The Queen and I

By Margie Johnson

Hoop skirts, white gloves, and jeweled necklaces are all  part of Anna Leonowens’ typical attire. Her style of dress has no practical use other than for show, symbolizing the wealth and beauty that is the standard of her position in Western culture. Throughout her journey into Siam, Anna stands tall with her head held high, separating herself from those who do not dress, look, or speak as she does. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Anna’s whiteness is amplified and reinforced by her Western attire and mannerisms which grant her the authority to challenge the expectations for women in Siam. Those who do not possess whiteness, such as Tuptim, are left defenseless, trapped by the confinements of gender and femininity as proscribed by her culture and society. 

Anna’s superior position is revealed in the very first moments of the musical. After taking a position as the school teacher for the royal children of the King of Siam, Anna and her son Louis embark on a journey from Singapore to Bangkok. While still aboard the ship, Louis excitedly exclaims that there is a “naked” man passing by, evoking an eruption of laughter from the audience. In immediately calling attention to traditional attire of Eastern culture in a mocking manner, a sense of “otherness” has been established in favor of Louis and Anna. The actors invite us to join them in their mockery. Further into the scene, Anna and Louis admit that they are afraid of what is to come, calling upon a singing response from Anna to “Whistle a Happy Tune.” There are no tangible dangers present other than the new culture of Siam, however, suggesting that it is the leaving behind of the comforts of their Western culture that they truly fear. When they finally arrive at the shore, the characters must physically lower themselves onto the ground below them, symbolizing their descent from their high lifestyle towards the presumably inferior and foreign Eastern civilization. As soon as they step foot on the ground, they are immediately swarmed by the common people of Siam. While some pull at Anna’s silk skirt and others beg for money, all are dressed in uniformly ragged and filthy clothes, dehumanizing the Siamese people and creating a starkly visual division of class and wealth. As a result, Anna and Louis are firmly positioned  on a pedestal of properness, allowing the Western audience to more comfortably accept their likely preexisting conception of superiority relative to the  presumed inferiority of the Siamese culture. 

In an attempt to impress the British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey, the King of Siam decides to entertain him in a grand manner with European traditions. One of the traditions includes dressing the King’s wives in European gowns. When attempting to put on the gowns and the makeup, the women shriek that they have to turn themselves “upside down and inside out.” They awkwardly waddle around in the bare hoops of the skirt or in an overly white painted face, alluding to their feelings of ridiculousness as they are not accustomed to any of these traditions and simultaneously making clear the false trappings of social standing and propriety. In one moment, a wife points to a dress and calls it a “costume,” referring to the dress as West and her face as East. Although the women are clearly suffering with their bruised toes and choking collars, Lady Thiang states that they must wear these trappings because Anna told them to do so, reinforcing the influence that Anna holds over them. Thus, it is no longer just the dress or the “costume” of Western traditions that provide Anna with power, but also the authority granted by her whiteness.

In addition to directing the entire event for Sir Ramsey, Anna speaks freely against the King, an action unheard of for a wife or any woman in Siam. Throughout the production, when confronted by the King’s rude remarks, Anna is unafraid to retort, emphasizing the immense amount of comfort and authority that her whiteness has provided her to the extent that she feels equal to a man of great stature. For example, before Anna arrives in Siam, she is promised a house by the King. This house is never delivered, however, causing her great distress. Although she is warned by the prime minister figure The Kralahome not to mention this unfulfilled promise to the King as it would aggravate him, she does so regardless and continues to do so throughout the musical. When teaching a lesson about snow, Anna’s students refuse to believe that snow, more whiteness, exists as they have never seen it themselves. After hearing the commotion, the King storms in and erupts into a fit of rage. He begins his tantrum with the discussion of snow but quickly trails into speaking poorly about the unfamiliar English traditions and revists the argument concerning the promised house. He throws books and shouts at the children, turning into a ruthless monster. While all of the students and wives cower below him in a prayer stance, Anna stands tall, head held high, and refutes him. She reminds him, once again, that the house was a broken promise and denies that she is a servant to his commands. If she does not receive her house, she states, she will return to England. In threatening to leave Siam, she has established herself as someone of value to the King with equal and unwavering opinions. Further, an entire song titled “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”  is devoted towards Anna sharing her grievances about the King to the audience. In the song, she calls those under his ruling “toads” and pokes fun at their blind obedience. She includes a sexual reference, noting that all of his wives must compliment his sexual behaviors and behave as docile wives. In doing so, Anna has separated herself from the other women trapped under the King’s rule as she has enough power to ridicule him. Her incredible dominance granted by her whiteness has allowed her to supersede the limitations placed on the women in Siam. In a stance that would be humiliating to the King, were she a man, somehow it is accepted because she is a woman and while willing to confront him, still under his rule. Because she exhibits this Western whiteness, shared by the Western audience, it is still the Siamese people that are seen as “other.”

