The Silence of White Violence: Racialized Perceptions of Masculine Aggression in Miss Saigon

By Maya P.

“Sir, is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see her?” For Miss Saigon characters Chris and Thuy, I am disappointed to say that the answer is both. The 2017 Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil and directed by Laurence Connor (all of whom are white men), is a story of an ill-fated romance between Kim, a young Vietnamese orphan, and Chris, a white American GI during the Vietnam War. In the show, Kim and Chris fall in love before he abandons her, and we watch their separate stories progress until their tragic reunion at the story’s conclusion. During Kim and Chris’ whirlwind romance, Thuy, a cousin to whom Kim was promised by their parents in their youth, is identified as an interfering force in their romance as he constantly tries to track Kim down and claim her as his own. In pursuing Kim romantically, Chris and Thuy similarly threaten and enact physical and emotional violence against Kim – but because Chris is white and Thuy is not, this violence makes Thuy a villain while Chris gets to remain a protagonist. 

In order to understand the way in which Chris and Thuy enact violence against Kim, we first need to understand Kim’s situation. Kim, played by then 20-year-old Eva Noblezada, is a poor, seventeen year old Vietnamese girl whose parents are recent casualties of the Vietnam War. In order to get by, she turns to prostitution in a brothel. There, Chris’ friend John purchases a night with Kim for him, and from the first time they dance, it is clear that their love is written in the stars. They predictably fall in love, they get married, he abandons her when the Americans leave Vietnam, and she is left to care for their child in the ruins of Saigon while being actively pursued by Thuy, who is now a high-ranking Vietnamese army officer. Basically, Kim has every single odd stacked against her – she is young, she is orphaned, she is Vietnamese (i.e. not white), she is a mother, she is poor, she is a woman – and because of that, all of her actions stem from who she is, so she never has any agency and is treated as an object rather than a subject.

If Kim is a package with a “FRAGILE” label on it, the leading men in this musical are postmen who simply have no concept of the phrase “handle with care.” Thuy (played by Devin Ilaw) in particular inflicts overt physical violence onto Kim. When he barges into Kim and Chris’ wedding ceremony, he touches her face and smiles when he speaks to her, but when Chris makes himself (and his “claim” to Kim) known, Thuy seemingly turns in an instant. His face drops, he tenses, he hurls insults at the other women in the brothel. But upon closer examination, Thuy has had this violence within him from the start. He initially grabs Kim by the wrists and aggressively pulls her to him, and he’s simply allowed his violent “nature” to shine through when presented with a competitor. At one point, Thuy draws a gun on Chris, and Kim positions herself in front of the barrel to protect him. Though Thuy does not shoot, he holds the gun there for far too long to have not been thinking about it. He leaves as Chris “saves” Kim by chasing Thuy out at gunpoint.

There is already so much to unpack here. Thuy, a Vietnamese man (more on that later), is positioned immediately as an antagonist in Kim and Chris’ love story who is willing to use violent and even lethal force to get Kim, his “prize [he] can win,” because he thinks he has a right to “have” her. And then he comes back for more. Three years later, Thuy is an official in Vietnam’s communist regime, and with the help of the Engineer, he finds Kim hiding as she waits for Chris to return. He asks her again to marry him, and when she refuses, he orders his troops who had been waiting outside the door to tie her up and take her to a re-education camp, showing us that again, he is willing to kill her if she will not give him what he wants (what he wants being her). Kim is once again trapped with no options, so she reveals the son she had with Chris to Thuy, who once again threatens murder as he holds Tam at knifepoint, and Kim, because she is a mother, has no choice but to shoot Thuy with Chris’ gun. Thuy is shown as a relentless brute who will kill a white man, will think about killing a teenage girl, and will kill an actual toddler in order to get his way and preserve his pride and cultural ideas. His brutality and the way he gets in between Kim and Chris’ star-crossed love makes it such that the audience might even feel that he deserves his death, and even if they feel bad for him, they will hardly consider it a tragedy. 

Thuy also commits emotional violence against her. Even when he is not putting his hands on Kim in their initial encounter,  he invalidates her feelings for Chris, basically telling her that she “belongs” to him, and then dredges up the past trauma of her parents’ death in order to make her feel guilty about not wanting to marry him. And three years later, he forces her to watch as he holds her child hostage and almost kills him. Although it was Kim who pulled the trigger on Thuy, the fact that she had to choose between the death of her child and committing murder is an emotionally violent act in itself. Either way, she will be held responsible for the death of a family member. His entire character is based on a cycle of telling Kim he loves her and then threatening her with death, so, you know, a real stand-up guy.

