Female Asians in Media
By: Tiffany Nguyen
Everyday I wake up to start off my daily “episode”. The episodes featuring my life, a female Asian American lead living among the many others in the so called Land of Opportunity. Asian Americans come to live here in America to gain those equal opportunities and freedom that most Asian countries lack. When I get to school, I am surrounded by many people ranging from different races. I speak confidently among my closest friends during passing time and I joke around a lot. But when class starts, my body sways naturally to the back of the classroom like a light switch turning off my confidence. And once I hit the soils of my own home, all the confidence and jokes are set aside once again. The sudden light switch flickers my behavior to speak in a higher tone especially around my elders. Without much to say, I become the background character of my own episode. The lack of representation of female Asians in Popular Culture is represented similarly to my life. When female Asians are given the spotlight in the entertainment media, they are typically portrayed as submissive, quiet and “Lotus blossom”, or intelligent, “exotic” like a “Dragon Lady”. Even though you can still be considered Asian despite the images portrayed in the media, the media negatively portrays female Asians which causes a loss of cultural identity and leads to objectification because the term lotus blossom perpetuates the gender stereotype that all Asian women should act submissive and the term Dragon Lady associates Asians to be exotic and wild.
In the movie Pitch Perfect, there is a fiery competition within the college a cappella groups. It focuses primarily on the Barden Bellas that is an all women group. There is the main character, Beca who is rebellious but helps make the Bellas stand out among its competitors with her unique compositions and determination. There is Fat Amy who is eccentric with her bold confidence. Stacie is flirtatious and takes pride in her sexual appeal. Aubrey is the leader of the group who is very stubborn and does not accept change well. Chloe is the kind co-leader of the Barden Bellas who is very confident in her body. Cynthia is the only black member that is a lesbian with a tough attitude. But among the Barden Bellas which consists of a majority of loud, independent and confident white women, there is one Asian member named Lily.
The rest of the members of the Barden Bellas have strong personalities along with a small background story. Lily is simply quiet and blends in as a minor and background character. She has only a few lines and when she does speak out loud the camera would zoom right up to her face. But the words she delivers are barely audible for the audience to understand her. In fact she speaks a total of 5 lines throughout the 112 minute movie. And during the delivery of her 4 lines, she is always raising her hand as if she is asking for permission to speak. Usually in a college setting, it is common for the class to speak their own minds without raising their hands. Especially since the Barden Bellas are a small and intimate group. There was a moment in the movie when Lily speaks out loud before the big competition and the Barden Bellas were completely astonished. In the snippet video below from the original movie Pitch Perfect (2012), Lily has an idea of utilizing Chloe’s new voice. In response, Fat Amy says “Excuse me Bitch, you don’t have to shout” when clearly she was just speaking at an average volume. But Fat Amy says this jokingly to emphasize her bafflement of Lily speaking louder than usual. Even so the group was still able to accept her for who she is.
Sawako from Kimi ni Todoke also shares the similar quiet personality as Lily. Kimi ni Todoke is a Japanese graphic novel, manga, that was published in a girl’s manga magazine called Shojo Beat. Sawako is a Japanese high school student that struggles to fit in among her other Japanese classmates. Similar to Lily, they both share the similar appearance of a thin body, long hair and they tend to wear conservative clothing. Despite her classmates being Japanese as well, Sawako is the only female character who has long black hair with China bangs. In the image below, Shiina (2005) draws Sawako expressing most of her dialog through thought bubbles. She is shy and quiet as opposed to her new friends who are expressive and straightforward. Similar to Lily, Sawako’s classmates were baffled when she spoke out her mind in front of everyone. Although she spoke her mind to clear up some misunderstandings, the class still feared her. They compare her to a ghost/spirit because she is pale and with jet black hair. But usually ghosts and spirits are associated with being invisible to the naked eye. The author, Karuho Shiina, portrays Sawako as shy, quiet and feminine because that is how an ideal girl should behave in the Japanese culture. Although not all Japanese girls behave that way. However, Sawako’s and Lily’s feminine behavior is found as ideal traits in Confucianism which is practiced in multiple Asian cultures.
Many Asian ethnicities, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese follow the Confucian moral codes of women being under the male dominance. According to the four virtues of Confucian morals, a woman is “to be a good housewife, to have a beautiful appearance, to speak well and softly, and to be a good character” (Kibria, 1995, pg. 45). These ideals caused most Asian women to develop submissive, quiet and passive personalities. The term “Lotus Blossom” represents the quiet and obedient traits of Asian women. For instance, when faced among my own elders I act more feminine than usual. Whenever I see my grandma she always corrects me on how I stand and how I sit because my postures are too “boyish”. Also, my uncle would always push my mum to make sure I learn how to cook traditional Vietnamese and Chinese dishes from my grandmother. Everyday I am cleaning the tables, the kitchen and bathrooms because it is in my culture that women are supposed to know how to cook and clean. And when being spoken to by an adult I do not have any say unless given permission to. But when I do speak out my own thoughts, my family members will find that my tone is too aggressive and non feminine. So when I go to school, I tend to blend in the background in fear that I will not be considered an Asian woman if I do not behave feminine.
