If you didn’t know, for about nine years I was a pastor to two Asian churches in Western Canada. Naturally, my time among those churches funded me with a lot of insights into Asian thinking and practice, but also, and perhaps more importantly, gave me an abiding concern for the issues that affect my many Asian friends. One of those issues is the issue of representation, especially in media. All too commonly, Asian characters in media are reduced to two stereotypes—that of the sidekick or the sexpot. Asian men are made sidekicks—they function as the friend, the asset, the teacher, or the comic relief. Rarely are they cast as the lead, and even more rarely are they viewed as objects of sexual desire. Asian women are made into sexpots—submissive, wild, and sexy, they are envisioned as the ideal prize to be conquered by the Western hero. The net effect of this distorted representation is that it distorts not only our (non-Asian) perception of Asians generally, but also distorts their perception of themselves.
With this in mind, I recently watched with interest a six-minute video, produced by MTV Decoded, claiming to explain the nature of Asian sex stereotypes. While the video is certainly right to draw attention to the distortion, and indeed injustice, of Asian representation in media, I also think it failed to account, accurately, for the phenomenon. To put it briefly, their account was long on history, and short on anthropology. Let me see if I can tell you what I mean.
“The Weird History of Asian Sex Stereotypes” begins by noting that on dating websites Asian women are the highest sought after, while Asian men are commonly ignored. Asian women, because they carry a cultural impression of “submissiveness” and “hypersexuality,” are ripe for a kind of fetishization. The roots of this, according to the video, begin in early trade between the West and the East, and is quickly shaped by the immensely popular story “Madame Chrysanthemum”—a story which features fetishized Asian women. In turn, this ‘narrative’ is reinforced by American occupation in East Asia (Japan, Korea, Vietnam), and the ready availability of Asian prostitutes for American servicemen. To quote the video, “The first interaction that three generations of American men had with Asian women was as submissive sexual objects.” Decoded concludes that this (combined with a passing mention of porn), is why the stereotype continues to exist so strongly today.
By contrast, Asian men are historically disenfranchised. Not only were they prohibited from owning property, they were forced to take on various “feminine” jobs such as cooking and laundry. These factors combined to make them appear more feminine. Added to this, various exclusion acts kept Chinese men from brides, and laws proscribed marriages between Asian men and white women. To seal the case, Decoded observes that this “history of emasculating Asian men lives on in Hollywood”—noting, as we did above, that Asian men are rarely viewed in romantic roles in media.
The video is slick—watching it is likely to make you feel you’ve learned something. And yet I think it’s left out huge parts of the story. The first thing I want to note is that the argument Decoded makes focuses almost exclusively on events. The history of Eastern and Western encounter in trade, American military presence in East Asia, the Exclusion Acts in American history, and so on. All of these things happened, of course, and surely they contribute to the problem, but declaring the fact that they happened does not explain why they happened. Put differently, nothing can be done to change the history of Asian and Western interactions. We can’t undo the exclusion acts, or undo Japanese prostitution during the occupation. If we’re going to do something about how Asians are treated in media, then that something must target the heart of the matter. That ‘heart’ must give an accounting of human nature more generally. What is missing is an account of anthropology.
Let’s begin by taking a broad view of the matter. There is a discernable and oft-repeated pattern to what happens when one group encounters another group as an ‘other.’ Edward Said in his Orientalism has made this pattern abundantly clear. When I, from my comfortable sense of self, encounter someone who is sufficiently different from me, I begin to ‘other’ that person. I focus on the differences, and I do this in such a way that my awareness of those differences serves to reinforce my sense of self. This is fairly natural, and in many senses othering is a natural consequence of any two cultures meeting at the boundary. It’s a human property. But othering introduces difficulties that must be navigated carefully. A key example of this is in how Said describes the history of fetishizing. He notes that it begins in Orientalist literature, specifically, how Flaubert envisioned his relationship to an Asian female. For him, “The Oriental woman is an occasion and an opportunity for Flaubert’s musings; he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (emphasis added). The Asian female, in other words, by virtue of her otherness, can serve as a kind of blank canvas for the projection of sexual desire. This (if Said is correct), is the key origin of the myth of the submissive Asian female. She is perceived as submissive because she is different, because she cannot communicate with me, and that boundary of communication creates a space for sexualization. I can project on her my desires without needing to worry about those nagging features of her own, pesky personality.
