“Fine” China?: What’s wrong with Yellow Fever and the Fetishization of Asian Women

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Here’s an old portfolio addition – this was the first piece I wrote for UC Berkeley’s Hardboiled Newsmagazine for the Spring 2015 issue, which focuses on stories and issues and significant to the Asian/Pacific Islander community. In this commentary I wanted to touch on the stereotypes that contribute to the frequent sexualized misrepresentation of Asian women, citing the example of “yellow fever”.

 

The geisha. The assassin. The schoolgirl. What may seem like common, innocent characters are actually egregious examples of how the image of the Asian woman has been simplified to these superficial, sexualized figures. These images have such a dominant presence in popular culture and media that they have been ingrained in audiences as a normative ideal. So much so, that they have contributed to the manifestation of the pervasive phenomenon of “yellow fever”. Which is the preference of exclusively dating Asian women based on stereotypes and generalizations. Spoiler alert: it is not a good thing.

Upon watching YouTube blogger Anna Akana’s video titled “Why Guys Like Asian Girls”, my immediate reaction was of a fervent agreement equivalent to that of a thousand daggers flying triumphantly in front of a background of blooming cherry blossoms. In her video, Akana addresses the problem of racial fetishes and how they are actually projections of fantasy imbibed with inaccuracies and misinformation. As I sat in front of the computer screen with my hand balled into a fist, I made a modest gesture of solidarity. She condemns the absurdity of making falsities and fetishes centered on race as the sole basis of one’s romantic attraction. It’s great that someone called out the problems of this phenomenon as they see it in an unapologetic, audacious way. Though it’s an issue that has been addressed countless times before, it continues to fly under the radar and sneakily persist in everyday rhetoric.

It’s appalling how Asian women are reduced to a simplistic dichotomy: we either exude dominant sexual appeal or are modestly submissive. Either way, there is a clear deficiency of any human elements. The representation of Asian women in media is minimal enough as it is, so when what little representation we have is based on simplistic tropes, it is both horrendous and pathetic for Asian female representation. I can think of a few examples: Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha, Hu Li in Rush Hour 2, O-Ren in Kill Bill, and of course, the schoolgirl fetish present in anime culture. Why is it that with so much diversity within Asia alone, we are left with such flimsy, two-dimensional characters in the high profile industry of Hollywood that are still referencing stereotypes? Why is it that when discussing the allure of Asian women, these figures are commonly cited? Inside these assumptions are fantasies of people, who are far from concrete representations of what Asian women of all kinds actually entail. Since YouTube isn’t a very scholarly platform that’s thriving with intellectual commentary, let’s address this issue from a more critical lens.

The inherent problem with making dating decisions based exclusively on race is that those decisions are influenced and attached to falsities and/or illusions in the form of stereotypes concerning an entire group of people. It doesn’t distinguish between a caricature and the real individual. Through citing a stereotype, people are also inadvertently supporting societal norms of what Asian women are supposed to “be”, in terms of behavior and physical standards of beauty. Such an attitude is offensive due to its failure to acknowledge and respect a group’s authentic cultural identity.

The appeal of these figures is derived not from an appreciation of culturally specific qualities, but from a sexual nature, and is thus an inappropriate fetishization. One general example is the term “exotic”. The term is also often geared towards women of color when used in reference to people. Many people who use this word generally intend to use it in a positive sense to praise difference or uniqueness. However, the term “exotic” has underlying negative connotations and is ultimately dehumanizing. Since sex trafficking is a severe problem especially prevalent in countries such as China, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Malaysia, the term is all the more degrading. To label women of color as “exotic” implies a commodification of their being, and places them in an inferior class within a hierarchy where women of color are deprived of basic rights and are imported a subhuman status.

At the core of this issue are the power relations entrenched in what is on the surface a superficial issue. There is an interplay of oppressor and victim dynamics subtly at work that the people who take pride in having “yellow fever” fail to see and comprehend. The schoolgirl fetish can be defined as a romanticization of qualities pertaining to youth of adolescence. It reinforces the notion of the “submissive Asian woman”, and encourages expectations that Asian women are suggestable, pure, and virginal (not to mention the romanticization of perversion, which is just wrong). It fosters a correctional attitude that would be enforced on children, who must be controlled and must submit to authority that is not their own. Opposite of the schoolgirl fetish would be the assassin fetish. Japanese weapons such as nunchakus and katanas may seem like badass accessories of empowerment, but the problem with the assassin fetish lies in the appeal being based on material things and not on intrinsic value. A female Asian warrior’s power should not be gauged on her ability to wield flashy, phallic objects. It exhibits a displacement of power, because idea of her dominance is still seen through the male gaze and tradition of physical strength. Lastly, there is the geisha fetish. This figure presents the Asian female as a mysterious and seductive temptress. What was originally recognized as a woman who mastered a variety of artistry, has been bastardized and diluted over time to a solely sexual figure. Of all the areas a geisha specializes in, people choose to focus on her sexual appeal at the expensive of the rest of her identity.

All of these stereotypes conspire to promote further distortions of Asian women. These passive and dangerous generalizations should not be allowed and tolerated because it perpetuates the “othering” of non-Western identities. “But, it’s a compliment!” say the guilty at fault indignantly as they refuse to take any accountability for their ignorance. However, when the effect of their words is vastly different than the motives behind them, that is where the issue arises. Motive is rendered invalid when the outcome generates offense. Compliments that have to do with a person’s physical appeal can be appreciated. But compliments that have everything to do with falsities and underlying power relations are not acceptable. In their “compliment”, there resides a veiled reinforcement of power that subjugates an entire class of people.

While Asian women are often presented in pop culture as fitting them old of the geisha, assassin, or schoolgirl, those roles aren’t even entirely fleshed out. Recent trends have moved literal representations of these figures to more subtle forms. These forms are blatant embodiments of the same exact stereotype. But are still too flat in that they are defined by one quality. The roles of Asian women in recent media still retain a sexualized quality, such as the prostitute or sex trafficking victim in crime shows like Law & Order and Maggie Q’s sexualized assassin in Nikita. They are roles that, while not devoid of substance, beg the question: what are Asian women without sexuality? While Nikita stars an Asian woman in a leading role, it implies that Asian women have value only through donning material things and ornamentation; an intricate silk dress or lethal sword is apparently all it takes to suddenly amplify their appeal. However you want to spin it, it still comes down to unnecessary sexualization and unwarranted objectification. Assuming that our sexual allures is the highlight of our appeal is insulting, and negates our actual multi-faceted identities. We are not constrained by sex; we embody roles that draw from an infinite well of empowerment that is rich in diverse experiences. For example, many Asian women have overcome struggles that we routinely face in education, work and home. Many of us are not women who are meek, but are women of assertion. Our voices are not small and high-pitched – our voices are loud and resonant. Your “yellow fever” is putrid and requires your immediate quarantine.

China, silk, and kimonos are all fine commodities. We, however, are most vehemently and absolutely not.

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