Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist- and Broadway a Little Bit More

BY: Cheyenne Figaro

The Broadway stage is often heralded as a center of creativity, a celebration of culture; however, it is just the opposite. For decades, the very stages that had brought to life Upper West Side in West Side Story and Vietnam in Miss Saigon have also perpetuated racist stereotypes, sometimes as apparent as blackface or yellowface, and other times through the much more subliminal use of lyrics, choreography, and dialogue. The importance of racial distinctions is only built upon when other identities such as gender and class are also interpolated into musicals. For proof of this, look no further than Kim in Miss Saigon and Miss Anna in The King and I. While both women face obstacles because of misogyny, Kim’s race and class cost her much of her autonomy and opportunity while Anna’s whiteness and “civility” gives her the upper hand throughout the production despite often contesting with a monarch.

It would be remiss to venture into the racism and sexism of Miss Saigon, without first touching on the fact that those were fundamental principles of the production. The show is based on Madame Butterfly, a one-act play which follows the same storyline of a fallen Asian woman desperate to meet her white savior, and going to extreme lengths for him to take their child back to America. The show was widely popular, and turned into an opera that was just as successful, before receiving the modern updates that made it Miss Saigon. However, the production wasn’t a celebration of Asian culture as it should have been, instead choosing to go the more American route, making a mockery of an “exotic culture”, and presenting it in a way that made Americans feel like they had to save the China Doll from the woes of her broken down country. These ideals remain ingrained in the modern version, where Kim is presented as an innocent, lost girl needing a strong, patriotic, white army man to come sweep her up. Kim’s entire identity is formed around inferiority but also around her need to be controlled and guided. She is a seventeen year old virgin, and instead of paying for her and setting her free, Chris actually proceeds to have sex with her. Yet, this sordid act is made out to be one of romance, and one of the only times in which Kim is able to voice her opinions, she decides that she wants Chris to buy her, despite the fact that she doesn’t know him from a hole in the wall. This scene heavily conveys the idea that the white patriot is inherently positive for the lost Asian girl, who wants to go with him and be obedient and give him what he wants. Hence, despite prostituting herself, Kim is happy with the outcome of her tryst with Chris and quickly falls in love with him. They sing of staying together even if this is the “Last Night of the World”, because they see themselves as soulmates. Of course, this dream comes crashing down not even fifteen minutes later with Chris leaving Kim behind, but it was good while it lasted, right?

Further into the story, the race and power dynamics between Kim and Chris become more relevant and apparent in the story. Chris leaves Vietnam and one year later gets a new wife. Correction: he gets a new, white wife. In the biggest slap in the face to Kim, he decides that the only way to forget her is to get someone who is the opposite of her. The fact that white, blonde, and affluent just happens to check those boxes is a coincidence, right? No. Although Kim and Chris were married in a non-traditional way, they were still in fact married. His new marriage is a statement of what a real wife should look like: white, clean, and American. She can’t be a lowly prostitute and she isn’t just a fetish for white men as women of other cultures often are. Hence, Chris being bound to Kim through nightmares is supposed to evoke pity from the audience, as we are made to feel bad for this man who is now being “burdened” by his past. Of course, the audience feels bad for Kim’s minor inconveniences too– left with no job, no house, a three year old, and an obsessed army general searching for her– but still Chris. Kim’s being a burden is reiterated when Chris finds out he has a son and instead of beaming with joy is filled with sadness. His son is another burden, and as soon as Ellen realizes Kim is in love, they make a joint decision to leave Chris’s family, Kim and Tam, in Bangkok because that would be the most comfortable to their lifestyle. Thus, Kim has to beg on her knees, sing on her knees, and literally pull out all the stops until her suicide just to get a white man to listen to her, to consider her opinion. Kim, an Asian woman, only experienced freedom throughout her story when she was living in poverty with Tam, and even then she was singing “I Still Believe” and thinking of her white knight in shining armor, because the musical is an endless cycle of American praise. Her autonomy is limited in every way, and yet all of Kim’s decisions revolve around Chris- from having sex instead of running away, remaining in poverty instead of going with Thuy (even if he is her cousin), and lastly taking her own life so that Chris can acknowledge and help their son. Kim’s story is one of fallen glory, of giving your everything to your love (even if they try actively to forget about you for three years and only come back for their son). Yet, Kim is portrayed as a victim of her circumstances, but not as a victim to the racism and misogyny that placed her in those circumstances to begin with. 

