Women on Broadway: Fetishized and Tokenized

Tall, thin, and white. The typical American standard for beauty is one we are all familiar with, and one that permeates our media and entertainment, including Broadway. Women who do not meet these standards have faced, and continue to face, prejudice, discrimination, and harmful stereotypes. Being such a creative and influential medium, one would assume that Broadway shows featuring non-white women would use this platform to empower these individuals. So, how do these, mainly white male, creators of Broadway shows choose to communicate the complex intersectionality between gender and race through these characters? They often do so by fetishizing or tokenizing them.

Funny Girl, written by Isobel Lennart in 1964 with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, follows Fanny Brice, a Jewish performer during the Ziegfeld era. In the show, Ziegfeld invites Brice to join the Ziegfeld Follies. However, instead of joining the ensemble, she stars as a comedian. In 1989, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil premiered Miss Saigon, a musical set during the end Vietnam War. This production features a young, Vietnamese woman who falls in love with an American soldier. Based on these simplistic descriptions, these shows may not seem inherently problematic. After all, these female characters represent racial and ethnic identities which often do not reach the spotlight. However, the book, lyrics, dialogue and other theatrical elements in both of these musicals paint patriarchal narratives which either tokenize or fetishize these women which, in effect, furthers racial and ethnic stereotypes.

At the start of Michael Mayer’s revival of Funny Girl, Sheridan Smith, the actor who plays Brice,uses her clunky movements, wacky facial expressions, and at times, booming voice to create a stark contrast between her and the uniform Ziegfeld dancers. In addition to Smith’s acting choices, her character wears unflattering, baggy shorts, and a loose, collared shirt and tie. This costume’s masculine design creates a visual effect that accentuates the difference between Smith’s body type and height from the other dancers Additionally, earlier in the song, Brice’s mother sings, “Is a nose with deviation, Such a crime against the nation?” Though not explicitly stated in the show, the real Fanny Brice was Jewish, and one can assume the reference to her nose alludes to the association of Jewish people and large noses. To drive the point home, the supporting male characters tell Brice, “If a girl isn’t pretty, like a Miss Atlantic City, She’s a real Miss Nobody, U.S.A.” The song confirms for the audience that the performing world will reject Brice because she does not have the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon appearance. Luckily, Brice persists.

If not evident already, the oppressive patriarchal nature of the show appears in Brice’s first performance in Ziegfeld’s show in the song, “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Silently, Zeigfeld girls in sparking, white lingerie reminiscent of wedding dresses flood the stage while male performers dressed in white tuxedos sing about beautiful brides. In what can only be described as an uncomfortable waddle, Brice appears onstage with a blanket tucked under her dress to appear pregnant. Brice parodies the idea of a “justifiable bride” by implying the scene now represents a shotgun wedding. I highlight this scene because, although in the moment, Funny Girl seems to make a commentary on the ridiculously misogynist nature of these performances, Ziegfeld uses this as an opportunity to tokenize Brice. Instead of making a substantive statement on the unachievable standards of beauty, the show continuously singles out Brice for her differences in order to make the audience at Ziegfeld’s shows laugh. She becomes the “Funny Girl.” Not to be misconstrued, Smith’s interpretation of Brice engages the audience and demonstrates her range as an actor. Especially during scenes where Brice performs comedy for Ziegfeld’s show, Smith exudes confident and impeccable comedic time. However, no matter how strong and empowering Smith tries to make Brice, the plot binds her to her status as a woman who later gives up her power in order to satisfy society’s obsession with a subservient wife.

Later in the show, Brice marries Nick Arnstein, played by Darius Campbell. Arnstein enters the show as the classic white, male savior. His costumes consist almost exclusively of suits which complement Campbell’s shoulders-back, head-high posture, all the while exuding an air of unearned confidence. His character tokenizes Brice as well. During the song he and Brice share, “I Want To Be Seen With You,” he literally says, “I want to be seen, be seen with you, With you on my arm, To wear you like a charm, Your glitter decorating my arm… The gossips will press… Know what? So what!” The lyrics demonstrate that Arnstein views Brice like a charm, or token, to display. Nowhere does this song illustrate his respect for her talent or personality. Surprisingly, Smith makes the acting choice to coyly roll her eyes and flirt with him. Even though Brice becomes a self-made success, eventually she puts her own career on hold to be with Arnstein, just because he is willing to be seen with her. Near the end of the show, Arnstein participates in shady business, landing him in jail. Brice tells Ziegfeld she wants to quit show business, give up all her power, just to satisfy her husband. Just for male approval. In the end, the man she allowed to dominate her life and tokenize her identity, tells her he wants a divorce. Seated at her dressing room mirror, Brice looks at herself crying, and slowly pulls herself together. Smith makes a swift movement to pull off her robe revealing a sparkly dress, and ends the show belting, “Nobody is gonna rain on my parade,” standing triumphantly, arms strong in the air. Smith’s quick 180 turn from sad to resilient tries to take back the power Brice loses throughout the show. Honestly, it feels like a cop-out by the authors of the show as they attempt to end on an uplifting note, both literally and figuratively.

