Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS is Thoroughly Racist
Let me start by saying that I am Asian American and that I moved to Newton more than ten years ago because it has a decent sized Asian American population. That is important to me because being the only Asian American can result in significant bullying (as evidenced by my husband who grew up in town with a much smaller Asian population). As a result, my Korean American husband got very good at street fighting in order to defend himself against bullies and racial insults.
I personally have not seen Thoroughly Modern Millie but I was a recent high school benefit where I first heard of the Anti-Asian stereotyping in Thoroughly Modern Millie.* In its defense, it was written more than four decades ago when Asians were never seen in the media, and if so, only in derogatory stereotypes.
*Here is my post after seeing the show.
Think Calgon commercial and Ancient Chinese Secret:
But the Calgon commercial isn’t nearly as offensive to me as the Anti-Asian stereotyping of Thoroughly Modern Millie. So let’s take a look.
Asian Stereotypes in Thoroughly Modern Millie
These are the two Asian parts in Thoroughly Modern Millie. In the original movie script, they are described as Oriential #1 and Oriental #2. These parts were rewritten in the Broadway musical:
Ching Ho: Chinese henchman, falls in love with Miss Dorothy.
Bun Foo: Chinese henchman, focused more on the task at hand.
The musical has since become a popular choice for high school productions. Wikipedia
It was pointed out to me by a Chinese American that Ching Ho and Bun Foo are not even real Chinese names. In rewriting the film into the 2002 musical, you may as well as kept them as Oriental #1 and Oriental #2. While supposedly the henchman roles were given backstories and rich characters, calling them by fake Sing Song Chinese names only fuels and rage and hurt that Asians and Asian Americans feel while sitting in the audience.
Here are some other posts on racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
The Dalton School removed the racism from their production of Thoroughly Modern Millie:
The New York Times reports that Manhattan private school Dalton Middle School announced today that it would be moving forward with a previously cancelled production of the musical THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE with a new, revised version approved by the show’s creators.
The musical was originally canceled due to “concerns about the show’s use of Asian stereotypes and a subplot involving a white slavery ring in China”. The original plan had been to replace ‘MILLIE’ with a revue of the songs. But now the revised version will “drop references to Asia, change the names of two Chinese characters, and describe incidents of human trafficking as simple kidnappings.” From Broadway World
Dick Scanlan, the lyricist and co-book writer of “Millie,” said in an interview on Mondaythat he and the show’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, had approved the school’s sanitized version of “Millie” and suggested some new lyrics and other ideas. Performances of “Millie” will begin this Thursday as originally planned.
“I have given my blessing because, while I understand angry parents, for me heartbroken kids trump angry parents,” Mr. Scanlan said. “The narrative basically remains the same, and Asian girls would play the two roles that were Chinese in the original, though the characters would have common names. What is missing is a deliberate political choice that Michael Mayer, Jeanine, and I made years ago to portray Asian stereotypes and then challenge them in order to bust them.” Mr. Mayer directed the Broadway production.
I have a problem with this because obviously Michael Mayer, Jeanine and Dick Scanlan are not Asian Americans nor did they seem to study Asian American history and therefore wrote a 2002 musical that is historically inaccurate with dated Asian stereotypes. And this is also the rationale that NNHS gives — busting Asian stereotypes. They are using the wrong stereotypes and erasing the history of what actually happened to Asian Americans during the 1920s. We, as Asian Americans, don’t need this kind of help.
The plot in Thoroughly Modern Millie of Asians selling women into white slavery is not accurate and caused a real backlash against Asians and Arabs. In fact, there are many egregious historical inaccuracies that I have a problem with in this new musical retelling.
Based on the 1967 film of the same name, Thoroughly Modern Millie tells the story of a small-town girl, Millie Dillmount, who comes to New York City to marry for money instead of love – a thoroughly modern aim in 1922, when women were just entering the workforce. Millie soon begins to take delight in the flapper lifestyle, but problems arise when she checks into a hotel owned by the leader of a white slavery ring in China. The style of the musical is comic pastiche. Like the film on which it is based, it interpolates new tunes with some previously written songs.
