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.

Women and their Destinies: Agency (or Lack Thereof) for Women on the Broadway Stage

by Ilana Cohen

Broadway musicals use stereotypes understood by audiences to shed light or comment on truths within society. One stereotype that the American musical utilizes is the stereotype of womanhood and femininity. American women were expected to be graceful, pure, beautiful, and domestic. They were supposed to act demure and dignified at all times and to only concern themselves with domestic issues like being wives and mothers. Anything outside of that was seen as masculine and therefore negative for women. This stereotype, however, is specific to white women, who were held to different standards and expectations than women of other races. Another group stereotyped and fetishized on the American stage was East Asian women. These women were intriguing because they are exotic and mysterious to the Western world as Americentrism makes white the norm and anything else unfamiliar. East Asian women also are expected to behave even more submissively and passively than white women, who were all expected to submit to the dominance of their man. Two musicals that highlight the American musicals use of these stereotypes are Funny Girl and Miss Saigon. While Funny Girl highlights Fanny Brice, a woman who defies all stereotypes of femininity, Miss Saigon focuses on Kim, a traditional East Asian woman who upholds all the stereotypes associated with that. Despite the contrast in Fanny breaking the norms and Kim embracing and upholding them, both of these characters’ relationships end tragically, suggesting the idea that women do not have control over their fates whether or not they conform to stereotypes.

Both Fanny and Kim are starkly contrasted with the other female characters around them to highlight their defiance against and confirmation of stereotypes, respectively, held against these women. The directors intentionally place Fanny on stage with the Ziegfeld girls, the embodiments of American beauty, in order to illustrate the contrast between her femininity and beauty and that of the American ideal.  The Ziegfeld girls were made to create the pinnacle of beauty, most likely to appeal to the masses of men who desire to see something easy on the eyes when they come to the theatre. The directors recreated the Ziegfeld Girl in both their choreography and costuming to embody the ideal American beauty. The ensemble women were all dressed in white, like brides, which symbolizes purity– a societal expectation at the time– while at the same time the costumes were provocative, as they were made to highlight the female figure. The women were also doing very simple choreography, making them seem meek and not pulling focus– another expectation for women at the time. The synchronous nature of their movement also made the women lack uniqueness, promoting a uniformity. The Ziegfeld girls look demure and beautiful on stage in order to promote an ideal standard of beauty that people would pay to look at. Fanny immediately contrasts with the other women on stage in both her mannerisms and appearance. Fanny wears a less revealing wedding gown and she moves more hunched with a wide stance, both of which make Fanny seem less feminine in comparison to the Ziegfeld girls. Fanny went further than just not upholding these ideals of femininity; she wanted to mock them. Being uncomfortable singing about being the ideal of beauty as the bride, Fanny instead parodies the ideal wedding by coming on stage as a pregnant bride. This choice was bold as weddings were a custom important to American society, that highlights a woman’s purity and beauty, and it would be taboo and completely inappropriate for a bride to be pregnant at her wedding. Fanny’s character lacks the grace and beauty to be the ideal American woman and the purity to be the ideal bride. Her choices purposefully emphasize how far from the stereotype of American femininity she is, and she is proud of that. 

On the other hand, Kim is contrasted with the Engineer’s other prostitutes in order to demonstrate how much she does uphold stereotypes held about East Asian women. The other prostitutes both look and act promiscuous. Similar to the Ziegfeld girls, the prostitutes’ costumes highlight their figure, but their costumes are more like lingerie, making them look more trashy, while the Ziegfeld girls’ costumes were made to make them look beautiful and desirable. While the other prostitutes paraded around in bras and short shorts, Kim wore a traditional, white dress that went up to her neck and down to her knees. The costume designer intentionally used the white dress contrasted against the colorful lingerie to highlight Kim’s innocence and purity. Her conservative dress made Kim seem more mysterious, a stereotype of East Asian women, as it left more up to the imagination in terms of what her body looked like. The other prostitutes also moved around the stage and danced with bold, sexual movements to draw attention towards themselves and promote their wildness while Kim was more stoic to make her seem more dignified. The Engineer uses Kim’s disparity from the other girls for his own financial gain, as he is aware that her exotic, mysterious aura combined with her purity would make her very desirable to the American soldiers. 

