My Take on Thoroughly Modern Millie
I just returned from Thoroughly Modern Millie and I want to start by saying that the cast is incredibly talented and deserves much accolades for a well done show. The leads, particularly Maddy Waters as Millie Dillmont, Aiden O’Neal as Miss Dorothy Brown, Peter Diamond as Jimmy Smith, Kelsey Fox as Mrs. Meers and Will Champion as Trevor, Graydon III, are particular standouts. They carry the show with their considerable musical talent, acting skills and comedic timing. I also thought the dance numbers were outstanding, the sets impressive and the costumes breathtaking. I can see the allure of this show from the costumes alone.
That being said, I have considerable issues with the Asian stereotypes in the show.
1) There Really is No Reason Why Mrs. Meers Needs to Pretend to be Chinese Except for Gratuitous Humor
[plot spoiler warning] Mrs. Meers is a criminal hiding out so she pretends to be Chinese as her “greatest acting role” and speaks with a strong Chinese accent. As someone in hiding, it is an easy change to make Mrs. Meers a different kind of character. For example, a Southern Blonde is she is supposed to be a brunette in real life.
In real life, no one I know takes a new identity to hide out in which a white person pretends to be Asian. It’s not realistic. It’s insulting to Asians. It’s certainly comedic because it’s easy to laugh at a Chinese accent where English is not your first language and therein the comedy lies. It’s easy to laugh at an Asian stereotype.
But it’s not necessarily to the storyline and could have been easily changed.
Yellowface: Asians have not always been accurately represented in Hollywood. Many times, Asian characters have been portrayed predominantly by white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asian facial characteristics, a practice known as yellowface. Media portrayals of East Asians in the American media’s history have predominantly reflected a dominant Americentric perception rather than realistic and authentic depictions of true cultures, customs and behaviors.
And by contrast:
Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by white performers to represent a black person. It is often considered offensive, because it can imply stereotyped caricature of black people as in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”.
Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It quickly became popular elsewhere, particularly so in Britain, where the tradition lasted longer than in the US, occurring on primetime TV as late as 1978 (The Black and White Minstrel Show) and 1981.
By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and is more commonly used today as social commentary or satire.
I think it’s an easy logical conclusion:
Blackface is offensive …
Yellowface is offensive.
But because I had multiple conversations with parents who tried to explain that Mrs. Meers is a very wicked villain and she gets her just deserts in the end so her doing yellowface is acceptable and plus she’s so funny that I think it bears repeating:
Blackface is not ok …
Yellowface IS NOT OK!
It seems that Yellowface is still acceptable in the year 2014!
2) The plot does not have to revolve around Asian Males Who Assist in Selling White Females Into Slavery
[plot spoiler alert] It actually makes more sense to have a kidnapping theme, particularly since Miss Dorothy Brown could easily be held for ransom.
3) Ching Ho and Bun Foo Don’t Have to be Poor Chinese Immigrants Either
I don’t understand why they have to speak in Cantonese while singing in Mandarin either. Is this supposed to show how the playwrights have such insight into Asian culture?
This is a sub plot line and could have easily been removed. If you need henchman or henchwomen, it is an easy fix not to cast them as Asian stereotypes.
And I feel that it has already been covered in considerable detail my issues with the historical inaccuracies of the plot line.
And there was no discussion to educate the audience on busting stereotypes beyond this page in the program and a gratuitous meeting on Monday night where any peeved parties (e.g. Asian Americans) can air their grievances.
This is the page in the program:
Asian Stereotypes in Thoroughly Modern Millie
I know we had a problem when I wanted to preface this production with: “The opinions expressed in this musical do not necessarily reflect the views of Newton North High School.” We’ve all seen the classic television disclaimer alerting the audience that controversial, and even offensive attitudes remain present within the program. Without question, Thoroughly Modern Millie contains extreme negative stereotypes and offensive attitudes when depicting Asian men and women in the 1920s. However, instead of simply flashing a disclaimer along the stage before the opening number, Mr. Brown, Ms. Leong, Ms. Beh, and I worked together with the Office of Human Rights to figure out a way in which to maintain the integrity of the production, while addressing these negative images head on with the community and our students. Over the past few months we have participated in discussions regarding stereotypical images of Asian men and women in the media. We participated in panels that spoke out against stereotypes and damaging images of cultural experiences within the media. We learned about the Geisha image, and the overtly sexualized Dragon Lady. We learned about the submissive Asian male stereotype, and the Kung-Foo warrior image. Consequently, some of these images will appear within our production this evening, such as Mrs. Meers’ portrayal of the Geisha Girl, as well as Bun Foo and Ching Ho’s sometimes submissive male natures. Our hope is that awareness around these caricatures would allow us to dig deeper in rehearsals and find the true, human complexities of these previously flattened characters.
