I just saw a production of Miss Saigon for stage, and I am trying to work through my reactions to it. The first act played as an ordinary “waiting for your prince” drama, except with some racist/anti-communist overtones as well. The second act seemed to problematize the first; it played like a Greek tragedy in that all of the characters seemed less like racist/gendered stereotypes, and more like ordinary people who were trying to do the best they could with the information they had, in a situation that could not add up to a happy ending. In the end, I appreciated the efforts to problematize some of the patriotism evident in the first act and some of the gender stereotyping (even if some of the racism wasn’t really dealt with; I seem to remember something in my sociology text about Vietnamese Canadians protesting the way they were portrayed in a Toronto production of Miss Saigon, so I don’t think I’m too off the mark when I suggest that that the racialized characters were stereotyped).
I alternatively identified with and despised the heroine; she falls in love with an American GI after inspiring him with her innocence after he had resisted being corrupted by the seedy underbelly of Saigon. He promises to return to her so they can consummate their love and live happily ever after, even proving his masculinity in the face of her racialized betrothed. She waits for him; after singing many songs about how he (and another man/boy, their son) is all she lives for, she bravely (?) speaks of her hopes for her future, and the redemptive power of their love. She waits for him; at one point I thought to myself, “let me know how that works out for you,” anticipating that she would somehow sacrifice her life while hanging on to something that would never materialize. In the end, it never does because her man convinces himself that he can start over with his American wife (whom I also identified with, as the “other woman”). Our heroine sacrifices herself through suicide; in the closing act the main characters hang their heads as Scylla and Charybdis look on. Who didn’t see either outcome occurring?
Of course, this is a (fairly straightforward and underdeveloped) critical/feminist analysis of the play. What most struck me was how almost all of the women in the play were either sex objects or victims; the racialized women (and men) simply had even fewer choices than say, the American GI and his wife. While some would say “that’s what happens in a war,” I would say, yeah, it does – but why does this have to happen at all, and how does the play perpetuate the idea that This Is The Way Things Have To Be? What bothered me the most was the heroines’ insistence that “love would conquer all,” although I am not certain if the play ultimately endorses or questions ideologies of Romantic Love. Although most of the play seemed to be trumpeting the redemptive powers of love (and American idealism) in the face of corruption, the death scene in the end could be read as a confirmation of this ideology (she dies, but their love lives on in the child that is saved) or refutes it (look what happens when you believe in this sort of thing). Similarly, by portraying an American GI as a hero (and the betrothed as easily corruptible and power hungry) the play seems to be lamenting the “tragedies of war” without really criticizing the Americans’ role in constructing this tragedy in the first place (while the Vietnamese, on the other hand, are either corrupted or “pure” and in need of the American’s “salvation,” which is where the charges of “racism” apply. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I think the Vietnamese were entirely in the right either; some “leftist” interpretations of the Vietnam war – as one of Imperialistic aggression – are problematic/overly-simplistic as well). On the other hand, even our hero makes calculations that the play positions as selfish (while the married couple want to blindly start over in the US with Kim’s child, the “chorus” – the GI’s friend – warns them that they are being selfish by choosing to forget about our heroine Kim).
In the end, although our hero does fall victim to hubris, yet I am not sure that admitting to the individual soldiers’ moral failings adds up to a criticism of the US’s role in the war in and of itself; the fact that Vietnamese are never really portrayed as anything but helpless or corrupt puts doubt into my mind that this is a critique of “the US’s involvement in the Vietnam war” or just “the tragedy of war” itself. My gut feeling, and the bit of analysis I have done, leads me towards the latter conclusion. I suggest that our hero’s moral failings make him a hero in the sense that Achilles was – his “humanity” is there to make him seem like someone to whom the audience can relate, but it is not a vulnerability that calls the American’s involvement in the war itself into question.
I kind of want to go back to my reaction to the play’s endorsement/possible questioning of ideologies of romantic love; although I was critical of portrayals of communists as mindless and racialized “others” as victims, my reaction to the idea of “love” in the play was definitely coming from a more emotional place. I initially dismissed the relationship between the American GI, Chris, and the heroine, Kim; in one night of passion they fall in love and dream of building a life together. Oh please, I thought to myself; although I could appreciate how one could fall in love in an obviously desperate situation, I was already thinking that their long-term prospects were pretty grim. To compare possible outcomes, I submit the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For those who don’t know the film, our hero from the wrong side of the Berlin Wall is a beautiful young boy with an abusive mother and few prospects in life. He falls in love/lust with an American GI, and goes through a sketchy sex-change operation so he can marry the GI and leave Berlin. Hedwig ultimately finds her/himself abandoned in a trailer park, confused about her gender identity, and betrayed by the American dream when she finally arrives in the USA (no doubt, this film is playing with the ways in which gendered relationships are portrayed within more “conventional” films about war; this more cynical/critical reading of the American imperialistic wars and relationships between the genders definitely suits my sensibilities a bit more). However, when I realized that my reaction to Miss Saigon had something to do with my own experiences with Romantic Love and was not entirely made on intellectual grounds, I decided that I would consider the possibility that our heroine’s death could be read in a few ways (although there is definitely a reading I favor).
