The Power of Race in Women

While two very different musicals, we can find similarities in the two main characters from Miss Saigon and The King and I. Both productions have a female lead in which love is inevitably part of the story. Miss Saigon is the tragic story about a young Vietnamese women, Kim, who falls in love with an American G.I. right before the fall of Saigon. Her story ends tragically with her sacrificing her own life to give a better life for her son. The musical teaches us a lot about what it means to be a Vietnamese woman during this time and the limitations they face for mobility in society. The next musical up for analysis, The King and I, is about a white woman who comes to the country of Siam to teach Western ways to the King and his many wives and children. In an increasingly westernized Asia, Anna works to teach the children Western ideas that inherently conflict with oriental traditions. This conflict, however, is why Anna is brought to the country, but her disruptions do not come unnoticed in changing the ideals of many of the characters in the musical. Both characters can teach us different things about gender and race in various cultures. This includes the independence and knowledge of the white female in comparison to the desperation and male dependence of the Vietnamese female in a poor country during this time. By looking at both characters carefully we will be able to better understand what it means to have power as women in different contexts and how race and social status impact this experience.

We can begin by understanding the sexism and racial implications of the play Miss Saigon. Kim is a victim of the sexist system present in Asian countries at this time. In the opening scene of the musical we learn that her virginity is her most valuable asset according to the Engineer, the man selling her adolescent body to bargoers. Kim’s innocence is obvious in her doe-eyed expressions and even her costuming. She is one of the only women in the scene not wearing a provocative outfit, but a white dress which, for many, symbolizes virginity and innocence with almost her whole body covered up. We learn that Kim understands that her fate is likely not in her own hands. The song “Dream” teaches us that her only hopes of escaping prostitution include finding a man who is willing to take her far away from her current life to a better life in America. Men are gawking over her in the bar, objectifying her body until Chris comes along and takes her away from the scene in order to protect her. In this setting it is understood that Kim’s character is written to be weak. She has little to no control over her own life as a young Asian woman in a country experiencing war while she is at war with her own reality. Kim’s character seems to be weaker than the other female characters in the musical. At least the other prostitutes seem to move with confidence going with their respective males for the night. Kim on the other hand is reluctant, still young and looking for more than just a one night stand, she is looking for a man to bring her to a better life.

Men dominate the life of Kim. First it is the Engineer who pimps her out to men in a bar while exploiting her virginity as if it is some commodity that deserves to be advertised. Then when Chris comes a long nothing else in the world matters to her except for that man. From that first night everything that she does is out of a love for him and eventually the child of theirs that she bears. Kim’s character is ultimately hopelessly in love with a character who, in my opinion, does not deserve half of it. The only possibility of empowerment for Kim’s character is reuniting with Chris upon arrival to America. We can understand a lot by analyzing the historical context in which Chris and Kim met each other. For Kim, Chris’s promise to get married is everything to her. It is the only promise she has for a new life and an escape from a country that is in its downfall. For Chris, he does not have to face the reality of living in a country as poor as Saigon for the rest of his life. At the end of the day he still gets to return back to America and live a normal life without all the violence and terror that Kim experiences. With this knowledge, it makes it a little more understandable why it is exactly that Kim holds on to this hope with Chris for so long. Her gender, race, and socioeconomic status provide her with no reasonable means to make a life for herself. As a result, she becomes a character who is dependent male support for the rest of her life, which can be seen from the beginning of the musical with the Engineer being the one to bring her into prostitution and determine her fate for the rest of the story.

In The King and I, Anna’s race provides her with a much different fate than that of Kim. Anna’s character is much more strong in herself, embodying power in all the areas that Kim lacks. She is the minority in a palace filled with Siam royalty, but her confidence and self-awareness is of discussion. In “Getting to Know You” Anna sings with genuine emotion and wins over the hearts of the children and all of the King’s wives. Anna shows strength within herself in refusing to take anything less than she deserves from the beginning of the musical. She gets into a heated discussion with the King about the promises he made to her before her arrival, almost leaving when the King does not fulfill his promise to her of her own separate place to stay. In this way she challenges male authority to an extent and displays her power. Unseen by the females in Miss Saigon, could it be Anna’s whiteness and confidence in western ideas that allows her to take on this role? Anna only succumbs to the King’s terms when she meets the children she was assigned to teach. Her love for children and others drives her success in the musical and brings others to like her, including the wives’ of the King. It is not even long before the King is beginning to fall for the charm that Anna embodies with her self-confidence and knowledge.

Throughout the musical Anna continues to relay her Western ideals to the King and others. Upon learning about Tuptim’s love affair she pleads for the King to be more understanding. After the big party Anna challenges the King’s ideas about women, explaining to him the worth that woman have and that women are more than what a man gives them. Soon enough, the two of them are dancing with one another intensifying the relationship they have grown. Her power is exemplified with her teaching the King to dance. In this scene we can see her power beginning to break down the complex the King has up and their romantic relationship start to grow before it is interrupted by some unfortunate news. Anna’s character brings so much joy to those around her showing that confidence in one’s self changes how all characters interact with one another and the ultimate fate of a woman in this time. Anna is unrelinquished in her pursuit for the fair treatment of woman, calling the King out for all of his faults that contradict the western ideals she is trying to impose on him. Her passion for others and confidence in what she believes in drives her character forward.

It is interesting to understand the intersectionality of race and gender for both of these characters and how it is similar, but different for each character. For Kim, the combination of the two provide her with no power. This disadvantage leads to the inevitable fate of her character. Without the authority over herself to make a better life, she succumbs to a lack of self in the ultimate sacrifice of death she makes at the end. On the other hand, the combination of race and gender is what allows Anna’s character such success in the musical. Her western ideas and female charm is what wins over the trust and respect of most characters. She even begins to break down the emotional walls of the King who is the most stubborn character in his Oriental way of thinking. The song “Shall We Dance?” shows how her balanced display of confidence and intelligence wins over the King, opening him up into a more vulnerable state that it seems no other character was able to bring out. It can be argued that this confidence towards pursuing the King proves to be too much in the end, humiliating him in front of his own people, yet ultimately trickling down into the way the new King will plan on ruling his people.

Power has to do not only with one’s self, but interactions with others in all contexts. In the case of these two musicals it is how others see them just as much as how they see themselves which helps us to understand them. Kim is simply pitied and almost abused by those around her while Anna’s place in the story is to come in and help a foreign culture. She has respect from the beginning simply because of her race and the cultural environment of the time. In many contexts, race is one of the largest factors to determine one’s success which has all to do with power. Anna has more power and respect by simply being white, which is something still relevant and extremely prominent today. Therefore, we can understand that power cannot necessarily be earned, yet often times we are born with this right. It leads me to believe that because of Kim’s race and social status she was ever able to have the power that a white woman like Anna had, and the story only highlighted this aspect of her life. It is easy to understand that from these times so long ago not much has changed in the importance of race and the respect you earn from others. Two opposite female characters in Asian countries have the ability to teach us this, a lesson that many have continued to learn and experience.

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  1. I’m interested in your claim that “this includes the independence and knowledge of the white female in comparison to the desperation and male dependence of the Vietnamese female in a poor country during this time.” How true is this? Were white women in England during the time period The King and I actually more free and independent from men than Vietnamese women were during the time period of Miss Saigon? I frankly don’t know enough to make a definitive statement on either, but I do feel like it’s not reading far enough into things to claim that this is what these musicals show. Rather, I think it’s important to note that claiming to be more progressive, especially with regards to things like gender and sexuality, is a common tactic in Western media – I’d like to explore how that’s used in the King and I and Miss Saigon.

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