The Representation of East Asian Women in Western Media

I. History & Context

In early Hollywood cinema, racist depictions of East Asians was in part a result of a total cultural ignorance in Western countries of Asia; whites viewing Asians as mysterious and unconquered was the beginning of East Asians becoming racialised fantasies and commodifiable objects “at the instigation and for the gratification of white men” (Wong vi-vii). Commodifying East Asian women’s bodies then is not only an act of promoting white sexual imperialism, it is also colonialist attempt to conquer non-white women’s agency in a display of white men’s power. In Edward Said’s Orientalism, orientalism is defined as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said 3). This colonialist sexual stereotype can be understood as the foundation of East Asian women’s “unbounded sexuality” on screen, a portrayal that renders her “less a woman than a display of […] verbally inexpressive femininity” (Said 187).

The current state of Asian representation in Western film and television is reflective of a larger, systemic issue of racial inequality and white supremacist ideology in Western societies (Wong i; Woan 300-1). It is only racist, white supremacist ideology that disparages the lives of non-white people and that will prevail when non-white women’s lives and agency are constantly devalued (Wong 29). Film and television industries in the West have practiced and reinforced this mode of thought by producing works that objectify, commodify, and sexualise East Asian women’s bodies (Wong 29; Woan 286-7). The industry’s institutionalised devaluation of Asian lives through consistent portrayals of East Asian women as always consenting to white men reifies white supremacism (Wong 30).

The hypersexualisation of East Asian women and the overrepresentation of the white man-Asian woman pairing in Western visual media distorts desirability politics, creating, maintaining, and reinforcing a Eurocentric, orientalist, and racist, white supremacist cultural dynamic in the West. It has additionally contributed to a dichotomised representation of Asian desirability in Western societies, especially American. This double standard is a perverse form of miscegenation wherein white men claim the bodies of asian women, often prohibiting the pairing of asian men with white women (Wong 28).

II. Project Development

While race as an invented form of social classification is not a new subject of study, little scholarship confronts how white sexual imperialism and selective miscegenation has resulted in a combination of sexual and racial inequality (Woan 277). Since much of the discourse surrounding the representation of minority and racialized groups in Western media has been concerned with the degree of representation, this project argues for a change in the manner of representation. The viewer of this project is encouraged to reflect upon the way in which the specific pairing of Asian women with white men has been deeply ingrained into popular visual culture.

Insight through Form

This project investigates intergenerational representations of East Asian women in Western popular culture, particularly film and television, wherein white sexual imperialism allows white men to lay claim to the bodies and sexuality of East Asian women. The chronological display is intended to demonstrate the  historical development of these women’s representation in popular media. The examples span from 1922 to 2016 and include a wide display of white supremacist portrayals, from hypersexualisation on film to subliminal normalisation in children’s television series.

The portrayal of East Asian women with white men is not necessarily as visually offensive as a hypersexualised portrayal. If the prevalence of this coupling had been overlooked, it has selectively been brought to attention here in a collage of popular titles and actors, both white and East Asian. The content of each individual image is not intended to be less important than how the images work as a collection; the illustration as overlay further detracts from the singular image content in an attempt to instead support the project’s larger narrative regarding the power dynamic between East Asian women and white men. Viewing each image more closely would, however, serve the same rhetorical purpose.

Process of Creation

In tracing the representation of the white man-Asian woman pairing, the careers of the most well-known Western actresses of East-Asian descent provided abundant examples. Finding titles for the project was not nearly as difficult as initially imagined, as this was largely a matter of researching popular actresses and selecting the works which featured any remote theme of romanticism. Only those produced by non-Asian, Western production companies were selected as examples.

It is worth noting that this project has not covered other forms of popular visual media such as graphic novels, videogames and music videos. In addition, by focusing on white men and Asian women what has not been included are the extensive number of films disparaging, parodying, and desexualising East Asian men, a factor which should also be considered in analysing how Western desirability politics disfavour non-white men.



III. Discussion of Results and Conclusion

It is hopeful that the research conducted led to evidence that East Asian women have increasingly gained leading roles and roles that do not always hypersexualise them, yet less hopeful that these roles are still defined by their partnership to white men (Shimizu 13-15). An Asian woman who is portrayed as having as much agency as her white male partner is still being used as propaganda when it is consistently suggested that her prime choice in romantic interest is white men — her agency in this case is only available by permission.

What remains evident is that ethnocentrism and ultimately a white supremacist worldview dominates Western media. Like colonialism, imperialism has real, manifest, and potentially dangerous implications (Woan 300). The increasingly visible trend of supposed racial preference, where East-Asian women claim to prefer white men and in return white men develop “Asian fetish” olr “yellow fever” syndrome should be recognised for what it is — a racist, gendered, neo-Orientalist desire for white men’s dominance over a submissive and willing Asian object (Woan 300).
Mainstream Western media has yet to take East Asian women’s fetishisation as a serious concern, and the racial preference rhetoric implied must be recognised as maintaining a racist, white supremacist politics of desirability. The problematic contemporary discourse that idealises a so-called “post-race” generation through interracial partnership and the normalisation of interracial partnerships can be dangerous if that partnership carries with it a dangerous political agenda. Politically aware consumers of visual culture should recognise the pervasive reinforcement of Eurocentric desirability politics in popular media, especially when these politics are disguised as a narrative towards progressive, globalised race relations.




Literature Cited

Said, Edward W. Orientalism, Vintage Books, 1979.

Shimizu, Celine P. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen        and Scene, Duke University Press, 2007.

Woan, Sunny. “White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence.” Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, vol. 14, no. 2, 2008, pp. 275.

Wong, Eugene F. On Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures, Arno Press, 1978.

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