Though Fanny spends most of the musical defying all stereotypes of femininity, both Fanny and Kim perform songs about the sacrifices they are willing to make for men and for love– which is an action consistent with stereotypes of women as accommodating to the man always.  “I’d Give My Life for You” gives insight into Kim’s character as it expresses her deep devotion and love for Chris and to her son, Tam, while also perpetuating the stereotypes of East Asian women as passive and subservient. The lyrics of the song express Kim’s loyalty and willingness to make sacrifices for her love. She is overly trusting, believing that Chris will come back to her, which gives Chris all the power in the relationship, as Kim is completely dependent on Chris’s decision. Kim admits how intimately and deeply she feels for Chris through the lyrics which state how she thinks about him all the time. While the melody and the lyrics of the song show Kim’s feelings as pure and true, the lyrics also present Kim as subservient and passive in her relationship with Chris, which is problematic because it reinforces stereotypes of East Asian women as desirable because they are submissive to their men. As an audience member, one might wish she was less open about how deeply she loves Chris and how willing she is to make sacrifices for their love because it emphasizes the stereotype of East Asian women as subservient. However, the audience still roots for Kim to succeed in love because the lyrics expose how genuine her feelings are and can relate to her willingness to sacrifice for her child– as the feeling of motherly care and protection is universal. While Fanny’s willingness to give up her career opportunity in the theatre to pursue Nick Arnstein goes against the rest of what the audience knows about her character, a woman who does not conform to the actions of the ideal American female, the way in which she performs the song “Don’t Rain on my Parade” can be seen as consistent with her persona as a defiant woman, breaking stereotypes. From the beginning of the song, Fanny refuses to listen to the reasoning or concerns of any of the other men and women on stage. She knows what she wants and is going to go after it despite what anyone thinks, this ambition and stubbornness is more of a masculine trait because women were not supposed to have great ambitions beyond being wives and mothers at the time, and women especially would not refuse to listen to the advice of a man. As the song progresses Fanny is alone on stage, making it clear to the audience that Fanny is the only one making decisions for her and that she is solely and completely in control of her destiny. Unlike Kim, Fanny is making the decisions in her relationship, chasing Nick instead of waiting and hoping he will come back to her. While both Fanny and Kim have faith and trust in their relationships, truly believing that they will work out in the end, Fanny performs with much more confidence because she is the one making the decisions in the relationship, so she can be more sure of the outcome. 

Despite the audiences wanting Fanny and Kim to succeed, as they are both sympathetic, relatable characters, both of these musicals end tragically, with failed relationships. The writers of these shows may be conveying a message that whether you defy stereotypes or not, it is very difficult for women at this time to be happy and fulfilled, as society allows men to do what they want and women must deal with their choices. Both Fanny and Kim were fiercely loyal and loving partners, but that did not guarantee them happily ever after. Fanny’s lack of stereotypical femininity may have been what intrigued Nick initially, but her ambition and success were too much for Nick to handle. Feeling emasculated by Fanny’s lack of femininity, Nick gets involved in illegal business dealings in order to find some of his own success, and he ends up in prison. Similarly, Kim’s conformity to the stereotypes of Eastern Asian women was what drew Chris to her in the first place, but her passivity makes it so she will not fight for her love once she finds out Chris had moved on and remarried. The harsh and problematic lesson learned by seeing the tragic endings for both of these women is that even if women attempt to control their own destinies or not, at least in terms of relationships, men still have the power to choose the fate for them, their relationship, and their women.

A Puzzlement – How America’s Brand of Toxic Masculinity Slithers Through Broadway

Schuyler Kresge

In the American empire, bigotry is serpentine in nature. It lies in wait in the tall grass, slithering closer to any unsuspecting individuals and eagerly strikes. While this representation is confined to metaphor, the truth is that the venom of bigotry has worked its way to the very core of America and the symptoms can be identified in the appendages of society, including musical theater. As a representation of the dominant identity of the United States at a given time, musicals can serve as a bellwether for the pervasiveness of sexism and racism in that particular era writ large. In the characters that emerge from Broadway, it is evident that America is the natural habitat of a specific subspecies of toxic masculinity. American toxic masculinity is packaged and branded as the quintessential white male socialite. Charming to a fault, American toxic masculinity prioritizes and emphasizes dominance over equality in a uniquely capitalistic way. Through examining the King of Siam and Anna from The King and I as well as Nick “Nicky” Arnstein from Funny Girl, it becomes clear that even in musicals with female leads, the venom of white American toxic masculinity still pervades the work. This issue taints the very core of The King and I and Funny Girl, making them incapable of non-problematic productions.

