the energy her other castmates bring to the stage, particularly Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer and Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi, makes watching the musical an immersive experience. However, this doesn’t negate the harmful ideas and images that the musical itself perpetuates. Displays of toxic masculinity, white saviorism, and Asian exoticism run rampant throughout the show, and it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge how these topics are rooted in real-world viewpoints and have real-word consequences. The ways in which Kim is treated throughout the show reflect how society has and continues to view minority women. The relationship between Kim and Ellen creates a dichotomy that explains how whiteness and non-whiteness, or otherness, have been defined historically. As troubling as these concepts may be, their subject matter can be used to foster productive discussion. These conversations can help inform future decisions concerning honest representations of not only Southeast Asian people, but all minorities across the musical theatre medium.

“The Complexities of The Patriarchy on the Modern Stage”

By: Tobi Akisanya

It’s a man’s world. I mean really, how sad is that? We live in a patriarchal society dominated by men. It has always been this way and it makes me question if it will always be this way.  Even though that sounds extremely negative, it is what it is. The patriarchy is no stranger to the American theatrical stage. After all, the stage is often a reflection of a society’s culture. The patriarchy is just one of many structures of oppression that intersect to create interlocking oppressions (in the words of the Combahee River Collective). The King and I first debuted in the 1950s and tells the story (set in the 1800s) of the headstrong and fierce King of Siam and his interesting and complicated relationship with the people around him, especially new English teacher/governess Anna. Miss Saigon, based on the opera Madame Butterfly, tells the chilling and devastating story of the complex relationship between Chris, an American soldier during the Vietnam war, and his Vietnamese lover, Kim. Both stories depict the problematic ideals of the era through the nature of the characters as a product of their given era. These eras, of course, were spearheaded by the men who dictated them. Despite the fact that both the King and Chris benefit immensely from the concrete structure of the patriarchy, it is important to consider the implications of race, gender as a performance, and binaries of the East and West as they pertain to their character arcs. 

Race gives individuals certain privileges and advantages based on who they are. Chris’s status as a white, American man almost completely contradicts the King’s status as an Asian man. Although both men are able both attain a certain hierarchy that comes with being a man, there are levels that exist within manhood. When factoring race into the equation of manhood it is clear that Chris achieves a hierarchy over a King. Since the King is an actual King, he is accustomed to certain immunities. However, one can experience oppression and elevation at the same time. The King is oppressed by being Asian but not by being a King. A prime example of this is seen when the King is worried about coming across as barbaric to the British. Instead of owning aspects of his own cultural experience to discount the assumption, the King turns to aspects of white and western culture in order to throw off their racist remarks. On the flipside, Chris experiences a double layered elevation of sorts by being white and a man. He uses his position of power to make decisions on the behalf of those who have little to know voice. Chris is allowed to make decisions only concerning his wellbeing, after all, white culture created the rules, he is just a product of it.

We are taught through socialization the ideas of being a man or a woman. Both The King and I and Miss Saigon are set in a time where no one really questioned or outwardly opposed the idea of gender binaries and what makes them problematic. Throughout their respective performances The King and Chris perform masculinity at its highest rank. Within the performance of masculinity, it is almost a requirement to acquire the “tough guy” persona. But, unfortunately, emotions are a sign of weakness for both of these men, or at least they think they are. The performance of masculinity is so restrictive that more often than not it becomes toxic, hence the term toxic masculinity. Even the male characters’ audience members want to give a chance, impose their toxic masculinity on others like a double-edged sword. They stab both themselves and the other people in their lives. Men are given the means to be superior but even they struggle to hold that title, and in the little pieces of the musical we see them struggle. However, it’s never in front of people that they want to do that. They put on a front. But the facade of masculinity must begin to wither at some point. The usage of “I am” songs helps both men ponder the questions that neither know the answers to. In “A Puzzlement” the King comes to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have answers to all of life’s questions–just as no one really does. He realizes that as the world changes around him that it is a struggle for him to create relevant ideas. He worries how his stagnation will affect whoever is next in line for the throne. This musical number, as it is delivered, gives the audience a sense of the King’s discomfort with himself, immediately making him more vulnerable. Similarly, in “Why, God Why?” Chris is haunted by the fact that the memories made in Vietnam will stick with him longer than he wants them to. As he pleads with God, audience members see his face covered in an overwhelming emotion that not even he, a privileged white male, can ignore. The patriarchy, at least in the traditional sense, did not give men the time nor the space to be emotional. In my opinion, men reckoning with their emotions is a relatively modern subject on the American musical stage. These numbers confirm that men are uncomfortable with the idea of confusion; it angers them so much that oftentimes they don’t even want to deal with it. Both men hate the fact that the women around them make them think deeper. But what would men think without the women around them?

