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.