Asian women’s portrayal in the media is filled with hypersexual imagery, racist connotations, and unfounded stereotypes that works congruously to disempower Asian women and delegitimize their struggles. This essay will start by exploring history and how ‘The Orient’ and womanhood are used as social constructs to create discernable ‘Others’ that intersect while hegemonic norms and applications of the male gaze reinforce their constructed ideals. Through objectification it will further be examined how hypersexualization through eroticized, infantilized, and fetishized representations perpetuate stereotypes into becoming normalized beliefs that disempower Asian women. Lastly, it will be discussed how under-representation, misrepresentation, and erasure are extremely harmful to the Asian youth and do little to correct the current dogma and corresponding stigma in the media. Ultimately, this essay seeks to bring awareness to a lot of misrepresentations about Asian women and examine how this portrayal creates power structures, a racial order, and overall negatively impact Asian women.
There are two ways in which Asian women’s intersectionality arises, both of which are due to societal constructs – the first being the notion of Orientalism which arose during European colonialism. Orientalism is the eurocentric idea that positions Asia as the East, the Middle East, and the Far East in relation to Europe, along with their desire to occupy what is referred to as ‘the Orient’ through conquest (Bong, 2015). These orientations placing Europe as the center lead to ideas and classification of things as ‘Other’ and less important than Europe, or in our case, ‘the exotic Other”. “In its conquest, this concept of the exotic ‘Other’ was created “as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’” (Bong, 2015, p. 4). Through complex political, economic and military power dynamics, the development of an ideological racial hierarchy began to form constructed ideologies about what it means to be Asian from a white male perspective, “For instance, Professor Darrell Hamamoto of UC Davis points out that ‘the historical legacy of U.S. imperial conquest, neocolonial occupation, dislocation, exclusion, relocation, and the depredation of global capitalism as the underlying factor for shaping the multiform sexuality of Asian American men and women.’ Furthermore, the objectification of sexualized Asian women is maintained by and for white privilege and the ‘male gaze’.” (Bong, 2015, p. 5). Other things to consider is how internment and World War II played a huge role in the creation of this perceived hierarchy to originate in the United States, positioning Asian men as emasculated and Asian women as inferior to white women. The resulting view as Asian women as both frail and attractive from this perspective then becomes apparent as, “Asian women are simultaneously portrayed as sexualized and infantilized, for they are seen as both ‘sexy’ and ‘cute’ at the same time.” (Bong, 2015, p. 7). Although there are other factors playing that may enhance this view of Asians as both sexy and cute in that from the lens of the typical male gaze it can be easy to infantilize Asian women due to a large assortment of neotenous feature and notions of Asian women being “Others” or non-white also plays into their exotification. “At the same time, Asian women are exotified through the process of infantilization.” (Bong, 2015, p. 9).
The other thing leading to Asian women’s intersectionality is obviously that considering the construct of womanhood and its associated struggles, “‘Woman’ has been constructed by men, by a society which maintains ideological systems prescribing her subordination, and by womens’ own participation in those systems.’” (Bong, 2015, p. 5). Being that Asian women are both Asian and women, they face the unique struggle of being portrayed in a sexualized and typically submissive fashion due to simply being a woman, but also being exotified and infantilized due to being Asian. “All remnants of contemporary standards of beauty with regard to the ‘perfect’ Asian woman can be traced back to the history of oppression, white imperialism, and exotification of the ‘Orient’.” (Bong, 2015, p. 5). These combined constructs manifest into a hypersexualized break from the hegemonic norm in the form of offensive archetypes that are highly fetishized through being exotic, “Modern archetypes of Asian women have blended with historical, outdated racist images, including the hypersexualized, submissive Geisha Girl, China Doll, Lotus Blossom, the powerful, untrustworthy cold Dragon Lady, and the Dominatrix.” (Bong, 2015, p. 7).
