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Stage Left: Thoroughly Modern Racism, or, the problem with MILLIE

Recently I sat down and watched the 1967 film musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore. Millie has all the makings of what could be an incredibly charming, silly film: it has tap-dancing in elevators, inexplicably well-choreographed impromptu dances, and Carol Channing making what may be the greatest entrance in movie history. [video: Millie, Miss Dorothy, and Jimmy in a red plane. Dramatic music plays as a black plane approaches, then abruptly switches to a jaunty tune as the other plane pulls level. Carol Channing as Muzzy Van Hossmere leans out of the front seat holding a glass and bottle of champagne and rapturously exclaims "raspberries!" before flying off once more] However, what Millie also features is a staggeringly racist plotline involving [CONTENT WARNING: racist plot described in detail] a hotel owner and her two nameless, menacing Chinese manservants (played by Jack Soo and Pat Morita and credited, appallingly, as Oriental #1 and Oriental #2) selling residents of the hotel into white slavery. Nothing about this plotline is remotely okay, especially given that every scene with the "Orientals" serves to emphasize how alien they are. A white woman in mock Asian clothing and her two Asian servants surrounding a wicker basket What this still image (described in alt text) can't convey is the jaw-droppingly awful mish-mash of "Chinese" sounds she speaks to them with, nor that they spend most of the film near-silent and gratingly incompetent. It does hint at the fact that Meers, despite being white, is very much coded as a "dragon lady," most obviously in her garb, but also through the ruthlessness she uses to achieve her goals. I could write a lot about how Millie treats its Asian characters. But there is one other scene I wanted to discuss in this post, and that is the Jewish Wedding. First, I want to make clear that none of the main characters is textually Jewish. But midway through the film, Millie reminds Miss Dorothy that the two of them have a wedding to attend, and then this happens: [video: Julie Andrews as Millie singing a Yiddish song ("Trinkt le Chaim"--the only lyrics I could find are here and I am uncertain of their accuracy, I apologise) at a wedding. There is an extended dance break partway through] I should state that I am not Jewish either, and know relatively little about Jewish traditions (and I want to thank Amadi for talking to me about this scene). But this scene is not only exceedingly voyeuristic (witness Miss Dorothy midway through, where she bemusedly exclaims "it's...Jewish!"), it gets some extremely important aspects of Jewish wedding traditions wrong (in particular, the lack of a Chuppah for the bride and groom). Millie was adapted into a stage musical in 2000, which came to Broadway in 2002. I have not seen it, but I do know enough to know that they tried valiantly to rectify the problems with the source material. They (mercifully) cut the Jewish wedding entirely, and they gave Mrs. Meers' servants names and motivations—one ultimately ends up marrying Miss Dorothy, in the stage show's most radical departure from the film. But I question why this adaptation even came to be, more than thirty years after the film first premiered. Why it was felt that a film this transparently problematic could—or should!—be turned into a stage show, other than the general momentum stage adaptations of movies have been gaining in the past decade. And lastly, I question whether the changes they made really solved the problem, and I am forced to conclude they almost certainly didn't. Millie, despite many charming moments, is rotten to the core, and I don't see a way to solve that problem without making an entirely different show.

Previously: Age on Stage in Stephen Sondheim's Follies, Mental Illness and Treatment in Next to Normal

 

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Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I love Bitch magazine, and I

I love Bitch magazine, and I often refer my students to use Bitch as a source in their research papers, but I am appalled at how poorly written and researched this article is. Come on Bitch, did you actually pay someone to write this? It is disrespectful to your readers.
For example, this sentence: "First, I want to make clear that none of the main characters is textually Jewish."
Or how the author claims the stage show might be better, but she/he doesn't know because she/he hasn't seen it? Also the baffling statement about "I'm not Jewish but..."
Get it together, Bitch Magazine!

Why yes in fact, we did.

Elsa,

Thanks for your comments. However, as the editor of this article, I appreciated Dorian's clarifications on both his identity and that of the characters in the film. I don't see his stating that none of the characters in the film identify as Jewish as a problem, nor do I think he is somehow unable to critique it because he himself is not Jewish. In fact, as a reader I'd prefer someone make their standpoint clear, as he has done.

As far as his not having seen the show goes, because the main point of this article is to critique the racism present in the film, I don't think viewing the stage show was necessary here—and I certainly don't consider it disrespectful to our readership.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

?

What's wrong with saying the characters aren't Jewish in the text? They're not.

I find your qualms with this

I find your qualms with this post completely arbitrary.