In addition to ‘othering’ and its byproducts, we must remember also that humans are almost excessively tribalistic. We retreat to groups that are like us. We congregate around our similarities, within our comfort zones. I am reminded of the story from Trevor Noah’s fascinating autobiography where he describes a few days spent in prison. There, each inmate was expected, tacitly, to gather around his own tribe (literally, in South Africa). Trevor, as a multilingual half-white, half-black man, had trouble finding the right group he was supposed to join! The homogeneity principle, as this is sometimes called, operates heavily (right or wrong!) in Churches. With respect to this, all the data shows that churches grow along lines of homogeneity—are you composed of white, middle-class families? You’re going to grow as white, middle-class families. Are you composed of Asian, second-generation Canadian students? You’re going to grow as Asian, second-generation Canadian students. Simply put, people naturally gather to what they are familiar with—which means that it takes immense (and occasionally questionable!) effort to break the bonds of homogeneity. What makes a mess of this concept of homogeneity is the way it interacts with our cultural narratives of aspiration. Humans desire things, and they desire certain things more than other things based on their presentation in marketing and media. We want to live in certain neighbourhoods, and drive certain kinds of cars, and inhabit certain kinds of careers. Unfortunately, we merge these narratives of aspiration with our love lives as well, and so we pursue and marry people who fit our (subconscious!) narrative of what is desirable. What happens then is that our sense of homogeneity infiltrates our cultural desires—we, as a culture, can come to desire the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways. One of the things our culture tells us to desire is submissive Asian females.
But this opens the door on a final, grave human consideration: sin. It is a sin to treat a person (such as an Asian female) as an object of desire in herself, because this is to reduce her to not only her appearance, but also your perception of her submissiveness and sexuality. Sin infiltrates our othering and makes it corrupt and go wrong. Sin infiltrates our sense of tribalism and homogeneity and makes us retreat and become insular. Sin infiltrates our aspirations so that we crave things not as they are, but as we would have them be. And throughout all of this, the nature of sin in sexual relationships cannot be separated from the issue of pornography. MTV’s Decoded makes a passing reference to porn as part of the problem, and yet we must note that the nature of pornography has the same characteristics as the nature of othering and fetishization—here are the images of women, they are available, they don’t speak, if they do speak they speak only in hyper-submissiveness. They are beautiful blank canvasses on which men are given permission to spill their every desire. When that recipe is applied to the pre-existent preference for a conception of a “submissive” Asian woman, then the result is a toxic and sinful reinforcement of the existing stereotype.
So far I’ve focused on Asian women, and while this might be because I feel that the greater injustice has been done to them, it is also because I think that the relegation of Asian men to the sidekick role is a product of the hypersexualization of Asian women. After all, if for an entire race of persons the females are viewed as highly desirable, then you have a cause and motive for trying to relegate the males to a second-tier status. They’re in the way. Their existence frustrates my fantasy of Asian-female availability.
Of course, the stereotypes are false. And yet they’ve been around for a long time. Not long ago I purchased a copy of “Tales of Old Japan” by A.B. Mitford, Lord Redesdale. Written in 1871, it contains the first version of the 47 Ronin story which has been so famous in cinema over the years. In one section, Lord Redesdale tells the story of a Japanese woman who becomes a prostitute. But at the end of that story, he stops the narrative to instruct the reader on the real nature of the Japanese woman. He writes, with fascinating foresight in 1871, that “The misapprehension which exists upon the subject of prostitution in Japan may be accounted for by the fact that foreign writers, basing their judgment upon the vice of the open ports, have not hesitated to pronounce the Japanese women unchaste.” In other words, don’t mistake the ladies of the night for the rest of the Asian women you meet! Oh that his warning had been heeded! And it is worth saying, aloud, that nobody who actually knows Asian women thinks of them as submissive—they are tough, smart, hard-working, clever, ambitious, and determined. Ask any Asian man if he ever thinks of his mom as ‘submissive’ and you’ll find out quick enough that it simply ain’t true.
The Hypersexualization of Asian women is a real problem, as is the de-sexualization of Asian men. Both groups, in North America, feel a lack of agency—I am not permitted to be who I am, I am who the culture around me tells me I am. The representation of my race in media distorts my agency and my sense of self in the eyes of others. Certainly, at least part of the existence of this problem today can be seen as a factor of our inherited colonial mindset in the West. At the same time, these problems cannot be simply explained, or explained away, by means of appeals to historical events. Decoded’s emphasis on the history of events consistently neglects human nature. The real problem lies in the human heart, and if we’re going to address it we’ve got to target our changes at the heart. To do that, we’re going to have to take a long look in the mirror of our tribalism, our othering, our aspirations, and of our sin, and within that we’re going to have to start listening to people who don’t look like us.