Both Sawako and Lily blend in within their own stories. The camera rarely focuses on Lily but she can be found in the background or blending among the Barden Bellas. And Sawako’s comparison of being a ghost correlates her to the invisibility of one. The idea of blending in is wrapped around the cultural beliefs of the four virtues from Confucianism. These virtues can also be seen through Lily raising her hand in order to speak, and Sawako’s constant thought bubbles. For both cases, it describes how Asian women are not allowed to speak out of turn. The media’s continuous emphasize on these images becomes an issue especially towards Asian women living in America today. In Johnson and Pike’s (2003) study, they conducted multiple interviews of female Asians to determine how their cultural and gender identities shape how they behave in mainstream environments. One of their interviewers, Min-Jung claims that “they [my peers] feel that Asian girls have to be the shy type who is very passive and sometimes I’m not like that so they think, “Lisa, are you Asian?” (pg. 49). The assumption that all Asian women should be submissive and quiet becomes a set identity labeled on Asian women. These labels ignore the other strong personalities that other Asian women can have. So if an Asian girl is outgoing, she loses that label associated with being Asian and becomes “white washed.” White washed describes having the outgoing and independent traits that most white women tend to have. My best friend feels that she has lost her Asian identity because she is independent, she does not appreciate her culture, and she does not see herself as being submissive.
When viewing the other images of Asian women, they are portrayed as the “Dragon Lady” and “exotic” which are opposite than the term “Lotus Blossom”. It reveals how sexual and foreign Asian women are seen as. The two terms describe Asian women having a wild side to their contrasting submissive fronts. Melinda May from Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D is the assistant of Coulson. She obeys to Coulson’s command, which promotes white males dominance over Asian women. Her bold and headstrong personality contrasts with Sawako’s and Lily’s quiet and passive behaviors. On Season 2, Episode 4, Melinda is seen wearing a flashy silver dress that clings tightly to her body, emphasizing her sexual appeal. She uses this appeal to lure and distract a man in order for Coulson to take a photo of his eyes for access to a secret door. Despite Melinda having the capabilities of running in heels, she can beat up 10 armed men with just her fists. Due to the series displaying Melinda’s physical abilities, Americans may assume that all female Asians have these skills. The video below is a snippet from the movie Charlie’s Angels (2000), where Alex is seen stepping on Corwin, a white man, in a traditional inspired Chinese dress. Though she is a spy, she is disguised as a massage therapist. A Dragon Lady is portrayed as someone who is independent, untrustworthy and powerful. Both Melinda and Alex are very independent women who have strong personalities. The emphasis of Dragon Ladies associated with female Asians cause Asian women today to be viewed by others as exotic/sexual when wearing a traditional dress. They may also feel shameful and too scared to face others (Yeh, 2013).
Although the images of being a “Lotus Blossom” and “Dragon Lady” may harm the identities of Asian women, some of them may embrace these images or fight to prove them wrong. The term Lotus Blossom may force many Asian women to act feminine in order to meet the set expectations that make them to be “Asian”. But there are some women from Johnson and Pyke’s (2003) study like Ha who claim that by being with her white friends, she can become her true self without having to be expected to act like a girl. Ha personally claims “With Asians, I don’t like it at all because they don’t take me for who I am. They treat me differently just because I’m a girl. And white…I like the way they treat me because it doesn’t matter what you do” (pg. 43). Not every single person expects Asian women to behave submissive and obedient. Therefore they can accept who they are without rejecting their ethnicity or gender roles. Personally, I am more talkative among my friends, I don’t know how to cook properly nor do I completely understand how to speak my native tongue. Yet I still embrace my Asian identity because I appreciate my culture. Even my other Asian friends who uphold the stereotypical images shown in the media, claim that I am more Asian than them. Although the term Dragon Lady associates with the exotic and sexual expectations of Asian women, some may take this positively. Dragon Ladies such as Melinda drive by their own instincts. In the video below from the series S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013), it shows a brief summary of what Melinda is capable of. People like Melinda are independent and many people in the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization highly respect her. It brings to light that women can be at the same level as men. During a mock trial, I spoke out loud and sternly among my fellow white classmates. Although they were shocked that I was not that “quiet” Asian, they grew a sudden respect for me because I was confident in myself and my client.
In conclusion, although you can still be considered Asian despite the images portrayed in the media, the negative portrayals of female Asians causes a loss of cultural identity and leads to objectification for two main reasons. First, the term lotus blossom perpetuates the gender stereotype that all Asian women should act submissive. And the term dragon lady associates Asians to be exotic and wild. Asians came to America to be American. They did not come to be exotic foreigners but to assimilate as one with the nation. It does not take one source of media to identity how an Asian woman should behave. It is the unceasing portrayals that do not change over time that harm Asian women. The same images portrayed of female Asians will be engraved as their true identities. And if they do not display or meet these criteria shown in the media, they are not considered as Asian but “white washed”. White washed implies they have grown to be independent and loud rather than the usual quiet and submissive type. Not acting feminine will be questioned by Asian women’s elders on their authenticity. The gender roles embedded in the ethnicity makes it extremely difficult to be “American” because the cultures are very different. Asians are considered to be exotic and foreign. Despite the efforts to be a part of this society, it leaves many with no choice but to blend in the background without being noticed.
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