Tuptim, a woman gifted to the King of Siam from the King of Burma, does not experience similar autonomy as she does not possess Anna’s whiteness. Tuptim can speak English very well, and courageously exhibits this skill to the King when defending herself against the accusations that she was sent over as a spy. Instead of appreciating her talent and treating her as scholarly as he does Anna, the King pulls her away off stage to have her become another wife. In a plot twist, as suspected by Lady Thiang, Tuptim has fallen in love with another man. When Anna hears of this news, she feels sympathy for Tuptim and explains to the wives in a song about the great joys of falling in love. During the song, Anna stands tall above the women who are sitting equally far apart, grouping them into an obedient mass of women without any uniqueness or individually. Similar to the other women, however, Lady Thiang feels no emotion for Tuptim. Lady Thiang reflects the engrained sexist limitations of women in Siam and argues that it is foolish to love another man when she has the King. Due to the freedom and power granted by her whiteness, Anna has had the autonomy to fall in love naturally in contrast to the wives who must display constant obedience to the King. Tuptim, as a result, is forced to meet her lover in secret. In “We Kiss in a Shadow,” Tuptim and lover Lun Tha express the depths of their love for one another. They chase one another between pillar to pillar, playfully alluding to their constant hide-and-seek to see one another. Although a romantic song, they sing solemnly to express their sorrow that they will never be able to safely experience their love to the fullest as Tuptim has become a wife to the King. During the middle of the song, Lady Thiang strides in the background under a cool dark blue shadow, reinforcing the constant fear between Tuptim and Lun Tha of being punished for pursuing their love. A panic ensues between Tuptim and Lun Tha, causing Lun Tha to run away and leave Tuptim alone to finish the remainder of the song. Unlike Anna who can sing her love songs to an entire audience, Tuptim can only sing of romance in private, reinforcing Tuptim’s limitations as a new wife who cannot choose to be with the one she truly loves.

In an act of rebellion, however, Tuptim bravely attempts to defy her confinements and run away with Lun Tha. She gathers strength from the performance of Small House of Uncle Thomas, a version of the American classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tuptim performs as the narrator of the play, speaking directly to the King as she speaks from her own heart. She announces the characters by describing them as happy people with the exception of slave Eliza. When it is time to announce Eliza, Tuptim stands directly next to her and bows in the same manner, making a clear reference towards herself that she is the unhappy slave to the King. Tuptim understands that it would be forbidden to clearly reveal her misery in the palace as she is expected to be grateful as a wife to the King. She acknowledges that she achieved the highest honor for a woman in Siam even though completely imprisoned. In order to fight for herself, she cleverly calls attention to the similarity between her story and Eliza’s. Eliza is separated from her lover George, just as she has with Lun Tha. Eliza runs away from her slave owner Simon, just as she will shortly after the play. Additionally, Eliza can only escape hidden behind snow, a concept associated with Anna’s teachings and defiance as seen from moments earlier in the musical. Tuptim alludes to Anna’s freedom which she so desperately wishes to obtain through this connection. Anna’s freedom, however, is only granted by her whiteness. As a result, despite Tuptim’s efforts, she will never be freed from the expectations for a woman under the King’s rule. After the production, Tuptim’s escape is brought to the attention of the King, and she is given a physical punishment of whipping. Once finding out that her lover has been killed, she reveals that she will soon kill herself to be with him. Tuptim’s only chance of happiness has been stripped from her as she was not given the agency of whiteness to stand up for herself without severe punishment. She could not bear to behave in complete obedience as demanded of her for a woman in Siam, ultimately driving her to death as a final resort. The King and I utilizes the extreme contrast between Anna and Tuptim in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements. In evoking raw emotion in the form of sadness and rage from the troubled life of Tuptim, the audience is able to question the unjust privileges granted to Anna. At the same time, Tuptim’s passion comes across as more authentic and not circumscribed by social class and social mores. The actors are masterfully able to portray their characters in a manner which is playful and highly entertaining while calling the audience to question their own notions of race and gender, power and place in society. If one is not white and proper as defined by Western culture, are they obstructed in their ability to obtain freedom and happiness? And at that same time, are the King in his maleness and Anna in her whiteness truly free?

