Everyone wants to play the hero. In every story, the audience bears witness to the transformative journey of a character, or characters, who gain the strength to face the challenges inherent in a narrative plot. The musical stage is no different. What was once a role restricted to prototypical protagonists–white, straight, males– has become a place where people with marginalized people can tell their story. Still, representation on the musical stage has not come without a cost, especially for characters with intersecting identities. While book writers and societal pressures alike allowed some authoritative roles to women relatively early in Broadway history, victimless roles were reserved for white actresses only. Broadway is yet another space where white women use their racial identity to transcend the boundaries of a patriarchal society while feminist movements leave women of color powerless. Through race, white women are allowed to be the heroes– or the saviors– of the Broadway musical, while women of color routinely exist only as objects that need saving. Portrayals of women of color on Broadway are one artistic showcase of the shortcomings of white feminism.
In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, protagonist Anna Leonowens is everything you would not expect from a powerful leading woman: widowed, homeless, and technically foreign. Still, her independence, strong will, and most importantly, whiteness, give her an aura of authority that challenges even the King’s. Notably, Anna’s authority is assumed both from herself and from those around her. Imperialism has taught whites and non-whites alike that whiteness is superior– that non-Western cultures must be cleansed by whiteness. This idea permeates theater just as it permeates politics. From open to close, Anna is destined to be the story’s savior.
In Boublil and Schönberg’s Miss Saigon, Kim is meek but passionate, indigent but loyal, devoted and humble. Kim’s story is defined by contrast. The musical begins in a brothel with scantily dressed women who vie for the attention of handsy men. In her modest dress and with her young face, she is the one who attracts the handsome American soldier. At first glance, this single act may seem empowering to young women– the modest girl gets the guy. However, this premise, at its core, is rooted in slut-shaming. As such, it is inherently anti-feminist. The story line fails to redeem itself and only further victimizes Kim. While her love story begins to seem like it will save her from her impoverished conditions, it only makes her more vulnerable and sets up her tragic ending.
Despite their drastic dissimilarities in background, Anna and Kim still have much in common. They’ve both experienced tragic loss, been thrown into new environments, and must rely on the wills of men for their ultimate destinies. Though their initial circumstances may give them a similar perspective on their surroundings, they are unmatched when it comes to their capacities to shape their own outcomes. Anna is adamant about getting what she wants; she expresses her desires fiercely and openly. Kim is steadfast in knowing what she wants; but conversely to Anna, her life is largely a waiting game. She lacks control. Anna is active while Kim is passive. Anna becomes the savior while Kim must be saved. This staunch difference between the two characters culminates in their ultimate fates at the end of the respective shows. Anna is praised for her Western wisdom while Kim is respected for her most basic feminine quality: motherliness. Even though both characters are fighting the same war as women against the patriarchy, they are unevenly equipped to fight their respective battles. American society expects women of color to fight the same war as white women when given half the resources and twice the battles. This shortcoming reflects on Broadway just as it does it American politics.
Anna’s identity as a white Westerner allows her to surpass most constraints she faces as a woman. Even as the “other”, Anna’s whiteness makes her the most powerful character in The King and I. From the second she steps foot in Siam, viewers understand that the writers are framing her as the hero. She is easily identifiable as the “good guy.” She’s kind, she’s likable, and she voluntarily teaches English to brown children. Rodgers and Hammerstein immediately give Anna a believable moral authority that shapes how she moves throughout the show, and how other characters move around her. This authority develops and culminates in her ability to persuade the king to do “what’s right” at the end of the show. In essence, Anna convinces the king that he can reach Western standards of goodness. More than gender, race is what defines and divides the relationship between Anna and the king, just as it juxtaposes the relationship between Anna and Kim.
In sharp contrast to Anna, Kim is always powerless in her relationship with Chris, her American soldier. This powerplay is dramaticized by the fact that their story takes place in Kim’s own homeland. At the beginning of the story, the writers may have viewers convinced that Kim’s weakness is solely due to the fact that she is a woman. Given that even today, male domination in a coed relationship is often seen as “natural”, this assumption is, unfortunately, reasonable. However, her relationship with her eventual husband is entirely defined by his needs and desires. But this dynamic is not entirely due to gender norms or differences– when Kim’s undesired suitor, Thuy, obsesses over her, she fiercely takes control. She tells him “no” with strength and dignity; when he further disrespects her, she murders him with no regard to his maleness. However, viewers never see this forceful nature when she is confronted by whiteness. Kim’s submission to Chris aligns perfectly with the widespread supposition that Western culture bows to Eastern culture. Kim showed viewers that she could assert her dominance within her own culture, but she was not able to effectively assert her own desires and needs within her marriage to her American husband. In Miss Saigon, Kim’s relationship to men and to whiteness demonstrates how white feminism fails women of color.
Kim’s relationship to whiteness becomes more apparent in the number, “I Still Believe”, in which viewers finally see Chris’ new, blonde, American wife. Not only is Kim replaced by a “proper”, white wife, but Ellen, Chris’ new wife, has influential power in her relationship with Chris that Kim never had. When Kim and Ellen finally meet, it is obvious that Ellen has authority in their relationship, too. Like Chris, Ellen’s authority comes from her whiteness. In certain respects, Kim’s relationship with Ellen mirrors her relationship to Kim. While Kim and Ellen come from very different cultures, they share the struggle of being viewed as inferior to men in their day-to-day lives. Still, the intersection of Kim’s gender and race is an issue that Ellen does not have to live with or even become aware. Like Anna, Ellen’s whiteness earns her at least a little bit of respect, not only with Kim, but also with her white husband. Viewers can imagine that had they been given the opportunity to witness an interaction between Ellen and the men living in Vietnam, she would have likely been able to assert some sort of power over them as well. Ellen’s whiteness is contrasted perfectly against the background of the Vietnam War, in which white people were acting as “saviors” for the people of Vietnam. The power dynamics brought about by the war would have given her a sense of dominance over even men from Vietnam. The intersectionality of race, gender, and culture within the show present very challenging questions about how appearances shape the power dynamics within their worlds.
As much as actresses Donna Murphy and Eva Noblezada use specific body language to portray their femininity, their movements are just as important in displaying their races. For example, Donna, who plays Anna, is often situated higher than all other characters on the stage. By contrast, Eva, who plays Kim, often crawls across the stage and frequently performs from a kneeling position. These subtle differences highlight the ways in which the characters take up space, which has been an integral subject in modern discussions of feminist and race relations in the United States. The feminist movement centers around not only general equality across gender lines, but also the simple desire to be seen and heard. The King and I makes clear, without explicitly saying so, that Anna believes she is meant to be seen and heard. Conversely, Miss Saigon’s Kim is consistently scared to take up too much space. Together, these shows demonstrate that white women have a certain confidence that women of color lack, largely due to the latter’s exclusion from feminist movements.Art has always reflected the political moment. Art can also help shape the political moment. Broadway writers and performers have a responsibility to at least be conscious of the subliminal messages that exist in any piece of art– but especially their own. Anna of The King and I and Kim of Miss Saigon are multi-dimensional characters that cannot be reduced to single issues, such as race, class, or gender. Their dynamic experiences do not exist in a vacuum. So, while it is a viewer’s responsibility to critically analyze any character or performance, it is also their responsibility to understand them– to explain them with compassion. It is through both a critical analysis and compassionate understanding that we can begin to unravel the intricacies of feminist movements as they are performed– sometimes with subtly– on the Broadway stage.