Anna’s story juxtaposes Kim’s in so many ways you would think that Broadway is trying to say that white women are inherently better in the face of conflict. Oh wait, that’s precisely what they’re saying. When first introduced to Anna, the words WHITE-WHITE-WHITE flash before the eyes, because she could not stick out more as an embodiment of whiteness. “Whistle a Happy Tune” is all about keeping a poker face when one is afraid, a skill that Anna’s son needs because apparently he is afraid of anyone who dresses differently than him- in this case differently meaning in rags or you know- like they’re poor. Throughout the number, Anna’s class is amplified as she walks with her nose turned high above the common people, as they grovel and run around for the coins that she throws on the floor like they’re pigeons. Her costume, a blue, flowy skirt, white gloves, and a tilted hat, emphasizes her wealth in comparison to the people of Siam dressed in brown and red rags. This wardrobe decision is once again emphasized when Anna speaks to the prime minister. She is nicely dressed whereas he is “half-naked”, already tilting the conversation in her favor as she seems to be more put together (read: ideally Western) than him. If anyone else were to talk back to the Prime Minister they’d surely be punished, but Anna, a white woman, is accepted by the audience as being right in this situation. She’s allowed and expected to talk back, breaking the Siamese way of doing things, because she must invade the space with her whiteness in order to correct their barbaric way of doing things. Thus, the show automatically sets up the dynamic of a fine and proper white woman having to deal with “savage” and poor Asians.

Her relationship with the King is the most apparent example of how Anna’s whiteness makes her superior in positions where women like Kim would be at the bottom of the totem pole. When the King calls her a servant in front of the Royal Children and Wives, Anna responds no, she is not a servant, and she doesn’t have to be in Siam teaching. She is doing him the favor, and reminds him of that loudly, scolding him in front of a large audience and making a fool of him. Anna’s insistence that she is not a servant despite the fact that she is being paid for is a clear contrast from Kim’s role as a prostitute in Miss Saigon. Anna holds strong to the fact that her time and obedience can’t be bought, the opposite of Kim whose virginity is purchased and is sold by the Engineer for an entire day to Chris. Anna also has the autonomy to leave whenever she would like, something that she fully intends to do until the King’s wife has to beg her to stay because the King needed her help. The musical establishes Anna as the person in power in all of her scenes, giving her the same type of white savior storyline as Chris but adding in her femininity as a way of saying that white womanhood trumps even the highest status of foreigners, despite white women being the lowest of white Americans. This idea is reinforced time and time again throughout the musical, most notably when Anna is allowed to have her head at equal height with the King whilst everyone else must bow into tiny “toads” on the floor when he walks in a room. Anna’s equal height, and thus equal importance, to the King is a stark contrast to Kim who spends the majority of Miss Saigon on her knees and staring at the ground. This physical distinction conveys everything that needs to be known about their status and role in their worlds, but also the way that these characters, a white woman and an Asian woman are viewed by American society. Thus, it isn’t peculiar that the entire last scene of The King and I is centered around Siam becoming more westernized instead of the children losing their father, and the wives losing their husband. The King is dying, yet the headlights focus on the Prince reversing every “savage” rule the kingdom has, and the children bowing to Anna in a Western fashion. The lights and dialogue in this scene are meant to move the audience to praise Anna for essentially colonizing Siam without them even knowing. Because while Kim struggled the entire show to get someone to listen to her, Anna was given that privilege the moment she stepped off the dock as a white woman. She is the American that Siam has been waiting for. She teaches them out of their ignorance, she guides them out of their “barbaric” views on love, and she overall uplifts Siam into a more progressive (Western) position.

