“Miss Saigon”: The Role of Power and the Patriarchy

JANSEN PRESTON & REMY RICCIARDI

Remy: The Musical Miss Saigon (2016), written by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, portrays a tragic, doomed love story between a young Asian woman (Kim) and a white, American soldier (Chris). The story takes place in Vietnam as the war is going on. With Kim’s parent’s death, her refusal to marry Thuy, and the lack of opportunities for women, Kim has no other choice than to work at Dreamland, a Saigon bar and brothel. As Kim enters this world, she is told that these American soldiers are her ticket to a better life out of Vietnam. The romance seems to be going smoothly between Chris and Kim until he is abruptly forced out of Saigon with his fellow troops, leaving Kim behind when he goes back to America. This is just another way that Kim has power and happiness taken from her. As the play progresses, the powerlessness of the Vietnamese women is increasingly apparent, and the writers create ways to show this in different settings.  

Jansen: An important part to start this discussion is with the opening numbers as they portray the stark contrast between the role men and women play in the society. The second scene, “The Heat is On in Saigon,” takes place in Dreamland and is representative of the viewpoint of the dominant male figures. Men are seen throwing women’s bodies over their shoulders, controlling the movements of women, and simply dictating them. The red lights aid in the seductive feel, where men can take out their fantasies with no repercussions. The soldiers are seen in their uniforms, which inadvertently adds to their strength, power, and rank, especially representing America.  

Remy: I also think the lyrics of “The Heat is On in Saigon” are important to analyze while watching the number. From the beginning of the song, the men talk about the appearance of the women. The second line is “The girls are hotter than hell,” and although that’s a simple remark, it just foreshadows what the rest of the scene will look like as this comment is made extremely early on. It also could be referring to the women being a distraction from the hell they are living in, meaning the women are better than whatever else they would be doing. The women are seen as objects to be won as the Engineer questions the soldiers if they came to win Miss Saigon. John states to Chris, “I’m gonna buy you a girl.” Neither the Engineer nor the Marines have any regard for the women in terms of seeing them as human. They are numbers and prices that are used for pleasure solely. Likewise, the raunchy costumes the women wear work to emphasize the idea of them as objects meant for male utilization. The women are in jeweled bras, heels, and booty shorts, demonstrating their inferiority to the muscular men.   

Jansen: Yes! This juxtaposition is apparent with the interruption of “The Heat is On in Saigon” with “The Movie in my Mind.” This is now told from the woman’s perspective as Gigi sheds light on their feelings on what they do and the society they live in. The slapping of Gigi by the Engineer leads into the song as she sits in a more depressing manner. The lights no longer are red; they have turned into a light white-blue color. The chaos in the back is less apparent as people are moving slower and the women are with the men. Gigi sits with a somber look on her face, and the pain in her voice can be felt as she reaches these higher notes. She sings, “when I make love it won’t be me,” showing the emptiness in what she does. The women turn to prostitution because they see it as the only option; they do not enjoy it or even want to. How would you say the background and choreography contribute to the scene?

Remy: In the background of this number, men are seen aggressively shoving women to the side and forcing their legs open, making the audience feel for the girls while they hear what is being sung. The choreography of this scene is a lot different compared to the previous one due to it being less chaotic. The other shade of lighting takes away from the seductive feel and gives rise to the straight control of the men. Less people are walking around, allowing Gigi and Kim’s facial expressions to be available to the audience. The lack of movement during “The Movie in my Mind” works to the advantage of the women because it allows the audience to take in everything at once. Do you think the setting and props are important throughout the play or just in this scene? 

Jansen: I would say that the design of the stage is an important part of the show. For example, at Dreamland, the amount of props and people on stage creates a hectic feeling; whereas, the scene with the bedroom area is isolated and has a more yellow lighting. The audience can feel the intimacy between the two characters, starting to create this love story aspect. During these peaceful moments, we hear Chris and Kim reveal their feelings for one another. Chris tells Kim what she wants to hear. Chris holds the power. He is her ticket out, and he has her heart in his hands. What do you think? 