Full Metal Jacket, Screen Shot From Movie
Portrayal in films do no justice in trying to correct these misconceptions and repeatedly rely on the same tropes, stereotypes, and archetypes to construct the world as they see fit. Given that most directors are straight white males, this should come as no surprise to the (mostly white) viewing audience who marvel in the spectacle. In ‘The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene’, Shimizu powerfully argues that a crucial part of race politics is talking about the “pleasure and fantasy from the sexualization of race”, not just for Asian/American women but all women of color.” (Bong, 2015, p. 8). With lines such as, “Me love you long time”, “Sucky sucky”, and “Me so horny” the infatuations with the exotic and overtly sexualized characters becomes apparent given the character’s one dimensionality. Without any real counterexample to this notion throughout the film, the audience is forced to take what they viewed as a generalization about all Asian women to be true at least according to the movie, however, “As Shimizu puts it, ‘it is a violent homogenization of Asian American women who are lumped together in representation where cultural and other specificities are lumped together in representation where cultural and other specificities are obscured and eclipsed by hypersexuality.’ (Bong, 2015, p. 8)” Although in this particular instance, any meaningful cultural truths are erased and misrepresented entirely.
The white man’s infatuation with Asian women has become such an interesting and widespread phenomenon that it managed to originate its own term “yellow fever” to classify it. “The term ‘yellow fever’ refers to the phenomenon of fetishizing Asian culture, especially Asian women.” (Bong, 2015, p. 9). A rather shocking side effect of this fetishizing is that of mail order brides, where Asian women (though women of other ethnicities that are fetishized are also available) can list themselves for purchase by someone. “Contemporary stereotypical views of Asian women are depicted through a strange phenomenon called ‘yellow fever’, which includes calling them ‘mail-order brides.’” (Bong, 2015, p. 9). To make matters worse, there was even a documentary made showing the nitty gritty of the process of finding a partner, “There has even been a documentary film called ‘Seeking Asian Female’, by filmmaker Debbie Lum, that follows a 60 year old white man’s search for a potential Chinese bride through online matchmaking sites focuses on white men’s infatuation with Asian women.” (Bong, 2015, p. 10).
Film, by far, does the worst in misrepresenting Asian women since it can create narratives that give people lifelike examples of what it means to be an Asian woman through the male gaze. For example, Charlie’s Angels released in 2000 is filled with hypersexualized imagery along with stereotypical tropes of Asian women expressed through the secret agent or ‘angel’ Alex Munday. “Although all the female lead characters are donned as equally hypersexualized, Lucy Liu’s whitewashed character wears racially stereotypical costumes, such as a ‘kimono dress’ and a ‘sexy masseuse,’ essentially reinforcing these racist tropes of being a fetish.” (Bong, 2015, p. 11). Of course, the grotesque portrayals don’t stop at the TV screen. They are also highly exacerbated in the porn industry, which attributes Asian women and their representations to the success of the industry. “For Asian media representation, many pornographic videos depicting Asian women assume that they are ‘exotic and hold limitless sexual knowledge, yet docile and eager to please’, and the ‘‘presence of Asian bodies’ is in part responsible for the ‘phenomenal success of the online adult industry.’’” (Bong, 2015, p. 13). It doesn’t matter what media platform you look at, representations of Asian women will often be exotified and sexualized, be it pornography or mainstream movies (Bong, 2015).
Wolverine (2013), Screen Shot from Movie
The use of Asian women in film is more multifaceted than just simple portrayals and is generally used to advance the plot of a white protagonist or even establish racial hierarchies and proper social orders as seen fit. This is highly apparent of the character Mariko in the 2013 release of Wolverine. “More recently, The Wolverine (2013), a huge blockbuster hit, turned out to be another ‘typical Orientalist love story,’ where a ‘girl’s life is endangered by the backwards misogyny of Asia (in this case personified by a literal giant samurai robot)’, and a manly, white, male protagonist sweeps in to save the day.” (Bong, 2015, p. 12). In the movie, Mariko is a rather one-dimensional character in a typical damsel in distress trope. Although she is set to become the most powerful woman in Japan she is set as a side character whom Wolverine must inevitably save. Even when she does gain a small bit of agency and break the expected stereotype of passivity by kicking someone off the balcony of a building, which just so happens to be a ‘Love hotel, she still is portrayed as overtly sexualized and fearful in a nightgown and robe. “Instead, she is a sexualized object for the leading protagonist to win over while residing in the paradigm that she is a quiet, passive, and obedient Asian female character – all racial and sexist stereotypes of Asian women.” (Bong, 2015, p. 12). Mariko’s character ultimately does little than being a stereotypical, sexualized side piece in someone else’s movie, to make matters worse during the single love/kissing scene she turns into the white girl that Wolverine really loves due to a weird dream or hallucination of some kind instead of her.
