Me, at the tender age of 5. Obviously, at this age, I had no idea what racism or sexism was. I was happy to be at school, ready to learn. But somehow, I knew I was different than the other kids at school (I grew up in a largely white town).
Growing up, I was very aware of my ethnicity. Coming from a traditional Korean background, I recognized from a young age that I was different than my peers. Often, I was asked questions like “You look so exotic, where are you from?” and “What are you? Are you Chinese?” Questions like these made me think that my ethnicity was the only thing that people saw when they looked at me. This made me hyper-aware of my appearance and how I came across to others. I have found during my research that my perpetual self-questioning is confirmed by the way Western media portrays Asian women. Western media has imposed an identity on Asian women that portrays them as aesthetically pleasing and sexually willing.
To fully understand how Western media portrays Asian women, one must look into the history of the images Western society has created and circulated. Despite much talk of the U.S. being a “post-racist” country, “yellow peril discourse has not ended and continues in contemporary media” (Ono, Pham 42). In their book, Asian Americans and the Media, Ono and Pham refer back to moments in U.S. history and show that the representations of Asian Americans have been controlled by the dominant white society. Simply put, Asian Americans have not been able to represent themselves in mainstream U.S. media, therefore, have been depicted without much education or knowledge about who they are.
During the late 1800s, when Asian men started immigrating to the U.S., the United States purposely excluded Asian women from immigrating to the U.S. because families could be threats to the “efficiency and exploitability of the workforce” (Tewari, Alvarez 193-195). In accordance with Asian American Psychology: Current Perspectives, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the U.S. began to allow women to migrate into the country. Most of the immigrated women were prostitutes, brought in by the U.S. to fulfill the sexual needs of the Asian men. According to The Asian Woman in America, Kumagai wrote that in the late 1800’s, an inevitable result of such few Chinese females compared to Chinese males resulted prostitution. Many of these women were not originally prostitutes, but forced into it. This condition existed throughout the years. These Chinese women were severely oppressed and used as mere sexual commodities (Kumagai, 3-4). Due to the great number of prostitutes, Asian women were subject to the stereotype of being hypersexual, sexually submissive and subservient. This image of Asian women starkly contrasted the “pure” identity that European women had. Throughout history, Asian women have been burdened with this image that had been imposed on them by Western society.
A Dragon Lady is a stereotype of Asian women as strong, domineering, or mysterious. Inspired by the characters played by actress Anna May Wong, the term comes from the female villain in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates.
There are two main ways that Asian women are portrayed in Western media. One of these archetypes is known as the dragon lady. The dragon lady is a cold, conniving, deceitful woman that uses her sexuality to attain her selfish goals. The second way archetype is the lotus blossom. The lotus blossom is quite the opposite of the dragon lady. She is much more submissive and subservient, willing to do anything to keep her man happy. Although they seem to contradict each other, both representations depict the Asian woman as a sexual object that are meant to serve men. These two Asian women archetypes are seen continuously throughout the history of popular Western culture.
Ciocio, the “lotus blossom”, kills herself because her husband leaves her for another woman.
One of the earliest examples of the lotus blossom stereotype dates back to 1903, in an opera called Madama Butterfly. An unfortunate result of this stereotype is shown when the main character, Ciocio, is overcome with shame and distress as kills herself when she discovers that her white lover, Pinkerton, has left her for a white woman. Pinkerton married Ciocio with the intentions of eventually leaving her until he found a “proper” American wife, knowing that Japan’s divorce laws were laid back. Ciocio, clueless and selflessly in love with Pinkerton, tirelessly waited for him to return for to her after he went back to America. During this time, she had given birth to their child. When he finally arrived to Japan, Ciocio realizes that he brought along his new American wife. The way that Ciocio is portrayed is problematic for the image of Asian women because it puts them in a position where they are depicted as weak, pathetic and inferior to the white woman. Western society has imposed a stereotype on Asian women that we are perpetually waiting to be rescued by a man and placing our self-worth on how good of a wife we are.
