Resistant Spectatorship

Eva Noblezada as Kim, a 17-year old Vietnamese orphan, sings a wedding song for Chris, an American G.I. played by Alistair Brammer in the 2014 recording of the West end production Miss Saigon.

Manthia Diawara’s critique of black characters in D.W. Griffin’s Birth of a Nation and Eddie Murphy’s cop movies serves as a template for further examination on the racist depictions in mass media of the African-American male. In considering some Hollywood productions, Diawara makes a case for the problematic ‘identification’ between the black (male) spectator and the image of the black (male) character. Diawara opens: “Whenever Blacks are represented in Hollywood, and sometimes when Hollywood omits Blacks from its films altogether, there are spectators who denounce the result and refuse to suspend their disbelief”.[1]
            I found the arguments compelling having been raised in an Evangelical Christian family (who identified closely with American culture via religious ties) that treated television and cinema as instruments of Satan. This didn’t mean we didn’t subscribe to cable television or that we were not allowed to watch films but that there was always a low regard for American television with the exception of National Geographic, Discovery, and History channels which I recall with nostalgia for the 90s, showed something else other than replays of Pawn Stars. Riffing on Diawara’s recognition of the inability for Black people to identify with their film and television show counterparts, I realize that many Filipinos were so conditioned to identify with the White American character as the default person to project relatable qualities of race, even of their own. Such was the extent of my Americanization that I never questioned why I find American sitcoms regardless of social class of main characters relatable but dramas like Days of Our Lives, not at all in the caliber of the shittiest Filipino telenovela. Diawara, in this case, served to explain this uncanny phenomenon as a case in the theory of resistant spectatorship, rooted in the historically exaggerated representations of African-Americans on screen as servants or mammies, thieves, robbers, murders or villains sometimes by blackfaced white actors.
            Celine Parrenas Shimizu goes deep into the negotiation behind this resistant viewership, employing various layers of representation in the hit Broadway and West end show, Miss Saigon (1989).[2] Premiering around the time I was born in the late 80s, I vividly recall Miss Saigon was a genuine post-Marcos dictatorship cultural moment for Filipinos around the world, purchasing Miss Saigon memorabilia en masse, though a majority had never seen it live until it was shown in Manila sometime in early 2000s. An awareness of theater events was considered a middle class affair. From the 1960s, language divided theater-goers between those who went to Broadway rehases staged by the local repertory or those who went to see a Tagalog play staged on the streets in protest.
            Why, you might ask, are Filipinos deeply interested in a musical show about a tragic love affair between a 17-year old orphan girl and an American G.I. during the Vietnam War? Parrenas-Shimizu offers the answer of layers of representation but she doesn’t directly mention the one most important for Filipinos, that the presence of Filipino and Filipino-American actors who looked like them on the Broadway stage was particularly pleasurable and a source of national pride. I doubt it has anything to do with being Asian or of the play being set in another Southeast Asian country though I cannot substantiate this position now. Shimizu instead frames her arguments as coming from the perspective of an Asian-American academic woman and while she notes for the readers that Asianness and Asian femininity in particular are not monolithic constructs but ironically going as far as switching between identifying having an altercation with a Filipina-American or an Asian-American woman, she doesn’t mention that she herself is Filipina, and a daughter of Filipino political refugees. I found her omission strategic but also suspect as it conceals some biases which might help readers understand her interest in the default favorite Broadway musical of my kababayans. The transnational production of Miss Saigon in London, New York, and Manila has been studied elsewhere as a case of post-Cold War circulation of American neo-colonial cultural expressions.[3] Tzu-I Chung uses the term transnational and uses James Fishkin’s assertion that “each location” in the Miss Saigon tour as being part of “a world system, in which the exchange of commodities, the flow of capital, and the iterations of cultures know no borders.”
            In my mind, the “fiction of hypersexuality” that Parennas-Shimizu refers to is not so much that of the roles of Vietnamese female prostitutes in Miss Saigon (1989) but of the global Filipina actor who has made it in the world stage and this strangely links this article to Catherine Ceniza Choy’s studies in Empire of Care, especially if fused with the transnational lens of Tzu-I Chung.
            Parennas-Shimizu defines hypersexuality as “the inscription of a pathologically intense and excessive propensity for sexuality,”[4] that through sublimation in a memorable theatrical role, become seen as “natural characteristic, one directly linked to a particular raced and gendered ontology.” According to Parennas-Shimizu, this “Western fantasy of a perverse subject position” goes against the standard virtues of white male sexuality.[5] Asian women whether depicted as virginal or lascivious are also propped up as a foil to the white female norm that Lauren Berlant frames “as the innocent symbol of reproductive sexuality for white women in American national fantasy.”[6]
            While I have difficulty dealing with employing gender and sexuality studies at this moment, I find it a useful critical lens in reading sources for my study of a renowned group of US-educated Filipino artists whose campaign for modernism served as a catalyst for the country’s colonial emancipation. Victorio Edades, Enrique Ruiz, Fernando Zobel, and Constancio Bernardo were architects, painters, and professors. A tangential anecdote of their experience as expatriates living outside the constraints of their own society are the misadventures in their exploration of capitalist excesses that America had to offer. Provoked by racism and allegations of effeminacy and infantilization, they displayed their manliness and urbanity through careful grooming and deportment, and demonstrated their courage and virility through brawls and sports, and the courting of white women. Their studies exposed them to scientific discourses on the body and novel categorizations of anatomy and race, ideas they used to challenge the obscurantism of Philippine art they saw in their country. However, their experiences also radically shaped their ideas of sex and the sexual nature of Filipino women. Similar to Shimizu-Parennas, I aim to explore their gendered representations in paintings, photographs, writings, and letters to investigate the moral contradictions inherent in their passionate modernisms, and their struggle to come to terms with the relative sexual freedom of American women, which they found both vile and mysteriously seductive.


[1] Manthia Diawara, “Black Spectatorship,” Black American Cinema, New York : Routledge, 1993, 66.

[2] Celine Parreñas-Shimizu, “The Bind of Representation: Performing and Consuming Hypersexuality in Miss Saigon.” Theatre Journal 57, no. 2 (2005): 247-265. doi:10.1353/tj.2005.0079.

[3] Tzu-I Chung, “The Transnational Vision of Miss Saigon: Performing the Orient in a Globalized World,” MELUS: Multi-ethnic Literature of the U.S., 36, 2011, 61-86. 10.1353/mel.2011.0063.

[4] Celine Parreñas-Shimizu, op. cit., 248.

[5] Ibid., 248.

[6] Ibid., 249.