The King and I: The Lab Report

In the world of reductionist scientific studies, scientists have created a pretty set system to determine if one thing has an impact on another or not. First, you want to eliminate confounding variables to ensure that the only difference in what you are looking at is the “independent” variable you put in place. This way, you can ensure that any difference in results, or dependent variables, between groups is due to the independent variable, not another factor. Even more importantly, if you find that there is no significant difference in results, then you can conclude that the independent variable doesn’t have an impact on the dependent variable you are studying, but this is far from the case when looking at the intersection of race and gender in The King and I. Anna, portrayed by Kelli O’Hara in the 2015 revival, is the new White and Western school teacher who comes to Siam, an Eastern oriental country, to teach the royal children of the king. Lady Thiang, as portrayed by Ruthie Ann Miles, is the first wife of the king, whose son is heir to the throne. From a gender standpoint, Anna and Lady Thiang look very similar in what is contributing to their roles and expectations as a female (this will be our results, or dependent variable). They are both middle aged, have a young boy, and both are doing seemingly well for themselves (confounding variables… accounted for!). However, they are of a very different race and culture (you guessed it: independent variable), and this difference does in fact cause a strong impact on the manifestation of their gender roles and characteristics. 

There are many examples where we see the contrast in Anna and Lady Thiang’s expected gender roles and stereotypes portrayed through both the show’s creators and the actors’ choices made in portraying their characters. Their external appearance, approaches to teaching, how the two interact differently with the king and the children, and their view on love are all areas where we see these differences in what it means to be a female for characters of a different race. 

The way women are expected to dress is a part of gender norms, and has been throughout time. This norm is not only constantly evolving, but is seen to be different across cultures and races. This is seen so clearly in the example of Anna and Lady Thaing. Although both are dressed precisely to their own culture and race’s expectation of gender, that expectation is different between the two of them. Anna is in a big skirt, almost obnoxiously wide. In the first scene where they meet Anna, the wives of the king run over to look at her skirt because they think she “wear big skirt like that because [she] shaped like that,” in the words of Lady Thiang. This shows that this is something they have never in their lives seen before, even though this is what is totally normal for Anna. It’s not just something acceptable for her to wear, but what is expected of her by the race she knows and the society she comes from. In contrast, Lady Thiang is dressed like the other wives of the king, very differently than Anna. Her dress falls with her body and she wears elaborate gold jewelry and accents on her dress, showing her wealth and status in a very different way than Anna’s beautiful silk. 

We also see a difference in their teaching style and actions in the song “Getting to Know You”. Lady Thiang’s teaching can be described by one prop: her stick. She is aggressive and points her stick at the map, then at the children, and not kindly by any means. She uses a harsh tone and insists that the children stay in line. Anna, when handed the stick, gives a look of confusion, and then laughs and puts it down in replace of a book, reflecting the opposite of Lady Thiang. The book shows she is educational, not strict like the stick. Anna smiles and nods at the children, encouraging them to learn and ask questions. She shows the traits of being personable, people-oriented, and good with children, she even sits on the floor with them and holds their hands. When the singing and dancing of “Getting to Know You” begins, we see these differences in their roles as women amplified. While Anna sings and interacts with the children, Lady Thiang stands in the back, hands folded, looking straight ahead. She only steps in when Anna interacts with the other wives of the king, getting them to act like her rather than Lady Thiang, which is communicated as unacceptable through her sharp scolds and clapping of her hands. Anna is the creator of the “unscientific” classroom the King describes at the end of the scene, while Lady Thiang is constantly trying to keep the obedience and order. 

Anna and Lady Thiang also reflect a great difference in their expected gender roles in how they interact with the king and the children. Lady Thiang does whatever the king desires. She is his servant. Anna, although she shows him respect, stands up for herself. She refuses to be a servant and won’t let him belittle her. She even shows a little sass towards the king in their first encounter not only by claiming to be 153, but also by giving him a half eye roll and holding her chin high in the air right after. This shows confidence and assertiveness to the king, and is something Lady Thiang would never do. These two women also interact very differently with the children. Anna is warm. She smiles sweetly at them, and always seems overjoyed to see them. She welcomes them by reaching out her arms. She is right in their mix, sitting on the ground, holding their hands, and even running with the children. Lady Thiang and the other wives of the king, although still loving the children, express that love in a very different way. When at school or in front of the king, they are much more cautious about their actions, and have much less physical affection for the children. Lady Thiang stays back from the children, keeps her distance, and portrays a very stoic persona. 

