Image courtesy of IMDB
Pictured Above: Lucy Liu (right) portraying the sexy super-spy Alex Munday, undercover as a Geisha masseuse in Charlie’s Angels (2000)
Whereas male Asian roles often fall in to the stereotyped category of deeply threatening, female Asian roles, conversely, often fall in to the category of complacent sex-symbols. Furthermore, these overly sexualized women are constantly the objects of affection (or, simply, the objects) for white, heterosexual, male characters. This type of role further enforces stereotypes of the “availability” (Fuller 2010) and “conquerability” (Wong 1978) of Asian women.
However, whereas Asian women are hypersexualized by Western media, Asian men have their sexuality taken away from them completely. Male Asian characters are depicted as asexual (in that they have no sexual appeal whatsoever), effeminate, eunuchs, or – in a few cases – queer (Shimizu 2012).
When depicted on-screen, interracial sex (in which one partner is white and one is Asian) is almost exclusively between a white man and an Asian women – never the other way around (Wong 1978). Filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu also notes that not only are male Asian characters disinterested in sex, but this disinterest is particularly directed towards female Asian characters (2012). If an Asian man is sexually involved with another character, it will be with a white woman, not an Asian woman.
“I have never had any desire to play…a woman balancing a basket of any kind on my head…committing suicide because my white lover did not come back to Japan after the war.” -Margaret Cho
Similarly to the origin of the martial artist stereotype, World War II played a large part in setting up these stereotypes. Whereas Asian men were viewed by Americans as a threatening enemy, Asian women were reserved for sexual purposes.
However, the fetishization of Asian women in American media goes back farther than World War II, almost to the beginning of film history. Early pornographic films, or “stag films”, would often feature Asian actresses engaging in sexual activities with white men. Asian actresses were popular in stag films, as they added an element of “exoticism” (Shimizu 2007). These films were marketed to a white, male, heterosexual audience – similarly in modern media, over-sexualized Asian women are meant to cater to the same audience.
Because female Asian sexuality is targeted to appeal to white, heterosexual men, it allows for white men to objectify Asian women. This becomes an unfortunate trope in Western media, for white men to ‘possess’ and objectify Asian women, and for these female Asian characters to “kill themselves when foresaken by white men” (Shimizu 2007). This trope, for example, appears in such films as Madam Butterfly and Miss Saigon.
Sexual stereotyping of Asian bodies – particularly of Asian women’s bodies – in the media is an incredibly harmful and poisonous practice. It is imperative that Asian women stop being treated as disposable sexual objects, and that Asian men stop being deprived of their sexuality.
Printed Works Referenced:
Fuller, K. R. (2010). Hollywood goes Oriental: CaucAsian performance in American film. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Shimizu, C. P. (2007). The hypersexuality of race: performing Asian-American women on screen and scene. London: Duke University Press.
Shimizu, C. P. (2012). Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Wong, E. F. (1978). On Visual Media Racism. New York: Arno Press.