Pointing out that the characters aren't Jewish puts the wedding in context in the film. I haven't watched the clip nor have I seen the movie, so I feel a little awkward saying more than that, but in my opinion the fact that none of the characters is Jewish does suggest something about the role or intention of the scene. Dorian points it out to make you re-examine the scene critically. I also don't understand how Dorian clarifying his identity poses any threat to your understanding of his analysis. He is not being dishonest about his perspective.

I also don't understand why it's an issue that Dorian hasn't seen the stage show. Not everyone lives near New York City to see it (for one), and besides, his point is that the show obviously made efforts to improve upon the problematic source content. The article is about the movie, not the show.

If you would like to expound on why this is a poorly written, poorly researched article, feel free.

Elsa,Thanks for voicing your

Elsa,

Thanks for voicing your concerns, although I do think your phrasing was rather harsh. I admit my writing style is rather casual, but so is that of many other authors on this blog, and I really don't see that as a problem. Nor have other commenters, in the posts I have made over the past several weeks. I admit my writing style is not to everyone's liking, but I do not think that it is objectively poor, per se. It reflects very accurately how I articulate myself offline and face-to-face, and that was really my goal.

This blog is mainly to voice my personal readings of various stage and screen musicals. Because I am extremely limited in my ability to see stage shows both due to location and income, I have not had an opportunity to see the stage production of Millie, but I felt omitting it entirely would have been a far graver sin that acknowledging that it exists and what little I do know about it, since I do know it tried to do several things differently from the movie. I considered attempting to examine it in more depth based on the cast album (which I do have in my possession), but I felt that this would have presented an incomplete picture at best, as well as detract from the main focus of the article, which is, as Anon said, the film.

On the issue of research, I felt my criticisms of the film stood fairly well on their own without hearkening back to other sources (and it is not as if there is a huge well of Millie scholarship out there). I looked up the things that I did not know off the top of my head--what specifically is involved in Jewish weddings being a prime example, which Amadi helped me with and which I double-checked with a couple of sources. I cited Amadi's blog as a whole rather than a specific post because her correspondence with me was private, and I cited Wikipedia because I felt it was the most accessible definition of a Chuppah. When I am defining a simple object, I find Wikipedia more than sufficient, though I wouldn't cite it in more theoretical conversations. Other than that, all I had to look up were lyrics to songs, which again do not require a great deal of comprehensive scholarship.

Perhaps you feel my approach to citation and research was unsatisfactory, and you certainly have the right to! Again, my writing style is not terribly academically rigorous except when I am actually writing in an academic context, which Bitch is not. I cite statements I make that did not originate from me, but most of what you see is my original thought, and as such there isn't really anything I can link.

Hopefully that clarifies where I'm coming from with this. I hope you can enjoy my future or past posts more, but if not may I suggest that you just skip them? They are clearly marked by the "Stage Left" title and therefore quite easy to avoid if you find them unsatisfactory, which the Bitch staff and other commentors clearly do not.

Yours,
Dorian

A couple things

First, let me say that TMM was a childhood favorite of mine but even by middle school I knew that the way they represented Chinese culture was wrong and hurtful. As for Miss Dorothy's line, "It's Jewish", even as a child I interpreted that as a joke on her. She is sheltered and naive, never having stepped outside her tiny world (She pays a $0.45 bill with a check!). Her simplicity is not being celebrated it is being mocked. I HAVE seen the stage show and I didn't care for it, because even though they "fixed" some of the problems with the original film they also didn't manage to preserve the charm.

Having said that, there are lots of old movies that were popular and loved that make modern viewers cringe. My Perfect Example!!!: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers! I loved that movie as a child and I still enjoy it but I can't help but have my feminist stomach turn at the plot. Recently while watching it with a young niece and two young nephews I pointed out a couple of times how utterly wrong the points-of-view of the characters were. This movie was also adapted into a stage play (in 1979) and it is almost exactly like the movie. I have seen that too and enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy the movie.

I don't know what the answer is to movies that reflect the racist or sexist feelings of the culture they were made in. Should we throw them all away. I hope not because I love the barn dance scene.

Now, concerning this particular article. I would prefer that if you haven't seen something, you just state that fact and then say you can't comment on it. Remember when that reviewer got in trouble for writing a review of an album when she hadn't listened to it? That is kind of a No-No. When ever I am reading something where the author starts by saying that they haven't actually read/seen/heard something but are about to talk about it critically I roll my eyes.

