Anna, Fanny, and a Puzzlement Concerning Powerful Women

By David Ward

Both The King and I and Funny Girl are classic musicals led by powerful white women. The King and I tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher who moves to Siam in 1862 to educate the next generation of Siamese on the latest Western knowledge. Funny Girl, as the name implies, tells the story of Fanny Brice, who is both funny and a girl, and her rise to fame in the early 1900s. Because both shows are driven by powerful leading ladies, both had the opportunity to break gender barriers and provide strong role models for young women when they premiered in the mid-1900s. However, both shows failed to do this; both stories present their leading ladies’ power as being a product of their race (rather than their gender) and focus on negative outcomes that result from their confidence and power.

               Anna’s power and confidence are on display from the first time she meets the king of Siam. After singing “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” a song about how nervous she is about moving to a new world and working for a king with a reputation of being “a barbarian”, we see her enter the king’s chambers and make fun of his gullibility (telling him she is one hundred fifty-three years old) and his country’s funeral customs (she says, condescendingly, “best fireworks I’ve ever seen at a funeral”). While Anna claims she is nervous, Kelli O’Hara’s inflection and body language tell us she is snooty; O’Hara’s Anna believes that because she was taught from a young age to “hold her head erect” and act in a proper white Western manner, she is in a position to humiliate the Siamese, whose king (Ken Watanabe) stands with a forward-leaning hunch. Anna’s power being a product of her whiteness is even more glaring when the staging of the scene is taken into account; all of the non-white women in the room sit on the floor in the background of the scene while Anna stands tall at the front of the stage.

               Fanny’s power grows as the plot of Funny Girl progresses. At the beginning of the show, the only facet of her that distinguished her as a white woman was her dream of being a famous performer. Female performers at the venues where Fanny dreamed of performing (like Ziegfeld’s and Keeney’s) were exclusively white. While at no point in the show does her ego appear to be inflated because of her race, there is no way to know that it is not because she (unrealistically) does not interact with any characters of color throughout the show. In the context of the show, it makes sense that Fanny’s confidence is simply part of her personality because she is only competing with and performing for white people. As the plot advances, Fanny is given more opportunities to climb the ranks of notoriety (and gain wealth and power) – opportunities that she would not have received if she were not white. She gets a second chance at performing at Keeney’s because her friend Eddie Ryan is the choreographer there. Fanny would not have met Eddie and even been given a first opportunity (much less a second) if she had not been white. Much of the plot is drawn by Fanny’s affection for the wealthy Nick Arnstein. She gains power and notability from her relationship and eventual marriage to him. Would Nick, the man who was so uncomfortable with unconventional relationship dynamics that he broke up with Fanny over her making more money than him, have been interested in an interracial relationship? There is no way.

Throughout The King and I, Anna demonstrates that she is a powerful woman who thinks of herself as being no less than anyone else and is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. She continuously refuses to let the king forget that he promised her a house to live in because she believes people should uphold their promises. She also works against the king’s wishes and helps Tuptim and Lun Tha meetup because she believes people should be able to choose their partners. When the show was created, it was not common for female characters to be as powerful and assertive as Anna, but Rodgers and Hammerstein fail to present this as a positive characteristic. At the end of The King and I, Anna demands that the king allow Tuptim to love a man other than him. When the king refuses, Anna calls him “a barbarian,” which gives him a heart attack that makes him bed-ridden (and that he claims he will die from). In other words, Anna’s assertiveness kills the king. Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to have Anna’s actions kill the king as pro-West propaganda for their Western audiences: Anna represents new bold Western ideals, which kill off the king, who represents the “barbaric” ways of the East, and make way for Prince Chulalongkorn, a child groomed by Anna and therefore knowledgeable about Western culture. A side effect of the decision to end the musical in this way is that spectators unfamiliar with the historical context will only see a confident, independent female character use her confidence kill the likeable king. Instead of presenting strong women as being beneficial to society, some spectators may interpret The King and I as promoting that strong women are dangerous in that their independence and boldness can kill.

In Funny Girl, Fanny’s power is what leads to her unhappiness. Nick, what Fanny wants most in the world, is intimidated by her power, wealth, and confidence. He wants them to have an old-fashioned husband-wife relationship: the wife stays at home and watches the kids while the husband makes the money and makes the important decisions. Fanny, instead of conforming to this, has the confidence to fight for what she wants: an equal marriage with no set roles. When Nick strikes out with his casino project, Fanny is perfectly comfortable being the source of income for their household; Nick responds by saying he does not want her to have to “write [him] another check.” Nick sees his role as the provider for the family because he is the husband; Fanny’s potential and willingness to provide for them makes him feel like less of a man. Another part of Nick’s ideal relationship is being able to make all of the decisions for both himself and his partner. He reveals that he does not want to have to sacrifice his desires for Fanny when he begrudgingly agrees to skip his investors meeting to stay with the baby so Fanny can go back to work after maternity leave. From this point on in the show, Darius Campbell’s Nick is stern and concerned; he wrinkles his brow and takes big gulps more often. He has realized Fanny will never take a secondary role in their relationship and give him the power he desires. His refusal to accept having a wife that will not cater to his every desire ultimately leads to their divorce. In one of the few musicals at the time to have a powerful leading lady, Fanny’s confidence and assertiveness are what lead to her losing someone she loves. Even though it is Nick’s flaws that lead to their divorce, Funny Girl promotes the idea that strong women cannot be in successful relationships; it happens with Fanny and her mother. In this way, the representation of women in Funny Girl is misogynistic in that it reinforces the idea that heterosexual relationships only work when women are of a lower status than their partners. More generally, it could be interpreted as saying that it is hard to love powerful women.

Both Anna and Fanny end up losing someone they care about because of their power in the form of assertiveness, confidence, boldness, independence, wealth, or some combination of these qualities. In both musicals, it is significant that the leads are female and that the tragic events at the climax are direct effects of them expressing their power. While both shows end with the powerful women sad because of an event that was the effect of their assertiveness, it is important to note that these women would not have been happy if they were passive either. Anna would have followed the king’s every command but would have been quietly angry about not getting her house and Tuptim and Lun Tha not being permitted to be together. Fanny and Nick would not have gotten divorced, but he would prioritize his work over her and miss many of her opening nights. In this way, the musicals end too soon for the powerful women; we only see the immediate negative effects of their power. If the musicals had not ended at their climaxes, audiences would see Anna guide Prince Chulalongkorn how to rule Siam under her Western “civilized” ideals. Spectators would tear up over seeing Fanny find a man who will love and respect her as an equal. The futures for these powerful women are not as grim as the abrupt conclusions of The King and I and Funny Girl would have you believe. It is strange and seems intentional that both musicals end at an unfortunate time in both of these women’s lives instead of waiting to show their happy endings.

It is important that girls are exposed to powerful women in culture so they can realize all that women can do and have role models to look up to. While The King and I and Funny Girl present the stories of two powerful women, these musicals present women empowered by the color of their skin rather than women empowered by being women. Furthermore, both musicals present the assertiveness of the powerful women as being detrimental to them because of the state of their lives at the time when the shows end. While these musicals provide entertainment in their interesting characters and quality songs, if you are looking for complete and inspiring tales of powerful women, neither of these outdated musicals are the way to go.

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?