Anna and Lady Thiang also have very different perspectives on love and romance, which is one of the most stereotypical aspects of the female gender. Tuptim, the new princess who loves a man other than the king, finds a safe person in Anna, but not Lady Thiang. When Lady Thiang is speaking to Anna about this situation, she says, “another man” with squinty eyes and a dead stare, like she is warning, or even threatening, Tuptim. Anna, however, is all about the love Tuptim has for another man. She says “poor child”, describing Tuptim, with a pain in her voice. She looks away from Lady tiang like she can’t even bear to hear what she is telling her. Lady Thiang responds saying “it is strange for school teacher to talk so romantic.” To us, this is the opposite of strange. This is one of the most known stereotypes of females. Females are supposed to be boy crazy, wanting a romantic love, someone to emotionally sweep them off their feet. But because of the culture surrounding her race, to Lady Thiang this is strange. It is against the norm. Anna soon goes on to sing of Tom, her late husband, in “Hello Young Lovers”. This is a scene the audience has seen a million times. Think of “Hopelessly Devoted” in Grease, and every other scene similar. Girls in love, helpless over a man. But Lady Thiang has never seen this scene before, and that is revealed to the audience through the confusion in Lady Thiang’s face the moment Anna begins to sing and every moment after. She won’t take her eyes off of Anna, cautiously waiting for what she might say next.  It is almost as if we see Lady Thiang understand what love is the first time. 

In their first scene together, Lady Thiang refers to Anna as “Sir.” She knows Anna is not quite her definition of female. When Anna questions her on this, Lady Thiang says that it is because she is “not lowly, like a woman.” This shows what might be the greatest difference between the roles of these two women: where they find their worth. To Lady Thiang, the king is everything. Serving him, being obedient to him, whatever that may look like, is her life as a female. Anna is different. Her role as a female is to show love to the children and to others, while also staying true to herself. She is romantic and loving, the set female gender norm. Lady Thiang is obedient and devoted, and that is the set female gender norm, too, just in a different race and culture. With confounding variables accounted for, these many differences in gender roles and expectations portrayed through Anna and Lady Thiang (dependent variables in our two groups) are deemed significant, showing that race and culture are in fact significant independent variables when it comes to gender expectations. Looking at these two women in The King and I shows that the intersectionality of gender and race cannot be ignored. You can’t properly understand one without looking at the other. Race and culture impact the “norm” of what a gender norm is, and how that is expressed. In our “future directions,” we need to continuously recognize the importance of that intersectionality when reflecting on gender norms and expectations in all situations.

Musical characters

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Abby, I LOVE your connection to science. As a STEM girl who loves theatre, the intro really pulled me in. All of your examples are so well thought out and connected, and I love the way you examined the two characters’ interactions. They are quite literally each others’ exact opposite, and you do a fantastic job of making that evident. Anna and Lady Thiang are both, in my opinion, great examples of the way that women are viewed in society but by different people. Of course, Lady Thiang’s race and culture impact her attitude and demeanor, but we can also look at this as if Lady Thiang is how men view women and Anna as how women view women. We think we are strong and smart and loving (and we are), but sometimes men decide that we are supposed to be submissive, only caring for them and their offspring, and naive. I think this says something about how Siam’s culture is portrayed by this musical. Eastern cultures are portrayed as “less” because they allow men to dictate their countries (which is funny, because this is exactly how our own world seems to work sometimes), while Western culture is seen as better because women seem to have a say (but did they really in 1860??? i’m not convinced). Anyway, this probably doesn’t make any sense, but I really enjoyed your essay and it really made me think!

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  2. Abby, 

    You have such an intriguing opening! It gives me war flashbacks to Experimental Designs class and I have to keep reading! You analysed the contrast between Lady Thiang and Anna’s gender expression through different scene and songs very well, and I especially like how you tied their differences not only to their own behaviors but the attitude of other people around them. I really like your analysis of Lady Thiang’s stick as opposed to Anna’s book because I have never thought of her stick as something aggressive, more of something for her to lean on (because the King isn’t… you know, the best person for that haha). That makes me think that there is another layer to the character of Lady Thiang too – a side that is harsh but is in fact the backbone of the royal family and it is why she has to be tough and aggressive. 

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