The fierce anger against “white slavery” caused racial profiling of Arabs in Europe and Chinese immigrants in America. While there were some examples of Chinese mafia members engaging in human trafficking during the 1920′s, the sad distortion is that in actuality, many more Asian women and children were and still are trafficked from China and other Asian countries to the United States.
So it is not surprising that many people are offended by Thoroughly Modern Millie’s portrayal of poor Asian immigrants. And considering the wickedness of the crime being discussed, it is not surprising that survivors of human trafficking might also be offended by the play’s comedic treatment of the subject. from The Marginalized
Asian American Theatre Review has issues with this musical and brings up a good point of WHY are we perpetuating racial stereotypes in this century that we know to be harmful and derogatory.
The pair are invariably described as being a politically correct portrayal. Hmm. The original depiction is most definitely stereotyped and offen
sive–yet any variation from it is considered politically correct??? This shows how incredibly empty the term is, and how devalued it has become. When ANY attempt to change an admittedly stereotyped and racist portrayal is termed “politically correct”, it’s time to bury the term. Dammit, isn’t the whole point of our current enlightened times is to avoid being stereotyped and racist when you don’t have to be??? from Asian American Theatre Review
Racial stereotypes of Chinese in Thoroughly Modern Millie
I was shocked that this musical contained lots of outdated Chinese stereotypes including:
a Chinese laundry, kidnapping for white slavery, bad Chinese accents, and a female actor in “white face” playing a white woman masquerading as a Chinese woman. Much less culturally sensitive than Robert Downey Jr playing a black man in Tropic Thunder.
Part of the sub-plot is that white girls are sold into white slavery and shipped off to China, by the character of Mrs. Meers, a white woman dressed up as a Chinese woman – who doesn’t even have a proper Chinese accent – She keeps mis-prounouncing her “L’s” as “R’s.”
She keeps saying things like “Ssssso saaaad, to be arrrr arrrrone in dis worrrrld.”
I realize that this is supposed to be a fun frothy romp, and every character is stereotyped to extreme measures …
But I still felt uncomfortable watching the perpetuation of racist stereotypes in this way. There are many people in today’s audience who don’t realize the origins of such stereotypes, nor the harm that was caused over decades of racism. From Gung Haggis Fat Choy
Seriously, does the movie script say Orientals?!
However, what Millie also features is a staggeringly racist plotline involving [CONTENT WARNING: racist plot described in detail] a hotel owner and her two nameless, menacing Chinese manservants (played by Jack Soo and Pat Morita and credited, appallingly, as Oriental #1 and Oriental #2) selling residents of the hotel into white slavery. Nothing about this plotline is remotely okay, especially given that every scene with the “Orientals” serves to emphasize how alien they are.
Millie was adapted into a stage musical in 2000, which came to Broadway in 2002. I have not seen it, but I do know enough to know that they tried valiantly to rectify the problems with the source material. They (mercifully) cut the Jewish wedding entirely, and they gave Mrs. Meers’ servants names and motivations—one ultimately ends up marrying Miss Dorothy, in the stage show’s most radical departure from the film. But I question why this adaptation even came to be, more than thirty years after the film first premiered. Why it was felt that a film this transparently problematic could—or should!—be turned into a stage show, other than the general momentum stage adaptations of movies have been gaining in the past decade. And lastly, I question whether the changes they made really solved the problem, and I am forced to conclude they almost certainly didn’t. Millie, despite many charming moments, is rotten to the core, and I don’t see a way to solve that problem without making an entirely different show. from Bitch Magazine
My question is WHY? Why pick Thoroughly Modern Millie that depicts blatant anti-Asian stereotyping? Why not go with something else or rewrite this script to offend another ethnicity. How about gypsies? Or Eastern Europeans?
It’s now 2014, and Asian Americans still struggle with their portrayal in the media. See this kickstarter video of an Asian American actress and the limited parts — all stereotypes — available to her and other Asian actors.