         The stereotypical Asian character is such a caricature of a false reality created by white people for white people. It is a form of entertainment, of the “other”, in which they (white people) can gawk and laugh at. This type of over exaggeration is evident in the King’s mannerisms. Rather than approaching situations with poise he is overtly animated. His random burst of anger coupled with his broken English—even though it does provide comedic relief—is problematic. When Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil created the role of the King they knowingly/ unknowingly created a character that mocks the Asian race, shaping a false narrative of Asian culture for the white race. Asian characters posed next to white characters make white characters seem even more revered and refined than they actually are, a quality evident in both The King and I and Miss Saigon. In my opinion, Chris is the furthest thing from respectable. He only cares about himself and uses his white privilege to get what he wants.  For example, during “The Confrontation”, Chris confirms that his love for Kim is cheap. Rather than moving Kim and his son Tam to America, he decides it will be best for him to provide for them in Thailand, a place even he doesn’t think is good enough for him to reside in. His actions are rooted in himself rather than the people around him that desperately need him, yet the people around him immediately trust him. Why, you might ask? Because he is a white man, and by society’s standards they hold the key to life’s questions. The white race versus any other race was built in opposition creating concrete power structures that individuals, on both ends, are forced to deal with.  A character of color is always under suspicion and people are way more likely to believe that white people have superior knowledge. Similarly, with The King and I, what is it about Eastern knowledge that makes it so undesirable? The Western ideology prioritizes the mind and rationality whereas Eastern ideology prioritizes a sense of spirituality. Additionally, Western morality is rooted in the fact that every man is for himself and Eastern morality is rooted in honor and shame culture. But even with these cultural differences why is Western culture seen as superior?  Why does Chris’s presence hold a greater force than the King’s? A soldier versus a King yet the solider wins simply because he is a white westerner. The spiritual component of Eastern knowledge systems is often ridiculed and seen as subordinate or illogical in the face of Western rationality. 

         The combination of gender as a performance, race, and binaries of the East and West are what make Miss Saigon and The King and I what they are. Even though both of the musicals are widely problematic, it would be almost offensive to discount the fact that they are nonetheless phenomenal. Though he is a man, the King does suffer from racism and the discrediting of the East, adding depth and nuance to his character. And Chris, who is beneficiary of white privilege, struggles with the weight that comes with his role in society. Watching both of these men play with the cards they were dealt with in life gave a sense of added knowledge to me as a viewer.

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. 

The Symbiosis of Sexism and Saigon

Broadway musicals have a knack for hiding things in plain sight. Hadestown’s entire plot seamlessly blends into the onstage set, and Hamilton conceals Lin-Manuel Miranda’s suspect vocals in harmonies with Leslie Odom Jr. and company. For Miss Saigon, the camouflage is much more sinister and pervasive. Despite the original production receiving 11 Tony nominations and widespread praise for the hit musical, Miss Saigon is filled with problematic American ideals. There is a whole number dedicated to American exceptionalism that toes the line of satire a little too closely for comfort. The American soldiers act as white saviors for their Vietnamese counterparts, serving as the keys to America and exacerbating the already unbalanced power dynamics between the two groups. You can expect these issues from a musical written in 1989, produced, and directed by all white men, and the men certainly make their mark in the last enduring American ideal. Sexism oozes out of this musical; it’s unavoidable. At every beat, every number, in every character, traditional gender roles and expectations are palpable, and as disappointing as it is to recognize, the original and continued success of Miss Saigon relies on the perpetuation of these stereotypes.

The most obnoxiously obvious example of sexism as a plot device is between Chris and Kim. The romance of Miss Saigon is a Disney princess movie with a Vietnam War veneer. Kim waits in her dismal circumstances, helpless to change her downward trajectory, until her knight in shining armor shows up, except this knight is a soldier fighting a meaningless war that directly causes Kim’s unfortunate situation. There is plenty to unpack in that tumultuous relationship, but Chris and Kim’s romance is mired with racism and nationalism that diminishes the severity of gender expectations. However, there is one character who can empathize Kim’s experiences with a xenophobic and authoritarian power structure: The Engineer.