Both The King and I and Miss Saigon bring color to the Broadway stage as it had never seen before. Full ensembles of Asians and Asian-Americans were revolutionary, and the productions opened up roles for these underrepresented groups in vast amounts. Yet, all representation isn’t positive representation, and both productions painted the picture of Asians- usually poor and uncivilized- needing to be saved by their whiter, more Western counterparts. Though completely unrelated, juxtaposing the roles of Anna and Kim reveals the twisted stereotypes that are perpetuated by the shows, as Anna is given the upper hand throughout her entire show, whilst Kim continues to experience loss and disaster at any moment that she isn’t with Chris. Hence, both roles serve to establish white supremacy in the eyes of misogyny, for Anna’s being a woman never derailed her as much as Kim’s being Asian did throughout their stories.

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.

“Western People Funny”: How Anna’s White Influence Led to Tuptim’s Downfall in The King and I

They think they civilize us whenever they advise us / To learn to make the same mistake / That they are making too. 

These lines follow the King’s wives singing about how “western people funny” in the song of the same name. This is a theme that occurs several times throughout the musical, and unsurprisingly so, considering the premise of the show is that an English woman and her son have moved to Siam in order to teach the King’s children. Throughout the show, Anna exercises  her influence in various ways: through her teachings to the children, her interactions with the King, her “civilized” party for the Englishmen, etc. Her push for things to be done as she sees “proper” is often shown without negative consequences, leading the audience to believe that her way is, in fact, the better way of life for everyone. However, Anna’s Western teachings in an Eastern culture were bound to have negative consequences, and this is the case in the form of one very important character, Tuptim. Over the course of the show, Anna “helps” Tuptim both in learning about Western culture and its ideals as well as in her secret relationship with Lun Tha. This help, despite its good intentions, only leads Tuptim to further pain and suffering with the death of her lover. Due to the cultural differences between Western and Eastern gender roles, Anna’s good-intentioned, but ignorant attempts to help Tuptim eventually lead to Tuptim’s downfall. 

Tuptim and Anna are characterized versions of the stereotypes about Eastern and Western women, which is portrayed both by their character and the actresses’ portrayal of them (for this essay, Na-Young Jeon and Kelli O’Hara as Tuptim and Anna, respectively, from the 2015 revival). In Tuptim’s first appearance, it is apparent that she is important and different from the other women, for the King’s many wives sit around him in purples and deep reds, while she enters wearing white and gold. This contrast continues throughout the musical, with her clothing constantly separating her from the sameness of the other wives. As she enters the room, Tuptim lowers herself before the king in submission, submitting not only to him, but also to the stereotype of the beautiful and submissive Eastern woman. She attempts to break out of this stereotype almost as quickly as she falls into it as she speaks back at the king for accusing her of being a spy, but ultimately becomes submissive to him and his wishes as she accepts her fate as his “present.” Na-Young Jeon illustrates this conflict of tone and actions through the way she fires back at the king in tone while still keeping her face lowered to him as all the women — besides Anna — do. This surprising move by Tuptim is less surprising later on when she mentions wanting to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, referring to it as The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Her knowledge of the novel shows a previous exposure to Western culture, and possible influence, which explains why she both speaks clearer English than Lady Thiang and the other wives and her less submissive nature than the other wives. However, her failure to impose this knowledge coincides with her lack of control in her current situation and in her culture as a female. 

In contrast, Anna represents everything Tuptim aspires to from Western culture. Anna is independent, knowledgeable, and unafraid to stand up for herself. In Anna’s first appearance, she travels alone with her son to an unknown place as the captain attempts to warn her what she is getting into and she promises that she can take care of herself. This independence and complete control of her life and destiny is something that Tuptim desperately lacks and, simultaneously, wants. Kelli O’Hara also uses her costuming and blocking to represent Anna’s “betterness.” In contrast with the red background and surroundings of Siam, Anna wears a lighter colored dress to emphasize her gentleness in a more vicious or barbaric setting. Her dress also serves as a costume that sets her apart from the other women in Siam, and, unlike Tuptim, serves as a constant reminder of her Westerness and its presence in a very different culture. She also highlights her independence further by positioning herself at the higher point of the ship, forcing the captain to look up at her, rather than down as a man in Siam would. O’Hara speaks with a similar tone of voice as Jeon’s Tuptim, however she addresses the man with her head held up in defiance of his questioning her capabilities as a woman alone in the East. Although similar in their characters’ feelings and ideals, Anna and Tuptim are seen by and placed in society completely differently due to the way others view them based on their respective cultures. For Anna, her independence is something that can be supported because it is a Western ideal, however, Tuptim’s culture forces her to be submissive, especially to a man with power over her such as the King.