And let’s ask ourselves … does Thoroughly Modern Millie help today’s Asian Americans or does it hurt us? And if you think Thoroughly Modern Millie does Asian Americans a disservice, then why are we still doing this play in high schools around America?
Let’s discuss this! Please respond by leaving a comment. If you want more ink, please email me your take at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post it.
Here’s a few questions to start us off:
1) Do you think this play makes Asian American students at Newton North High School uncomfortable?
2) Do you think this play makes Asian American parents or grandparents watching the play uncomfortable?
3) Do you think the Chinese language teachers at Newton North High School would be comfortable with this musical? What about Newton North’s sister exchange school in China?
4) Do you think Asian American stereotyping exists in today’s media? Why or why not? Are they the same as in Thoroughly Modern Millie? If not, what is the benefit of discussing outdated stereotypes?
5) What is the benefit to Asian Americans to have this kind of musical in wide circulation?
6) Are Asian Americans marginalized? If so, what causes that?
p.s. This is from The Newtonite:
The musical’s racist villain, Mrs. Meers, played by senior Kelsey Fox, presented challenges for the show. “There are some images in our show that are going to be offensive,” said English teacher Bradley Jensen, the director. He continued that the whole cast had to “really inform ourselves about the stereotypes that are in our show.”
Asian Culture Day: Asian-Americans in the Media
While I appreciate that effort was made to educate Asian American students at Newton North High School about anti-Asian bias in the media, I am surprised that this production is embracing the egregious Asian stereotypes in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
It’s one thing to point out the stereotypes and quite another to reinforce it by moving forward without addressing the changes. It is saying to me: “Here are anti-Asian stereotypes. Look, they are quite common. That’s why we are ok with promoting them in our musical. And it’s just for a laugh so that’s ok.”
And while everyone has the right to their own opinion, this is not ok with me.
The “Asian-Americans in the Media” panel took place during this school’s Asian Culture Day B-block in the Little Theatre.
English teacher Michele Leong presented a slide show comparing Asian-Americans to white Americans in popular movies and television shows. Leong explained that the roles and attitudes of Asian-American women differ, but that Asian-American women are usually publicized as hyper sexualized. She continued by adding that Asian-American men are publicized as the “laughing stalk” and are emasculated overall.
After, three students from the cast and crew of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical surrounded by controversy around its portrayal of Asians, joined English teachers Peter Goddard and Brad Jensen to discuss the show.
Senior Kelsey Fox explained her role in the show could potentially cause much concern among the audience. Fox is playing Mrs. Meers, a white woman who pretends to be Asian. Fox said that she will be playing a very politically incorrect and “derogatory, to say the least” role in the musical. Motivated to not offend people in the audience, Fox explained, “My job is to make sure the audience laughs at my character and not at Asian culture.” Fox has been, “learning and listening to our Asian community,” in order to limit the offensiveness of her role.
The panel explained that they were all trying to round out their characters of the racist show. “We try to round out characters, and make them more like humans and less like caricatures,” said Jensen.
Theater Ink director Adam Brown stepped into the conversation and said, “Sure, it would’ve been easier to not pick this show, but because we have, it has caused a lot of questions and communication. That is certainly a learning opportunity for everyone.”
“I’m glad Theatre Ink is doing the show and I’m glad to be a part of this show,” said Senior Hiroki Shibuya.
These are all related posts on Thoroughly Modern Millie at Newton North High School:
These are other articles and posts related to Thoroughly Modern Millie at Newton North High School:
The Telegraph: US high school show triggers race row by David Millward
The Boston Globe: ‘Millie’ Fight Creates a Chilling Effect by Joan Vennochi
The Boston Globe: Musical is Little More Than Staged Racism by Jeffrey Melnick (Letter to Editor in response to Joan Vennochi’s article above).
Inside: Boston high school in trouble over racism in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’
A case study published by UMass Peter Kiang almost 20 years ago (see pages 9-13), parallels almost exactly what happened at Newton North High School. ScholarWorks at UMass Boston, We Could Shape It: Organizing for Asian American Student Empowerment by Peter Nien-Chu Kiang.