The Engineer and Kim share almost no personality traits, but that is exactly what makes this comparison fascinating. The Engineer is rash, excessively ambitious, determined, and on the wrong side of God’s naughty or nice list while Kim is reserved, a prisoner of her situation, and passive unless compelled to act otherwise. They are not nuanced characters; they are caricatures with moments of nuance. They are written to emphasize the extremes of masculinity and femininity, or at least the expectations of the extremes. The only times they abandon these forced norms are in moments of desperation. These uncharacteristic scenes are glimpses at the power each character possesses beyond the shackles of gender stereotypes, and the establishment of Kim and the Engineer’s conflicting characters early on makes these moments that much more powerful and noticeable.

One strength of Miss Saigon’s writing is it does not waste time. From a character’s first few songs, you know his or her background, personality, and ultimate desires. “The Heat Is On” does an excellent job introducing Kim and the Engineer, but it more importantly establishes the difference between the men and women of Miss Saigon through the stark contrast of lyrics and music. The number opens with blaring brasses and a rock-and-roll drumline. The first characters to speak over the orchestra are the men that often reserve their conversations for women and sex, but ever so often one of the women is allowed to speak to the audience of men. The first two sex workers talk dirty to the barbaric applause of the soldiers, but Kim is “so much more than she seems.” For her introduction, the ensemble softens, the blasting brass is replaced with the soft whistle of winds, and the lights focus on the naive and clearly nervous Kim. Instead of seducing her customers, she sings of how young and inexperienced she is. Despite her soft tone, her words scream to the audience of the club and theatre, “I am a woman in a scary situation that needs saving!” and reminds any possible savior that she is more than an object. Of course, her eventual rescuer Chris ignores this reminder and immediately sleeps with her. While their relationship seems like all sunshine and roses at first, there is the looming possibility of Chris leaving and abandoning Kim to fend for herself, and inevitably Chris is evacuated without Kim (surprise, surprise), and a noble transition from her dependence on Chris would be Kim surviving and thriving without her husband that may have been more of a detriment to her life. Instead, the writers lean into the very American idea of a woman needing a man and his income to survive. The following scene, Kim is homeless, dirtier, and loses that glint of youthful hope in her eyes she had when the American military occupied Vietnam.

The Engineer suffers a similar collapse, but the contrast between his former self and the post-war him is much more pronounced because of his spirited beginning. Sporting a bright purple jacket and wielding a charismatic smile expertly, the Engineer is noticeably different than Kim from their first meeting. He talks to the soldiers, his customers, like they have known each other forever, and he tries to leverage his rocky friendship with John into a visa to America in “The Transaction.” From this moment forward, the audience knows the Engineer will do anything to achieve his dreams, and because he is a man, this unrelenting ambition is seen as a positive quality. The Engineer is a likable character because everything he does good and (mostly) bad aligns with the audience’s expectations, and they even root for the Engineer because his comedy makes his sins more or less excusable from their perspective (hey, this is theatre, not ethics). Despite his ambition and charm, the Engineer ends up in a re-education camp following the war. Like Kim, he is without a home or a club, his face is covered in dirt, and he has his purple jacket replaced with prisoner rags. This sudden downfall is much more shocking because it seemed impossible when the Engineer admired and believed in the American Dream. Kim does not have this illusion and aura of infallibility surrounding her though. The entire time she is with Chris, she relies on him for financial and emotional support, and everything that Kim depends on is ripped away when he leaves. Kim is supposed to fail without a man, just like Vietnam was supposed to fail with America.

