Female Characters in Theater: Anna Leonowens

Despite being one of the lesser-known and underappreciated female characters in musical theater, Anna Leonowens of The King and I is certainly one of the best. Set in the 1860s and based on the life and memoirs of the real Anna Harriet Leonowens, The King and I tells the story of schoolteacher and widow Miss Anna as she travels with her son Louis to the remote Asian country of Siam to teach the many children and wives of the king.

Once arriving in Siam with little more than a trunk of belongings and her son, Anna is immediately confronted by the stubborn and spoiled King of Siam, who refuses to abide by his promise to provide his new employee with a house of her own outside of the palace walls. In her response to the King’s actions, Anna first displays what makes her a great female character. Instead of allowing herself to be completely dominated by his will, Anna stands up to the King and refuses to be trampled into submission by his power—continuing to demand that she is given the home and the respect that are rightfully hers.

Besides repeatedly standing up for herself in the face of an obstinate king, Anna frequently stands up for all women. When the wives of the king are first introduced to their new teacher, they all refer to her as “sir,” assuming that because she is in a position of power she must be a man, or at least must be referred to as a man. Anna is alarmed by their affirmative response when she asks if they think women are inferior to men, and responds the she believes that men and women are equal.

Eventually, she convinces the women of their worth regardless of their sex and convinces the people of the Siamese court to recognize their worth as separate from that of their king. The practice of throwing oneself onto the floor in front of the king as a sign of respect was one long-held in Siam, yet when Anna arrives she protests degrading herself to the point of groveling at a man’s feet. Although she was unable to change the king’s mind in her favor, following his death his son removed this practice as the customary manner of greeting royalty.

Anna displays her immense strength of will yet again at the end of the musical. Tuptim, one of the king’s many future brides, has attempted to run away with her true love, but was caught by the palace guard. The king is infuriated and attempts to have her whipped as punishment. In order to protect this innocent woman who was merely attempting to find true happiness, Anna covers Tuptim’s body with her own and risks her own safety to ensure the safety of another.

Anna Leonowens, through her actions with the Siamese people, her strength of character and her strong will shows herself to be not only an amazing woman, but an amazing feminist. Willing to put her job, her safety, and even her life on the line to help and educate those around her, Anna was truly a woman far ahead of her time, is a character worthy of much more praise and acclaim than she receives.

 

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