And then we have Chris, played by Alistair Brammer. On the surface, he is the romantic lead! He is chivalrous, he is Western, he loves Kim and wants to rescue her from her tragic life in Vietnam. But he has the potential to be just as violent as Thuy; we’re just not supposed to think that he is, or at least, we’re not supposed to care. First of all, throughout Act I, he’s either in his army uniform or half-naked (read: having sex with Kim), meaning he’s either a symbol of war and American imperialism or sexually dominant at all times. Secondly, he’s also not particularly gentle around Kim when they first meet, either. Although he never lays a rough hand on her, he’s constantly using excessive force against other men who come near her, such as the other soldier who tries to assalt her or the Engineer, and he also doesn’t try to stop John’s sexual harassment against her, either. Though at first he pays her to leave the brothel, he eventually gives in to the pressures of toxic masculinity when John and the Engineer accuse him of not being interested in her – he takes her back to her room where he takes advantage of her naivete and proceeds to rape her (yes, she allowed him to, but as the musical makes both excessively clear through Noblezada’s portrayal yet also wants us to forget, she is a child). There are also multiple instances later on in the musical where he is an all-around violent guy, such as his pulling a gun on a man asking to use the phone, or spending his entire Big Emotional Solo pushing men asking him for help away from him. Even in moments where he was onstage with Thuy while Thuy was being actively violent, Chris was being violent as well! Remember, he chased Thuy out of the brothel at gunpoint after holding a gun to Thuy’s forehead over Kim’s cowering body. And before Chris leaves, he gives her his gun thinking he is protecting her, but as we later learn, she ended up using this gun to kill herself to ensure Chris took her son with him back to the States. Though he never physically lays a violent hand on Kim, the threat is constantly there. 

Chris also inflicts emotional violence on Kim from the moment he decides to pursue her. Not only does he take advantage of her youth and inexperience in having sex with her, he continues to pursue this relationship with a girl he knows is all kinds of disadvantaged. She is seventeen years old, she is traumatized (she tells him about how her parents were civilian casualties in Chris’ war and how she literally saw their faceless dead bodies, to which he replies, “Can I see you tonight?” and I proceed to vomit a little in my mouth), and she is a prostitute because she cannot afford to eat otherwise. I cannot imagine that anything but good old white American male entitlement could have made him think this was a relationship he could pursue while keeping her emotional stability intact. Although he supposedly loves her, he capitalizes off of her for personal gain (“I saw a world I never knew/ and through her eyes I suffered too/ In spite of all the things that were / I started to believe in her”), which in itself is violent by turning her into nothing more than a stepping stone for Chris’ personal growth. There is an image that I think about a lot when considering the relationship between Kim and Chris: they are alone, center stage, kissing passionately while bathed in an almost heavenly light – but the first thing you notice is Chris’ gun on his hip. Maybe it’s my recent viewing of Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means To Me” talking, but all I can think about while watching this interaction is how easy it would be for him to grab his gun and shoot her in this moment, if only he had wanted to. 

Both Chris and Thuy lord their ability to inflict physical harm over Kim’s head constantly and leave the lingering threat of violence in their wake wherever they go. They both treat her like property. They both use her as a stepping stone for fulfillment of their personal narratives. And yet, why do we hate Thuy and sympathize with Chris? The answer is..you guessed it, Racism! Thuy is introduced as Kim’s suitor via arranged marriage (bonus points: he’s her cousin), and believes he is entitled to Kim because of it. Kim states that “I am not a prize you can win” (yay women empowerment?), then turns to Chris and explains to him that they were promised to each other four years ago (to which Chris nods sagely and understandingly, as if to say “ah yes, your oppressive culture, I know of it”). Thuy is painted as an embodiment of Vietnamese culture and attitudes towards women, which are represented as repressive and primitive. Meanwhile, Chris in his army uniform represents American chivalry and progressive Western values (which we American women know to be true because we definitely do not have to worry about walking home alone in the dark. All I am saying is that you can tell this production was directed by a white man). The Western audience wants to believe that Chris is the good guy, that his violence is acceptable because he is a soldier, because he loves Kim, and maybe, just maybe, because we’re just so used to white male violence that we are blind to how it pervades our American culture and we (women) have to ignore and forget about it just to get through our day. 