Remy: Yes, I agree that the props, background, and number of people on stage helped convey the power of men and overall the weakness of the Vietnamese people, especially women. Another example of how the design furthers the plot is when Thuy dies. When Kim shoots Thuy, everything else on the side of the stage seems to disappear. Everything goes black with white, narrow lightning. The background has rows of military men. This depiction between the body on the ground and the men behind them helps illustrate male power and authority. 

Jansen: I agree, and it was also during this scene that I started to pay attention to the way characters were singing. For example, Thuy was singing in his deepest register, allowing him to convey his power and anger through his voice. Kim and Gigi sang with their mouths wide open and vivid facial expressions of desperation, allowing the audience to see their hopelessness, vulnerability, and Kim’s dependence on Chris. Also, the Engineer always sang with his mouth closed and teeth showing, conveying greed.

Remy: I am glad you mentioned the Engineer because honestly, I am not a big fan of the Engineer. The audience is forced into laughing at him on numerous occasions because of the awkward situations he creates for himself and his vulgar, childish mannerisms. I think this laughter is a result of wanting to fill the silence. In “The American Dream” performance, there were many scenarios where I did not think to laugh, but the audience laughed due to tension. It seemed as though it was an intentional tactic by Schonberg and Boublil to ease tensions in the audience to maintain the enjoyableness of the play. Going along with the male superiority seen in this musical, the fact that the Engineer gets an 11 o’clock number is strange. He is not a character that the audience is dying to hear from, but it represents his desire to steal the stage from those more deserving. 

Jansen: Going off of that, I would say that “The American Dream” was a great representation of the entire musical because it depicted the men’s greed and entitlement, especially the Engineer. The flashing lights, the underdressed showgirls, the gaudy car, the flashy purple suit he had on, and the embarrassingly distasteful choreography was all depicting the greed he had and the sense of entitlement that men in this musical often feel. It was a strange but important performance. 

Remy: Overall, I think the plot of this musical is brilliant. It is not a typical setting or storyline of a musical, but the authors use this idea to convey a message and story to the audience. The musical is male-driven and focuses on the horrible situation these girls are put in and the lack of power they are given in the story. For example, even in moments when Kim should have all the power of a scene, they find a way to give the power back to the men. In the scene where Thuy is trying to take Kim back to marry her to honor their father’s vow, she should have the power to say no, but then Chris pulls out a gun to shift the focus on the conflict between Chris and Thuy. 

Jansen: Another running theme throughout this musical is the power dynamic between the Vietnamese and Americans. It constantly seems like the Vietnamese people are looking to the Americans for them to save them. The Engineer, Kim, Gigi, etc, all wanted to be saved by Americans or go to America. This is similar to the theme of male and female power throughout the musical as well. 

Remy: At the end of the play, Kim put the white gown back on. This was significant because it shows that she relinquished her power again. When Kim was on the run in rag-like clothing, she had some power; however, the dirty, uncomfortable clothes made her seem less feminine in those moments. For example, her clothing when she killed Thuy was filthy and dark versus the white gown she had on in the beginning and end of the musical. This is representative of her lack of power and freedom. Kim shot herself in the white gown in a moment she felt as if she had no control over her life anymore and wanted to end it. 

Jansen: I agree. The point you made and all the points we have made work to convey this larger idea of powerlessness and helplessness in the life of Vietnamese women. It also conveys the greed and controlling nature of the men and the power gap between the Vietnamese and Americans. These are all important things to point out because noticing them helps us fix them.

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. This was an awesome analysis, I couldn’t agree more I felt like everything from the songs to the dancing and dressing in this show was to show how powerless the Vietnamese women were. The way it’s constructed where you both had a say on our view of the musical also gave it more depth, as you can see both points of view. this post was awesome thanks, guys.

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