While we set out to find the authentic human complexity behind the Cantonese speaking Bun Foo and Ching Ho, we also addressed the wildly offensive Mrs. Meers and discussed the potential reasons for her racism. Mrs. Meers must be understood as the villain of the production. She is a racist and covers her own insecurities and life failures with hateful attitudes and behaviors. As director, I am extremely proud of the socially conscious work that our cast and community have carried out over these past few months. I believe that doing this production, the cast, crew and school community have become aware of the dangerous images within Thoroughly Modern Millie, and the lack of truthful portrayals of Asian and Asian-American men and women within the media today. I encourage you to continue this necessary dialogue at home with your families, using our musical as an effective conversation starter.
So please be advised, “The opinions expressed in this musical do not necessarily reflect the views of Newton North High School … in fact they strongly oppose the beliefs and attitudes found within our school culture. Furthermore, we have worked hard to analyze and revise these images in order to align them with our socially conscious mission of acceptance and open-mindedness.”
First I would like to post an excerpt from an email and hope to get permission to post it in its entirety:
“Asian American faculty members at Newton and the AACC have been trying to tell the director of Theater Ink, the chair of the department of Performing Arts and the principal how offensive the play is since it was first announced. They’ve made some slight changes but they still don’t get why it’s offensive and there’s no telling what the actual performances will be like.
THanks so much again for speaking up against this. [Asian American faculty members and students] have been feeling shut out and dismissed so voices from the community really help a lot. (The school officials still may not get why it’s bad, but they’ll understand bad PR and bad press, so please keep it up. I look forward to reading a review of the performance if you are able to go.)”
The Anti-Asian stereotypes by which you speak of do not exist in modern media: Geisha Image, Dragon Lady, Submissive Asian Male, and Kung-Foo warrior image to the extend that they offend Asian Americans. The issues of Asian Americans in media is much more subtle that.
If I may direct you to my post titled: Asian American Actors in Recurring TV Roles you will note that Asian Americans get parts that are in a very specific box: The Doctor, With a Martial Art Slant, The Beautiful Ones, Playing Regular People, Intergalactic, Comedians, Heroes on Heroes, Reality TV, and the Pioneers.
Going back several decades in TV, your concerns about Geisha Image, Dragon Lady, Submissive Asian Male, and Kung-Foo warrior image that you worry plague us Asian Americans simply are not a reality. They are not our reality.
But this is what our reality is. Asian Americans NEVER GET THE LEAD.
And you furthermore underscore this message — e.g. Asian Americans Never Get the Lead — by producing a show in which the roles for Asians are, again, in a very specific box and in a supporting role. And include outdated negative stereotypes that we thought we were through with to boot. So, in doing this show, instead of creating a meaningful and helpful racial conversation that is relevant to Asian Americans today, you simply dredge up old stereotypes and reintroduce them to the community.
Yes, it’s funny to laugh as a Chinese accent. And yes, you will hear Chinese accents in our community both in the student population and otherwise. It’s your choice to bring this comedic relief to light and it is offensive and unnecessary. It does not, as you suggest, start up meaningful dialogue that enlightens non Asians and helps Asian Americans. We don’t need that kind of help, thank you very much! In the same vein, we don’t need your “help” via Affirmative Action for college admissions either. And the broader conversation is why Asian Americans are denied a seat in the boardroom, assigned a cap on admission to top colleges and never get the lead. A more robust conversation would be around why this is so and I believe the root cause is this: Asian Americans are too successful and it’s resented.
Your misguided perceptions of where the issues lie demonstrates the deafness in which you hear the Asian Community speak to you. This concerns me deeply.
Hiroki Shibuya is an immensely talented actor and I’m sure you would agree. But you would have never cast him as the lead, Jimmy Smith. That was meant for a white man. Or Trevor Graydon III which was frankly the best, most complex character in the script for a male. Shibuya’s choices were very limited as an actor in this musical. He had to stay in his box. Ching Ho and Bun Foo. Isn’t that right?’
For example, instead of rewriting the part of Bun Foo from that of an Asian into the part of a Caucasian, you could have done the same for the part of Miss Dorothy Brown and made her a person of color or in hajib to the same comedic effect. In fact, it would have made for a more interesting and thought-provoking musical to cast Miss Dorothy Brown in hajib.
While there were a few people of color in the musical, they were relegated to the chorus. There was, for example, no role for an Asian American female speaking part in this show. So for all the rhetoric of busting the Geisha Image and the Dragon Lady, these roles were meant for non-Asians. How ironic that your stereotype busting includes casting these stereotypes with non Asians.
