Miscarriage of Representation: Miss Saigon’s Shortcomings

A dialogue between Alyssa Champagne and Nicole Anderson

Introducing: Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon, directed by Nicholas Hytner, illustrates the romantic tragedy between Vietnamese orphan, Kim, who is forced into prostitution and her uncoventional relationship with white American soldier, Chris. This revival is very heavily based on the opera Madame Butterfly produced in 1904 in which a “Geisha” girl falls in love with a white American soldier and has a son with him. Three years later, the soldier finds out about his new child, but his mother kills herself to guarantee her child’s success in America with the father. 

Miss Saigon had its original production open on the West End in 1989 and moved to Broadway shortly after in 1992 (with most of the original cast transitioning to New York as well). It was then revived on the West End in 2014 with its transition to Broadway coming three years later. In both productions, it was wildly popular and very commercially successful, despite it’s controversial casting, problematic plot lines, and origins.

As we were watching Miss Saigon, we came up with a few questions we felt were worthy of discussion– so that’s exactly what we did.

How do the origins of the musical lend itself to the problematic aspects of the plot? How does the failure to edit these aspects affect the musical?

Nicole: The origins lend itself to problematic aspects because much of Kim’s character is based off of a character that was written to be the contrast to the strong, male, western, white, authoritative hero. She is based off of a Geisha girl, who is meant to be submissive and obedient. Already, the main female character is designed from a blueprint of problematic, stereotypical, racially othered, and “mysteriously eastern” caricature of a person. Furthermore, in Madame Butterfly her character cannot even speak. She cannot consent. This notion carries into Miss Saigon by the fact that Kim is bought solely to expand Chris’ sexual adventures. In both stories, this deep and romantic love that the soldier feels for the woman is entirely based on the thrill of being with a woman knowing there won’t be social consequences to it regardless of outcome. The men hold all of the power in their respective relationships. So not only is Kim’s character based off of problematic storytelling, but the plot as a whole is as well.

Alyssa’s Response: I think it’s important to note that Kim is represented as the “other” within this context. In being portrayed as the other, this not only means that she is different but also inferior. Her entire character is created to fulfill the sexually adventurous desires of Chris. In terms of the non-consensual piece, Kim was forced into prostitution where consent was quite literally non-existent. Yet, still, the audience loves to drool over their tragic love story while seemingly “forgetting” how their story first began. Additionally, we see Kim’s mysterious innocence on display in many ways, but I think the most important portrayal is in the number “The Movie in My Mind.” On stage, Kim is placed amid this wretched environment with the spotlight on her. She’s dressed in white as a contrast to the dark background engulfing her. She sings softly of better days and the dreams she has for herself as we see the camera zoom out to perfectly place her under the neon DreamLand sign. The innocence she embodies will ultimately not save her from the tragic ending of this musical.

How does “The Heat is on in Saigon” convey the context the rest of the musical will take place in?

Alyssa: With the opening number of “The Heat is on in Saigon” we get a very vivid illustration of what the rest of the musical entails. In this number, the American soldiers are unified in their seemingly “joyous” experiences with the girls at DreamLand, and this unification is reflected in their polyphony. The lyrics of this number also reveal to us, the audience, the extent of the sordid displays of masculinity on the stage. For example, the American soldiers are unified in singing, “The heat is on in Saigon, the girls are ready to screw.” The lyrics stand to reinforce the idea that these (eastern, mysterious, submissive) women have no agency on this stage or anytime throughout this musical. Even within the choreography, the soldiers throw and move the women around as if they are weightless objects. Within this number, the women become sexualized and seen as mysterious objects, an issue of race binaries as the soldiers are taking advantage of these women from another country and seeing no harm. This opening number gives us a glimpse into what the rest of the musical will illustrate, the lack of agency among women and exoticism as desirable through the lens of race binaries. 

Nicole’s Response: The wild lights, the chaotic and busy staging, the erratic and even desperate choreography of the girls; all of it seems to represent a trip of an experience. The soldiers know, and the audience is brought up to speed with the idea that this is not meant to be a long-lasting and meaningful time for the soldiers. They don’t care about the women, they just want to escape the war for a minute and have a good time. Not only do the women have no agency, they literally are not allowed any. By nature of how many of them became prostitutes, and how they have no means of escape, every girl that the audience gets to witness are all trapped and have no agency as a result. This is also all facilitated by the fact that they are told to embody these characteristics. The pimps recognize that no one (with empathy, anyway) wants to screw a girl that is visibly upset. The pimps force them to act the way that they do. This has massive power and race implications when examining both the interactions with the pimps and the prostitutes and the soldiers with the prostitutes.

How does the controversy surrounding casting in the original cast have deeply racial implications? How is it problematic?