“Western People Funny”: How Anna’s White Influence Led to Tuptim’s Downfall in The King and I

They think they civilize us whenever they advise us / To learn to make the same mistake / That they are making too. 

These lines follow the King’s wives singing about how “western people funny” in the song of the same name. This is a theme that occurs several times throughout the musical, and unsurprisingly so, considering the premise of the show is that an English woman and her son have moved to Siam in order to teach the King’s children. Throughout the show, Anna exercises  her influence in various ways: through her teachings to the children, her interactions with the King, her “civilized” party for the Englishmen, etc. Her push for things to be done as she sees “proper” is often shown without negative consequences, leading the audience to believe that her way is, in fact, the better way of life for everyone. However, Anna’s Western teachings in an Eastern culture were bound to have negative consequences, and this is the case in the form of one very important character, Tuptim. Over the course of the show, Anna “helps” Tuptim both in learning about Western culture and its ideals as well as in her secret relationship with Lun Tha. This help, despite its good intentions, only leads Tuptim to further pain and suffering with the death of her lover. Due to the cultural differences between Western and Eastern gender roles, Anna’s good-intentioned, but ignorant attempts to help Tuptim eventually lead to Tuptim’s downfall. 

Tuptim and Anna are characterized versions of the stereotypes about Eastern and Western women, which is portrayed both by their character and the actresses’ portrayal of them (for this essay, Na-Young Jeon and Kelli O’Hara as Tuptim and Anna, respectively, from the 2015 revival). In Tuptim’s first appearance, it is apparent that she is important and different from the other women, for the King’s many wives sit around him in purples and deep reds, while she enters wearing white and gold. This contrast continues throughout the musical, with her clothing constantly separating her from the sameness of the other wives. As she enters the room, Tuptim lowers herself before the king in submission, submitting not only to him, but also to the stereotype of the beautiful and submissive Eastern woman. She attempts to break out of this stereotype almost as quickly as she falls into it as she speaks back at the king for accusing her of being a spy, but ultimately becomes submissive to him and his wishes as she accepts her fate as his “present.” Na-Young Jeon illustrates this conflict of tone and actions through the way she fires back at the king in tone while still keeping her face lowered to him as all the women — besides Anna — do. This surprising move by Tuptim is less surprising later on when she mentions wanting to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, referring to it as The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Her knowledge of the novel shows a previous exposure to Western culture, and possible influence, which explains why she both speaks clearer English than Lady Thiang and the other wives and her less submissive nature than the other wives. However, her failure to impose this knowledge coincides with her lack of control in her current situation and in her culture as a female. 

In contrast, Anna represents everything Tuptim aspires to from Western culture. Anna is independent, knowledgeable, and unafraid to stand up for herself. In Anna’s first appearance, she travels alone with her son to an unknown place as the captain attempts to warn her what she is getting into and she promises that she can take care of herself. This independence and complete control of her life and destiny is something that Tuptim desperately lacks and, simultaneously, wants. Kelli O’Hara also uses her costuming and blocking to represent Anna’s “betterness.” In contrast with the red background and surroundings of Siam, Anna wears a lighter colored dress to emphasize her gentleness in a more vicious or barbaric setting. Her dress also serves as a costume that sets her apart from the other women in Siam, and, unlike Tuptim, serves as a constant reminder of her Westerness and its presence in a very different culture. She also highlights her independence further by positioning herself at the higher point of the ship, forcing the captain to look up at her, rather than down as a man in Siam would. O’Hara speaks with a similar tone of voice as Jeon’s Tuptim, however she addresses the man with her head held up in defiance of his questioning her capabilities as a woman alone in the East. Although similar in their characters’ feelings and ideals, Anna and Tuptim are seen by and placed in society completely differently due to the way others view them based on their respective cultures. For Anna, her independence is something that can be supported because it is a Western ideal, however, Tuptim’s culture forces her to be submissive, especially to a man with power over her such as the King.