Chris and Thuy are so similar. They play tug-of-war with this poor girl’s life, and in the end it tears her apart – she dies via Chris’ gun in Chris’ arms, and the tragedy of her death is overshadowed by Chris’ grief about it. In comparing the way these two men inflict physical and emotional violence onto this vulnerable woman, we are forced to confront how pervasive masculine violence is in our lives and how racism impacts how we see it. All men are capable of violence, but our white supremacist culture allows us brush it off or justify it when a woman is a casualty of fighting a culture perceived to be uncivilized, repressive, or just flat out wrong. Our perception of violence as something perpetrated by non-Western cultures, by men of color, lets us ignore the more sinister forms of violence enacted upon women (women of color in particular) by white men – violence that isn’t even subtle. It’s right in front of us, the gun is on their hip, and white supremacist narratives like this one convince us that it’s just not that big a deal. And pulling the trigger gets easier. 

Musical characters

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. First thing to note is that this is technically pretty good. You keep your own voice throughout the piece and intersperse commentary that keeps the tone interesting and lively. I never considered a few of the points about Chris (he was one of the characters I wrote about too; about his representing the dominating American that goes to install a Western government under the guise of protection from communism), particularly his behavior in the wedding scene with Thuy. He takes a dominant role when he knows he can win, while Thuy is backpedaling, but when a duel could be a gamble, he allows his would-be bride to take a bullet for him. He treats Kim as a way to get what he wants, but since his desires for catharsis and domestic domination are less tangible than Thuy’s surface level desire for a wife, we’re expected to treat him as a good guy. Also MAN, I struggled to take any of this show seriously after I was expected to believe that this horribly traumatized, 17 year old girl, who’s been forced into prostitution, would legitimately fall in love with her first /customer/????? And then she would wait for YEARS to see him again, rather than either adapt to the communist regime or try to flee the country? Their instant romance was the less realistic than anything I may have ever seen on stage, and yet it was the cornerstone for the entire plot.

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  2. Maya,
    Can I just say, I absolutely LOVE your voice. I think throughout this essay you were unique and identifiable in tone, from the beginning quote of “gun in your pocket” being tied to the core theme of the essay all the way to the final “trigger” motif at the concluding sentence. Furthermore, I was absolutely enthralled by your structuring of both sentences and the larger essay, as I found myself falling into it and being immersed extremely easily. Now, your substance happens to be in lockstep with your voice, as they both are plentiful throughout the piece. Perhaps my favorite moment was in your nuanced explanation of how by giving Kim the gun, Chris was killing her. This “tragedy of ironies” effect is present throughout your analysis of Kim and Chris’s romance. Indeed, I also appreciated your really sharp critique of the Thuy character. Thuy is essentially created as a dogwhistle for us to see a rival to Chris, and I think you attacked that really nicely. All in all, I absolutely loved your work here.

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  3. Maya,

    I love the structure of this essay! I also really enjoyed how you primarily contrasted male characters to each other in order to draw conclusions about Kim. Your writing style has a level of casualness paired with sophistication that makes your work easy to read. I enjoyed how you pulled your argument together at the end in order to draw larger conclusions about our society as a whole. Overall, great job!

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  4. Hi Maya!

    I just wrote this all out and then accidentally deleted it so here it goes again.

    Reading your essay gave me new perspective and insight into just how deeply seated the biases of the writers are in the performance text. The distinction you make between explicit actions of violence and the threat of violence – and how these relate to and are portrayed by Thuy and Chris – made me reconsider many moments in the show and then, consequently, shudder. I also wrote about similar themes regarding Thuy, and how we the audience are made to immediately and always think of him as an enemy, a foil to Chris – but they are truly so similar. Upon my first viewing, I found myself (likely as the writers intended) sympathizing with Chris for the chaos a soldier like him would be experiencing, and how that might destabilize his psychological well-being. But you nailed it – Chris’s violent nature and ever-present threat of violence against Kim that he represents cannot be excused. It is from a western and white supremacist bias that we are made to think this is ok, but it truly should not be advanced as an idyllic representation of American masculinity or the superiority of western culture. It’s pretty, pretty……not good.

    Thank you for helping me get deeper beneath the surface of this musical and grasp these insights!

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