(Warning: Video contains violent and graphic images.)
A young O-Ren Ishii lures the man who killed her parents to get revenge. Knowing that he is a pedophile, Ishii uses her sexuality to bait him and kills him ruthlessly.
The stereotype of the dragon lady is also problematic. In Kill Bill: Vol. 1, O-Ren Ishii is depicted as a ruthless assassin. O-Ren Ishii’s merciless and brutal character is glamorized, which places her power on her sexuality and exotic image. In the animated scene of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, both of O-Ren Ishii’s parents are brutally murdered by Boss Matsumoto (a boss of a ruthless Japanese mafia) right in front of young O-Ren’s eyes. This traumatic experience lead to her burning need for revenge. Luckily for her, Boss Matsumoto was a pedophile. At the age of 11, she got her revenge by murdering Boss Matsumoto with her own hands. O-Ren’s character, the dragon lady, puts a complex on all Asian-American women, including myself, because it puts a burdened expectation on us. Western society assumes that Asian women are okay with being seen as exotic sex objects and “china dolls”. Dating back to the late 1800s, the term “Asian women” have conjured up images of prostitution, sexual unambiguity, and exoticness. The dragon lady is known to use her sexuality to gain what she wants. This is damaging to Asian women because it separates their sexuality as a separate entity, which leads men to believe that it can be used to satisfy their sexual desires. The dragon lady, although portrayed as willful and malicious, she is represented as sexually willing, demeaning her value.
Western media has imposed an image on Asian women that depicts them as aesthetically pleasing and sexually willing. From my research of the Asian woman image in popular culture, I have come to find that these issues stem from a dark history of prostitution and sex slavery. Growing up as an Asian American and being a woman myself, I questioned my own image in comparison to society’s expectations about me. However, now that I have a more profound understanding of the stereotypes, I can free myself from worrying about how society views me. I no longer have to fall into the lotus blossom category when I am feeling shy, or be seen like a dragon lady when I am more forward about what I want in life. I don’t have to feel the need to second-guess my actions, just to save someone from thinking a certain way about me. My sexuality is not something to be used as a commodity for someone else’s pleasure. My ethnicity does not make me exotic; therefore, I am not defined by it. I fully embrace being Asian; however, I am more than just a race.
During this term, I’ve had a few valuable learning moments where I’ve been pushed to think outside of my “normal” rhythm of thinking. One of the most memorable moments was during week 4, when we discussed and learned about the influence of advertising. What caught my attention the most was the Ways of Seeing (1972) BBC documentary that was posted in the course texts section. John Berger (art critic and writer) talked about glamour. He states, “Without social envy, glamour cannot exist”. Overall, this documentary was very eye opening and refreshing. As a fashion and beauty product lover, it is so important to refresh my mind and understand why I want so much and what drives my wants in the first place. This documentary was a pivotal learning moment during this term.
Another huge learning moment for me was during week 9. During this week, we were asked to choose one of the agencies or programs listed in the reading (Media Literacy: An Alternative to Censorship) that was assigned to us that week. Honestly, I was not even aware that there were such programs that were aimed towards teaching people about media literacy. The program I researched was the Just Think Foundation. I was so surprised and relieved to find out that this program targets bringing curriculum to lower-income students (4th to 12th graders). Media literacy is such an important thing to talk about, and starting at starting at a young age will only benefit the students. This inspires me to bring more awareness to everyone I know about media literacy (including my future children).
Alvarez, Alvin, and Nita Tewari. Asian American Psychology: Current Perspectives. New York: Psychology, 2009. Print.
Kill Bill Vol. 1. By Quentin Tarantino. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2004.
Kumagai, Gloria L. The Asian Woman in America (1978): n. pag. Web.
Madama Butterfly. By Giacomo Puccini. Performance.
Ono, Kent A., and Vincent N. Pham. Asian Americans and the Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009. Print.