The Evolution of Asian and Asian-American Women in the Media

My parents and sister are from Vietnam. They immigrated over to the United States in 1995. While I was born and raised here in Portland. While growing up, I faced stereotypes that are associated with being Asian from not only my classmates and teachers but also from the media. These stereotypes that are set throughout time from the media impact non-Asian people’s thoughts and opinions on Asians and Asian-Americans that set a standard of what Asians and Asian-Americans are suppose to be like such as they are expected to be either speak in broken English or having thick accents, be foreign, and power hungry. But the media also affects on how Asian-Americans see themselves, other Asian-Americans, and white people. There are also stereotypes that are gender specific for Asians and Asian-Americans with men being portrayed as the “devious villain” and women with being the “seductive dragon lady/villianess vamp” or “submissive China dolls/geisha.” I have looked through different popular culture artifacts throughout cinema history and sources that further show that the media reinforces these stereotypes for Asian and Asian-American women but also how these stereotypes were formed and how they have evolved since.

Even in the smallest roles, Asians have been in film since the beginning, in the early 1920s, the media expressed what they thought about Chinese sojourners through film by showing Anti-Asian sentiments by portraying Asians to be foreign, conniving, cunning, and mysterious beings. All of this because white people feared that they would steal their jobs and resources and that Asian men appeared to be an economic threat because they were taking these labor intensive jobs that no one else wanted, which is where the term the “Yellow Peril” originated from. They also appeared to be a sexual threat to white males because they were going to corrupt white females. While Asian women appeared to be equally as conniving, cunning, foreign, but also they were portrayed as exotic and have “oriental mysteries” that will corrupt the innocent morals of white people. Which is where the stereotype Dragon Lady came from. Although there were still laws against interracial marriages, there was still more acceptance for relationships between white males and Asian females than Asian males and white females.

In 1937, when Japan attacked China, the media’s portrayal of Chinese people became more positive by showing them as obedient, hard working, self-sacrificing peasants. Not long after this, in the 1940s, the ban on interracial love scenes in movies were lifted, but the media only focused on relationships between white males and Asian females, with the women rarely getting a happy ending. While Asian males were either pimps or peasants. Some believed that the qualities of an Asian are the reason why Asian women are more accepted by the media and that the stereotypes are more positive for women than men. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, during World War II, this portrayal of Chinese people contained while the portrayal of Japanese soldiers depicted them as lascivious, cold-blooded men. But this portrayal flipped between China and Japan in 1949 when in China, Mao Zhang gained power and the United States became enemies with the 2 leading countries in communism, China and North Korea. While Japan was rebuilding its economy and took in United State’s political ideas which reflected in the media with Japan’s image being more positive. In the 1950s, when U.S. servicemen came back from Japan, they shared tales of their time in Japan about how Japanese women had sexual secrets and how providing they were which is where the submissive “Geisha” came from. This started a new stereotype of Asian women being involved in wars.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Asian women became more of a focus in film as the “Spoils of War.” The media started to picture them as sexual objects that are meant to be captured by white men. Asian wars started to become the setting for many movies. After the Vietnam War, films were being creating with the plot taking place in Vietnam. Vietnam became more of a focus of these films and replacing Chinese/Japanese women. In these films, Vietnamese women were portrayed as either peasants or prostitutes while the men were sneaky, violent, warmongers. Even as time progressed on into the 1990s to the present, many Asians and Asian-Americans have been casted as only background characters rather than the leading roles even if it takes place in a place where the Asians and Asian-Americans are the majority or the whole population.

Fresh Off the Boat is a television sitcom on the ABC network that is based on Eddie Huang’s life and book Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir. In the 90s, when Eddie was 12 years old, his family moved from Washington D.C. To Orlando, Florida to pursue the “American Dream” by opening a “Wild West” themed steak restaurant. As the family tries to settle into their new life, they face many obstacles to try to take in the new culture as well. In this show, Eddie used the term “tiger mom” when he said “Mom was always hard on me way before all that “tiger mom” stuff.” It seems to me that he is implying that she has always been a stereotypical tiger mom, and essentially is the stereotype even before the term was coined because there was never a name for the “type” of mom she was. That statement also supports that one of the characteristic of being a “tiger mom” is being strict toward your child(ren). But even though Eddie’s mom has “tiger mom” characteristics, she still showed Eddie that she cares for him and his feelings by defending him when it came to him being bullied and standing up for himself. Instead of being worried about Eddie’s future and punishing Eddie for causing fights, possibly get suspended and have it on his records that could ruin his record as a “perfect” student, which is what a “tiger mom” would do, she questions why the school did not do anything to defend him, let the fight happen and why they were not questioning the kid that started it all.

