If you watched the most recent episode of Mad Men, “The Sword and the Chrysanthemum,” you know they touch upon the Yellow Peril that persisted beyond WWII. Sterling Cooper Draper Price gets a meeting with Honda (motorcycles) and Sterling can’t shake his anti-Japanese sentiments.
On the homefront, Sally Draper cuts her hair while Don’s out on a date (with Anna Camp from Equus and True Blood).
Though I’m beginning to miss the dramatic zoom out at the end of each Mad Men episode, tonight’s closing really caught my attention, on a couple of levels. The lyrics “When I get a brand new haircut…” start to play, and the hook “I enjoy being a girl” gives way to the show’s credits.
Obviously the haircut bit refers quite literally to Sally’s acting out, but the song should pique cultural studies enthusiasts’ interests for another reason. “I Enjoy Being a Girl” comes from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song. Students of Asian American studies have probably seen the interviews with Nancy Kwan, who played Linda Low in the 1961 film adaptation of Flower Drum Song. I’ve never seen the production, so I can’t personally analyze Linda Low’s character, but I do know the show is of particular interest in ethnic academia because of its use of yellowface. To be clear, when it was first staged, it did star a prominently Asian cast – and that was back in 1958! Probably the strangest thing about the casting, though, was the choice to have Juanita Hall play Auntie Liang. Juanita is a Black figure in Broadway theater. Black girl in yellowface. Minority playing minority. Kudos for the rest of the Asian cast actually being featured for an Asian American story, but that Auntie Liang tidbit will always bother me. (If you would like to further be bothered, here’s Hall singing one of the hits from Flower Drum, “Chop Suey.”)
Though the track Mad Men’s editors selected was probably sung by Jayne Mansfield, it’s interesting that they ended “The Sword and the Chrysanthemum” with it. I wonder if they were conscious that the song also plays a role in the history of Asians in America. Here’s Nancy Kwan in the film version:
By the way, they discuss the book The Sword and the Chrysanthemum in tonight’s episode, but I’ve only seen a documentary by the same name. I watched that documentary during a World History class in seventh grade. Then I mentioned what I learned in an eighth grade English paper, pretty much verbatim, and was told my comments could be interpreted as racist. If that doesn’t make you want to reevaluate your cultural identity during adolescence, I don’t know what will.
Last year I bought an old vinyl of Flower Drum Song for fifty-eight cents. Haven’t listened to it yet. It’s on my list of things to do.