How portrayals of East Asian women in film have shaped real life social perceptions and stigmas

It’s no revelation that our digitalising world plays an ever-increasing role in how we perceive and understand society and the relationships within it. We have been reminded of this influence in recent years, sparked by movements such as Black Lives Matter, which drew our attention to Western news biases in depicting interactions between white and non-white citizens across the globe, often in favour of systematic, racist narratives and white hegemony. Likewise, you haven’t got to look far before realising the ridiculous media bias in demonising depictions of Hispanic citizens within right wing orientated, Republican news outlets in America, specifically under the Trump presidency.

Today I want to draw the conversation towards portrayals of a less-commonly dissected discussion: how Western, often American Hollywood, on-screen portrayals and stereotyping of East Asian women through the decades have been tied up with wider social politics and cultural stigmas.

From the left-behind lover to the sexualised, seductive temptress, many film depictions reduce the female East Asian identity into a narrow vacuum: one that often benefits a western and fetishized male fantasy of innocence and passivity or of a sexual, deviant figure – deviant, of course, without being too deviant. Examples of the former can be noted in early American operas and films, such as the character of Cio Cio San in the 1904 opera ‘Madame Butterfly’, a Japanese woman who commits suicide after she is abandoned by her white lover. Meanwhile, Lucy Liu’s 2000’s ‘Charlie’s Angels’ depiction of Alex Munday, a hyper-competent secret agent who teases men with her sexual power.

These depictions fall into two recognised archetypes: the ‘Lotus Blossom’, denoting the quiet passivity of a ‘desirable’ figure, and the ‘Dragon Lady’ – an Asian spin-off of the traditional femme fatale, if you will. While the Dragon Lady can easily hide behind an image of progression from the Lotus Blossom; depicting the independent, kick-ass ‘strong, deceitful and domineering’ woman, the hyper-sexualisation of these characters mean their portrayals remain problematic.

A recent example that proves that stereotypes of East Asian women do not exist in an isolated, impact-less vacuum is the Atlanta Spa shootings in March 2021, which left six Asian American women dead, followed by a testimony from the gunman confessing to an ‘Asian fetish’ related sex addiction, denoting his actions to ‘eliminating temptation’. Sociology professor at Loyola Marymount University, Nadia Kim, recently wrote in a recent public seminar that the fact that six of his victims were East Asian American women fits into a sad pattern of sexually objectifying such women and stereotyping them as meek. In a report by Stop AAPI Hate in 2021, there were about 3,800 reports of hate incidents across the country since March 2020, with women reporting hate incidents 2.3 times more than men.

Much anti-Asian violence is also rooted in part in U.S. millenarianism. While wars wreaked havoc in Korea, Japan and Vietnam over the past decades, local women were forced to go into prostitution as a means of survival. Subsequently, we see this depicted on-screen: such as in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987), where a Vietnamese sex worker solicits soldiers with the infamous lines ‘Me so horny’ and ‘Me love you long time’. As a result, these generalizations can lead to fetishization or “Yellow Fever”, denoting how men sexually objectify Asian women. It is these racist and misogynistic depictions which often lead to violence against Asian women.

Portrayals in more recent depictions suggest a determined development in American East Asian storytelling, especially concerning female characters. These women are now the protagonists, not the side characters. More contemporary examples include ‘Saving Faces’  which portrays the Asian American experience while exploring issues mother-daughter culture clashes with closeted lesbian love. Meanwhile ‘The Farewell’ (2019) also depicts cross-cultural contentions between American-Chinese raised Gen-Z and traditional Chinese values of stoicism and ‘saving face’, while portraying the clash between traditional Asian collectivist values with Western American Individualistic values. Such films, most impactfully, offer its international audiences a more enlightened, human insight into the complex human experiences shared by East Asian individuals. 

Meanwhile, the 2019 rom-com ‘Always be my Maybe’ attempts to dissolve stereotypes of Asian American characters traditionally limited to academic achievement, portraying complex contemporary family and romantic relations, depicting Sasha as creating success working in the arts industry (as opposed to the STEM field stereotypically associated with Asian Americans), while Marcus, depicted as not making it past high school, dedicates time to becoming his father’s caregiver. This develops from the birthplace of East Asian on-screen presence which not only reinforced harmful and dehumanising stereotypes and stigmas, but even where the limited exposure often saw characters played by western actors through ‘Yellow-facing’, or East Asian actors having to buy into Western-constructed stereotypes within their own portrayals.

We remain on a developing trajectory still today, with portrayals in no way free of historically built-in stigmas and stereotypes, but where we catch glimpses of an ever-increasing effort at recognising and changing these harmful portrayals. May these mediums continue to grant East Asian characters ever-more realistic depictions of the complexities of the true human experience.

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Adelaide Cannell

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June 2022
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