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From left to right: Eddie’s brothers Emery and Evan, Eddie, Eddie’s mom Jessica, and Eddie’s dad Louis.

I found that through a show like this, the creators take in that people of color will always be misrepresented And having to live through preconceptions based on their race, in addition to working harder to prove themselves, so they fit into society in a more ideal way. Not only did this show make me laugh, it allowed me and many other Asian-Americans to connect with Eddie, despite our different ethnicities, because the show brings up issues that Asian-Americans face in society. This would include, trying to fit in while balancing two different cultures, and facing racism.Throughout the show, I could relate to the moments when Eddie was bullied for being Asian and, as matter of fact, the only Asian in his class. Like when Eddie in the cafeteria when he was taking out the homemade Chinese food his mother made then his classmates were quickly disgusted from the look and smell. I remember bringing in some beef porridge my mother made for me to eat at school and the moment I brought it out to eat, some of my classes called it gross, that it stunk, and looked like mud with rocks and grass in it.

This show is from an Asian-American male’s perspective but still shows how it is shifting society’s views on both Asian-American males and females. Not only through Eddie but also Jessica, his mom, who could have easily been made into a “tiger mom.” But instead, the creators made her into a well-rounded character. Although this show is one person’s story, it still shows people who have little knowledge of Asian-Americans, what Taiwanese and Asian-American culture is like from the perspective a Taiwanese-American, but also on a bigger scale, seeing the struggles that many Asian-Americans go through.

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From left to right: Eric (Younger Brother ), Grandma Yung-hee, Margaret, Dr. Stuart Kim (Older brother ), Katharine (Mom), Benny (Dad)

Another sitcom about an Asian-American family that was on the ABC network was All-American Girl. The show was suppose to be based on the “comedy material of Margaret Cho”, “but that was mostly just a gloss” according to Margaret, because she did not get to incorporate her comedy into it. This was the first primetime television show that featured an all Asian-American cast, but failed horribly. This was due to stereotyping its Asian characters, unoriginal plotlines, not having any Korean Americans to be a part of the production crew to put in their thoughts, background. and not allowing Margaret to get involved with the production of the show. It disappointed many Korean Americans who watched the show, because it lacked accurate representation. The characters spoke almost no Korean, despite Margaret’s parents and grandmother being immigrants, and that Margaret was the only actual Korean person while the rest of the cast is of a different Asian descent.

This show was meant to be a representation of Asian-American families, specifically Korean-American families, but it failed to do so because of the stereotyping found in it. The strongest stereotype that can be found in this show, is when Margaret’s mother who is played by Jodi Long, an actress of Japanese and Cantonese descent, and is portrayed as a “tiger mom.” This is seen constantly throughout the show, because she tries to control Margaret’s life by pressuring her to become an obedient submissive woman, so that she can find a husband. But not just any husband, a Korean husband who has a prestigious job and education background. Margaret’s brother is also another stereotype who is played by an actor of Chinese descent and is portrayed as the “nerdy Asian guy who is after a medical degree and sucks up to his parents.” And Margaret, herself, is another stereotype that has not been brought up which is the spunky rebellious girl. She spends most of her time arguing with her mother about Korean traditions while she tries to fit into the rest of society and tries to get her mother to accept that.

Many would think this is what every Asian-American family acts like and looks like. As for timing wise, this was set back in the 1990s and made in the 90s, in contrast to Fresh Off the Boat, which was set in the 1990s, but was made this year. It shows the “humor” of what the non-Korean-American crew had and was thinking what would be appropriate for the show. Many Asian-Americans was see this as over exaggerated as well and that it reinforces the stereotypes found in it. And despite how stereotypical it is, I still found more similarities I had with her because she is also a female. The expectation for a first-generation Asian-American girl was to be obedient and submissive yet be the best in school was all set by my mother.

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Top left corner: Mameha, Nobu. Center: Sayuri. Top right: The Chairman, Hatsumoto. Bottom: Young Sayuri/Chiyo.