That is exactly the issue that Asian American actors face today in the real world outside of Newton North but we do appreciate you demonstrating this box to us by putting on this production. And this is where the meat of the discussion that WE as Asian Americans want to talk about. Why the box? Why the limitations? Why never the lead?
In conclusion, your promises for a deep and rich conversation to “bust stereotypes” is empty rhetoric. We recognize this game too. This attempt to placate Asian Americans. This expectation for us to be invisible, voiceless and non-confrontational.
I fully realize that by posting on the racism and issues I have with Thoroughly Modern Millie that there will be payback to me and my family as we enter Newton North High School next year. It will be subtle. That much I know well. It will come in many forms. My children will pay for my speaking out. I realize this and I am willing to pay that price because by not speaking out, nothing ever changes. I have spoken to many Asian American friends in this community and while they also are unhappy with the racism in this production, they are afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal. I hope the NNHS community hears that. You have not created a safe forum to express dissent it seems.
This play will continue to be performed in high schools across the country with empty disclaimers such as the one you have written. And maybe there will continue to be invitations to discuss: Geisha Image, Dragon Lady, Submissive Asian Male, and Kung-Foo warrior image. Discussions that are outdated, irrelevant and demonstrate how little our issues as Asian Americans are understood, addressed or taken seriously.
Thank you for revealing your hand. It’s been quite eye-opening.
I won’t be attending your Monday evening meeting. My response is here and you are all welcome to respond. In this way, our conversation is captured and indexed onto Google and not hidden behind a door in Newton North High School’s Little Theatre. I am frankly a little tired talking about The Geisha Image, The Overtly Sexualized Dragon Lady, The Submissive Asian Male Stereotype and the Kung-Foo Warrior Image.
I need to get back to the real world, not this 1920s world that is irrelevant to me and my issues as an Asian American. I assure you that these negative stereotypes do not plague me in my daily life. It’s only when you bring it up. I think the real question is why NNHS powers that be didn’t listen when objections — the same as mine — were addressed earlier. We brought up the same issues and the problems could have been resolved in a much stronger and less controversial show.
I apologize for the timing of my posts close to the show’s opening. I only learned about this show and the Anti-Asian slant last Saturday or I would have brought this up earlier. It was not my intention to take away from the members of the cast, crew or teachers who worked so hard on this show. In fact, it’s incredibly frustrating to me that these issues were brought up earlier in a timely manner and largely dismissed.
Reactions on Twitter to Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie
@pragmaticmom that page in the program – the “disclaimer” – is complete and utter crap.
‘mainly, we forgot that Asian people exist, might know English, & might object to racist stereotypes about them. Oops! SORRY (not sorry)’
> now you’re going to do a #sorrynotsorry racist show, Newton North High School?
@pragmaticmom ugh. As a school leader, I am so frustrated by the school’s reaction.
Newton North HS (MA) is staging racist “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” doesn’t care if you’re offended http://ilovenewton.com/nnhs-responds-concerns-modern-millie/ … via @JadeLuckClub
‘we have heard your concerns & have educated ppl abt the stereotypes but we’re going fwd w/ the production anyway’ say smug white people
‘we got some Asian staff to talk to some ppl & there’s going to be a disclaimer in the program, so’ say the smug white ppl
Newton, MA is affluent suburb of Boston, 83.7% wh, 12% Asian, 1.5% Blk. Newton North HS is 76.9% wh, 8% Asian, 5.2 % Blk, 5.1% Latino
“Filled with frisky flappers, dashing leading men and a dragon-lady of a villainess audiences will love to hate, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE >
> is a perfectly constructed evening of madcap merriment.” AND RACISM!
As if kids in a large, white HS in a large, white suburb don’t risk being alienated enough >
Watch the clip from the 1967 film of Thoroughly Modern Millie and tell me it’s not racist, Newton North HS http://www.asamnews.com/2014/03/11/i-love-newton-high-school-stages-play-filled-with-asian-american-stereotypes/ …
‘we did not anticipate that ppl wd be upset that we are staging a racist show; pls come and share yr concerns so we can dismiss those too’
Arissa Oh is a professor of history at Boston University. Professor Oh’s current project examines the origins of the practice of Korean and international adoption. Her research and teaching interests include immigration and race in U.S. history, transnational Asian-American history, and Cold War social and political history. She has a B.A. from Yale and a Ph.D. from University of Chicago. She lives in Newton, MA. You can follow her on Twitter.
p.s. I was told that the director, Brad Jensen, would be very open to discussing my concerns. So I wanted to officially note that I emailed him a few days ago and he never got back to me.
Nor did the response from Todd R. Young (Chair, NNHS FPA Department), Adam Brown (Director, Theatre Ink) and Jennifer Price (Principal, NNHS) get emailed to me directly.
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.
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.