Flower Drum Song is a film adaptation of a musical that focuses on the lives of four young Chinese individuals, specifically the females, as they search for love and marriage. In displaying this story, a common theme emerges in which two faces of femininity is merged into one idea of the female. These two faces are represented by the two main female characters: Mei Li and Linda Low. Mei Li is seen as the docile and well-mannered Chinese girl who sings and plays the flower drum song with her father, while Linda Low is the loud and flirtatious Americanized woman who is the main performer at a nightclub. Although they have personalities on opposite spectrums, both focus on one goal only throughout the film—marriage. This shows that in spite of the modernization of the 20th century and the completely different personas of the two female characters, the film still reinforces the idea of one universal female: the traditional and domesticated woman.
In displaying this theme throughout, the film highlights the similarities in gender roles between Asians and whites. Although the film is seen as a representation of Asian culture through the costumes and locations, it ultimately reinforces key aspects of American values and views, specifically old Victorian principles regarding gender roles. As mentioned in the book Orientals, “chastity and moral order formed the ideal in which Victorian middle-class women were to fulfill the true nature of their sex” (Lee). Mei Li embodies this role as she remains quietly on the side, awaiting her turn in speaking, acting, and representing her opinions. She remains courteous and disciplined as she waits for her arranged marriage. According to Kathryn Hughes, females during that time were also expected to “[attract] a husband through their…accomplishments [such as] music, singing, drawing, dancing.” This idea is reinforced in the car scene with Linda Low and Wang Ta as she explains to Wang Ta how “[she] wants to be a success as a girl [having] outside accomplishments like singing, cooking, first aid, but the main thing is for a woman to be successful in her gender.”
Although these principles are shown in the film, there are also some altered changes made to the Victorian values in order to represent modernized times. Kathryn Hughes states that for a Victorian woman, she should not “focus too obviously on finding a husband.” This view is undermined by Linda Low as she continuously mentions to the males in her life that she hopes to be in the “home of a brave and free male who enjoys being a guy having a girl like [her].” She blatantly states her purpose and reason for being with them, and in doing so, she represents the changing times in America in which the gender roles and statuses are shifting as well. This parallel between her and Mei Li show that there is a balance between the traditional and modern gender roles of that era. Mei Li represents the old values and views of how a female should conduct herself, while Linda Low and her brashness show that Asian American women and all women in general are still able to embody that universal female image of being a domestic wife without compromising their voice and say.
By utilizing these two different images to highlight the similarities in gender roles, it is possible to allow for an American audience to understand and relate to what is seen as Chinese culture. Although the characters Mei Li and Linda Low portray stereotypical images of Asian/Asian American females, both the obedient and submissive girl and the exotic seductress who knows how to manipulate men to get what she wants, they still represent one universal female. Despite the difference in method in which they are trying to fulfill their female role, the overall outcome is still the same. They are still assimilating to that identity of the universal female, the one who does not care about being anything other than being a woman married to a man. This shows to the audience that no matter what race, what personality, and what differences may arise, the image of what an ideal domesticated woman should be like is still emphasized in 20th century America.
For more information check out:
Hammerstein, O. (1961). Flower Drum Song (Motion picture). United States: Universal Studios.
Hughes, K. Gender Roles in the 19th Century. Retrieved from http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century.
Lee, R. G. (1999). Orientals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.