One of the great effects of well-written theatrical characters is the ambiguity of interpretation for audience members that complex and layered writing provides. Part of what makes esteemed theatrical pieces compelling is the space they give to audiences to formulate their own opinions and feelings about the piece and its characters, without being essentially told how to feel by a show’s creators – we don’t appreciate good art because it spoon-feeds us answers, but because it challenges us to think and reflect on our own beliefs, experiences, and biases. Based on this criterion, please allow me to explain why Miss Saigon and its characters are far from original, complex, or layered. On the contrary, the characters in Miss Saigon are quite unilaterally one-dimensional, stereotypical representations that drive a very specific and dogmatic interpretation of the piece endorsed fully by almost all aspects of the show’s performance text. Since dissecting every moment of this show would take quite a long time, I’m going to focus on the representations of two of the show’s leading characters – Kim and Chris – to demonstrate how Miss Saigon advances an extremely narrow-minded and culturally insensitive narrative.
I’ll begin with Kim, the show’s 17-year-old Vietnamese female lead, played by Eva Noblezada in this 2016 filmed production. On the surface, Kim’s character arc leaves one with the impression that she is a strong-willed fighter, willing to do anything for a better life for her child, continuously fueled by her love for Chris. This is how the show intends for the audience to view her, as a tragic but independent and strong female hero. But is this actually how the text presents her? It’s difficult to argue against the contention that Kim is “strong” – indeed, when the audience is re-acquainted with her after the three-year time jump, we see just how much of a fighter she is, caring for Tam and struggling to survive while living on the streets. The text seems to assert that this fighting nature within Kim is a manifestation of her independent spirit and strong self-concept. To which I’d respond that Kim’s agency is in fact almost entirely illusory and lacks fundamental support from the text.
Let’s consider the opening sequence of the show and the first interactions between Kim and Chris. Kim – along with every other female seen on stage – is bound to a life of sex-work, all with no choice but to obey the commands of the Engineer and serve the desires of male patrons. All of the women see their only means of escape from this life as dependent on convincing a visiting American male to take them back to America with her as his wife. In other words, these women believe they have no capacities within themselves to attain their freedom, and feel they have to be entirely dependent on the will of a man to be their savior, Kim included. So, would you consider her independent? A free agent? I’d be more inclined to say something like, “Kim is enslaved to the wills of men.” That feels more accurate. So, when she and Chris spend one night together and then decide that they’re in love, what do you think motivates Kim to come to the conclusion that she has fallen for Chris? I think it’s because she knows that “love” with an American soldier equals escape, even if it means binding herself to the soldier as his wife, which is exactly what she does. And on top of that, the only means of exerting her agency in such a situation is with her sexuality – she is only set apart from the rest of the women because of her virginity, and is made to be seen as more desirable to the patrons because so. Oh, and it’s also literally all Chris knows about her before he takes her to a room to have sex with her because his buddy paid for it. The buds of true romance, apparently.
So, three years later after one night with Chris and she’s still in love but he has a new American wife. So she makes it her objective to have Chris take Tam with him back to America to give him the life she wants for him, and kills herself once she accomplishes this. The text would like you to interpret this as her tragic yet heroic ending. And it is tragic, but not because she shares one last kiss with Chris (we’ll talk about this later) and then dies in his arms. It’s tragic because Kim perceives her role as Vietnamese mother as inherently less valuable than that of American father. It’s tragic because she thinks Tam will have a better life if his mother is dead but he gets to live with his American father. She sees herself as fundamentally less valuable a life than that of Chris. She is not a tragic hero, but a sad mother who sees herself as incapable of providing the life she desires for her child. Because she is a woman and Chris is a man. And because she is Vietnamese and he is American.
This is a stance the show advances throughout its duration – that Vietnam is hell and America is heaven. Every common Vietnamese person that the text introduces the audience to wants to get right out Vietnam, without presenting any internal character conflicts about leaving their home or bothering to suggest that there may be any aspects of Vietnamese life that could be preferable over life in America. The text suggests that there is no way a reasonable person could desire to stay in Vietnam. The show’s only prominent character who doesn’t pursue leaving is Thuy, who is also portrayed as 100% angry-communist-American-hating-military-man and whom the audience is offered no reason with which to sympathize. Only evil people could want to stay in Vietnam, apparently.
This brings me to Chris, played by Alistair Brammer. Yes Chris, our All-American, muscular, handsome, moral, caring, and principled American solider…you see where I’m going with this. Just as the text makes every effort to portray Thuy as the force of evil to be despised, there is not a moment when the text does not endorse Chris as the morally superior, white American male savior, the idyllic embodiment of western manhood, above reproach or moral fault. This begins the moment we meet him, when we see him having to be peer pressured to enjoy his time at Dreamland and when we see him attempt to protect Kim from the other men. And after they spend their night together, he decides he’s fallen in love with her after she sings of the death of her family and struggles, which makes him feel a mandate to protect and care for her. His love for her is not based on shared interests or the result of them bonding through shared experiences – he has sex with her, she tells him about her dead parents, and now he is love stricken. The entire basis of him being in love is on the grounds that he feels he must save her. White, savior, complex.
Chris’s actions are never truly brought into serious question at any point in the text. When we find out that he has hidden his history with Kim from Ellen, the audience is not meant to doubt his faithfulness or integrity. Rather, we are expressly meant to sympathize with him for the mental torture that he is enduring. The text emphasizes this in both acts of the play with both Ellen scenes. Even in Ellen’s solo, “Now That I’ve Seen Her/Maybe”, she doesn’t place any blame on Chris for the secrets he’s kept, but rather turns inward to place blame on herself, wondering if now it was her duty to somehow set him free. With this, the text refuses to place any blame or responsibility for the pain Chris has caused others on himself. Rather, he is framed as a victim of circumstance and as man that was simply acting out of the goodness of his heart. When Chris explains himself to Ellen, he even says, “Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?” This line hits the nail right on the head. Miss Saigon refuses to tarnish the goodness of Chris’s character because of his identity as an American man, an ideal to be held up to. Even when Chris kisses Kim before she dies, the text completely ignores the implications of the kiss on Chris’s romantic relationships, as it could be interpreted that his willingness to share in the kiss is indicative of the fact that he is never going to be fully emotionally satisfied with Ellen. But no, the text excuses this as ok because it is the tragic, dramatic conclusion to the tale of two lovers. At this point, I hope I have provided enough evidence to show the flaws with this stance that the performance text takes.
Miss Saigon is a show of immense scope and scale, and famously so. But unfortunately, the production’s flair for the big and grandiose results in a performance text that quite egregiously presents one-dimensional, stereotypical representations of its characters that deserve much more depth and nuance. The show’s devaluation of Vietnam, its culture, and its people – especially its women – coupled with its glorification of America and the modern American man creates a performance text that fails to appreciate or acknowledge the complexities of the characters presented, and instead settles for outdated and recognizable tropes and stereotypes.