By Charlotte Wren (I), Mia Fong (II), Marian Huang & Kylee Wiens (III)
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to not experience a lot of fetishization firsthand, despite being half Chinese. As I got older, though, I started seeing more and more of it in the media and realized just how big of an issue it really is. The fetishization of East Asians, primarily East Asian women, that is so casually depicted has become so common that it spans into every form of media that we consume. East Asian women tend to be portrayed in either one of two ways. There is the hypersexual and cunning type who probably knows some form of martial arts – the “Dragon Lady” trope. Then, on the flip side, there is the submissive and innocent type, who needs a more powerful (often white) man to tell her what to do – the “Lotus Blossom” or “China Doll” trope. This dichotomy of representation is entirely baseless and offensive to not only East Asian women but all Asian people who are not being accurately represented in the media.
These inaccurate representations of East Asian women in the media have been around for an extremely long time, as we look back at some portrayals in the 1800s. One of the most prominent depictions is “Madame Chrysantheme”, which is a French novel turned opera published in 1887. This novel tells the story of French sailor who rents both a house and a “wife” while staying in Japan. This “wife” isn’t described as much more than an object, which feeds into the narrative that East Asian women are submissive to white men. This novel inspired the very famous short story turned opera “Madame Butterfly”. This example is even more extreme than “Madame Chrysantheme”, as when the white officer tries to leave his Japanese “wife”, she attempts to commit suicide and fails. The officer then leaves her in Japan with her son. This fuels the stereotype that East Asian women need white men to survive, as well as the notion that these women are disposable to the white men. These two early examples fed into modern media depictions of East Asian women, whether that be on the stage, or on the screen.
Shifting to modern-day examples, it’s easy to find these “Dragon Lady” and “Lotus Blossom” tropes in a variety of media. One example of the “Dragon Lady” trope is Lucy Liu’s character, Alex Munday, in “Charlie’s Angels”. Clad in revealing attire, Munday uses seduction and martial arts to take down the antagonists. An example of the “Lotus Blossom” trope is Kyoko in the film “Ex-Machina.” Kyoko is a Japanese android built by one of the main characters. She is unable to talk, and is essentially used as a sex toy throughout the majority of the film. This is perhaps one of the most disturbing examples I have come across, as the fetishization is so blatant here, yet glossed over like nothing is off. Although these are just two examples, there are plenty more that we need to be aware of while consuming Western media where this hypersexualization is just a norm.
Off of the silver screen, this fetishization continues to pervade the daily experiences of East Asian Americans. I can personally recount instances where, upon meeting white people, I’ve been fed tales of their Asian wives, ‘beautifully mixed’ children, and complimented on my ‘exoticism’. This, unfortunately, is not a unique phenomenon. In July 2020, designer Rui Zhong of Cancel Couture released a T-shirt reading “I don’t need to know about your Asian wife”. The shirt has since gone viral on Twitter, with responses recounting multiple Asian American users’ experiences that mirror my own.
In 2014, OkCupid compiled data on their users’ approval rates for each racial group and released it to the public. The now-infamous statistics reveal that, among other racist trends, White men gave Asian women the highest approval ranking of all races. By contrast, Asian men have the highest disapproval rate among White women.
This reveals another troubling phenomenon: the hyper-sexualization and feminization of East Asian women is coupled with the feminization of East Asian men. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with femininity in any gender, imposed femininity as a means of racial degradation and ridicule of East Asian men has a long history in the United States.
In broader terms, the sexualities of people of color are always ‘queered’ to extremes. Rather than being treated with the sexual normativity that cis heterosexual white Americans hold, East Asian Americans are hyperfeminized, idealized as submissive sex objects to White men (usually for women), or completely stripped of any sex appeal (usually for men). These invisible societal norms, protected by a layer of ‘colorblindness’, inflict sexual fantasies and the erasure of humanity simultaneously upon East Asian Americans.
Discussing racism that appears almost ‘positive’ in a backhanded way can be extremely difficult. Common responses often fall along the lines of: “how can you be offended by this? Take a compliment.” However, it is difficult to explain this microaggression precisely because it can be weaponized as a compliment, discrediting those who speak out against fetishization as “searching for oppression” or even “bragging”. However, a fetish is not a compliment. It is evidence of the lack of ‘normalcy’ that East Asians are marked by in the United States as a result of long-standing white supremacy.
