Miss Saigon and the Hypersexualization of Women

Story by Evelynn Coffie, senior at Lusher High School. Mentored by Scott Hutcheson.

The sound of helicopters whirred over a cage-like brothel called Dreamland, while Vietnamese women stripped off their clothes to prepare for their shift as bargirls for the American Marines during the Vietnam War. 

Dreamland is the place to be for American men who cannot curb their sexual appetite, a place where “Men pay a lot for virgin ass.” The Engineer (played by Red Concepción) sang this lurid lyric in the overture in “Miss Saigon.” It stands as a testimony for the hypersexualization of young, innocent women seeking survival in exchange for sex. 

The 2020 “Miss Saigon” tour skillfully captured the sexualization of women—not as a theme to weaken a complicated love story, but to highlight the cruel, transactional relationship between men, and in most cases, foreign women, during times of war. For some, this production was even more graphic than the original “Miss Saigon” production in the early 1990s. 

“This is my third time seeing ‘Miss Saigon’ and the production in London, as well as the one at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, were not as explicit as this one,” Scott Hutcheson, a 56-year-old former actor said. “Back in the 90s, people deemed the bargirls too provocative for showing too much skin. But with this production, the corsets and the latex add a new touch.” 

“Miss Saigon” opened its six-day stretch in New Orleans on Tuesday, January 21, and enjoyed a full house at the Saenger Theater on January 22. This epic love story, set during the Vietnam War, tells the story of the ill-fated romance of a Vietnamese teen, Kim, and an American GI, Chris, who fall in love, out of touch, and eventually meet a tragic fate. 

“Miss Saigon” was originally adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly,” which tells a dismal love story of a 15-year-old Japanese girl and a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. An American soldier intrudes on foreign land, lures a young, non-American into his life with promises of marriage and a beautiful life with children, impregnates her, leaves her, then returns when it’s finally too late. 

“We’ve heard of ‘Miss Saigon’ and saw some snippets of it on YouTube, but we haven’t actually seen the whole show,” Quinn, a 25-year old New Orleanian said behind a growing crowd entering the auditorium five-minutes before the show. “It seems like those Broadway shows that a lot of people always talk about and we wanted to know why. I’m hoping it’s as good as people say.”

The second number opened with a vibrant scene where the bargirls twirled on tables and slung their bodies across the Marines’ shoulders wearing loosely layered pieces of undergarments and latex suits— all while in high heels. The spectacle felt like a Saturday night between the neon lights on Bourbon Street, just blocks away.

As the bargirls carry whips and spank their backsides to the spunky, upbeat tune of “The Heat is On in Saigon,” it’s difficult to identify the division between passion and pain. 

It isn’t until The Engineer slaps Gigi (played by Christine Bunuan) for dismissing the advances of an aggressive John (played by J. Daughtry) that it’s established that women are victims of war, their bodies nothing more than a commodity to ease tensions between natives and American invaders.

“Go to any red-light district, and that’s what you see: a girl with desperation in her eyes, wanting to not be doing this, and another girl who is dead on the inside,” Lea Salonga, who played Kim in the original production of Miss Saigon in London, said in an interview in The New York Times in 2017.

In many countries around the globe, prostitution is not classified or an acceptable occupation, but millions of women around the world sell their bodies to financially support themselves or their family.  

Protective measures are not often taken into account for women who suffer from abuse in their occupation as prostitutes. In Southeast Asia, where girls and women like Kim and Gigi would perform, prostitution surged in the late 20th, early 21st century as the commercial sex sector grew alongside the influx of migration to countries like the Philippines and Thailand.

In the fourth number in Act I, The Engineer forces Kim to prove her worth by coaxing Chris (played by Anthony Festa) into the bedroom. He swoons at the sight of her youthful glow and just as swiftly wakes up the next morning, ready to whisk her off to America. He didn’t seem to be like the rest of the lusty GIs, despite not knowing anything about her or her village. Heck, he even pronounces the last syllable of Vietnam as if it rhymes with “ham.” 

Essentially, he doesn’t understand her or her struggle. He’s infatuated with Kim and prides himself on being with other girls who “knew much more.” The white savior complex that many criticized in the original production of “Miss Saigon” remains—it’s hard to excise in the full arc of the plot, really. 

His vows of keeping Kim safe and protecting her from a ‘savage’ country that she grew up in helps boost the ideal that Americans are saviors. Their honeymoon adventure ends as they cradle each other in a shimmer of fluorescent blue light and everyone is thrust three years into the future—1978, when Saigon has turned into Ho Chi Minh City.

Thuy (Jinwoo Jung), a long-time neighbor arranged to marry Kim, is now a high-ranking officer of the communist government in Vietnam and he tasks The Engineer with a mission to retrieve her so they can finally marry. Unfortunately for Thuy, Kim will never forget her lost love, who meanwhile is cozying up with his new wife Ellen in America as the number “I Still Believe” breaks out. The bright white spotlights switch between Ellen, who is anchored high above Kim on a neat bed in a warless country, while Kim sits below on the ground in a war-torn land in a moment of pure stagecraft magic.

When Thuy storms into Kim’s destitute village with his small army to coerce Kim to be his wife, he discovers Kim’s son Tam and all hope for what he believed to be a pure, perfect, untouched woman kneeled in front of him burst into a confused haze of defeat. This then slowly builds into a rage. 

He calls Kim a whore for having a mixed child and he’s bitter that her “bastard son” is a lingering reminder that Chris will always be a part of Kim. Both Kim and Thuy sang back and forth as the mood grew darker as Thuy pulled out his knife to murder Tam. The tension on the stage thickened when Kim swiped a gun Chris gave her and pulled the trigger. Audience members gasped as a loud pop rang out into the air and Thuy fell to the ground.  

After the intermission, the proscenium captures the agony and despair between the ragged blocks of wood and tattered cloth. Act II is set back in America where Vietnam veterans pay pity to their forgotten children but not the women they left behind. 

When Kim hears from John that Chris returned to Vietnam, she’s overjoyed, but it’s not until Ellen and Kim meet that her fantasy fizzles. She begs Chris and Ellen to take Tam, and they do. As the production comes to a close, there’s a desperate hope that maybe everything, regardless of past transgressions, will be okay. But as at the end of so many tragedies, it is always the woman that suffers and pays the ultimate sacrifice with death.

“Miss Saigon” is not a production that honors the virtues of suffering. It’s a production that pries open the truth about victims of war and the utter trauma that ensues for women who forced themselves to assimilate and survive. One thing that sticks out is Chris’s claim in the beginning that as an American, he’s supposed to protect. But he, like many Americans, has a selfish tendency to protect only himself. And this particular production did an excellent job of downplaying Chris’s nobility, showing him as a bit more feeble, selfish.

As “Miss Saigon” continues to tour, one thing might never change outside of the stage: patriarchal oppression. Women like Kim will continue to use their bodies to sustain their livelihood and men like Chris will continue to use women to satisfy their sexual desires. This musical serves as an everlasting testament that the female objectification—especially of non-white women—only stymies the liberation of women worldwide.