The King’s relationship with Anna and Tuptim is also very indicative of how the two women are viewed differently despite their similarities. Throughout the musical, Tuptim maintains a quiet resistance to the King due to her love for Lun Tha. Although he is displeased with how she does not feel honored to be with him, he does not show any disdain for her until she openly opposes him during the performance of her play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As the children perform, she hints at her personal connection to the story of Eliza through Na-Young Jeon’s white and gold costume that is similar to Eliza’s (and also correlates to the only other scene where she stood up to the King in the beginning) as well as her hesitation to name certain characters by their character names rather than who they represent in her life, such as Simon and Eliza. However, her emotions become too much and she openly disrespects the King as she lets him know that she feels he has mistreated her and now holds her in slavery as Simon held Eliza. His reaction to this and her later running away is to punish her. Though it is apparent that the King despises women defying him, the violence of his actions is seen as extreme and, most importantly, surprising. This is due to how his multiple arguments with Anna throughout the show have never led to him lashing out violently against her. 

The King’s difference in reactions to the two women is impacted by his different view of Anna due to her Westerness. He constantly refers to Anna as “scientific” and Lady Thiang helps Anna understand this when she questions the head wife for constantly calling her “sir.” Lady Thiang informs her how the King has taught them that women can not be knowledgeable and teachers, or “scientific,” because that is a man’s place. Him allowing Anna — a woman — to teach and share her knowledge, however, shows a conflict to this idea which lets the audience know that the King sees Anna as another. It is obvious that this difference comes from the alienness of their cultures. As the only white woman in the show and the protagonist, the show itself and the King place Anna in an elevated position due to her Westerness (code for whiteness), allowing her to get away with things the King often does not allow women to do, such as argue with him or give him advice, while continuing to show her and her actions, though oppositional, in a positive light. In opposition to this idea, Tuptim, as an Easterner, is shown as being out of place for taking a similar stance to Anna. Her sameness to the women around her, which is illustrated to the similar style clothing of the other wives despite the difference in color, keeps her trapped within the confines of the King’s ideas about how a woman should be and, because she is not white like Anna, he is unable to disassociate her from these ideas. Her Easterness is in direct correlation with her lowliness in his eyes and places her at the bottom of the spectrum versus Anna and her whiteness/Westerness at the top.

The biggest question to be answered is how Anna directly influenced Tuptim to act against the conventions of her culture. Although Anna’s general presence seemingly made the greatest impact as a whole, there were many things she did that directly helped Tuptim develop a Western mindset. First, when the King said Tuptim could help Anna teach the wives English, she begged Anna to lend her books, specifically Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her lending the book to Tuptim allowed Tuptim to understand the morals and beliefs of (some) Westerners that holding someone against their will was wrong and she connected these ideals to her own relationship with the King. Anna also talked to the women about the importance of true love, something they obviously did not consider since they were all in a polygamous relationship with the King and not in love with him but merely doing their duty as his wives. However, her talk influenced Tuptim who was already in love with Lun Tha. Anna went a step further in helping this secret relationship by providing them with ways to be together. There is even a moment in the show when Lun Tha remarks how if Anna were to leave it would be impossible for them to ever be together without her help. The combinations of these ideas and actions facilitated by Anna helped Tuptim commit the acts that went against the King. If she hadn’t introduced Tuptim to her ideals about love and freedom, Tuptim would never have stood up to the King during her play or tried to run away with Lun Tha. She would have remained like the other women: silent and submissive. 