On the surface, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I appears as a sugar-sweet tale of the comedy and growth that occurs when white British schoolteacher and widowed mother Anna Leonowens becomes the official tutor of the children of the King of Siam, leading to a complex advisory relationship with the King. Unfortunately, both the original book and lyrics as well as Bartlett Sher’s 2018 production suffer from the unavoidable negative impacts of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s American male gaze. While Anna is British, the plot of a white woman coming to an Asian land and “educating” the backwards natives was intensely relatable to America’s collective culture during the The King and I’s first run in the immediate post-World War Two era. However, what truly stands out is that the King of Siam exists at the intersection of American exceptionalism, whiteness, and toxic masculinity even in today’s productions. In the 2018 production this analysis focuses on, the set design creates a powerful hierarchical effect from the very first scene. As Anna arrives in Siam on a stunning boat set piece, it is clear that she is “above” the subjects of Siam. Despite this initial moment of power, Anna is met by the King of Siam’s masculinity. It is in this moment where the interplay between race and gender becomes apparent. The only two characters with any significant power are Anna, representing whiteness, and the King, a beacon of masculinity. Throughout the remainder of The King and I, the audience becomes a spectator in the subtle dueling of the “class” that is codified in Whiteness and the “strength” of masculinity.

Although the harmful pervasiveness of bigotry in 20th century American theater is certainly nothing to write home about, it is the dialectical nature of Anna’s whiteness and the King’s masculinity that makes The King and I such a unique viewing into the harmful consequences of America’s obsession with white masculinity. Much like America’s role in disturbing peace in regions such as the Middle East, Anna’s whiteness is perhaps at its most harmful when it comes into contact with citizens of Siam, exemplified through Tuptim. Anna, allegorical of the West, sees herself as more civilized than the Siamese and attempts to help colonize Tuptim (incredibly brought to life by Na-Young Jeon). In turn, Rodgers and Hammerstein maroon Tuptim by killing off her love interest, permanently creating a rift between the “dream” of Western life and the Siamese “others”. Intersecting with Anna’s Whiteness, the King of Siam represents and embodies the toxic masculinity that captures America’s attention even in present day. The King rules with aggressive patriarchal norms that his subjects excuse as firmness. During one encounter, the King makes it clear that Tuptim was “gifted” to him, reinforcing his dominance over her on the basis of antiquated gender rules. The King’s overbearing masculinity can be seen in Ken Watanabe’s blocking, as he frequently prowls around or sits in a sprawled manner (also known as “manspreading”), best seen as he watches the presentation of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”. As O’Hara’s Whiteness clashes with Watanabe’s masculinity throughout the musical, they soften to each other but cause damage to fodder like Tuptim. Through this analysis, it is evident that the interactions between Anna and the King in both original book material as well as the 2018 production clearly demonstrate a unique and unintentional view of the dialectical nature of White masculinity in America. 

While Anna and the King of Siam complete the American white-male dialectic in The King and I, the dialectic is synthesized into one character in Isobel Lennart, Jule Styne, and Bob Merrill’s 1964 work Funny Girl—namely Fanny Brice’s on-again, off-again husband Nick “Nicky” Arnstein. Set in World War I-era New York, Funny Girl is a biographical musical telling the story of famed the Ziegfeld Follie Fanny Brice. In addition to her comedic abilities, Brice also possessed an an incredible ability to connect to audiences, perhaps stirred from her own troubles with Arnstein, a notorious con and compulsive gambler. While the role of Brice in Funny Girl has traditionally been synonymous with Barbra Streisand’s original performance, Michael Mayer’s 2018 West End revival starring an excellent Sheridan Smith will be the focus for the purposes of this analysis. From the first time the audience sees Nicky, everything about him is absolutely drenched in the prototypical “alpha male” machismo found in boardrooms and ball courts across America. Especially within the first act, Arnstein is constantly impeccably dressed, dazzling Brice with suits and connections. This is one of the most distinctive identifiers of the American brand of toxic masculinity, as it pairs the physical domination common of all toxic masculinity with a capitalistic interdependence on money and power. While Arnstein’s gambling issue is introduced early into Act I as a possibility, both Brice and the audience shrug the creeping apprehension. This willful ignorance is on full display in numbers like “People” and “You Are Woman”. These songs, which are two of the most well-known songs from Funny Girl in popular culture, are deeply and inherently problematic due to Nicky’s presence. Turning first to “People”, the song begins as Brice and Arnstein flirt at a party celebrating Fanny’s opening night as a Follie. What is most striking about the impact of masculinity in “People” is how much Darius Campbell’s Arnstein drives the song’s plot, despite his blocking being pushed to the corner of the stage. For the first half of the song, Arnstein sits and observes as Brice rationalizes away his many flaws. While Lennart ostensibly wrote this scene as a ode to full-hearted romance (indeed, steadfast belief in love is arguably one of the biggest themes of Funny Girl), when stripped of the gendered language “People” is exposed as a validation and confirmation of the superiority and dominance of a White male with connections.

