By: Tobi Akisanya
It’s a man’s world. I mean really, how sad is that? We live in a patriarchal society dominated by men. It has always been this way and it makes me question if it will always be this way. Even though that sounds extremely negative, it is what it is. The patriarchy is no stranger to the American theatrical stage. After all, the stage is often a reflection of a society’s culture. The patriarchy is just one of many structures of oppression that intersect to create interlocking oppressions (in the words of the Combahee River Collective). The King and I first debuted in the 1950s and tells the story (set in the 1800s) of the headstrong and fierce King of Siam and his interesting and complicated relationship with the people around him, especially new English teacher/governess Anna. Miss Saigon, based on the opera Madame Butterfly, tells the chilling and devastating story of the complex relationship between Chris, an American soldier during the Vietnam war, and his Vietnamese lover, Kim. Both stories depict the problematic ideals of the era through the nature of the characters as a product of their given era. These eras, of course, were spearheaded by the men who dictated them. Despite the fact that both the King and Chris benefit immensely from the concrete structure of the patriarchy, it is important to consider the implications of race, gender as a performance, and binaries of the East and West as they pertain to their character arcs.
Race gives individuals certain privileges and advantages based on who they are. Chris’s status as a white, American man almost completely contradicts the King’s status as an Asian man. Although both men are able both attain a certain hierarchy that comes with being a man, there are levels that exist within manhood. When factoring race into the equation of manhood it is clear that Chris achieves a hierarchy over a King. Since the King is an actual King, he is accustomed to certain immunities. However, one can experience oppression and elevation at the same time. The King is oppressed by being Asian but not by being a King. A prime example of this is seen when the King is worried about coming across as barbaric to the British. Instead of owning aspects of his own cultural experience to discount the assumption, the King turns to aspects of white and western culture in order to throw off their racist remarks. On the flipside, Chris experiences a double layered elevation of sorts by being white and a man. He uses his position of power to make decisions on the behalf of those who have little to know voice. Chris is allowed to make decisions only concerning his wellbeing, after all, white culture created the rules, he is just a product of it.
We are taught through socialization the ideas of being a man or a woman. Both The King and I and Miss Saigon are set in a time where no one really questioned or outwardly opposed the idea of gender binaries and what makes them problematic. Throughout their respective performances The King and Chris perform masculinity at its highest rank. Within the performance of masculinity, it is almost a requirement to acquire the “tough guy” persona. But, unfortunately, emotions are a sign of weakness for both of these men, or at least they think they are. The performance of masculinity is so restrictive that more often than not it becomes toxic, hence the term toxic masculinity. Even the male characters’ audience members want to give a chance, impose their toxic masculinity on others like a double-edged sword. They stab both themselves and the other people in their lives. Men are given the means to be superior but even they struggle to hold that title, and in the little pieces of the musical we see them struggle. However, it’s never in front of people that they want to do that. They put on a front. But the facade of masculinity must begin to wither at some point. The usage of “I am” songs helps both men ponder the questions that neither know the answers to. In “A Puzzlement” the King comes to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have answers to all of life’s questions–just as no one really does. He realizes that as the world changes around him that it is a struggle for him to create relevant ideas. He worries how his stagnation will affect whoever is next in line for the throne. This musical number, as it is delivered, gives the audience a sense of the King’s discomfort with himself, immediately making him more vulnerable. Similarly, in “Why, God Why?” Chris is haunted by the fact that the memories made in Vietnam will stick with him longer than he wants them to. As he pleads with God, audience members see his face covered in an overwhelming emotion that not even he, a privileged white male, can ignore. The patriarchy, at least in the traditional sense, did not give men the time nor the space to be emotional. In my opinion, men reckoning with their emotions is a relatively modern subject on the American musical stage. These numbers confirm that men are uncomfortable with the idea of confusion; it angers them so much that oftentimes they don’t even want to deal with it. Both men hate the fact that the women around them make them think deeper. But what would men think without the women around them?
The stereotypical Asian character is such a caricature of a false reality created by white people for white people. It is a form of entertainment, of the “other”, in which they (white people) can gawk and laugh at. This type of over exaggeration is evident in the King’s mannerisms. Rather than approaching situations with poise he is overtly animated. His random burst of anger coupled with his broken English—even though it does provide comedic relief—is problematic. When Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil created the role of the King they knowingly/ unknowingly created a character that mocks the Asian race, shaping a false narrative of Asian culture for the white race. Asian characters posed next to white characters make white characters seem even more revered and refined than they actually are, a quality evident in both The King and I and Miss Saigon. In my opinion, Chris is the furthest thing from respectable. He only cares about himself and uses his white privilege to get what he wants. For example, during “The Confrontation”, Chris confirms that his love for Kim is cheap. Rather than moving Kim and his son Tam to America, he decides it will be best for him to provide for them in Thailand, a place even he doesn’t think is good enough for him to reside in. His actions are rooted in himself rather than the people around him that desperately need him, yet the people around him immediately trust him. Why, you might ask? Because he is a white man, and by society’s standards they hold the key to life’s questions. The white race versus any other race was built in opposition creating concrete power structures that individuals, on both ends, are forced to deal with. A character of color is always under suspicion and people are way more likely to believe that white people have superior knowledge. Similarly, with The King and I, what is it about Eastern knowledge that makes it so undesirable? The Western ideology prioritizes the mind and rationality whereas Eastern ideology prioritizes a sense of spirituality. Additionally, Western morality is rooted in the fact that every man is for himself and Eastern morality is rooted in honor and shame culture. But even with these cultural differences why is Western culture seen as superior? Why does Chris’s presence hold a greater force than the King’s? A soldier versus a King yet the solider wins simply because he is a white westerner. The spiritual component of Eastern knowledge systems is often ridiculed and seen as subordinate or illogical in the face of Western rationality.
The combination of gender as a performance, race, and binaries of the East and West are what make Miss Saigon and The King and I what they are. Even though both of the musicals are widely problematic, it would be almost offensive to discount the fact that they are nonetheless phenomenal. Though he is a man, the King does suffer from racism and the discrediting of the East, adding depth and nuance to his character. And Chris, who is beneficiary of white privilege, struggles with the weight that comes with his role in society. Watching both of these men play with the cards they were dealt with in life gave a sense of added knowledge to me as a viewer.