The King’s relationship with Anna and Tuptim is also very indicative of how the two women are viewed differently despite their similarities. Throughout the musical, Tuptim maintains a quiet resistance to the King due to her love for Lun Tha. Although he is displeased with how she does not feel honored to be with him, he does not show any disdain for her until she openly opposes him during the performance of her play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As the children perform, she hints at her personal connection to the story of Eliza through Na-Young Jeon’s white and gold costume that is similar to Eliza’s (and also correlates to the only other scene where she stood up to the King in the beginning) as well as her hesitation to name certain characters by their character names rather than who they represent in her life, such as Simon and Eliza. However, her emotions become too much and she openly disrespects the King as she lets him know that she feels he has mistreated her and now holds her in slavery as Simon held Eliza. His reaction to this and her later running away is to punish her. Though it is apparent that the King despises women defying him, the violence of his actions is seen as extreme and, most importantly, surprising. This is due to how his multiple arguments with Anna throughout the show have never led to him lashing out violently against her. 

The King’s difference in reactions to the two women is impacted by his different view of Anna due to her Westerness. He constantly refers to Anna as “scientific” and Lady Thiang helps Anna understand this when she questions the head wife for constantly calling her “sir.” Lady Thiang informs her how the King has taught them that women can not be knowledgeable and teachers, or “scientific,” because that is a man’s place. Him allowing Anna — a woman — to teach and share her knowledge, however, shows a conflict to this idea which lets the audience know that the King sees Anna as another. It is obvious that this difference comes from the alienness of their cultures. As the only white woman in the show and the protagonist, the show itself and the King place Anna in an elevated position due to her Westerness (code for whiteness), allowing her to get away with things the King often does not allow women to do, such as argue with him or give him advice, while continuing to show her and her actions, though oppositional, in a positive light. In opposition to this idea, Tuptim, as an Easterner, is shown as being out of place for taking a similar stance to Anna. Her sameness to the women around her, which is illustrated to the similar style clothing of the other wives despite the difference in color, keeps her trapped within the confines of the King’s ideas about how a woman should be and, because she is not white like Anna, he is unable to disassociate her from these ideas. Her Easterness is in direct correlation with her lowliness in his eyes and places her at the bottom of the spectrum versus Anna and her whiteness/Westerness at the top.

The biggest question to be answered is how Anna directly influenced Tuptim to act against the conventions of her culture. Although Anna’s general presence seemingly made the greatest impact as a whole, there were many things she did that directly helped Tuptim develop a Western mindset. First, when the King said Tuptim could help Anna teach the wives English, she begged Anna to lend her books, specifically Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her lending the book to Tuptim allowed Tuptim to understand the morals and beliefs of (some) Westerners that holding someone against their will was wrong and she connected these ideals to her own relationship with the King. Anna also talked to the women about the importance of true love, something they obviously did not consider since they were all in a polygamous relationship with the King and not in love with him but merely doing their duty as his wives. However, her talk influenced Tuptim who was already in love with Lun Tha. Anna went a step further in helping this secret relationship by providing them with ways to be together. There is even a moment in the show when Lun Tha remarks how if Anna were to leave it would be impossible for them to ever be together without her help. The combinations of these ideas and actions facilitated by Anna helped Tuptim commit the acts that went against the King. If she hadn’t introduced Tuptim to her ideals about love and freedom, Tuptim would never have stood up to the King during her play or tried to run away with Lun Tha. She would have remained like the other women: silent and submissive. 

Anna’s insistence upon helping everyone in the castle be more like her when it comes to ideals and morals was good-intentioned, but her ignorance and lack of understanding of the culture made her efforts have some negative impacts. Just as Lady Thiang and the wives said in “Western People Funny,” she believed that her way of life was the proper way and tried to impose that on them only to make them also make mistakes. Her influence led to Lun Tha, Tuptim, and the King’s death, as well as the influence of Western culture being within the mind of the new heir to the throne. Although Siam had many internal problems, Anna was still wrong for imposing her culture and ideals there in order to make it “better.” The show sets her up to be the hero of the story because, like the white creators of the show, she is showing how “white is right.” This idea is especially wrong on the part of the creators through their presentation of Tuptim for making it seem that she would be unable to have the agency to make decisions for herself without the help and influence of a white person. Their ignorant ideas about Eastern cultures and people’s need to have Western influence in order to have a better way of life creates the idea that one is inherently better despite the fact that one cannot be better than the other. In today’s society, though, in both the world and the conflicts of white casting in The King and I over the years are working to deconstruct that idea and to show that what is more important is seeing things from multifaceted perspectives in order to discover the “right” way to live.