Thoroughly Modern Millie and the Marginalized
In the hit musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie, the villain Mrs. Meers plays an ex-actress who works for a white slavery ring based in Hong Kong. She kidnaps pretty American girls and ships them to the Orient, using the help of her easily manipulated Chinese sidekicks, Ching Ho and Bun Foo.
The Mrs. Meers subplot has been sharply criticized for its racist undertones (though the musical version was toned down from the original film, which named the two Asian men only “Oriental #1” and “Oriental #2”). Critics have also found fault with the incredibly lighthearted way the film and play attempt to discuss human trafficking.
But the storyline is also problematic historically.
In the early 1920’s when Millie was first arriving in New York City, “white slavery” was primarily a term for sexual slavery of European descendants, including forced prostitution, private ownership, and use of a slave for ritual religious purposes.
Overwhelmingly the slaves were women and children. They were kidnapped or sold in many ways, but some of the most common included kidnapping by Barbary pirates in Europe and the inter-state trafficking of women through the United States.
The term “white slavery” produced a panic in Europe and the United States that is deeply troubling: after centuries of head-turning to arguably the most barbaric slave trade in history, the enslavement of white women caused an immediate stir.
The fierce anger against “white slavery” caused racial profiling of Arabs in Europe and Chinese immigrants in America. While there were some examples of Chinese mafia members engaging in human trafficking during the 1920’s, the sad distortion is that in actuality, many more Asian women and children were and still are trafficked from China and other Asian countries to the United States.
So it is not surprising that many people are offended by Thoroughly Modern Millie’s portrayal of poor Asian immigrants. And considering the wickedness of the crime being discussed, it is not surprising that survivors of human trafficking might also be offended by the play’s comedic treatment of the subject.
Fortunately, the slavery ring is only a subplot to an otherwise incredibly entertaining musical filled with glamor, hit songs and a lot of great dance numbers.
The piece has become a favorite for high school productions. And there is some hope that the offensive subplot will be left out: since all Asians are presumably either conniving white slavers or mathematical geniuses, perhaps many high schools won’t be able to find any available to play the parts of Ching Ho and Bun Foo…
Have you seen Thoroughly Modern Millie?
What did you think of the musical, and of the Mrs. Meers slavery subplot?