Alyssa: In the original production, a white, British actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as The Engineer (a Vietnamese character). In the show’s transfer from West End to Broadway, there was reasonable outrage over the lack of representation and the yellowface that came with it. The show then claimed there was no one else talented enough to do the role, and threatened to halt the transfer if he was not allowed to continue his role. While ultimately he kept his role (and went on to win a Tony) he did so without prosthetics and makeup. ~spoiler alert: racism~ It’s important to note this misrepresentation would not slow for the years to come. Specifically, the Asian American Performers Coalition (AAPC) tracked racial demographic data on broadway from 2008-2015 with not quite surprising results. Over these seven seasons on Broadway, white actors comprised 80% of roles available. Additionally, in the best season Asain-Americans had (2014-2015), they comprised less than 20% of roles available on the Broadway stage.

Nicole’s Response: Miss Saigon is a story entirely based on the fantasies of a white man. The characters are drawn from problematic and stereotypical representations of Vietnamese culture and people. Even though The Engineer won’t be played by a white man from now on, that doesn’t erase who wrote the book and the script and the music. Undeniably, the entire production is less problematic without yellowface, but it does not change the underlying problems with the musical as a whole.

How is a white savior complex perpetuated by Chris and his relationship with Kim?

Nicole: Their entire relationship and every interaction that they have is framed by the fact that Chris has power and Kim has nothing. Chris is this big, strong, white, male hero. Kim is a young, innocent, even naive woman without a nickel to her name. Chris comes in, representing America and American freedom as a whole, and decides to pluck her from her life. She did not have to work for her freedom, it was offered to her. He took the moral high ground and fought in a war he opposed and decided to save an oppressed character. The story is designed to make you feel good about Chris, and by extension, white America, for simply not being a bad person. Also, by the end of the story, Chris has given up on any relationship with Kim. He has entirely moved on and gotten married to a white American woman in return for his picket fence life. Kim, desperate for her child to have a better life than she can offer, kills herself so that he can take him. Don’t forget that Kim and Chris were married long before he got married to someone else. The “right” thing to do would be to bring the both of them back to America and have the relationship they both said they dreamt about. However, he picks the white woman, and Kim kills herself. If an audience member doesn’t think too hard, Chris taking in the son is a generous thing to do. It is certainly supposed to be perceived as such. But that is literally his son. His blood. His wife. The bar was on the floor for him and he still almost managed not to clear it. For this he is celebrated. That is white privilege at it’s finest.

Alyssa’s Response: Not only does Chris perfectly embody this white savior complex, but if we think about the American soldiers as a whole, we see it occur much more often than we originally propose. Throughout the war, the feminization of the east is apparent. Vietnamese men and soldiers are portrayed as less aggressive and masculine compared to the white ideal. The American soldiers use their privilege to enter into this exotic space, categorized as the “other,” and feel as though they can act as they please without consequences before going back home to the comfort of America. They perpetuate the white savior complex by using  their privilege of entering into a space, causing destruction, and leaving without a “trace.” 

Nicole’s Response: The stand off with Thuy and Chris in “Thuy’s Arrival” is a perfect example of what you’re saying. Thuy shows up and almost immediately after getting challenged by the “manly-man” of the show decides to leave. There isn’t really a fight so much as it is a “man off”. The white guy winning this interaction certainly doesn’t help the problematic aspects of the show, and totally fits the pattern we have already witnessed throughout it.

How are negative racial stereotypes perpetuated by Thuy and Chris, given that their motivations towards Kim are the same, but one is a bad guy and one is a good guy?

Nicole: If you zoom out a little bit, both men have the exact same story. Kim was promised to both of them (Chris through prostitution, Thuy by familial promises), they want to take advantage of her, they have some halfway-valid claim that they are entitled to her love, they disappear for a few years, and they come back at the beginning of the second act with their wealth and power. While Thuy does go on to truly be a villain and threaten to kill her son, he had been painted as a villain since the moment he was introduced. Chris on the other hand, is painted as the morally righteous hero that comes in to save the day from the very beginning. Especially if you only consider the first half of the musical, it is not hard to see that the audience is supposed to root for Chris and pray for Thuy’s downfall. The problem still remains that the only real difference between the two of them is that Chris is white, and Thuy is not.

Alyssa’s Response: If you’re in the audience and not rooting for Thuy’s downfall just yet, let me convince you of the ways in which his character is painted drastically different from Chris’. In Act II, Thuy’s rage overtakes him as he launches at Kim and tries to stab Tam (Kim and Chris’ love child). Kim’s motherly defenses kick in as she kills Thuy, ending the “love story” between them. It’s important to note that our last look at Thuy on stage is labeled as an extremely negative one. While Thuy is portrayed as a murderer in his last moments on stage, Chris is painted as a hero and savior as his last moments are taking Tam back to America with him in search of a better life. The large contrast between the two in their final moments only reinforce the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the musical, considering how similar their motivations are until that point. It’s almost like the writers knew there had to be a drastically different end for the two characters so that no one would think too hard about if Thuy really was a bad guy or not.

In the end, Miss Saigon is not inherently a bad musical. However, that being said it would be amiss to not acknowledge the problems associated with its various productions. If anything, being a critical consumer of media such as this can only deepen your appreciation and understanding of Miss Saigon.

PS. I cried for the entire 2.5 hour production : )

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