Qu: Ms. Clichéd Asian Woman

The arts must ditch overplayed tropes in its roles for Asian women.

by Dorothy Qu | 3/30/17 2:26pm

My spring breaks are notoriously uneventful, mainly due to my own lack of energy and creativity when it comes to planning cheap, fun and short outings. However, after many days of laying in bed, I was lucky enough to have friends that got tickets for the recently revived Broadway show, “Miss Saigon.”

I am not well-versed in the art of musicals. The closest experience I’ve had involving them is playing for my high school’s pit orchestra and craning my neck to see what was going on onstage during the final rehearsals. Although I squinted through Dartmouth’s production of “Urinetown,” because my eyesight is poor, I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

However, nor am I familiar with women’s, gender and sexuality studies, because I have yet to take a women’s, gender and sexuality studies course. The analysis of this musical may be very amateur, but it is truthful and purely contingent on my honest experiences as an Asian-American woman.

“Miss Saigon,” which is based on the infamous opera “Madame Butterfly,” left me feeling uncomfortable, alarmed and confused. If you are not familiar with the plotline of “Miss Saigon” or “Madame Butterfly,” I must warn you that I will essentially spoil both stories in this piece.

The first scene of “Miss Saigon” is a spectacular number, set in a Saigon brothel during the Vietnam War, with bikini-clad bargirls seducing American soldiers. A 17-year-old virgin stands out as the heroine, and the obvious hero of the story — he is tall and white and somewhat denounces the aggressive bargirls, so it could not be clearer that he is the love interest — falls for her purity and meekness. Immediately, you see exaggerated depictions of the two types of Asian women in popular culture: exotic and sexual versus shy and innocent. I initially hoped this musical would shatter these stereotypes or at least present the women in a realistic and fair way. Instead, both hopes were shattered.

The heroine of the story remains subservient and ends her life to give her son a better life — that is, a life with the hero and his new American wife. Her independence and bravery in sacrificing herself for her son are, in actuality, poorly veiled properties of subservience. She is never independent, for she lives for the hero and her son, and, while she is brave, she is not brave enough to live without the hero and chooses to commit suicide when she discovers that he had returned to his “real” life.

And what about the bargirls introduced in the first few scenes? They are jealous that the heroine, preferred because of her purity and docility, is “rescued,” and never receive the credit they deserve for enduring their own tragedies. The message is simple: only when an Asian woman is submissive is she a hero, “rewarded” with the ability to gallantly sacrifice herself for her son and his father to thrive.

Beyond the play’s obvious Orientalism, its misogyny is disturbing as well. In addition to the tropes about virtues in innocence and femininity, the heroine is overshadowed in the second act by a comical side-character, her pimp. His name is the first to be listed in the playbill, and he is the last to enter the stage — to tremendous applause. His relative popularity just shows how little the writers thought of Asian women, for the heroine is so poorly written that she is essentially a conglomeration of overused stereotypes.

When I discussed this musical with other Asian-American women, many had even stronger reactions. They cited high school productions of “Miss Saigon” with all-white casts, complete with fake tans — to look more “Asian” — and offensive accents. One American friend’s camp produced “Miss Saigon” because there were enough Asian campers; these campers were elated to perform an Asian-centric musical, only to realize that the story itself was racist and sexist.

As I watched “Miss Saigon,” I found the actors amazing, the set spectacular and the music fantastic. I watched with wonder as performers who looked like me, an Asian woman, rocked the stage. I felt proud to see that, but a nasty feeling still remained after the curtain fell; there is no shame in being a sexual bargirl or a timid virgin, but neither typecast was further developed in the story. Bargirls were only ever sexual and jealous; the heroine was obsessively dedicated to her lover. I cannot recall one Asian character, Mulan and Cho Chang included, who was independent of these stereotypes. It’s time for current popular culture to ditch these racist, outdated tropes and create more well-rounded and realistic characters — not stereotypes — of Asian women. We should not simply feel grateful that we finally have roles to fill in Broadway and beyond or think that it is acceptable to be pigeonholed and rescued by white men. Because it is not.