Recommended for 12+. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre. (Miss Saigon contains some scenes and language which may not be suitable for younger audience members, including scenes of a sexual nature.)
This was in the descriptor for the Broadway comeback of Miss Saigon.
As I sat in the second to last row of the Rochester Auditorium Theater, I was transported to a strip club with roughly 2,500 others for the first 10-20 minutes of the show.
I know the story of Miss Saigon. I know she was sex trafficked and fell in love with the first man who bought her the first night she became a prostitute. As my eyes glanced up to the stage a couple of times, I watched women thrusting themselves into men’s crotches, men grabbing their boobs and graphically humping them on tables and stairs that spread across the stage. Flashing lights, loud & festive music, and colorful bras and skimpy underwear hovered in every angle as I tried to force myself to look into the darkness on the floor.
I wanted to vomit.
My entire body began to shake, and my stomach grew hollow while my throat felt as though there was a knife sliding down it. Writing this now triggers a physical pain. This is what they mean by recommended 12+?
Looking around at the people sitting around me, the lights from the stage were reflecting on their faces, and I saw people’s eyes glued. Some were smiling. Some were lusting. Some were covering their kids eyes. Some were shocked. I hope some were disgusted and disturbed like I was. And I know some were triggered, after reaching out to friends that I knew were at the show. I felt personally exploited, as a woman, and as an advocate for people who are reduced to sex objects and entertainment.
After the first act, I read what was supposed to happen in the second half. Another scene or two with women exploiting themselves on stage. My mom and I left.
Finding myself on Instagram later that night, I looked up the actresses that were playing these women on stage. I’ve been in over 25 shows. I was an actress for a long time, and appreciate the art of dance, acting and singing. I know the kind of hard work it takes to put together a show and to play the part you are given.
But as I scrolled through these actresses personal Instagrams, I saw them in their bras and underwear — the same bras and underwear they were wearing in that opening scene. They used #misssaigon and #theheatison. One shared how excited she was to bring her love for pole dancing to stage. Some of them used #stripu which leads you to a re-occurring event that Broadway stars put together to raise money for HIV/AIDS. They literally strip for money. Their past Broadway Bares event raised $400,000 because actresses and actors strip down to nothing but some tape strips across their boobs in the name of charity.
I know what I was looking for when I was digging a little deeper on Instagram:
PLEASE! Someone! Talk about how sex trafficking comes in the form of stripping and prostitution and sex work. Make your audience aware that this still exists and leverage your performance to create a platform to educate ticket buyers about this reality: today, in your country, your state, your city, and most likely your town — people are being sexually exploited for someone else’s financial gain.
But I found nothing. The only positive messaging I found from these actors is that we shouldn’t body shame.
I found myself calling my dear friend who used to strip. I told her what I had just witnessed, and asked for her perspective (as she had seen Miss Saigon several years ago). She recalled to me that after she left the life, she would go back to the strip clubs in Rochester and care for the girls that were still there. She remembers their eyes while they were stripping on “pervert row” (what she called the area where people would gather close to the stage and have their eyes glued to their asses and boobs). My friend remembers their eyes being distant — shut down — and it brought her right back to when she was stripping and learned to shut down and act the part. They were actresses — like the ones in Miss Saigon.
Being on the board for Brightstar Community, interacting with organizations around the country that are dedicated to educating people about the dangers of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking — I couldn’t sit here and not tell you the other side that I see.
The other side: being desensitized to the sexual exploitation that we listen to, watch, and fall victim of being a bystander to without even realizing.
It is things like sitting through these scenes of Miss Siagon or listening to Cardi B glorifying her life as a stripper and getting your man to cheat on you and pay big money to exploit another woman….
It is things like this that we are saying are ok by not saying anything at all. There are stark links between pornography, sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, and violent sexual abuse.
This topic is notorious for bringing up a lot of shame. My hope is that instead of letting this cover you with shame, that you will observe. Observe what you consume: in movies, in magazines, in books, in music, in shows, in theater.
Are we stepping over the line of being a bystander for the people who are exploiting their bodies sexually in exchange for our demand?
Being a millennial, I am grieved that my generation is so confused. I’m confused! We advocate and latch on to social justice movements, but then we look up to artists like Cardi B as our icons for women empowerment.
May we think a little deeper, and act a little slower when these choices come up. It is a hard line to define, and a hard discussion to have with each other – and more importantly, oneself.