Anna’s insistence upon helping everyone in the castle be more like her when it comes to ideals and morals was good-intentioned, but her ignorance and lack of understanding of the culture made her efforts have some negative impacts. Just as Lady Thiang and the wives said in “Western People Funny,” she believed that her way of life was the proper way and tried to impose that on them only to make them also make mistakes. Her influence led to Lun Tha, Tuptim, and the King’s death, as well as the influence of Western culture being within the mind of the new heir to the throne. Although Siam had many internal problems, Anna was still wrong for imposing her culture and ideals there in order to make it “better.” The show sets her up to be the hero of the story because, like the white creators of the show, she is showing how “white is right.” This idea is especially wrong on the part of the creators through their presentation of Tuptim for making it seem that she would be unable to have the agency to make decisions for herself without the help and influence of a white person. Their ignorant ideas about Eastern cultures and people’s need to have Western influence in order to have a better way of life creates the idea that one is inherently better despite the fact that one cannot be better than the other. In today’s society, though, in both the world and the conflicts of white casting in The King and I over the years are working to deconstruct that idea and to show that what is more important is seeing things from multifaceted perspectives in order to discover the “right” way to live.

Anna and Chris: Feminizing the East, and the White Savior Complex

When I watched The King and I and Miss Saigon, I was confused. People were acting as though the racially accurate casting somehow erased the stereotypically written Asian characters. The shows particularly reminded me of the black actors that broke into the early Broadway scene by wearing blackface and making fun of themselves. I’m all for oppressed groups reclaiming the terms of their oppression, like myself and the LGBTQ+ community reappropriating the term “queer” or the black community with the n-word, but these shows feature no Asian empowerment; only Asian actors playing disempowered, victimized, or otherwise unflatteringly written characters. With that, I noted how racially accurate casting highlighted the problematic nature of the few white characters- The characters of Anna and Chris, from The King and I and Miss Saigon, respectively, perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters and fulfill the inherently racist role of the “civilizing” Westerner.

Despite being opposite genders, Anna and Chris each serve the same gender-focused purpose in their show——they each feminize their Asian cast-mates by comparison. At the beginning of The King and I, Anna is an English governess with a flare for aggressive behavior, as demonstrated in her reprimanding of the king’s advisor. When she enters Siam, she finds herself surrounded by hyper-masculinity and femininity. King Mongkut is aggressive and impulsive, his wives are beautiful and quiet, and his children are obedient. Rather than become emasculated herself, Anna “tames” the masculinity of the King, modeling his new character after the docility of an Englishman (but more on that later). In her own right, Anna brings a positive and empowering air, akin to Mary Poppins’ decisive and rigidly sophisticated nature. Chris takes a similarly masculine role in Miss Saigon, and through him the character of Kim is further feminized. By the beginning of the show, Kim is already a victim of war, and her autonomy is stripped of her when she is forced to turn to prostitution. She plays an obedient and extremely submissive role in her own story, and that fact is exacerbated by the active and assertive role that the muscle-bound Chris plays. He takes power from her particularly when he sleeps with her, not as a lover, but as a buyer. And why is it that Chris falls in love with her, anyway? He explains in the show that his trauma from the war turned him to despair, and that she was one good thing in that hell. It’s a sweet sentiment, but a little less sweet when we consider why exactly she caught his eye. Kim was “not like the other girls” because she was a pure, teenaged, virgin. She was made docile through her trauma and was taken advantage of by her supposed lover. This moment of equating Kim’s purity and worthiness to her virginity and naivety was demeaning and objectifying then, and by today’s standards it is downright sexist. Ultimately, the actions of both Anna and Chris serve to take masculinized power away from the Asians in their lives, furthering the disempowerment of Asian cultures through feminization. 