Wolverine (2013), Screen Shot from Movie
A good Western movie would not be complete without having another problematic woman character to contrast with the other to form the ambivalent dialect between the two in the film. Whereas Mariko is the passive and quiet damsel, Yukio is the strong and powerful action girl. “She is the ‘dragon lady to Mariko’s lotus blossom, dressed in fetishistic schoolgirl garb and shock of red hair against Mariko’s traditional kimono and obi, yet desexualized to allow for Logan’s sexual conquest of Mariko center-stage.’” (Bong, 2015, p. 12-13). Although there are times when her power really shows in killing off a bunch of unimportant side characters, Yukio is no match for an important male character who incapacitates her while she’s trying to save Logan. It is then up to Logan to save the once action girl now damseled last second and beat the Asian villain. Which only further reinforces the hierarchy of White man, Asian man, then Asian women. “Ultimately, Mariko and Yukio’s characters are simply depictions of reigning stereotypes of Asian women, where they are constructed as sexual objects that lack of power and are also willing to sacrifice themselves to save, in this case, the white male savior protagonist.” (Bong, 2015, p. 13).
As Kim explains, while it’s been highly acclaimed for breaking stereotypes pertaining to gender, race, and class using a diverse assortment of characters, most of which are women with more complex roles, Orange Is The New Black falls short on representing Asian people and instead seems to rely on typical racist tropes. “With an extremely diverse cast the show plays an influential role in bringing the marginalized groups of society into the spotlight, and then deconstructing the oppressive stereotypes that society has normalized. OITNB, however, is problematic in the way that it reinforces racist ideologies through its poor representations of Asian Americans.” (Kim, 2016, p. 78). Asian characters, if even portrayed at all, are often placed in tokenized, one dimensional roles, such as Chang throughout the first season of the series, “Chang is inarguably the show’s most under developed character—we know nothing about her until halfway through Season Three in an episode titled ‘Ching Chong Chang.’ Even the title of the episode is grossly racist, drawing upon a commonly used pejorative to mock the Chinese language, culture, and the people themselves.” (Kim, 2016, p. 79). It would be one thing if the representation was to prove a point later in the episode with some moral associated with it, but no justification was ever made and instead. “Another similar instance occurs later on in the same episode when Piper tells Soso that she cannot say her name ‘with a straight face.’ The subtlety of this bigoted and racist behavior goes easily unnoticed, normalizing and reinforcing the racist hegemonic ideas.” (Kim, 2016, p. 80) and it appears that the creators chose to double down on the racist remarks. Given the popularity of exposing oppression, it seems rather odd that the show could overlook something to such a severe degree despite typically progressive narratives. Kim speculates why that might be the case in considering perspectives of people who consider Asian women and people in general ‘model minorities’. “Perhaps the myth of the model minority has instilled the ideology that Asians are highly successful and their degree of socioeconomic achievements somehow negates any other forms of oppression. This suggests the notion that Asians are not a marginalized group in many aspects, so racism towards Asians is neither offensive nor problematic (Kim, 2016, p. 79) who ultimately are not entitled to their own oppressions due to their privilege. This clearly is unjustified and only perpetuates the problem and acts only to invalidates opposition to the current precedent.