Unlike the Engineer’s temporary demise, Kim’s failure is necessary though. Every stereotype she represents, every scene of fraughtful passiveness is needed to complete her character. Love is a fickle thing that often hurts more than it heals. While the Act 1 duets between Chris and Kim such as the “Sun and Moon” and “The Wedding Ceremony” are tender and evoke butterflies in everyone’s stomach, there isn’t that raw power of emotion and urgency that this show is lauded for in those numbers. No, these qualities show up when Kim’s son is in danger. Similar to the Engineer making it to America, Kim claims she would do anything for her son and certainly puts her money where her mouth is. Kim moves to Bangkok to feed her son, she kills her ex-boyfriend to protect Tam, and she takes her own life to ensure her son has the future she and the other prostitutes always dreamed of. No one recognizes the timid girl from “The Heat Is On” as the person who finally takes back control of her life from the men who unfairly took it years ago. Her suicide is so shocking because it does not align with the audience’s expectations that the show had cultivated for the previous two hours. Everything leading up to the final number reinforces the assumption that a man (Chris) will decide the fate of Kim and Tam, and yet the price she pays for deserved power is much greater than any man ever has to pay. Chris and the Engineer make decisions by virtue of simply being men. There is no hesitation in making choices. There is no price, and there are certainly no consequences if the decision is the wrong. Kim pays her price and gives her life for choice. She isn’t supposed to decide. The whole show Kim is built to be this passive figure that weathers the storm when it hits. If she had not forced Chris’s hand and simply raised her son in Bangkok, she likely would have been fine all things considered, but when does that cycle stop? Would Tam have to spend his whole life “weathering the storm” too? Even though she starts off as a little raindrop, Kim had to become the storm before it washed her and Tam away completely.This show and its writing does not rely on one aspect to make or break it. Regardless of the sexism, the music is incredible and has aged remarkably well over 30 years, the relatively shallow characters play off each other brilliantly and create an illusion of greater depth, and the acting in the revival does enough to support the emotion of the lyrics, but the inherent sexism elevates all of these aspects. Miss Saigon was not nominated for the “Best Book of a Musical” at the Tonys for nothing. Any great writing depends on suspense, which is a product of expectations. The suspense of Miss Saigon is rooted in sexism. All of the questions waiting to be answered like “Will Chris save his child?” and “Will Chris bring Kim to America?” are all focused on Chris acting as a white savior. If he had done the right thing and brought Tam and Kim to America, there would be little emotional payoff for the audience, and Miss Saigon may not be regarded as much more than a good show. But with Kim determining her destiny and taking control of her life and death, the show provides a devastating, memorable ending and reminds the audience that we all have power over lives, no matter how hard society may try to prevent that.

I’m Too Sexy: A Woman’s Guide to Being Perceived

by Maggie Mershon

A stage, showgirls, and sex appeal-the only three things you need for a successful show. Well, at least that’s the way it usually goes unless you live in the perfect conditions to combat it. Those who produce radical change can only do so if they are in the favor of those who are in power. In the musicals Funny Girl and Miss Saigon, it becomes easy to see how something as simple as culture or racial context can affect how one is expected to perform gender and sexuality and how easily they can manipulate that vision. Looking at the way they practically perform their genders on stage and how that affects their relationships with those in power, the white men in their lives, gives a nuanced look at how a woman understands their sexuality. Though Fanny Brice from Funny Girl and Kim from Miss Saigon outwardly perform the same gender, their different cultures and backgrounds mean that only one is given the choice of sexuality, which expresses itself in their performances and relationships outside of the theatrical space.

Both Fanny Brice and Kim are expected to perform for audiences, however, the way they are expected to perform is entirely different. Fanny Brice from the very beginning of Funny Girl is very much aware that because of the way she looks and is upset by how little she receives because of the way she looks. She repeatedly tells people that attractive girls won’t be in fashion forever and one day she will be a desired asset. Technically, Fanny is at the disposal of her audience in terms of being sexualized. Since she doesn’t receive this sexualization she is denied entry to the world of performance. In her first musical number, she performs gender in a joking manner, pretending to be pregnant and making fun of the traditional concept of what it looks like to be pregnant, doing various sight gags with her fake belly. In this performance, Fanny is permitted to be something other than a sexual object, aiming for a humorous take on gender. This is the basis of the rest of Fanny’s performances. She chooses to be a funny, laughable character, an opportunity afforded to her by, to be perfectly blunt, the color of her skin. Were she not a white character, the “exoticism” and “foreign interest” applied to her, would turn into a sexual other no matter what she wanted. We see this very explicitly in the character of Kim from Miss Saigon.

Can you guess which one is anti-traditional feminine looks?

from Twitter @FunnyGirl_UK

The first time the audience is introduced to Kim is as a conservatively dressed “virgin” girl in a brothel. The moment she appears on stage, she is a sexual object. This connects the audience to the soldiers who are attending the brothel who see the women there as exotic sexual items and nothing more. Outside of that context, they are nothing. After a few minutes, Kim quickly realizes that she is going to be sexualized no matter what and the Engineer encourages her to use that to her advantage. Kim continues to appear conservative and watches as the girls around her throw themselves at men to try and get a chance to better their lives, which for many of them means getting the opportunity to move to America. Kim’s only chance at survival is predicated on the fact that she accept her inherent sexuality and weaponize it. As the show moves on, she does that, dissociating her mental faculties from how she capitalizes on her sexuality which becomes crucial to her survival as it applies to her sex work. While Fanny Brice can perform a whole host of other perceptions and personalities onstage, Kim is not afforded the same luxury due to what her audience expects of her.

