A dialogue between Sophie Cohen and Lexi Blakes
Sophie: The 2014 West End production of Miss Saigon, originally composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and written by Schönberg and Alain Boublil, was a successful revival of a well-known classic. However, the musical takes a more narrowed approach in describing Vietnamese life and culture than it should have. In Miss Saigon, there is an American tendency to shape the narrative of the Vietnamese characters through an American cultural perspective. In doing so, the musical puts forth female, Asian stereotypes while catering to American nationalism. So let’s get started!
Lexi: In Kim’s character, many of the stereotypes forced upon Asian women can be observed. She is young and in a desperate situation, one that forces her to live at the will of other people. What sets her apart from the other women in the brothel is her timidity, purity and her status as a virgin. The costume designer opted for a white dress when introducing Kim for the first time, to emphasize how central this trait is to her character. This is ultimately why her love interest, a young American soldier named Chris, falls in love with her and wants her as his wife. At first glance, the story seems sweet; it seems like the birth of love amid war and uncertainty. However, once more attention is put into why Chris was drawn to Kim, it becomes clear that the musical is subtly supporting certain views on the ideal women, and even more in this case, the ideal Asian women.
Sophie: I completely agree. While watching the musical, I noticed how Kim is such a stark contrast to the other women in the brothel because of her status as a virgin (which, by the way, should not be a defining characteristic to introduce a character, but here we are). We then see women like Gigi, who use their more seductive sides–hinted at by her use of red lipstick and significantly less clothing–to make money and try to find someone who will take them to America. Side note, America being part of these women’s dreams emphasizes America’s “greatness”, but we’ll discuss that later. Both Gigi and Kim are Vietnamese, so what separates them in this movie and makes Chris more attracted to Kim? Kim’s a young virgin from a foreign land who does not know what she’s doing, while Gigi knows exactly what she wants and actively tries to escape her current situation.
Lexi: For the sake of assuming the best, let’s assume that what took place between Chris and Kim really was true love. Regardless, the characterization of Kim after their time together is still problematic. Once she meets Chris, her identity is framed as an extension of him. She had no real interest in moving to America before, but suddenly, she is completely okay with leaving her home with a man she met only nights before. The internal struggle she must have experienced when having to decide to move to a new place, even if her home was deep in war, is not portrayed, and instead, the writers opted for a more simplified version of Kim who now revolves her life only around Chris. For her situation, this is understandable, but what is not understandable is the almost reduction of the aspects of her own culture, compared to the other girls in the brothel. She becomes entirely obedient, and almost pliable to Chris’s beliefs.
Sophie: So, what does this have to do with race? This scene shows that America is more attracted to the gentle, foreign Vietnamese woman rather than the more independent and headstrong one. Asian women are objectified by the Americans in this show: one who is pure is much more acceptable than the Asian woman who is not pure. In Miss Saigon, being a virgin from a foreign land is objectively “better” because it’s more malleable in the eyes of America.
Lexi: Let’s transition to the other main character: Chris. I think we can both agree that we share a great indifference toward Chris. Personally, I didn’t exactly hate his character, but I didn’t necessarily like him either. Throughout the entire musical, there was a constant nagging feeling in the back of my mind that was whispering “are we supposed to feel sorry for him the entire time?”. I felt empathy when he was forced to leave Kim behind, but after that, it faded in every passing scene.
Sophie: Absolutely. My sympathy for him really faded when Kim’s agency of power became more about furthering Chris’s plotline. Here’s what I don’t understand: Kim’s suicide is supposed to be a powerful moment for Kim. I mean, she takes her own life so that her child can live a better one in America. That takes unconditional love, bravery, and a huge acceptance of fate. So why is her death so focused on Chris’s cries and sadness? Why does she have to die in his arms, the arms of a man who is partially responsible for her death? It’s because under the American narrative that this story is told, the writers want the audience to feel sympathetic for him.
Lexi: I think, if anything, I have a real issue with what Chris represented. In terms of the narrative that is being presented, it seems as though it is done without neutral delivery. It caters toward the American perspective, instead of maintaining neutrality.
Sophie: Exactly, more attention is paid to the American who lost his love rather than the suicide of the Vietnamese main character; “Oh, he lost the love of his life from three years ago who he has nightmares about”; “Oh, now he’ll be reminded about her every time he looks at their child back in America”. No! Not enough attention is directed towards the struggles Kim had to go through for three years without any support. Therefore, her suicide should be about her and her ability to fully exercise her agency and save her son. Kim’s life, and especially her suicide, is shaped by other people (ahem… Chris) who have the ability to control her fate. Instead of her death being an agent of power and determination, as assumed in “I’d Give My Life For You”, she is instead an agent of sympathy for Americans and the narrative is transformed into “Oh no, Kim died!, what does this mean for Chris?”. The tragedies that took place in Vietnam at the time are being used to convince the audience that we should feel bad for these poor Americans.
