With a legacy spanning the past two centuries, the sexualization of Asian women continues today in various forms. Though sexualization may not be so outright as all Asian women being generalized as prostitutes, there are still problems that fly relatively under the radar. But what are these problems? What are their historical basis? And how can we attempt to solve them?
As an Asian American girl growing up in the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, I have witnessed first hand how much racism against Asians still exists. Hate has shown itself in many ways: in elders being pushed down, in racist comments attributing the Coronavirus to every Asian Americans, and in stereotypes of Asian women on social media. In early April of last year, I watched as a video created by ex-Comedy Central animator Sven Stoffles circulated through social media: a disgusting caricature of an Asian woman in Covid-themed undergarments kissing bats and eating various animals. While many users, including myself, quickly reported the video, Instagram at first refused to delete the video, claiming it “did not violate community guidelines”.
Sadly, this was not the first time I was exposed to the sexualization of Asian women. My grandmother has passed down to me cheongsams (classic Chinese dresses) that she once wore. However, the traditional silhouette of a cheongsam is unrecognizable in music videos and costume websites that display sexualized versions– having been replaced with skintight material, unreasonably high slits, and cut-outs that leave nothing to the imagination.
Sexualization of Asian American women dates back to the mid 1800s, after the Opium Wars. Young Chinese men flooded Europe and the United States hoping for a better life. However, due to gender roles, cost, and anti-Chinese legislation, very few women were among the earlier immigrants to America
Accordingly, there was a need for Asian women in America. From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, many Chinese and Japanese women were forced or coerced into prostitution by procurers. Additionally, most female Asian immigrants found that in America there were few jobs available to them, and initially entered prostitution as a survival strategy due to its high demand. Unfortunately, this provided ammunition for anti-Asian politicians to tamp down on Asian immigration
The Page Act of 1875 granted immigration officers the duty of turning away female immigrants if it was suspected that they were immigrating for immoral purposes. The vague wording of the Page Act was used to prevent nearly all Asian women from immigrating, as they were deemed immoral, which solidified the stereotype that all Asian women were prostitutes.
Even in the early 20th century, sexualization of Asian women in America continued, this time through film. Over the years, two stereotypes of Asian women arose. The Butterfly is submissive, pure and dependent on a white savior, often sacrificing herself for the good of the white man. The Dragon Lady is aggressive and sensual, eventually brought to submission to demonstrate white dominance.
Present Day Legacy
Sexualization of Asian women continues today. Take for example “yellow fever”.
While this may not seem harmful at first glance, this fetish tends to sparked when Asian women are considered exotic and unknown. Thus, people rely on existing stereotypes, such as Asian women being more domestic and submissive than white women, to fuel their interest.
Additionally, this type of fetishization of Asian women has major consequences. Asian women are harassed at twice the rate of Asian men. Just two weeks ago in Georgia, a white man shot and killed eight women because he had a sexual addiction and saw the women as temptations. While the media was hesitant to call it a racially motivated crime at first, six of the eight victims were Asian, and one of the locations was called Young’s Asian Massage.
The sexualization of women in American society also has negative impacts on younger girls. Asian women and white women have the highest rates of eating disorders nationally because both Asian and European cultures tend to idealize thinness.
However, extensive research has not been done on eating disorders in minorities, as studies have mainly focused on white women. Also, many mental health professionals assume that Asians are “well adjusted” in America because of the model minority myth and dismiss concerns, leading to the under diagnosis of mental health problems and disorders among Asian Americans.
Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems. Sexualization of Asian women is an intersectional problem, with roots in both racism and sexism. Also, the media has historically played a large role in the sexual stereotypes that now exist about Asian women. Thus, there needs to be a drastic change in how women are portrayed and treated by the media.
- More films could be made that highlight the humanness and wholeness of women of color: female BIPOC characters should not be thrown into a movie solely for sex appeal or even the diversity factor. Similarly, it is not just the number of female executives or female creative leadership that matters, it is how their voices and perspectives are amplified and listened to.
2. Better media representation of women in media: this is important because of the way that various forms of media (magazines, movies, shows, news, social media) affect nearly every aspect of our lives. As the media shifts their portrayal of Asian women, the general perspective and opinion of Asian women shifts too. As general perspective shifts, media changes, and this cycle is how positive change is made.
- Sign petitions: 4 Every Girl has started a petition calling on media and entertainment industry leaders to “create an environment where young girls feel valued and are defined by healthy media images of themselves”. They ask that sexualized depictions of girls and sexualized messages be reduced, while non-sexualized stories and role-models be increased. The petition has over 500 signatures, and signing it is one small way you can help. I will personally be signing this petition.
2. Educate yourself: learn about the history of sexualization of Asian women and about the history of anti-asian sentiment in America to see how colonialism twisted people’s views of Asian women, in addition to seeing the huge problem that one might be unknowingly adding to, even with small actions. Perspective makes a huge difference.
Please let me know in the comments:
- Has this issue personally affected you or anyone you know?
- What steps do you plan on taking to address this issue?
Also feel free to leave any other feedback or suggestions in the comments! Thank you for your time!
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