Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fractured Identity: I Enjoy Being a Girl

Having never seen Flower Drum Song before (indeed, I wasn't even aware it was a musical), I was surprised when I recognized the song "I Enjoy Being a Girl." Recorded and performed by everyone from Miss Piggy to drag queens, the unbearably catchy Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is made even more memorable by Nancy Kwan's performance in Flower Drum Song. Frolicking around in a barely-there camisole with pointed toes and long black hair, Kwan definitely makes an impact, at least for this IMDB.com forum member: "I also really enjoy that she enjoys being a girl... I think I was 5 or 6 years old at the time, and I couldn't take my eyes of Nancy Kwan. I've had a thing for Asian women ever since."

A definite product of its time, the staging, lyrics, and performance of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" in Flower Drum Song is rife with 50s era notions of female identity. Linda Low's identity as a "girl" relies on men and their characterization of her:
"When men say I'm sweet as candy, as around in a dance we whirl, it goes to my head like brandy, I enjoy being a girl! When someone with eyes that smoulder says he loves ev'ry silken curl that falls on my iv'ry shoulder, I enjoy being a girl! When I hear the compliment'ry whistle that greets my bikini by the sea, I turn and I glower and I bristle, but I'm happy to know the whistle's meant for me! I'm strictly a female female and my future I hope will be in the home of a brave and free male who'll enjoy being a guy having a girl like me."

Kwan's hyper-sexual posturing (neck stretched, toes pointed) in a no-where-to-hide brightly-lit mirrored bedroom supports this male-gaze fantasy. Linda Low physically exists only as a male projection of the ideal female.

At the same time, however, there is an inadvertant tension/fracturing of identity that occurs in this scene that is particularly interesting, even if it is simply coincidence, and suggests a more nuanced way to read "I Enjoy Being a Girl." The character of Linda Low can be interpreted as a Dragon Lady... who wants to get married, a woman who uses her sex... so that she can "go-steady." This dichotomy is enhanced by the casting of Nancy Kwan, a hapa actress who uses an accent in the film, only to sing in perfect American English (her singing was dubbed by B.J. Baker). The staging also emphasizes a fracturing or multiplicity, as there are 5 mirrors in the set that portray different sides of Linda Low (3 floor to ceiling, one on the vanity, and a small hand mirror).

Does this fractured identity directly oppose the male-gaze fantasy? Is it complicit?

1 comment:

Alexa Morita said...

I am really glad Andrew applied a little Mulvey-ian film theory here. I tend to agree with him for the most part: The film can be read as Linda's female (Asian) body is present for the male viewer's gaze. I would agree with this statement, (and feel like you could apply this to numerous examples of classical narrative cinema from this time), until you get to the mirror number in Flower Drum Song. I guess it is because Linda ackowledged that she does things for men because she gets things in return. I know this sounds bad and that it seems as if I am promoting her manipulative ways, but because she knows that she is being fetishized I think the scene can be read a performance- like she is not a passive victim of the voyeur, but in control of the situation. Since we have opened a theoretical film theory can of worms, how can this scene be read by applying Lacanian theory. During Lacan's mirror stage the spectator cannot decipher their ego fromt the ego on screen and as a result within classical narrative cinema the spectator identifies with the male protagonist. So in a scene like this where a female is openly acknowledging ( and I would argue controls) the male gaze, does the spectator idenity with Linda? And if Lacan's mirror stage is applicable here, can we go so far as to say that when Linda looks into the mirror she symbolizes the spectator watching film?