If “People” is as subtle as Funny Girl’s misogyny gets, “You Are Woman” is the blaring car horn of American White masculinity. The scene and song consist of Fanny Brice falling for Arnstein again during a run-in in Baltimore despite his prior history of ghosting Brice. The blocking of the scene is predatory and problematic, with Arnstein following Brice around the stage and attempting to woo her with food. Brice falls for this, saying “Well, at least he thinks I’m special/He ordered à la carte” (“You Are Woman”). It is in “You Are Woman” that the uniqueness of American bigotry is exposed— toxic American white masculinity, embodied by Nick Arnstein, is a beast found at the intersection of patriarchy, racial oppression, and unchecked capitalism. In this way, Arnstein and toxic white masculinity represent a repugnant and insatiable hunger. This hunger is all-encompassing and results in the financial ruin of Brice and the destruction of both Arnstein, Brice, and their relationship. By promoting this kind of relationship implicitly through Brice’s never-say-die attitude, it is evident that Funny Girl is an inherently problematic musical.

Understanding the addictive dangers of the venomous American White masculinity that courses through Funny Girl and The King and I not only partially explains why these musicals have such tremendous sticking power, but also helps identify similarly problematic characters in both entertainment and real life. As society incrementally inches towards progress on racial and gender equity, the snake of American bigotry will retreat deeper within the tall grass, creating a false sense of safety. It is here that we find characters such as Anna Leonowens, the King of Siam, and their “synthesis”, Nicky Arnstein. Despite both Leonowens and the King of Siam not being American, they are distinctively and pivotally Americanized characters. Put together, these characters are dominating and connected, suave and manipulative. More crucially, through intentional and unintentional blocking, casting, and writing choices, these Broadway characters are NOT properly vilified and are instead either partially or completely lionized as proud examples of whiteness and masculinity. In doing so, all involved in earlier productions laid the foundation for modern-era villains like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan the “Wolf of Wall Street” Belfort to become the standard-bearing heroes for harmful American White masculinity. As such, it is evident that after retracing the toxicity found in Arnstein, Leonowens, and the King, it is impossible to ethically support productions of shows like Funny Girl and The King and I.

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.

Funny Girls Break Glass Ceilings

By Elise Darby

Smart. Hilarious. Talented. All of these words are not typical characteristics used to describe Jewish women in the early 1900s, but the character of Fanny Brice is uniquely beautiful. In the production of Funny Girl, Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice reverses stereotypes held for the gender and race roles during this time period by presenting Jewish woman in a bright light. Fanny Brice breaks the glass ceiling held by society through her talent and comedy, not her looks. Fanny Brice’s character makes groundbreaking headway within the roles of gender and race; she is idolized by many for the actions she took towards shattering the glass ceiling. 