Memoirs of a Geisha was a movie created by Rob Marshall based on the book, Memoirs of a Geisha, that was written by Arthur Golden. I found although it is more talked about how the movie sexualizes the women and the stereotype of geisha and Japanese women, there is still another stereotype that could be found in this film. Hatsumoto had the characteristics of a “dragon lady”, by seducing men to get what she wants, “playing dirty”by using her power, and behaving cold and distant.

Interactions between Hatsumoto and Chiyo/Sayuri:

I also found that money was attached to everything a geisha does. From her living expenses, to her virginity, to her debt to become a geisha. In the end, it seemed like the who entire goal of the head of the geisha house, is to have their geisha get a danna, or patron, who will pay for everything for the geisha. Which really pushes that Asian women are property and practically objects in this movie/book. Because of that, the movie and book have distorted the reality of who a geisha is, which is a person who acts as a hostess and entertains by performing various Japanese arts. The word geisha, itself, in kanji means art(gei) person/doer(sha). I can relate to how the women get degraded by the Americans by “the mystery of the orient.” I am not a geisha nor of Japanese decent but I do relate to being sexualized because I am of Asian descent.

In conclusion, throughout this term I have learned from the article “Star Types and Stereotypes Maggie Q and Lucy Liu: Asian-Americans as Leading Ladies” by Mike Hale, that roles for Asian and Asian-American women are making a slow but noticeable change, by having more well rounded beings, and having creators pull away from straight-out stereotyping. It could have easily gone down that path like the media has done so in the past with All-American Girl. Along with that, Fresh Off the Boat has been turning around how society looks at Asian-Americans by avoiding stereotyping and taking in consideration of what Asian-Americans think and of Taiwanese culture. What makes it a slow change, is because Hollywood is still casting Asian-Americans to play characters with ethnicities that differ from theirs. In a way, it seems that in the media’s eyes, Producers and directors see Asians still as interchangeable, and they keep using the same actors and actresses over and over again. But that maybe due to these shows and films not giving many aspiring actors and actresses of Asian descent, which would match with their character, a chance to play the part. But I learned through the discussion posts that Asian characters are not the only characters in the media that are played by actors and actresses of a different nationality but of a different race altogether by whitewashing. A solution I found was that 1) Hollywood needs to be pressured to solve this issue and 2) there needs to be more roles that are not a specific ethnicity so that these characters are seen as exactly who they are.

Works Citied

Mok, T. A. (1998). Getting the message: Media images and stereotypes and their effect on asian americans. Cultural Diversity and Mental Health, 4(3). July 20, 2015. 185-202. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1099-9809.4.3.185

Kim, J. (n.d.). ReThink Review: Fresh Off the Boat (eps. 1-4) – Thanks, Asian America Needed That. July 20, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-kim/rethink-review-fresh-off_b_6698848.html

Kim, J. (2005, December 14). `Geisha’ raises fears of stereotypical movie roles. July 20, 2015. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2005-12-14/features/0512140208_1_geisha-mineko-iwasaki-arthur-golden

Hale, M. (2013, November 21). Maggie Q and Lucy Liu: Asian-Americans as Leading Ladies – The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/22/arts/television/maggie-q-and-lucy-liu-asian-americans-as-leading-ladies.html?_r=2

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One thought on “The Evolution of Asian and Asian-American Women in the Media

  1. Skylar,

    I remember as a little girl, always wanting to be famous. But, I had no one to look up to. All these women were blonde-haired, or light colored and big eyed, tall, bronzed skin women. I looked in the mirror and saw what I had: dark hair, dark eyes, suntanned skin and small eyes. I looked nothing like these women who were popular, and in fact, I still don’t.

    Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears, Pink, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato (she’s my favorite :)) Jessie J, Jennifer Lopez…

    All of these pop singers don’t have an ounce of Asian blood in them. We’re an incredibly overlooked minority.

    I loved this post. I resonate so deeply with it. I’m 75% Japanese, and I too look at Asian portrayals in the media with such discomfort. Why does it exist? Do you think it’ll change?

    Because of this portrayal in the media, people have called me “exotic” because I’m Japanese but mixed with Portuguese and Native American. Some are even confused, wondering why I look “so Asian but not”. (You’ll be so surprised how often I’m told that).

    I desperately would love to see Asian women portrayed differently from their stereotypes in the media. I would love to see them just as people, not Asian people. In movies, does the lead character ever do a stereotype because of her race if she’s white? Just something to ponder.

    Thank you for sharing,
    Becky

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