When a gunman targeted and killed six Asian women in the horrific Atlanta spa shootings just two months ago, it seemed like the world was in shock. And while the news was certainly alarming and frightening, for many Asian women — who have been subjected to fetishization and hypersexualization in their daily lives — this kind of violence was a long time coming. While authorities refused to acknowledge the racial motivation of the shootings, they did cite the gunman's sex addiction as his motive, after he revealed his urge to "eliminate temptation." I know I'm not alone in that these words reminded me, an Asian woman, of the same "urges" and "temptations" that incline men to catcall us and casually approach us with racist sexual comments.
I've been harassed on the streets of New York City, been stalked in my own neighborhood, and fielded sexualized comments from men and boys since I was too young to even read between the lines. And though I may have been gaslit to think otherwise, make no mistake, these encounters were overtly tied to my race; they come from the dehumanizing idea that Asian women are exotic objects of white male sexual desire. While that is my very real experience, I'm still in a position of enormous privilege — I can only imagine the ways Asian women in more vulnerable occupations, like a sex worker or a masseuse, might encounter this brutality.
"We are living in a world where most people ingest media and we don't really think about, where is this coming from? Who is behind the camera? What is the lens in which we are looking through?"
But what I've learned — and come to normalize — throughout the years is that this harmful perception wasn't born out of nowhere. It's rooted in America's history of white supremacy and, as a result, shows up in our media. While it would be naive to point to media as the only reason for the objectification of Asian women, it's certainly a major factor. Countless studies have shown that popular media heavily influences people's ideas about particular groups of people, especially if they have no contact with them in real life.
"We are living in a world where most people ingest media and we don't really think about, where is this coming from? Who is behind the camera? What is the lens in which we are looking through?" actress Kelly Marie Tran told POPSUGAR. "That is not a conversation that most people have with themselves." Without this critical thinking, it's no surprise Hollywood has inadvertently put real people in dangerous positions by constantly hypersexualizing Asian women on screen.
In fact, the earliest portrayals of Asian women in entertainment were sexually submissive, overtly feminine characters, particularly involved in a military storyline. Melissa Phruksachart, an assistant professor and scholar of Asian American cinema, points to the 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, a tragic love story between a US naval officer and young Japanese girl, as an early example where we see the "lotus blossom" trope — the idea that Asian women are sexually compliant, feminine, and quiet. When the lieutenant leaves Cio-Cio-san, she tragically kills herself. "It's important to understand that opera didn't just come out of nowhere," Phruksachart explained. "It was written at a time when the US was trying to establish a relationship with Japan, so the way that we think about Asian women is tied to the US's geopolitical and military interests."
With that backdrop in mind, decades later, this recurring theme was introduced to Hollywood. After World War II, the US was determined to become a world superpower, and in that quest, it looked toward Japan as an ally and started to rethink the value of Asia in what scholar Christina Klein describes as "Cold War orientalism," the idea that the rise of orientalist culture is tied to the US's global expansion. "During the Cold War, the US tries to reimagine Asia as a partner, instead of enemy, but in a way that's very orientalist," Phruksachart said. Citing Sayonara (1957) and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) as examples, she explained that these films imagine Japan and Asia as a place of "ancient tradition," with submissive women unlike those in America, who were fighting for civil rights in the women's movement of the '60s and '70s. Interestingly enough, these Hollywood stereotypes look to be born out of the intention to reframe the narrative around war and the US's relationship with Asia and thus were translated into people's perceptions in real life.
"In this moment, instead of imagining World War II as a bloody, devastating war, Hollywood reimagines the US military presence in Asia through the lens of romance," she said.
The media's narrative inadvertently "set the template" for how America viewed Asian women at the time. "There's something in the culture where all of a sudden, Americans became very curious about Asia and, in particular, Japan and were very interested in imagining it as an orientalist place," Phruksachart said. "Traditional, whereas America was modern. Mysterious, whereas America was rational. All of these culture and gender stereotypes."We see the "lotus blossom" trope over and over again in films set in war, often in sex-worker characters, like Miss Saigon in 1989, Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005, and Full Metal Jacket in 1987, the movie where we hear the notorious "Me so horny. Me love you a long time" line spoken by a Vietnamese sex worker. And when it wasn't the "lotus blossom" (also called china doll) depiction, it was the opposite, the "dragon lady" — typically an overtly sexual character who uses her sexuality to manipulate and deceive. For a long time, one-dimensional roles were the only ones available to Asian actresses, and with a majority of white male casting directors and writers behind the scenes, they didn't have much of a choice if they wanted to book jobs.
"Media is a symptom and not the illness — the real illness is white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. Those are the things that make all of this possible."
Some of Hollywood may have shifted to less overt portrayals in recent years, but the same objectifying tropes certainly still exist. In fact, a new USC Annenberg study on API representation across popular films found that over 23 percent of API females were depicted in sexy clothes, 21 percent partially naked, and eight percent referenced as physically attractive among 1,200 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2018. And in just 2019, three out of 24 API primary and secondary women were hypersexualized, with one of them in a complex lead role — Constance Wu's Destiny in Hustlers.
Additionally, new stereotypes have come about that are tied to the "model minority" myth, like the math genius or the quirky best friend. Asian characters are often invisible or reduced to stereotypes, tokenism, or the sidekick at best. According to the same USC study, 13 percent of API characters were portrayed as fully human and had a full spectrum of relationships among the top films in 2019. While these portrayals are often coupled with groundbreaking Asian-led films and shows like Crazy Rich Asians, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Never Have I Ever, Asian women still can't seem to escape the sexist tropes — so much so that Tran has a group chat with her actor friends in which they share "really bad" scripts that fetishize women of color. "Sometimes we drink wine and we talk about it because, yes, it's still happening," she said. "But I feel really, really grateful that I'm in a position where I know I have my friends who will be able to talk me through those situations because it is pretty triggering when you read something like that. And you're like, we're still here? It's wild.
It seems like the only solution to combating stereotypes and introducing a more holistic view of our community is for Asian Americans to carve their own paths and write their own stories, the way Ali Wong and Randall Park did for Always Be My Maybe or Mindy Kaling for Never Have I Ever. But the onus doesn't just fall on filmmakers, writers, creators, and performers of Asian descent; we unfortunately have to rely on those who have the power (read: that same white majority) to move the needle and bring our stories to big screens.
But as Phruksachart explained, "Media is a symptom and not the illness — the real illness is white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. Those are the things that make all of this possible." Still, the power of media is undeniable. As we work to dismantle the racist and sexist systems that put Asian women in danger, let's start by challenging Hollywood and mainstream media to take responsibility for contributing to the misogyny and harassment against Asian women and urge them to retell our stories.