Although Chang is represented as a rather masculine, non-sexualized, one dimensional character, Soso is seen as the opposite (however she is still the butt of racist jokes and commentary), “Big Boo objectifies Soso as she labels her as “the hot one of the Asian persuasion,” reinforcing the often fetishized portrayals of Asian women in the media.” (Kim, 2016, p. 80). This can be seen very early on when Soso in the episode ‘Bang-off’ where Big Boo and Nicky compete to see who can have sex with her first. “Big Boo becomes very predatory in her pursuit of Soso, who clearly exhibits her discomfort when around Big Boo. In this way, OITNB fails to challenge the recurring trend in television and film of either desexualizing or fetishizing Asians. (Kim, 2016, p. 80). Instead of breaking down barriers as it does with other races and classes, the show underrepresents and misrepresents its Asian characters through two egregious stereotypes. Where some media representation in the current day have been able to correct some of these portrayals most works, including Orange Is The New Black, fall short, “While current manifestations of Asian American popular media have been able to subvert mainstream white dominance through addressing anti-Asian racism and telling Asian American stories, the most popular works continue to reproduce imagery that is heteropatriarchal, self-orientalizing, and narrow in scope to the reality that is a heterogeneous Asian America.” (Liu, 2016, p. 1). Representations of Asian women in the television industry and media as a whole can have some pretty drastic effects on the youth who perceive it as well. The youth is forced to try to relate to clichéd characters and horrible archetypes since there are so few being presented in the first place. This is seen in research examining the effects of underrepresentation: “Research examined the effects that underrepresentation has on children and found that ‘television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among white boys.’” (Kim, 2016, p. 79). It can be easy to see how this research would relate to Asian girls as well if only they were considered for the research in the first place.
The group photo above includes: black people, white people, hispanic people, a Russian person, a Jewish person, even gay people – however it does not depict a single Asian person (or the token Trans character, for that matter). More importantly than what a show chooses to include, however, is what it chooses to exclude and as we see above (or don’t see) is Asian people being erased. As Kim put it as well, it makes sense for Season 1 not to include its token Asian character since she was highly one-dimensional and didn’t really add to the story. However, subsequent photos with Soso, the more developed character, would be expected: “It would be understandable if they were left out of the group photo for Season 1 as Chang is far from being a developed character and Soso was not even at Litchfield yet, but neither of the subsequent seasons’ promotional photos include them.” (Kim, 2016, p. 80). Even though Orange Is The New Black along with other films’ depictions are highly scrutinized here, they are not isolated occurrences, and these issues are prevalent in most of the media presented (or if even presented) about Asian women as a whole. “A study done at the University of Southern California examined the top 100 grossing movies of 2013 and found that only 4.4% of speaking characters were Asian. This underrepresentation is extremely detrimental because when individuals of a marginalized group do not see themselves represented in the media, it reinforces the notion that they do not matter. (Kim, 2016, p. 79). Visibility is important, it is how change is enacted, viewpoints are changed, and how identities are developed. Without it people appear as though they simply don’t exist or are even relevant to society in any meaningful way.
The negative representations of Asian women are multifaceted and are hyper focused on their status as both a woman and Asian. Media presentations of Asian women often show them in demeaning ways using racial connotations, unfounded and offensive stereotypes, as well as hypersexualized imagery that is eroticized, infantilized, and fetishized all of which works to disempower Asian women and prescribe them agency based on the heterosexual white male’s perspective. This is apparent in the use of constructs such as “The Orient” and “Woman” to “other” Asian women, which in turn create clear preferences to the hegemonic norm and ‘racial hierarchy’. The effects of the negative representations are detrimental to Asian people and particularly Asian women’s mental health and struggles with self-image. Through the use of misrepresentation, underrepresentation and erasure, existing power structures oppressing Asian women remain intact and will continue to spread damaging misinformation currently regarded as true by the viewing public.
Bong, Mabelle. (2015). Grotesque Depictions and Seduction: Exotification of Asian/American Women. Retrieved from https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1530&context=scripps_theses
Kim, Clare. (2016, November 13). Asian Misrepresentation in Orange Is The New Black. Retrieved from https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/elements/article/view/9380
Liu, Theanne. (2016, May). Making Mainstream Asian America: Productions and Representations of Asian American Identity in Television and Web Series. Retrieved from https://nurj.cdn.prismic.io/nurj%2F0e9dd250-1d6c-4e6c-ad51-b5d891768b5e_theanne+liu+honors+thesis+-+making+mainstream+asian+america+%281%29.pdf