These stereotypes are a long-standing occurrence, and this is evident with the passing of the Page Act of 1875. This banned Asian women from entering the United States until World War II because of the fear that they would engage in prostitution. This law was the product of many factors, which included concerns over involuntary servitude, declining wages in the labor market, prostitution, and the racist stereotypes of people of Asian descent. The Page Act permitted federal agents to search and question anyone from East and Southeast Asia to determine if they had come without their voluntary consent. If agents suspected that an individual had come involuntarily to engage in “lewd and immoral purposes” they would be fined, imprisoned, or expelled. This law ultimately targeted East and Southeast Asian women because they were seen as threats to the institution of marriage. Ulysses S. Grant even blamed the issue of sex trafficking on the immigration of Chinese women, because he believed that very few pursued “honorable or useful occupations.”
US military presence in East Asian countries (particularly Vietnam) has led to the colonization of not only land but also women’s bodies. Western men view Asian women’s bodies as theirs for taking, and as objects of their imperial conquest. Women of color have always been disproportionately harmed in prostitution; military presence in Asian countries leads to white men pursuing prostitutes as a form of “leisure”. Even outside of sex work, the imperialist mindset put forth by the US military, combined with racism and sexism creates a dynamic of seeking out Asian women specifically for sexual pleasure. White men may aggressively pursue Asian women, burdening them with the expectations of what an Asian girlfriend or sexual partner “should” act or look like.
The emasculation of East and Southeast Asian men is long-standing as well. Prior to, during and post World War II, they were forced into domestic services (which were established as the traditional domain of women at the time) to serve White men and women. Since the second half of the 19th century, Chinese immigrants were recruited for cheap and exploited labor. The first Chinese laundries were established at gold mining sites since white miners had a high demand for clean clothes. There were also very few women in California at the time, so Chinese laundrymen replaced women’s unpaid labor in the home (Espiritu, 1997).
The economic development of the American West during the 1860s and 1870s created a surplus of labor and an increase in competition in the labor market, which triggered racial tension. Racial hostility towards Chinese men first forced them out of the mining industry in the mid-1860s, and the widespread unemployment after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 caused Chinese laborers to become the objects of discrimination. As anti-Chinese sentiment grew, White men began to drive out Chinese men from more trades such as organized labor, tobacco, shoe, and woolen manufacturing as well as from farm and land ownership. This is what led to their confinement of “feminized” jobs as cooks, laundrymen, and domestic servants. By 1920, nearly half of the Chinese population in the United States was engaged in occupations related to household service.
Japanese men substituted for female labor in the American West as well (Espiritu, 1997). By 1910, there were an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Japanese individuals in the western United States earning a living in domestic service. A domestic job was the first occupation for many Japanese immigrant men upon arrival in the U.S., where they later moved into agricultural or city trades. The degradation of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II and the stripping of their property led to the end of Japanese American concentration in agriculture and small businesses. This forced them to pursue domestic work once again.
Filipino men faced similar forms of discrimination. While they served as stewards in the U.S. Navy, they were also forced to perform domestic duties for white U.S. naval officers too (Espiritu, 1997). After the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain in 1898, its navy began actively recruiting Filipinos, but only as stewards and mess attendants. They would prepare and serve officers meals as well as tend to the officers’ galley, wardroom, and living quarters. They would also be ordered to perform tasks such as walking the officers’ dogs or taking the role of a personal servant for the officers’ wives.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the influx of this information, or a sense of, “what do I do now? How can I help?” There’s no simple answer. While it’s tempting to believe that following the solutions to complex issues in neat, Instagrammable lists can end this fetishization and infantilization, the reality is that these issues are just one cog in a much larger machine of racism in the United States.
This is not to say that you can’t admire the beauty of someone who happens to be East Asian or that you need to dump your East Asian partner. The best that any of us can do is to question and check ourselves – do you see a racial pattern in who you’re attracted to? How could this possibly play into underlying, long-rooted stereotypes? This month, taking action in small ways, or even just allowing a trickle of doubt to make you see things you never even questioned before differently can help combat the larger issue of racism against East Asians in the US.