Although Fanny, based on the standards held by men, is unattractive, she possesses an alluring air of confidence throughout her musical numbers. While other slim, tall, and stunning Ziegfeld Follies that Fanny is constantly compared to merely stay in the background, Fanny uses bold and flirtatious—yet humorous—choreography during her performances to engage the audience. Sheridan Smith’s acting choices allow the audience to understand the humor behind the production, while highlighting the race and gender roles. The theatre industry, in particular, is critical of women’s beauty. Even the talented and amusing Fanny Brice could not find a job within the theatre industry at first. Mr. Ziegfeld originally cut her because she did not look like the traditional Follie. Woman are seen as objects of desire. In the song “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” the lyrics suggest that if a girl does not “shine in every detail,” wear a “standard dress,” or does not have a figure that a man’s “wife can’t substitute,” she should “dump the stage and try another route.” Men hold woman to an exceedingly high expectation within the theatre industry, which discourages Fanny. Still, she persists. Fanny breaks the typical “showgirl” stereotype. She does not have the same look or appeal as the Ziegfeld Follies that surround her; in comparison to their “ideal” height, weight, and facial structure, Fanny possesses traditional Jewish features that, although beautiful in their uniqueness, are not the typical conceptions of beauty. Unlike the other women on stage, Fanny dresses modestly: she does not wear short, revealing dresses; her outfits provide coverage and fit loosely. In one of the numbers, for example, the Follies are featured in short, seductive dresses that highlight their slim figures and long legs. Meanwhile, Fanny takes the stage in pants that are stuffed to make her look wider, a mustache, and glasses. The outfits that Fanny chooses to wear contrast the typical outfits worn by women featured on stage; she is redefining gender roles. She wears different styled clothing, and she is built differently, but she continues to embrace her own unique beauty.  

Fanny is not used to attention from men. Because of this, when Nick Arnstein demonstrates an interest towards her, Fanny quickly becomes uncomfortable and awkward. When Nick begins his fascination with Fanny, her body language makes her discomfort unquestionable. She constantly positions herself away from Nick, avoids eye-contact, and twiddles her fingers. She is clearly very nervous and tense around Arnstein. Fanny Brice typically uses humor to hide her true feelings. Fanny Brice can stuff a pillow under a wedding dress during a performance with confidence, yet romance and spending a night out with a man is daunting. Sheridan Smith chooses to appear bashful around Nick, which causes the audience to understand that Fanny still gets anxious and insecure despite the bold and comedic personality she presents on the stage. Nick Arnstein made Fanny Brice feel beautiful, which is something a man has never done for her. Nick breaks the societal norm that men uphold of lusting for beautiful, flawless Follie-type girls; instead, Nick falls in love with Fanny, who is uniquely stunning.  

In the performance of “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” Fanny goes off script and stuffs a pillow under her wedding dress. Additionally, she presents a hand-held mirror in front of her face. As she looks at her reflection, she mocks her own appearance by making an unattractive face, thus implying she is not beautiful, like the women that surround her. Since she is not considered attractive by society, she uses humor and comedic gestures to hide her appearance. She is confident, though not conventionally pretty. Sheridan’s acting clearly shows that Fanny Brice chooses to make a mockery out of her appearance. In fact, presenting herself as a beautiful Follie on stage makes her uncomfortable. The only way that Fanny is able to seem confident in her looks is through humor.   

During this time, there is a received idea that within a relationship, the women rely on the men. Fanny, however, redefined this stereotype. In Funny Girl, the roles are reversed: Nick Arnstein is dependent on Fanny Brice. Additionally, both Fanny and Nick are seen equally. While Nick Arnstein has a powerful name and is well-known within the theatre industry, Fanny becomes just as important. She makes a name for herself and allows her career to soar. Arnstein even admits that Fanny “scares him to death.” To be clear, Fanny Brice—a woman—scares the mighty, impactful Mr. Arnstein. Fanny is creative and entertaining. In fact, when she began to work for Mr. Ziegfeld as a Follie, she would not always remain obedient. Despite Mr. Ziegfeld’s stern tone and position of authority, she would create her own story; typically, it worked in her favor. For example, after the pillow incident during the wedding scene, her boss made her apologize. However, her boss also apologized and admits Fanny not only performed incredibly, but her spontaneity and imagination enhanced the performance. Fanny disregards the male dominance and sticks to her own instincts. Usually, women would be forced into a submissive role, allowing their male employers and those in higher positions to retain superiority. As a performer, Fanny is seen as brilliant: she is smart, independent, humorous, and confident.  

