“Getting to Know” The Balanced Portrayal of Race in The King and I

“Getting to Know” The Balanced Portrayal of Race in The King and I

A year ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly spectacularly starred as the titular King and “I” (Anna Leonowens) respectively.

As someone who loved watching the 1956 film ever since I was a little girl, I was absolutely ecstatic I got to attend the performance. And as a 23-year-old Filipino who has come to realize the importance of Asian actors in theatre, I was exceptionally ecstatic, more so than I would’ve been if I was still that little girl.

At the age I am now, I’m also more aware of the racial controversy surrounding the musical. Back then, I wouldn’t have seen a problem with Yul Brynner playing an Asian King. But with Asian actresses and actors now rightfully playing the Asian roles, is The King and I still racist like many claim it to be?

Bowing to One Culture’s Beliefs, or Compromise?

Bowing is an integral part of some Asian cultures.

It’s no secret that Anna (a school teacher sent to teach the King of Siam’s children) despises the act of bowing to the King to the point where she and other subjects are “crawling around on their elbows and knees”—several verses of “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You” are dedicated to her complaints.

It can be easy to accuse Anna of just being another “white feminist” for her criticism of the tradition. However, as famous black feminist bell hooks proclaims in her classic work, Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, “to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.” (Emphasis added.)

By requiring his subjects to bow so low, the King is displaying his dominance over others. He is above everyone else—literally by several feet.  

Even if you don’t see the King’s insistence that everyone should bow low to the ground as an anti-feminist act of domination and instead, is simply a tradition, Anna does not disappoint.

Although Anna does not agree with the low-bowing practice, she still respects it, even when the King purposefully tests her limits by continuously lowering his body to the ground (no one is allowed to be above the King when bowing) in a comical bout of banter at the end of Act I.

It can be said that depicting the King as a man who demands to be bowed to at such a low height is racist and perpetuates the stereotype of Asian rulers as evil tyrants. But The King and I paints a more complex picture of the King. In “A Puzzlement”, The King is conflicted about Western and Eastern beliefs; he finds neither to always be correct over the other. By his adorable interactions with his many, many children, the King also clearly loves his kids. He also loves some of his wives, and even Anna (although just exactly what type of love he has for her is up to the viewer).

He is a man who yes, does demand belittling actions of his subjects, actions that are sexist and classist, but he is also a man who is (as Lady Thiang, the King’s first wife beautifully sings) “Something Wonderful”.

“Western People Funny”

Just as the King is painted as a complex man, so too are white people; they are not portrayed as perfect white saviors.

The song “Western People Funny” (which is cut from the 1956 film), lays out how the King’s wives feel about white people’s destructive actions as they dress in European clothes for a British envoy’s visit.  

The wives point out the impracticality of wearing such painful clothing, as well as the absurdity of believing the heavy hoops and petticoats somehow “prove [they’re] not barbarians”. They even go beyond clothing to address the fetishization of Asian culture (“They feel so sentimental/About the Oriental/They always try to turn us/Inside down and upside out!”), as well as Europeans’ mistake in trying to “civilize” (read: colonize) the whole world. (“They think they civilise us/Whenever they advise us/To learn to make the same mistake/That they are making too!”)


Asian Accents

The title of “Western People Funny” (as opposed to “Western People Are Funny”), could be seen as racism. Oftentimes, non-white characters (or white immigrants) speaking English with accents and/or “incorrect” grammar is often met with outcries of racist portrayals.
However, Constance Wu, TV star of the Asian-centric comedy Fresh off the Boat, aptly defends the respectful use of accents in an interview with TIME:

Some people are like, “Oh, stereotypical accent!” An accent is an accent. If there were jokes written about the accent, then that would certainly be harmful. [...] It’s just a fact of life: immigrants have accents. Making the choice to have that is a way of not watering down the character and making it politically correct. It’s choosing authenticity over safety, and I think that’s bold.

The characters of The King and I have never lived outside of Siam. They’ve had a limited time learning English with Anna. They’re going to have accents.

Analyzing Oppressed Groups: Critique and Celebration

Unfortunately, our current wave of feminism is marked by an overwhelming fear of being afraid to call out the practices of oppressed groups, even if we belong to them ourselves. Such a fear isn’t unfounded; privileged groups have been telling the oppressed what to do for a long time.

That being said, this fear can also be dangerous.

Take the scene where Tuptim, a girl who was brought to the King as a gift, is about to be whipped for trying to run away with her lover, Lun Tha.

If we witnessed this sight, would it be fine to stand back just because it was an Asian tradition? Would we step in if it were a white one?

Asian people can be sexist, asian people can be racist—they can be just as guilty as white people of harboring the other “isms” out there. (Although, white people’s privileged position does heighten the degree to which possessing such isms affects another group). As Avenue Q was unabashedly unafraid to proclaim 15 years ago, “everyone’s a little bit racist” (or sexist, etc).

Just as it’s crucial to point out any sexist or racist practices of Asian cultures or other oppressed racial groups, we also need to acknowledge any sexist or racist practices of our own; we too are a part of that “everyone”. Being a developed, Western country does not make us the epitome of equality.

But while we call out practices of all groups in an effort to eradicate racism and sexism, etc., we can’t only look through a negative lens; as both Anna and the King come to do by the end of the The King and I, we need to see the good in other cultures, and to honor that good too.  

(Photo by kpsimages.)