Lexi: I think the portrayal of Kim’s suicide reinforces how much the musical caters to the American perspective, and the Ameircan characters, more often than not. The musical definitely does a good job in portraying the struggle that took place in Vietnam–the scene with the citizens banging on the gate to the U.S Embassy really showcases this pain–but I think the fact that this is primarily due to American action should be mentioned. Many of the character’s primary drive is to go to America, but I think the complexity behind this is ignored. They want to move to America because they want to escape war, not because moving to America is a dream they have always had. Once again the idea that the white man always deserves our sympathy is suggested. I think the fact that Chris had a home to return to, while the Vietnamese people’s home remained war-torn, is a significant difference that warrants thought and recognition.
Sophie: Moving on from our least favorite character, the Engineer was my favorite character in Miss Saigon. He has a complex backstory and an interesting perspective. But neither of these defines him, as the musical glosses over this complexity to instead focus on his obsession with America. His whole character and personality is defined by his strong desire to go to America.
Lexi: I felt the same about the problematic-ness of the Engineer’s characterization. Does every American production need to scream “I’m proud to be an American and a part of the American dream?”. In his big song “The American Dream”, an inaccurate portrayal of the American dream is created. The stage gets filled with showgirls, a fancy car and money. In regards to how much race and ethnicity affects one’s opportunities within this country, the American dream is a fallacy to a certain extent and isn’t achieved by everyone. It is a winning lottery ticket that not everyone can get, no matter how smart you are or how hard you work. Honestly, while having this in mind while watching this number, it really made me sad. The Engineer is so hopeful for a bright future and the lyrics glaze over the hard work it takes to make a life for oneself in a new place. The lyrics don’t inspire pride within me, as the Engineer sings about learning that “you can sell sh*t and get thanks”, which he “learned from the Yanks”, and how greed is a large part of American business culture.
Sophie: And even despite knowing about issues in American culture, the song still implies that America is the best. He is the main messenger of the idea that American is better than Asian. I mean, he’s completely disconnected from any Asian identity. We only know him as the Engineer, and though his Vietnamese name was mentioned by Thuy, it is pretty easily forgotten. Is this his way of disconnecting himself from any Asian identity because he wants to embrace a “better” American one instead? Yes, yes it is. And let’s not forget about his defining moment and return to the 11 O’clock number all about “The American Dream”. The showstopper number is pretty much a Vietnamese man singing about leaving behind his Vietnamese identity to move to America and adopt a new one.
Lexi: If anything, this song feels like a social commentary, and a satire of die-hard Americans who are blind to the destruction we as a nation have caused in the past. Going from scenes of great sadness and despair in Vietnam to this huge 11 O’Clock number centered around American greatness is a far way away from the emotional, thought provoking ballads that took place earlier in the musical.
Sophie: This reminds me of the song “If You Wanna Die in Bed”, which is sung earlier in the musical, which highlights the economic and racial differences between Vietnam and America. One lyric states “why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs?”. This is a derogatory oversimplification of Vietnamese culture that I am not in favor of. The assumption that anything not valued in American culture is seen as “primitive”, like agriculture or growing rice for instance, and “undeserving of appreciation”. On a global racial front, this suggests that anything besides American or European is “inferior”, thus connecting to a wider issue of racism especially toward Asian countries.
Lexi: In the end, I think what both songs missed is that the Engineer doesn’t want to be American. He just wants to be free from his burdens and be given opportunities; if he could do that as a Vietnamese man in Vietnam, I think he would choose that over Americanization.
Sophie: Miss Saigon is a complex piece of American theater that people love to hate. In it, many complexities surrounding race and ethnicity are explored in a way that negates Vietnamese culture and makes America more important. Through the unique characters and difficult subject matter, audience members get the opportunity to empathize, reflect, and witness the aftermath of war, and the pain and suffering it causes. Regardless of whether it is a personal favorite, over the course of this discussion, we have proven that it is still worth analysis and deep thought. The issues this musical brings up are contemporary and pressing. More discussion about diversity between cultures and the interactions between them should be known. Miss Saigon provides its viewers the opportunity to witness the interaction of two different cultures, while getting a better understanding of how shared experiences create even more similarities and differences between them, and in this case, how one culture overpowers another.