Women and their Destinies: Agency (or Lack Thereof) for Women on the Broadway Stage

by Ilana Cohen

Broadway musicals use stereotypes understood by audiences to shed light or comment on truths within society. One stereotype that the American musical utilizes is the stereotype of womanhood and femininity. American women were expected to be graceful, pure, beautiful, and domestic. They were supposed to act demure and dignified at all times and to only concern themselves with domestic issues like being wives and mothers. Anything outside of that was seen as masculine and therefore negative for women. This stereotype, however, is specific to white women, who were held to different standards and expectations than women of other races. Another group stereotyped and fetishized on the American stage was East Asian women. These women were intriguing because they are exotic and mysterious to the Western world as Americentrism makes white the norm and anything else unfamiliar. East Asian women also are expected to behave even more submissively and passively than white women, who were all expected to submit to the dominance of their man. Two musicals that highlight the American musicals use of these stereotypes are Funny Girl and Miss Saigon. While Funny Girl highlights Fanny Brice, a woman who defies all stereotypes of femininity, Miss Saigon focuses on Kim, a traditional East Asian woman who upholds all the stereotypes associated with that. Despite the contrast in Fanny breaking the norms and Kim embracing and upholding them, both of these characters’ relationships end tragically, suggesting the idea that women do not have control over their fates whether or not they conform to stereotypes.

Both Fanny and Kim are starkly contrasted with the other female characters around them to highlight their defiance against and confirmation of stereotypes, respectively, held against these women. The directors intentionally place Fanny on stage with the Ziegfeld girls, the embodiments of American beauty, in order to illustrate the contrast between her femininity and beauty and that of the American ideal.  The Ziegfeld girls were made to create the pinnacle of beauty, most likely to appeal to the masses of men who desire to see something easy on the eyes when they come to the theatre. The directors recreated the Ziegfeld Girl in both their choreography and costuming to embody the ideal American beauty. The ensemble women were all dressed in white, like brides, which symbolizes purity– a societal expectation at the time– while at the same time the costumes were provocative, as they were made to highlight the female figure. The women were also doing very simple choreography, making them seem meek and not pulling focus– another expectation for women at the time. The synchronous nature of their movement also made the women lack uniqueness, promoting a uniformity. The Ziegfeld girls look demure and beautiful on stage in order to promote an ideal standard of beauty that people would pay to look at. Fanny immediately contrasts with the other women on stage in both her mannerisms and appearance. Fanny wears a less revealing wedding gown and she moves more hunched with a wide stance, both of which make Fanny seem less feminine in comparison to the Ziegfeld girls. Fanny went further than just not upholding these ideals of femininity; she wanted to mock them. Being uncomfortable singing about being the ideal of beauty as the bride, Fanny instead parodies the ideal wedding by coming on stage as a pregnant bride. This choice was bold as weddings were a custom important to American society, that highlights a woman’s purity and beauty, and it would be taboo and completely inappropriate for a bride to be pregnant at her wedding. Fanny’s character lacks the grace and beauty to be the ideal American woman and the purity to be the ideal bride. Her choices purposefully emphasize how far from the stereotype of American femininity she is, and she is proud of that. 

On the other hand, Kim is contrasted with the Engineer’s other prostitutes in order to demonstrate how much she does uphold stereotypes held about East Asian women. The other prostitutes both look and act promiscuous. Similar to the Ziegfeld girls, the prostitutes’ costumes highlight their figure, but their costumes are more like lingerie, making them look more trashy, while the Ziegfeld girls’ costumes were made to make them look beautiful and desirable. While the other prostitutes paraded around in bras and short shorts, Kim wore a traditional, white dress that went up to her neck and down to her knees. The costume designer intentionally used the white dress contrasted against the colorful lingerie to highlight Kim’s innocence and purity. Her conservative dress made Kim seem more mysterious, a stereotype of East Asian women, as it left more up to the imagination in terms of what her body looked like. The other prostitutes also moved around the stage and danced with bold, sexual movements to draw attention towards themselves and promote their wildness while Kim was more stoic to make her seem more dignified. The Engineer uses Kim’s disparity from the other girls for his own financial gain, as he is aware that her exotic, mysterious aura combined with her purity would make her very desirable to the American soldiers. 

