Do not stage Thoroughly Modern Millie at Manly Selective Campus
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In 2018, Northern Beaches Secondary College Manly Selective Campus will stage the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. This is an immensely flawed decision due to many facets of the musical which are racist to Chinese individuals, which shall be elaborated on in the following paragraphs. Presenting a musical so racist in nature is an insult to Manly Selective's Chinese-background student body and teachers, and to the broader school community of students, teachers and families of colour.
- The plot of Thoroughly Modern Millie contains irredeemably racist elements which paint Chinese individuals in a negative light. The primary antagonist of the show is one Mrs. Meers, a white American woman who assumes yellowface and an exaggerated "Chinese" accent for the duration of the musical. The plot-given reason for this disguise is to expose Meers' racism and her worst traits, but this is a poor attempt at a message of tolerance and acceptance when one considers all the other racist elements of Thoroughly Modern Millie. As well as this reason, the yellowface disguise and accent are often played off for laughs, which is harmful as it brings ridicule and vilification to Chinese individuals, especially those who do not speak English fluently. Finally, the fact that the primary antagonist has been given "Asian" characterisation when the character is not actually Asian can be construed in a disrespectful manner due to the unnecessary, shoehorned association of Asian-ness with villainy. Further examples of this association are outlined thus:
- The two actual Chinese characters (out of the musical's nine principal roles) are harmful and degrading caricatures of Chinese people. In the film off which the musical was based, these two characters are referred to solely in the credits as "Orientals 1 and 2", "Oriental" being a problematic term due to its colonialist connotations, harking back to a period in history where people of colour from all over the world were seen as inferior and subordinate. For the stage production, these characters' names were changed to Ching Ho and Bun Foo, which, to the best of my knowledge, have no significant meaning in any Chinese dialect, and thus further the characters' caricatured depiction of Chinese individuals. In addition to the culturally insensitive names, these characters also speak and sing most, if not all of their lines in Mandarin and Cantonese. In the Manly Selective Campus production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, these characters would need to be played by either Chinese actors who speak both Mandarin and Cantonese (which is highly unlikely judging by the ethnic makeup of previous Manly Selective musical casts), or by non-Chinese actors who would have to learn the Mandarin and Cantonese lines and lyrics to perfection (which I believe would be nigh impossible, as I have had experience performing in stage shows involving lines in languages other than English, and in my experience the delivery of these lines has not been good).
The poorly-written Chinese characters and Mrs. Meers are hardly the only racist elements of Thoroughly Modern Millie's plot, however.
- One of the show's storylines involves Mrs. Meers attempting to kidnap the titular protagonist Millie for a white sex trafficking ring in China. This plotline is racially insensitive for a number of reasons.
According to the United States Department of Justice, from 2008-2010 the racial makeup of sex trafficking victims in the USA (the country in which Thoroughly Modern Millie is set), in cases where the individuals' races were known, was 40.4% Black, 25.6% White, 23.9% Latine, 5.8% Other and 4.3% Asian. While one may argue that these statistics do not accurately reflect the state of sex trafficking in the 1920s (when the show is set), it is important to realise that in this day and age, when women of colour are the main victims of sex trafficking, staging a show where the sole victims of sex trafficking are white women plays into "missing white woman syndrome", a phenomenon where crimes committed against white women are disproportionately covered by the media and disproportionately condemned, compared to crimes against women (and men, for that matter) of colour.
The fact that the perpetrators of the white female sex trafficking in this musical are the only men of colour in the entire show (i.e. Ching Ho and Bun Foo) makes this white victimhood even more sinister as it serves to demonise men of colour and present them as villains (especially when none of the show's white male characters are villains).
(It is also worth noting that even in the 1920s, concerns about white sex slavery in Asia were largely unfounded and fueled by "Yellow Peril", a fear and distrust of Chinese immigrants to America in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.)
For the reasons detailed above, Thoroughly Modern Millie is not an acceptable musical for Northern Beaches Secondary College Manly Selective Campus to perform. Thoroughly Modern Millie has often been cited as empowering for women, and while this is definitely an admirable quality for a piece of media to have, it should NOT come at the expense of people of colour. Feminist messages should be able to cater to all women, not just white women.
The Sydney Boys and Sydney Girls High School joint musical of 2016 faced a similar situation as this one, as they were also intending to stage Thoroughly Modern Millie that year. However, an appeal was made and the musical was changed to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I have heard from students of these schools that this change was well-received, and it was definitely received better than the proposed production of Thoroughly Modern Millie would have been.
While there are no exact statistics on how many MSC students are of Chinese or East Asian, the fact remains that there are Chinese and East Asian students in this school, and for the school to portray Chinese characters in such a racist context would be a slap in the face to them, as well as to other students of colour and their families, as it perpetuates the othering of Chinese individuals and sets the harmful pretence that Chinese individuals will never be welcome in Western society. In a school where approximately half of the student body comes from a non-English-speaking background, it would be expected that Manly Selective Campus would demonstrate a better commitment to the welfare of these students and it would be greatly appreciated it if the choice for the 2018 school musical was revised.
Armaan Keast and all the signatories to this petition
N.B.: All the information in this appeal which I, Armaan Keast, did not know previously was obtained from others who have seen the musical and from these sources:
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