I’ll discuss the emotional reaction soon; this reaction notwithstanding, my final verdict on “gender in Miss Saigon” is similar to that of my (underdeveloped) analysis of race. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that a film that generally portrays women as helpless victims who need to be saved by American men and only find a sense of agency when they align themselves with men is *actually* trading on gendered stereotypes and re-enforcing ideologies of romantic love instead of problematizing these. I do believe that the original play was made a number of years ago, before it was so common to portray gender roles and relationships in an “ironic” or cynical fashion (Hedwig does this brilliantly, IMHO); for that reason, my “straightforward” reading seems to be the more plausible one. Considering the other possibility (as I said I would), it seems to be a bit of a stretch to imagine that the death scene in the end is suggesting that women shouldn’t wait for their hero, when most of the dramatic and emotional content of the movie comes from her longing, not any sense of agency she might have. It would be a different movie, if say, she tried to start over in the same way as her man did (granted, I am not entirely sure what her options would have been in that situation; maybe waiting for him was her best choice, and my underdeveloped feminist analysis should therefore rest in peace as well). It is difficult for me to imagine that this play isn’t saying anything about love that hasn’t been repeated again and again within Western culture – and like Romeo and Juliet, they do find themselves together in the end, if briefly.
My final verdict? This is a play about the power of love between a man and a woman in the “modern” setting of the Vietnam war (making a critical analysis based on race possible); yet it doesn’t seem to be offering any ideas about love that we haven’t seen before. It suggests that Love has the power to “redeem” the corrupt or emotionally damaged, yet in order for it to persist someone (usually a woman) must sacrifice herself for the other (others have noticed that this “self-sacrificial love” is a very “Christian” form of love as well; I will not get into that reading in much detail, simply because I don’t feel like I have the background in religion to make a compelling case for interpretation as well. I bring that reading up because it is definitely related to the gendered analysis above inasmuch as some readings of the Bible can be said to be responsible for some of the ideas we have about gender now).
For the time being I am going to hold off on getting to involved in analyzing the “emotional” aspect of my response to this play. However, it is probably obvious to anyone who knows me that my cynicism towards Romantic Love is not entirely unrelated to my own experiences believing in the self-defeating ideas the heroine of Miss Saigon held. In short, I believed that I also sacrificed a bit of my life as I held on to something that would never materialize. I appreciate the play for being honest about what that belief will do to a person of any gender, even if it doesn’t suggest any alternatives (ie, holding onto the idea that someone is going to come along and save you is probably going to end up in a wasted life – metaphorically or literally – and a broken heart). Quite honestly, I really liked the ending (and the entire second act) because although it wasn’t obviously critical, ironic, or cynical, it did seem to call the purpose of the war and at least some of the American’s idealism/hubris into question (even while trading on racialized and gendered stereotypes). Quite honestly, while death is a Romantic ending as well (and it is Romanticism I doubt), I preferred that to another possible ending (the GI and the heroine move to the USA and live happily ever after). Quite honestly, I would have thrown up or laughed uproariously if that had happened, and no one would have wanted that.
To a certain extent, I don’t expect to see a love story that plays into my sensibilities and thinking on Love because I think most people want to believe in True Love, even if I’ve rejected the possibility. A story that casts doubt on the possibility of “True Love” would be a story so depressing I wouldn’t even want to watch it (at the end of the day, even I want to think I experienced it, even if it was painful and ended terribly). I write about these issues because I am time and again reminded that I have become deeply cynical, and even I am surprised by this. I am starting to think that my own experiences with Romantic Love changed me in ways that probably aren’t reversible, and that’s a bit of a scary thought. At the same time, as a Canadian woman who is not trapped in a war, I realize that I have the opportunity to analyze my past and make choices. I don’t have to re-live victim scripts; although I am severely emotionally fucked-up, I hesitate to claim that I am a “victim” per se (if only because I realize that I am fucked up; a realization that lends itself to the possibility of agency, even if I have no idea about what to do about it yet. That’s probably why I’m looking for answers in plays and movies, come to think of it). At any rate, it is ironic (or inevitable?) that the ideology of Romantic Love has taken yet another female victim (even an unwilling one), and I realize that experience and my subsequent rejection of this ideology informs how I see and act in the world (including how I analyze media). If I were a modernist thinker, I would say something about this experience indicating the existence of some sort of paradigm, but I am not arrogant enough to think that my situation has much to do with that of actual Vietnamese women. Of course, I may have a bit in common with the “Vietnamese Woman” as constructed through hegemonic discourses (but only the “woman” part, not the “Vietnamese” piece); to the extent that women are constructed through these discourses as passive victims, I could be occasioning some sort of “survivor identity” in a misguided, artificial act of resistance (I’m sure there is a Lacanian analyst out there who has come up with one that applies to me).
At this point, I should be applying my critical thinking skills and my tenuous grasp on post-modern thought to my assignments. For anyone who might be hoping for it, this means I am not going to do any more probing into my emotional state (at least, I won’t be writing anything I care to make public). Part of my “act of resistance” (or, alternatively, evidence of complicity with a victim script) is a disavowal of anything approaching vulnerability. What I’ve said here is about as good as it gets in terms of any “willingness to be human.” I could write something about an unwillingness to be vulnerable indicating an internalized sense of misogynist self-loathing; alternatively, I also suspect that my entire analysis and the feminist perspective it articulates may be an example of slave morality, in the Nietzschean sense. However, those are pieces for another time.