In the end, the men in Fanny’s life became reliant on her. Fanny Brice—the once overlooked performer—is now the star of the show. Mr. Ziegfeld, as well as Nick Arnstein, could not afford to lose her. After Nick Arnstein and Fanny Brice get married, Nick must swallow his pride as the provider of the family and accept financial help from his wife. Nick does not like the idea of having his wife support him financially. After all, the stigma is that the man supports his wife—never the other way around. He needs the help, but he is reluctant to accept it. He repeats that this aid from Fanny is a “temporary arrangement.” Nick does not make it to Fanny’s opening night. Rather than falling back to the typical “norm” of women at this time and remaining silent, Fanny expresses her anger, remains strong in her thoughts, and conveys how she feels towards Nick. She stands up for herself—she is defying old standards. However, Nick admits that he missed her performance because he could not swallow his pride—he is being charged with embezzlement.  

Instead of accepting that the husband messed up, Fanny’s mother convinces her that she caused Nick to commit this crime. After all, the man is the one who is supposed to have the money, the power, and the dominance within a household. Fanny, who has clearly become independent, financially stable, and successful, is hurting her husband’s pride. Her mother tells her that “a man wants to matter” and that Fanny “can’t make someone feel that small” if she wants the relationship to work. She tells her that she must “let him be a man,” implying that he needs to obtain the dominance and control within the marriage to fit the gender role. In response to the conversation with her mother, Fanny decides that she will make a change. She will make Nick feel like he is the boss. She will allow him to get his way. She will conform to the societal norms expected for her role as a wife. Fanny begins to believe that in order for her husband to be happy in their marriage, she has to change how she acts—she cannot be as independent and self-sufficient—or he won’t feel like a man. Before Fanny could make these drastic changes within their marriage, Nick decides it is best if they separate. He could not handle being inferior to Fanny—a woman.  

 While ending the marriage, Nick refers to Fanny as a “funny girl.” In turn, Fanny relates her worth to her humor. As she sits at her dresser, with tears streaming down her face, she repeats the word funny. She sarcastically makes remarks about being “good for a laugh,” even though she isn’t the right woman for Nick. Suddenly, the saddening, slow tone becomes more upbeat and livelier. Fanny begins to realize her own self-worth; she is reminded of who she is.  She beings to sing “I’m The Greatest Star,” which she also sang at the beginning of the musical to demonstrate her confidence as a performer despite her lack of conventional beauty. Once again, this song inspires confidence and dependence within Fanny. Her tears suddenly fade away, the power is back in her voice, and she is back on her feet. As she strips off her robe, her sparkling, eye-catching dress is highlighted—she looks and feels good. She sings the lyrics, “no looking back” and “get ready for me world, because I’m a comer,” in a powerful stance in center stage. Finally, she belts out that nobody—not even Nick Arnstein— “is going to rain on [her] parade.” Men do not define her. She has made it big. No one, including influential men, can ruin the success she has created for herself. 

Aside from gender roles, Sheridan Smith’s character as Fanny Brice changed the way that Jewish women were perceived at the time. The comedy and vast amount of humor was used to change Jewish mockery. Funny Girl provides hope, a sense of integration, and normalizes being both American and Jewish. The production features a successful, stereotypical American man marrying a Jewish woman. In addition to their marriage being uncommon because of the racial differences, Fanny, the Jewish woman, served as a provider for the family. While the American man, who was typically praised and known for his success and wealth, began struggling financially, Fanny gained wealth and became well-off financially. Additionally, as a Jewish woman, Fanny was able to live an “American” lifestyle. Funny Girl broke the stereotypes that were held against Jewish women and portrays a direct idea of what life as an American Jewish woman looks like. Despite her racial identity and the standards that come with it, Fanny is humorous, sharp, and self-reliant. Fanny never compromised her beliefs or her appearance in order to gain success. She simply worked around the fact that she was not considered traditionally pretty. Fanny is a proud Jewish woman; she serves as a representation for other Jewish women as well. She advocates for natural beauty and talent. Other Jewish women are able to look up to Fanny and identify with her because of her background. Back then, it was uncommon for Jewish females to be role models. Overall, Funny Girl makes a clear statement that Jewish people are also Americans. Despite being surrounded by Follies, who are gorgeous, American girls, Fanny makes a name for herself and becomes a star.  

In her revolutionary depiction of realistic beauty, despite being surrounded by women regarded as more beautiful and objectifiable, Fanny Brice utilizes her limitations to avoid the glass ceiling set by women who are outwardly more beautiful. Her depiction of intelligence, humor, and ambition reflects the ideal role model for women striving to find their identity while surrounded by negative influences in the media giving them insurmountable expectations to meet to be considered “beautiful.” Funny girls truly break glass ceilings.