OPINION: America’s Fetishization and Underrepresentation of Asian Women

Photo posted by @nymag on Instagram

My mom walked down the stairs on Friday, March 12, and said, “These Asian hate crimes are getting scary.” That following Tuesday, news of the shootings broke.

Eight victims at Asian spas, six of whom were Asian women, murdered by a man whose actions authorities said were driven by a sex addiction, not racism. The gunman confessed that he wanted to “eliminate” a “temptation.” I felt a familiar wave of nausea wash over me. It was so easy— so normal — for him to sexualize and then demonize these women.

To live through this period as an Asian woman is to be familiar with these instances of sexism and racism. Both are intertwined. Between last March and February, Stop AAPI Hate revealed that Asian women reported 2.3 times more hate incidents than men— that’s not even accounting for unreported instances, or other micro-aggressions like when Asian women are catcalled by a group of men and then sneered at, “reassured” that a guy “only dates Asian women” or given backhanded compliments such as being told they are “exotic” looking.

Sexual attacks targeting Asian-American women are more likely to come from people of different ethnicities. In online pornography, Asian women are disproportionately presented as victims of rape, compared to white women or women of other racial backgrounds.

The way the gunman chose to see those women feels pornographic. How he chose to narrate that encounter dehumanized them, reducing them as objects to conquer.

This issue of objectification of Asian women dates back to the U.S. military when the GIs were in Asia engaging in the sex industry. This was the start of perpetuating stereotypes of Asian women as sexually submissive, exotic and obedient. Those stereotypes made their way into law via the the 1875 Page Act. It prohibited Chinese women from entering the U.S. under the assumption that Chinese women seeking to enter were immoral and were prostitutes.

Even if you don’t know the history, the media perpetuates these narratives, forever solidifying these stereotypes of Asian women. Vietnam War-era films like “Full Metal Jacket” showcase the objectification of Asian women as sex workers, and display graphic sexual violence committed by American GIs against Vietnamese women. Since then, the long list of movies, music videos, TV shows, etc., fetishizing and stereotyping Asian women has grown.

We rarely see Asian women on-screen in anything other than the stereotypes people have produced. We rarely see multidimensional Asian women in the media at all. I know I have never quite seen myself on-screen. Lucy Liu in “Charlie’s Angels” is a perfect example of how Asian identity is washed away: she is on equal footing with her white counterparts, but only when her whole Asian identity is erased.

We have been the temptress, the sexy dragon lady, the weeping flower, the sex worker, the servant and the invisible. So, as we are speaking about where Asian women fit in America, let’s recognize the ways in which they have historically been forced into these boxes. The shooting is not just a reflection of specific commentary around COVID-19; it is also directed at a long history of racism, hyper-sexualization and underrepresentation.

It goes without saying, but at the heart of this issue are eight people: Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng— six of them Asian women —dead from a violent shooting. At the heart of this issue is an Asian woman, grateful that she has a mask to hide herself from predatory gazes.

At the heart of this issue is a little girl, 12-years-old, sitting in front of her mirror. She preens herself, with her recently bleached hair and heavy eyeliner, trying to erase any trace of her Asian identity — just like the media. She studies the way her hair falls beside her face; the golden undertones of her skin clashes with the brassy color of her hair. Her eye shape sticks out even more from the way the makeup sits. In trying to change a part of her identity, she only sees herself clearly.

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