Thanks for your comments. And

Thanks for your comments. And I do think it's possible to enjoy media you find problematic--I'm actually planning a future post on this, because there are things about Millie I find charming (Carol Channing, the elevator dances, the trampoline sequence...). And there are many other shows I like despite their having glaring problems as well--next to normal, [title of show], Pacific Overtures (another one I am planning to write about)...problematic media is really inescapable, if you get right down ot it.

I am aware that I shouldn't comment on things I haven't seen, which is why the bulk of this review is based on the film. But I did want to address the fact that the stage adaptation had at least attempted to solve the problems. I stated facts I had been able to ascertain, and then made one judgment call that it seemed unlikely to me the problems with the show could have been solved that easily, which I think is not unreasonable. You're welcome to disagree, of course.

Problematic Entertainment

I love this idea for a conversation. I think it could be a series. One post could be about old movies (Thoroughly Modern Milly, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and so many others). You could almost do a whole series on Music. I ove country but hate it when it gets racist/xenophobic. I know a to of people love rap which can be problematic. How about loving sports that are used to market alcohol. You can even call it Problematic Media. That is catchy.

I think I could write about Country but I would never write about Rap, because I don't listen to much that isn't on the top 40 radio stations.

The Jewish wedding truly

The Jewish wedding truly doesn't bug me -- how often, in film or theater, are religions portrayed completely accurately? I think it's pretty cool just to see a Jewish wedding in popular culture -- and to look back on the film now and see some pretty impressive dancing and sining (anyone see any breakdancing parallels?). However, if this article is to hold any real water with me, it would definitely have to be longer and better-researched. I mean, come on -- it is COMPLETELY possible to see at least parts of the stage show online or through renting a film of the stage show, I am sure. I do agree that the portrayal of Asian characters is a huge problem, and I fail to see the charm of this particular story, but there could definitely have been more "heft" to this article -- it reads as a rough draft.

Anyone else see the irony here?

This could be better researched... by looking at things that I assume exist but haven't bothered to look up?

Come on.

No legally available film of the Broadway show exists that would be accessible to Dorian without a trip to NY to visit the library at Lincoln Center. While there are clips of television performances from the show available on YouTube, they (understandably) focus on the happy tap dancing sequences and almost entirely omit any part that could be even potentially problematic. Dorian could base his writing on the plethora of student productions uploaded to YouTube, but that would be a different article.

Pretty Cool?

I don't see anything "pretty cool" (or otherwise positive) about a poor pastiche of a Jewish wedding that elides important aspects of the tradition and uses a Yiddish song (written, mercifully, as a replacement of a traditional song, by the woman hired as Julie Andrews's dialect coach) to frame a voyeuristic scene of "Jewish" dancing (in a style very reminiscent of the contemporary "Fiddler on the Roof") in a very othering way. Stuck within the middle of the story in a way completely devoid of context, it was all about "oh, here, look at this thing which is different and exotic." It wasn't respectful, but the entire movie was disrespectful of differences, across class, race, ethnicity and religious lines.

I agree, it is racist.

I loved Thoroughly Modern Millie when it came out. I was 10. I'm watching it again now, and I was amazed by the racist stereotypes that go well beyond satire. I did a search to see if I was the only one with this reaction.

My reaction to the Jewish wedding was similar: Why are they there? Why is Millie entertaining? The Mary Tyler Moore character's comment (to a presumably Jewish person) was silly.

It's also an extraordinarily unfeminist and classist film for the times.

I am enjoying James Fox's performance as Jimmy. I can't believe it's him.

Yup, it's still racist, sexist and classist!

I recently re-watched this movie & could barely make it to the end. I loved this movie when I watched it as a teenager but as a grown woman, whew, this movie just makes me cringe so much. Wow, the whole story turns on the racist stereotypes of Asians, in particular Chinese.

Yes, it has those great dancing & singing numbers (as does 7 brides) but to get to the great scenes you have to slog through the awful slanted eyes & fake Chinese. Wow, even in the 60s this was really pushing the limits of what was acceptable.

The plot totally depends upon white America's fear of the "other". Really, just how many times do we need to see depictions of white virgins sold into slavery? of course, it's only worrying or fearful when it's white girls not the millions of other girls & women who exist in actual slavery today.

I realized that you just can't have this movie without the racism; there's no story otherwise. Funnily enough, the sexism is just as key but bothers me less. Maybe b/c it really hasn't got any better in movies or real life!

Damn, I want to see a total re-write with the same great singing & dancing but a different story that works without denigrating any Americans today.