Performing The Patriarchy: Oppression on Broadway

Two highly criticized Broadway classics, The King and I and Miss Saigon both tell the story of women in settings that are unfamiliar to them, challenged with patriarchal forces in some form. This explanation is, of course, an oversimplification of two complex plots; nonetheless, it remains the fundamental basis of both shows, and this premise gave way to significant criticism with regards to how these productions addressed topics such as race and gender. It certainly does not require any sort of reach to find similarities between The King and I and Miss Saigon in the way that gender dynamics are performed in the two shows. Furthermore, there also exist compelling differences between the shows with respect to the significance of race as it pertains to power. 

Although both shows are centered around the experience of female leads (Anna and Kim), it is critical that we question the significance of the shows’ male antagonists (The King and The Engineer) and the way that the presence of these characters affects the experience of women in the show. As you read the analysis of The King and I and Miss Saigon in the following paragraphs, it is necessary to note that the analysis is being done through a critical feminist lens. To that end, we must acknowledge the significance of men, women’s binary opposite, to the feminist approach, and understand that the relevance of men in this discussion is no less than that of women. In this essay I will argue that the presence of powerful men in both The King and I and Miss Saigon serve as an agent by which the authors of the shows depict the objectification of women, and that the race and status of men is insignificant to their ability to oppress women. Finally, I will argue that the shows discourage the audience from villainizing the male antagonists, further perpetuating the acceptance of oppressive males in society.  

The male antagonists in both  The King and I and Miss Saigon are incredibly important in the way that they influence the gender dynamics in the performance. This influence comes largely from the actual staging of the show. The presence of these characters allows the storytellers to put a cavalcade of beautiful women on stage. In Miss Saigon the performance of “The Heat is On in Saigon” features dozens of women dressed in provocative costumes. The women are dressed in a way that The Engineer utilizes to tempt the American soldiers as he sells the women’s bodies to them for sex.  For the entirety of the song, The Engineer is surrounded by these beautiful women; he treats them as if they are commodities, forcing them into the hands of soldiers and aggressively groping them. The Engineer’s physical presence on stage is what solidifies the image of female objectification that the performance depicts; his forceful behavior and inappropriate physical contact with the women sets the standard for the misogynistic treatment that the female characters will endure for the rest of the performance. Without the presence of The Engineer in this performance, these women would simply be struggling prostitutes; The Engineer’s presence reveals to the audience that these women are, in fact, victims of objectification. 

In Rogers and Hammerstein’s controversial production of The King and I, there are numerous performances that center on the idea that men are superior to women, and further, that men hold both a physical and emotional control over women. The existence of The King’s character gives the authors of the show a reason to constantly have beautiful women on the stage. The subconscious rationale behind this is that if there are no women present, then who are the subjects of The king’s misogyny? The authors relieve the audience of this possible confusion by featuring masses of elegant, gorgeous women on stage. Even when Anna is the only woman on stage, she is essentially a lively feminine prop that prompts The King’s overt misogynistic behavior. It’s important to understand how the fundamental concept of gender plays into this staging dynamic: because men do not exist without women, and women do not exist without men, it’s critical that the audience can see the on-stage interaction of the two genders because men could not oppress women if women were not there. This seems like a simple concept, but it is often overlooked in analyses of gender performance in musical theater. 

In both performances, this spectacle of feminine beauty is really just a means by which the directors can express the oppressive behavior of these male characters. In The King and I and Miss Saigon, the male antagonists share a clear similarity in that they are both Asian men. This similarity is largely irrelevant to the characterization of the men as misogynistic individuals, but what is compelling about this similarity is the disparity in power between the two men and, further, the fact that despite this disparity in power, the men are equally able to oppress masses of women without consequence. The King is the most powerful man in Siam. The Engineer is a hustler who exploits women for a meager living. The gap in power between the two men is vast. The King clearly has far more social and economic capital than The Engineer does. Considering this difference in power and wealth, it is insane that the men are equal in power when it comes to their ability to objectify and oppress women. The King oppresses women primarily through policy and his membership in the patriarchal Siamese court, and The Engineer does so through prostituting young women to sexually-desperate American soldiers.  Spectators see here that the Patriarchy spans beyond wealth and power. The men in these shows are able to systematically oppress women because of the simple fact that they are men and that is an ability that society has gifted them. The King and The Engineer’s primary similarity is not their race—it is the power they share in their ability to control women. 

The most interesting thing that these shows have in common is the fact that they both encourage the audience to like the male antagonists. This is more understandable with The King’s character, as the audience witnesses endearing spurs of character development from him, but it’s still questionable. The Engineer, on the other hand, is just plain creepy, and still, Miss Saigon tells spectators to like him. These shows don’t condemn misogyny; they give the men allowances for their cruel actions towards women. The King and I and Miss Saigon absolutely raise questions of gender dynamics through their performances of misogyny and femininity, but truly, neither villainize the oppressive male antagonists. This may seem lighthearted, but really it is a translation of what we see in society at large: toxic masculinity and oppressive male behavior is widely acceptable. This begs the question that I will leave you with: have these Broadway shows fallen victim to the patriarchy just as Kim and Tuptim did?