Laurence Connor’s revival of Miss Saigon, tells a very different story. From the start, Kim, played by Emily Bautista, has no power. After American soldiers burn down her village, she arrives at a brothel run by a man named the Engineer. Through the costume design, the scene establishes a clear dichotomy between Kim and the sex workers. She wears a plain, cream-colored dress which represents her virginity. The engineer immediately objectifies her, “Men pay the moon to get fresh meat.” The sex workers surrounding her wear brightly colored bras and underwear, which they changed into once they heard American soldiers were coming. From the first moment of the show, all the Vietnamese female characters are defined by their overt sex-appeal for the American men. During the song, “The Heat Is On In Saigon,” the lighting design includes flashing neon lights the scenic design choice of scattered chairs and bars creates as strip club environment. Suddenly, the sound cuts and focus turns to Kim who appears on a platform. The lights turn white, illuminating her dress. Bautista keeps her arms tight by her side and sings directly to the audience about her dreams. The movement choice by Bautista, or lack thereof, distinguishes Kim from the other dancers whose bodies move freely. Chris, played by Anthony Festa, the shows white male savior, looks to Kim with infatuated interest. From a hopeless romantic lens, it appears he has fallen in love at first sight. However, at this point in the show, all he knows about Kim is that she is Vietnamese and a virgin. So really, one has to assume her virginity peaks her interest, furthering her objectification by men. Even though Chris inadvertently tells Kim in “Sun and Moon,” that she is, “like a mystery, I’m from a different world that’s so different, From all that you are.” His interest in Kim stems from a fetishization of her as a Vietnamese woman.

Because Kim is both a woman and Vietnamese, she has little to no power to lead her out of her poverty. After spending the night together, Kim has a moment of dominance over Chris. She stands on the stairs, physically above him and belts the tragedy of her parents’ death that she witnessed, all the while drums and horns swell under her. For a moment, it seems as if Chris might recognize the ways in which others with his shared identity, American men, have hurt her. Instead, the show undermines the moment. Kim quickly sits, and Bautista chooses to lower her head and her voice to a whisper, retreating to a state of submission. The music turns soft, and Chris invites Kim to move to America with him.

The show portrays the elements of Kim’s identity, being a woman and Vietnamese, as inferior to being a man and/or American. By being a man, Chris gets to call all the shots. He goes back to America, a safe place compared to the Vietnam portrayed in the show, and loves not only Kim, but also his new wife. The authors write Kim’s character, on the other hand, to end up impoverished with a son to raise on her own, while simultaneously pining over her lost love. The show also explicitly shows that, at least to white males, being Vietnamese is inferior as well. An example of this appears when Kim meets Chris’ new wife. Kim walks in wearing a dress similar to that of the day they met. Chris’ wife immediately assumes she must be the maid come to “turn the sheets” because Kim is Vietnamese. Baustista face shifts from pure excitement to utter disbelief when Chris’ wife tells her he remarried. In that moment, told just by the expression on her face, Kim and the audience realize that Chris has chosen an American woman over her, a Vietnamese woman. Kim internalizes the inferiority imposed on her through the fetishization of her for her race and also the patriarchal conditions that leave her with no options. Chris and his new wife determine, “What is right, right for him, right for us, right for Kim,” without actually listening to Kim when she says what is right. The characters with more dominate identities have belittled her so much that she feels her life only has value if she kills herself to force Chris to take their son to America.

When creating characters who differ from conventional standards of beauty or who have foreign identities, oftentimes Broadway musicals simplify or undermine the characters by tokenizing them or fetishizing them. Instead of celebrating diversity, productions like Funny Girl and Miss Saigon use these identities as a convenient method of furthering the plot. Representation matters. Creating shows that incorporate identities that currently go unrepresented should be encouraged. At the same time, simply writing a non-white female character into a show does not undo the innate patriarchal and racist themes. Authors of new production should be mindful of finding ways to empower historically marginalized individuals, not perpetuate hurtful stereotypes.

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Kira, I was immediately drawn in by your title and I was captivated throughout the entire essay. Starting with a question that you include an answer to at the end of your first paragraph allowed me, your audience, to easily follow along with the argument you were trying to make. Additionally, you included great detail when describing the scene or scenes that backed up your arguments. You touched on everything ranging from the smallest details of the actor’s expressions and costume to the entire structure of the production. This attention to detail, as a result, made your connection between Funny Girl and Miss Saigon really powerful as the storyline of these two musicals could not be more different yet they share the same tokenization of underrepresented characters. I completely agree that “simply writing a non-white female character into a show does not undo the innate patriarchal and racist themes.” Lastly, I appreciated how you turned your conclusion into a universal message beyond the two productions that the audience (me) could think about after reading the essay. 

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