As is typical for a musical, both stories include love interests. And while they both compliment two strong leads, these love interests aren’t necessarily great, giving, feminist icons. In Funny Girl, Fanny Brice becomes entangled with a rich, fancy man named Nick Arnstein. At the beginning of the show, Fanny is unable to believe that Nick would be interested in someone like her because she has always been told by her mother and the people around her that she is not beautiful enough. When Nick approaches her about a relationship, it is very much up to her whether or not she wants to continue a relationship with him. He defers to her decision about whether or not she wants to move forward sexually. This occurs rather explicitly in the song “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” where Nick continually asks Fanny to get together with him and only does so once she accepts. Her sexuality can be conditional on her consent, which is not something of which non-white women are afforded the luxury. Following this romantic involvement, Nick and Fanny become married, sharing everything with one another, including money, something with which Fanny is very well-endowed. As a man culturally engrained with toxic masculinity, Nick feels emasculated and begins to pull away from Fanny as she becomes the breadwinner of the family. Nick feels belittled by Fanny earning money by going to work, a scenario that makes her appear more masculine and less feminine, and by virtue of the latter, sexualized. In the early 20th century this kind of opportunity would only be available to a white woman, due to persisting stereotypes about those of other races that oppress them to otherness. As a member of the majority race class in America, Fanny would have been the woman to receive such an ability.

In Miss Saigon, the plot of the story is built upon the relationship between Kim and an American soldier named Chris. Beginning in Dreamland, a brothel filled with American soldiers and Vietnamese women trying desperately to appeal to men with their sexuality, Chris takes notice of Kim. She is the only girl who isn’t actively trying to sell her sexuality and as a result, Chris is immediately interested in her. Kim is sold to Chris for the night and they sleep together. When we see him the next morning, Chris is completely in love with Kim. Yes, that’s right, in love. The only things he knows about her is that she doesn’t want to be sexualized like the other women of the club, and he rewards her for that by sexualizing and sleeping with her. Think of it this way, Chris wants to celebrate Kim not actively performing her sexuality and to do so he engages with her sexually. There is no context in which Chris’s perspective of Kim isn’t dominant, not only because he is an American soldier and she is Vietnamese, it is because she is only a woman and in that perspective is a sexual object. Every encounter between Chris and Kim is sexually charged with them passionately kissing every time they are united, him leaving her wrapped in a bedsheet, asking she be in bed when he return, and him, even in death, needing to wrap her in his arms and kiss her one last time. Even though Kim becomes a murderer, mother, and martyr, she is still defined only by her sexuality whether she likes it or not.

Both the actors who play Kim and Fanny Brice seem as though they have a strong conceptualization of what it means to be a woman in their given scenarios. Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice is, while a little shy in her movements with Nick, closing her body language off from him, she also projects a confidence in non-feminine movements. She capitalizes on moments like “Rat-tat-tat-tat,” fully committing to forego her femininity and create oafish character movements, an opportunity Fanny Brice would have accurately relished in. The caricature in the way she speaks separates her even further from traditional femininity. In the same way, Eva Noblezada’s Kim is not unaware of the position she’s in. At the beginning of the show, when she needs to appear a virgin, she gives an air of quietness, moving in slow, subdued movements. As she becomes more empowered by Chris’s validation, she is charged with energy, giving to him all of the power he is giving her. As the show progresses, she becomes stronger, striking power poses and gripping her son with strength. Even in her singing voice, Eva gives it her full power, but only in contexts outside of Chris, in songs like “You Will Not Touch Him” and “I’d Give My Life For You,” restraining herself in songs like “Sun and Moon.” She remains strong and steadfast for the entirety of the second act, returning only to quietness when she and Chris and reunited as she dies.

Grip that kid, Eva!

from: Playbill.com, Photo by Matthew Murphy

There’s an opportunity in every piece of work to represent your characters in a way that reflects the audience in a way that empowers or hurts them. Addressing how sexuality is a vital counterpart of what it means to be a woman is incredibly necessary. It could not be more important to think about how those who are a part of multiple intersecting minority groups, are not offered the opportunity to define what that identity looks like. Funny Girl gives the audience a peek of what that choice could look like, but Miss Saigon presents an unfortunate reality for several women. This representation is valuable for those who can’t comprehend what that lack of choice looks like and provides a space for reflection on behalf of those who are perpetuating it and validation to those who are victimized by it. So, no, the world isn’t totally equal and fair for every individual, but it’s through performance and theatre that we are able to enable active discussion and empower choice and change until it is.