AsAm News: I Love Newton: High School Production Fails To Address Heavy Dose Of Asian American Stereotypes
The Boston Globe: Oh, by the way, how about a round of applause for the kids? (Letter to the Editor from a grandparent)
The Boston Globe: Choice, execution of musical informed by thoughful education process (Letter to the Editor from the writers who comprise the Theatre Arts Opportunity Committee at Newton North High School.)
The Boston Globe: We miss a vital chance for understanding when we swap out ethnic characters(Letter to the Editor from a great-grandmother, teacher and volunteer)
Pawprint: Millard West Student Newspaper: Through with Thoroughly Modern Millie
The Washington Post: Twenty-Three Skiddo: ‘Modern Millie’ Doesn’t Dance
It’s an attempt, sort of, at a parody of the old-style musicals of the ’20s and ’30s, the sort jerry-built out of cheerful songs, convoluted plots, elaborate tap demonstrations and derogatory stereotypes.
Project Muse: Thoroughly Modern Millie (review)
Not Like Crazy: An Easily Overlooked Racism?
In the Spring semester at school, the Musical Theater Department put on Thoroughly Modern Millie, which was overflowing with racism in its portrayal of Asians. I must say, I was thoroughly upset about the whole thing. First, the guys playing the Asians, I believe they were supposed to be Chinese immigrants, had white face makeup and slanty eyes. I couldn’t help but think that if they’d dressed in blackface, surely there’d be an uproar (Of course, they are putting on Ragtime this year, so we’ll see how they handle that– they’re already sending out emails about how they want the black students to try out for roles because there aren’t many black people in the musical theater department *eyeroll*). That wasn’t the only bad thing about the musical, however, the villian was a white woman pretending to be Asian who pronounced her L’s as R’s, and said she used soy sauce to clean a stain. Of course, she also treated the two Asian immigrants who worked for her as if they were stupid, and the silently and humbly submit in front of her, though behind closed doors they argue in Chinese (I guess it was real Chinese), with subtitles projected above the stage. And then one of the Asian men falls in love with one of the white women in the musical, blonde hair, blue eyes, you know the deal. At the end of the musical, they get together, as if his reward for working hard and being submissive, for being mistreated, is the gift of white womanhood, the pinnacle of creation. So yeah, I was pretty pissed about that whole thing.
Myvanwy: Review of Thoroughly Modern Millie
Someone sent me video of a local comedian’s youtube video of a character I’ve seen him portray once before. To call it infantile and racially insensitive would be a gross understatement. For the targets of his ridicule, it’s every bit as offensive as a mean-spirited performance in blackface. But because it’s against one of the few groups for whom bigotry, hostility, and ridicule is still acceptable (Chinese Americans and others of Asian and/or Pacific Island descent), it’s seen as okay by most and even encouraged by other local comedians. Kevin Marshall’s America
Zak Keith: Hollywood Asian Stereotypes
Racism against Asians is often “unawares”—a form of racism that flies under the radar due to its widespread acceptance as the norm. Its interactive dynamic resembles that of an unwritten social contract. Asians in the West are expected to accept patronizing remarks and racist taunts so demeaning that perpetrators would think twice before dishing them out with such unwavering consistency to any other minority group, such as Latinos or African Americans. Asians who object to such treatment are typically met with befuddlement and offense at their audacity to make an issue out of it.
p.p.s. Here are some related posts on my Asian American blog:
A Racist Bakesale Exposes Reverse Discrimination Against Asian Americans (I include this link because this is the real racist front that Asian Americans are currently fighting. All my posts on this topic are here.
Making us explain why Yellow Face is offensive is a waste of our time. I can’t believe this is still being used. In real life, has there ever been a white person pretending to be Asian? It’s only in the media and on the stage that this ridiculous premise exists.)
Mia Wenjen blogs at PragmaticMom: Education Matters, here and occasionally at her Asian American blog JadeLuckClub. She resides in Newton with her husband and three kids, the oldest of which will attend Newton North High School this fall. She can be found on Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Sulia, Google +, Instagram and YouTube.
Photo credit: Grasshopper and Sensei, my oldest.