Though Fanny spends most of the musical defying all stereotypes of femininity, both Fanny and Kim perform songs about the sacrifices they are willing to make for men and for love– which is an action consistent with stereotypes of women as accommodating to the man always.  “I’d Give My Life for You” gives insight into Kim’s character as it expresses her deep devotion and love for Chris and to her son, Tam, while also perpetuating the stereotypes of East Asian women as passive and subservient. The lyrics of the song express Kim’s loyalty and willingness to make sacrifices for her love. She is overly trusting, believing that Chris will come back to her, which gives Chris all the power in the relationship, as Kim is completely dependent on Chris’s decision. Kim admits how intimately and deeply she feels for Chris through the lyrics which state how she thinks about him all the time. While the melody and the lyrics of the song show Kim’s feelings as pure and true, the lyrics also present Kim as subservient and passive in her relationship with Chris, which is problematic because it reinforces stereotypes of East Asian women as desirable because they are submissive to their men. As an audience member, one might wish she was less open about how deeply she loves Chris and how willing she is to make sacrifices for their love because it emphasizes the stereotype of East Asian women as subservient. However, the audience still roots for Kim to succeed in love because the lyrics expose how genuine her feelings are and can relate to her willingness to sacrifice for her child– as the feeling of motherly care and protection is universal. While Fanny’s willingness to give up her career opportunity in the theatre to pursue Nick Arnstein goes against the rest of what the audience knows about her character, a woman who does not conform to the actions of the ideal American female, the way in which she performs the song “Don’t Rain on my Parade” can be seen as consistent with her persona as a defiant woman, breaking stereotypes. From the beginning of the song, Fanny refuses to listen to the reasoning or concerns of any of the other men and women on stage. She knows what she wants and is going to go after it despite what anyone thinks, this ambition and stubbornness is more of a masculine trait because women were not supposed to have great ambitions beyond being wives and mothers at the time, and women especially would not refuse to listen to the advice of a man. As the song progresses Fanny is alone on stage, making it clear to the audience that Fanny is the only one making decisions for her and that she is solely and completely in control of her destiny. Unlike Kim, Fanny is making the decisions in her relationship, chasing Nick instead of waiting and hoping he will come back to her. While both Fanny and Kim have faith and trust in their relationships, truly believing that they will work out in the end, Fanny performs with much more confidence because she is the one making the decisions in the relationship, so she can be more sure of the outcome. 

Despite the audiences wanting Fanny and Kim to succeed, as they are both sympathetic, relatable characters, both of these musicals end tragically, with failed relationships. The writers of these shows may be conveying a message that whether you defy stereotypes or not, it is very difficult for women at this time to be happy and fulfilled, as society allows men to do what they want and women must deal with their choices. Both Fanny and Kim were fiercely loyal and loving partners, but that did not guarantee them happily ever after. Fanny’s lack of stereotypical femininity may have been what intrigued Nick initially, but her ambition and success were too much for Nick to handle. Feeling emasculated by Fanny’s lack of femininity, Nick gets involved in illegal business dealings in order to find some of his own success, and he ends up in prison. Similarly, Kim’s conformity to the stereotypes of Eastern Asian women was what drew Chris to her in the first place, but her passivity makes it so she will not fight for her love once she finds out Chris had moved on and remarried. The harsh and problematic lesson learned by seeing the tragic endings for both of these women is that even if women attempt to control their own destinies or not, at least in terms of relationships, men still have the power to choose the fate for them, their relationship, and their women.

Musical characters

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Your analysis of both characters is very interesting considering the stereotypes that each perpetuates. I particularly like your mention of the fact that love is included and prominent in both of their stories. In almost every musical, play, movie, show, etc., love is involved if the woman is the main character. Even Fanny who seems to want to defy stereotypes falls under this of wanting love so bad. When we think of Kim, as you mentioned, we are almost taken aback at how much she sings about her want for love and perhaps wish she would not so much. As a result, we almost root for Kim to get this love because it seems like it will be the only thing to fulfill what seems like such a helpless life she lives. It is also interesting to think about how both end with the failed relationships. This only conveys that even when love seems so central to one’s life, it is never guaranteed. Like you mentioned, women have no control over their destinies no matter how hard they work for love or not. Often times, unfortunately, the man plays a large role in how this aspect goes. Lastly, the point you made about how both women in the plays were contrasted against others on stage in their attire and outfits really does a good job of exemplifying the characteristics of each. For Fanny, it is her defiance of gendered norms, and for Kim, it is her innocence and youth in such a promiscuous environment. I had never considered a direct comparison of the similarities and differences between these two women, but I think you did a great job at analyzing them.

    Liked by 1 person

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