These characters also exist to perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters through comparison, and to display the White Man’s Burden on stage. Anna is the clearest example of this cultural violence; her purpose in Siam is to educate and civilize. It was clear in her wiseacre demeanor and assertive behavior that she initially regarded the Siamese as less sophisticated than the English, and she never came to truly respect Siam as its own nation. Through the show, her only genuine respect seemed to come when King Mongkut acted European or was dying. She becomes open to understanding the people of Siam in the song “Getting To Know You,” but even in that, she only concedes that the people of Siam aren’t all that bad- she never celebrates, appreciates, or even recognizes their traditional culture as legitimate. Her only respect arrives in achieving her goal of “civilizing” and bringing European values and cultural pieces (clothing, dances, phrases, etc) to Siam. And the moment the King moves to discipline the deserting Tuptim, Anna jumps right back to calling him a barbarian. Interestingly enough, Victorian England carried the same penalty of death for desertion, whether it be for love or not. Soon after, when the King is dying, Anna’s respect for him comes out of a place of pity and guilt, yet never from a place of appreciation of legitimization of Siamese culture. Chris, meanwhile, embodies the white savior complex in a more subtle way. His role in the Vietnam war was, most simply, about protecting Western, capitalistic values and stopping the spread of communism. What he ultimately brought to Saigon was an idolization of Westernism and a negative association with the East. The Engineer actually verbalizes this negative sentiment of his own race on a couple occasions, including his lines, “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs,” and “Greasy ch*nks make life so sleazy.” Chris’ whiteness, whether or not he intended it, became a symbol for success and prosperity, and by contrast, non-whites gained the association of the opposite. Theatre critic Diep Tran described in her americantheatre.org article I Am Miss Saigon, And I Hate It how the characters of the show fall into this trap of American imperialism and white savior discourse, particularly “idolizing whiteness to the point of suicide.” Through Chris, America became synonymous with success, and Vietnam with disaster. 

Still, much of this can be chalked up to the (white) men that wrote these shows without our modern respect and understanding for multiculturalism and gender studies. So how did the actors that played these imperfect characters portray them? All in all, I thought they did a pretty good job with how the characters were written. Kelli O’Hara blended traditional masculinity into femininity, yet could only do so much to improve Anna’s questionably written character. Then again, as I said earlier, her blending of gender norms had some consequences regarding the negative feminization of the Siamese characters, but I digress. I also appreciated that she tried to portray a greater respect in the song “Getting To Know You,” even if the song itself lacks celebration of Siamese culture. She could certainly have taken a stricter, more hard-as-nails approach to the character, and I felt her softer side was well developed, making her a more likeable character than she is otherwise written. Alistair Brammer brought Chris to life as a troubled and traumatized G.I. As written, Chris is not condemned by the show for anything he does, for instance paying to sleep with a 17 year old girl with whom he has an obvious power imbalance. Yet the show wants us to regard him as a “good guy” and strives to focus on his giving Kim money in the opening number, or on his (initial) refusal to sleep with her or another prostitute, or even his return to Bangkok to see her. I felt Brammer and his production did an excellent job of adding focus to the questionable things his character did; for instance, by threatening someone that wanted to use a public telephone with a gun. It would have been easy to play Chris as a simple good guy, but Brammer portrayed him as a character with depth, flaws, and regrets. Again, both the characters of Anna and Chris are highly flawed in their writing, but I believe Brammer and O’Hara each did excellent jobs bringing some modern positivity to unavoidably problematic characters and shows. 

But let’s back up. Does any of this actually matter? In short, yes. I said earlier that Anna and Chris perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters and that their roles are, albeit to varying extents, inherently racist in theory. Anna is a governess meant to bring English “civility” to Siam, and Chris is a drafted G.I. serving in Vietnam to instill Western economic, cultural, and social values. But do I think these reasons should cause the shows to be shunned or retired? Absolutely not. Although the playwrights may have perpetuated some unfortunate stereotypes in their shows, it is up to modern actors and producers to take those shows and perform them respectfully, with dignity, and with a focus on the timeless narratives they aim to tell. Understanding their production’s implications in race, gender, and other social areas is integral to accurately, successfully, and positively performing a piece, and it is for that reason that we as theatre and social critics do what we do.