Lights. Camera. Incorrect depiction?
Miss Saigon, a blockbuster musical written by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubill, tells the story of a romance during the last days of the Vietnam War between Kim, a Vietnamese prostitute, and Chris, an American GI. Since its premiere, it has been applauded by audiences for its flashy costumes, rollercoaster-like plot, and revered love story. But as we step into a more progressive time, we understand the musical’s problematic origins by equipping a more educated lens. Underneath a simple war-and-love story lies overt sexualization and fetishization of Asian women, along with the complete ignorance of the Vietnamese story behind the war–all carried out by music.
Through songs like “The Heat Is On,” we see from the beginning the power imbalance between the American GIs and the Vietnamese prostitutes. While the American GIs strut around, ogling the girls, the girls advertise themselves to the GIs, with Mimi belting, “See my bikini, it’s just the right size” (line 18). It’s clear that this is a male-dominated narrative, a story seen yet again from the male gaze. But try as we might, this is a fairly common thing in many Broadway musicals and shows. So what is so corrupt in Miss Saigon?
It’s that Miss Saigon–not unlike most stories about the Vietnam War–completely dismisses the Vietnamese story behind the war. The female prostitutes desperately beg the American GIs to take her to America, and we are given no vision into their Vietnamese heritage, which plays into a white savior complex. After Chris leaves for America, we see the marital problems he faces with his new wife and his PTSD, but we fail to get Kim’s story, even though she was the one who gave birth with no money and no support while conflict raged on. For 25 years out of the 30 years the show was running, gibberish was used in scripts for Vietnamese words. The Vietnamese community is very rarely consulted or listened to for this show, even though they are the 4th largest Asian-American group in the United States.
Thus, Miss Saigon shows yet another power of music: the power to illustrate any narrative, harmful or not, and carry more meaning behind it. Music is a tool, one in which we must wield with care to tell new, fresh stories.
So what I’d want to see in Miss Saigon? A stronger voice for Kim, truly embodying her concerns, her heritage, and her other relationships, instead of making her Chris’s plaything.
Let’s hope that change comes sooner than later.