Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Movie Musicals

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 ©  Sharon Chang and Multiracial Asian Families Blog, Jul 3 2013

I grew up on movie musicals: Sound of Music, Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St Louis, Carousel, Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, Grease, Hello Dolly, Chorus Line, Tea for Two…you name it. My love of music and desire to sing/dance were centrally inspired by these movies. So unsurprisingly when I had my son and judged he was old enough for TV, I started showing him musical numbers from these films. Initially it was great. I swam blissfully in a sea of nostalgia as my little guy formed, what I thought, were golden music memories akin to my own. But then, a couple things happened. First, my son simply stopped liking the movies. He didn’t want to watch them anymore and would tell me to turn them off. At the same time, I was starting to research and reflect more deeply upon issues of multiracial Asian identity and parenting. Certainly being mixed Asian is a subject I’ve circled back to over and over my whole life. But now, it was cast in such a different light. Now I had not just my adult-self and adult-husband to consider, but a young child to support and guide. And not just any young child (as all of you who are parents know) but my own child, my heart and soul. The stakes felt very high...
My vision started to change and my reality shifted. I looked at my beloved movie musicals and for the first time, started seeing things I didn’t like. There are practically no people of color and many of the films are incredibly ethnocentric. (i.e. little acknowledgement of larger national context and heavy messaging about dominant cultural values/ideals). I didn’t like the influence such a dominant script would likely have on my young, impressionable child of color. I also questioned the cultural relevance for our family and guessed my son ultimately didn’t like the movies because he couldn’t relate to them. I mean not only are these movies out of time and out of place, but out of focus and off-color. And that’s still true by the way. There’s been a resurgence of movie musicals in the last decade, but they continue to be very white (e.g. Moulin Rouge, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Hairspray, Mama Mia!, Les Miserable, etc).

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To be fair, there are a few – very few – exceptions. And even fewer of those give a nod to Asians. Of considerable note are a string of post-WWII, pre/early Civil Rights Era musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein which interestingly also feature multiracial Asians in some capacity. The King and I (1956) explores an interracial relationship between the King of Siam, played by multiracial Asian actor Yule Brynner, and his white governess. South Pacific (1958) explores interracial Asian relationships between a young white lieutenant and native Pacific Islander, and a white nurse and French planter with 2 multiracial Asian children (by a deceased wife). Though I acknowledge the attempt by these films to be inclusive, the underlying message and outlook for Asian Americans is well…pretty morbid (spoilers follow here). The King of Siam falls in love with his white governess, but he never marries her, they never have children, and then he dies. The young lieutenant who falls in love with the native girl? He dies too. The only couple to triumph is the white couple.

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Flower Drum Song (1961) was the first musical to feature an all Asian cast. I think we still feel conflicted about this one. On the one hand, Flower Drum Song was a pioneer, breaking ground, offering new opportunities for Asian actors and beating a path for Asian actors to come. It tried to represent a more modern Asian America and sometimes did a decent job. On the other hand it did not deal well with themes of immigration, cultural dilution and assimilation. And it perpetuated troublesome stereotypes most notably of Asian woman through its two female lead characters Mei Li (China doll) and Linda Low (dragon lady), played by multiracial Asian actress Nancy Kwan. Case in point, I tried watching it with my family and though I was profoundly blown away by the fact that it was an “Asian musical”, in the end I couldn’t quite stomach it. Something about watching a hapa sister scorn/toy with men, sing “I enjoy being a girl”, and primp/preen narcissistically in front of a mirror made me cringe. We don’t watch it anymore.

Nancy Kwan, "I Enjoy Being A Girl", Flower Drum Song (image source)
So I’ve had to leave my movie musicals mostly behind. It’s just hard to enjoy them the way I used to and it’s near impossible to show them to my son without feeling weird about it. I guess it sounds silly, it’s like saying goodbye to an old friend. But there’s some kind of metaphor, analogy or larger lesson here. Right? Friendships are often lost on the road to race-consciousness. At the end of the day I just keep believing the benefits will outweigh the cost.

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