In the west, traditional Asian culture is often fetishized by both society and media (David Dibert)
In the west, traditional Asian culture is often fetishized by both society and media

David Dibert

The Fetshization of Asian Cultures in the West

Asian fetishization both in media and in real life is rampant throughout the West

January 8, 2021

You go on a first date. Your date seems really great! They’re a little weird, but everyone is and they seem nice, so what does it matter? The two of you talk as you eat, and nearing the end of the meal they say to you “I just love Asian women. They’re always sweet submissive dolls; they’d make perfect wives.” Suddenly, they don’t seem as nice. That weirdness from earlier isn’t as endearing, and the fact that you’re a proud Asian woman is leading your mind to some less than ideal places. What do you do in this situation? Awkwardly laugh it off, possibly ending the discomfort, but perpetuating their harmful belief that Asian women are submissive? Educate them about how what they said was wrong, but lose the chances of having a relationship with this person AND endangering yourself because there’s always the fear of getting your date mad and getting hurt when you’re a woman, regardless of race? There’s no “right” answer here.
In western media, Asian women are usually either portrayed as submissive, feminine, and sexually compliant “lotus blossoms/china dolls” or as dangerous, cunning “dragon ladies” who use their sexuality as a weapon. While on the TV it may not be a big deal, sure, it can be very uncomfortable and disheartening to have most of your representation be rooted in sex or sexy characters, but obviously people know not all Asian women are like that, right? Not exactly. What people watch on TV and read social media directly affects how they view the world. If the only time Brad sees Asian women is when they’re being submissive and quiet, Brad is going to assume all Asian women are submissive and quiet. Though less common, this is also becoming more and more seen with Asian men. The stereotypes aren’t as solidified because it’s “newer” in context of male characters, but with the rise of things like K-Pop and anime (which often have a focus on boy groups or male main characters) it’s happening to them too.
Stereotypes exist for a reason. Especially in media and entertainment, whether that reason be for comedy, plots, whatever. Like most things, some of them can be good in moderation, funny even. But like most stereotypes, more often than not they’re ridiculously harmful, especially if they’re racial stereotypes. Even if they’re not harmful, there’s almost always an extremely racist past behind them.
The “Lotus Blossom” Stereotype
I got into this a little bit before, but let’s take a deeper look into what that “lotus blossom” stereotype of Asian women actually is, where it comes from/is shown, and how it’s harmful. The “lotus blossom” stereotype (as stated before) is the notion that all Asian women are sexually submissive, quiet, feminine, and often implied to be dumb. Women under this stereotype usually act this way towards white men, because this stereotype was made by and for white men to feed into the western thought “The Asian people are weak, and we, the white people, will save them”.
It starts in a French novel from 1887 named “Madame Chrysantheme” by Pierre Loti. It tells the story of a French sailor stationed in Japan. He rents both a house and a “wife” for him while he stays in Japan. He uses her as a wife and she isn’t described as much more than an object in the book. A small example that spiraled into even worse territory. Madame Chrysantheme inspired other pieces of media as well, such as the short story “Madame Butterfly” by American author John Long in 1898, wherein the same thing happens, but this time when the officer leaves his “bride” (affectionately named “Cho-Cho”, which means butterfly in Japanese) she attempts suicide, fails, and is left in Japan with their son.

One of the covers of “Madame Chrysantheme”

Madame Butterfly inspired an opera under the same name in 1904, created by Giacomo Puccini. In this version, similar to the short story, the Japanese bride is in so much pain about the officer leaving her that she tries and succeeds in killing herself, and leaves her son with the officer to be taken home and raised with his wife. One could go on for pages about each work inspired by the last. It’s been over 100 years since the original Madame Chrysantheme was published. Various films based off it exist, and many of the were made in the 20th century, so not only did it glorify and romanticize the use of Asian women as what were basically exotic sex toys, there weren’t even Asian people acting. It was often white women doing yellow face for the role.
An example that might connect more with current audiences is Miss Saigon. Set during the Vietnam War, it’s about a 17 year-old Vietnamese girl named Kim who is forced into prostitution as a result of the Vietnam War. She meets an American soldier named Chris at a bar/brothel, they sleep together, then the next morning they’re in love. The usual “one night stand with an underage prostitute” things. Chris obviously has to leave, as he’s an American soldier, and Kim ends up having his child. Back in America, Chris marries an American woman, but hears that Kim is alive and goes back to look for her with his wife. Kim is elated to hear this and takes Tam (their son) to go find Chris. At the end she meets Ellen – Chris’ wife- who tells Kim everything. Kim kills herself at the end, dying in Chris’ arms, and leaving Tam with him.

Matthew Murphy

Miss Saigon is a beautiful musical. The songs are heart wrenching, and the way it’s blocked is amazing. And that’s the issue with it. Miss Saigon romanticized the idea of being forced into prostitution, the Red Light District, and even suicide at the end. Showing these parts of history is fine, but the way it was turned into a white-savior story and trauma porn by romanticizing the suicide of an Asian woman because she couldn’t marry a white man is what gives Miss Saigon these issues.
Romanticizing the struggle of Asian (particularly woman) people and having those struggles end, either by death or just being solved, by a white person (usually a man) is such a harmful trope, and key a part of the “Lotus Blossom” stereotype but no one points out issues with it because its so old. The trope has its roots deep in racism, yet it’s such a central part of western media’s portrayal of Asians that everyone thinks it’s normal. It’s not. And it shouldn’t be considered “normal” anymore.
The “Dragon Lady” Stereotype
A fierce, feisty, sexually liberated woman who knows how to fight and won’t bow down anyone (with a few rare exceptions we’ll talk about in a second). None of these are bad things, quite the opposite, actually. It’s rare to see a woman be so free with her sexuality in the media without being shamed for it. While these are good things, when combined and put on a female Asian character, that’s when things get problematic. The “Dragon Lady” stereotype is what I said it was, a woman who knows 3 kinds of martial arts, seduces men for her own gain, and will not back down from what most perceive as nerve-wracking. She’s a powerful woman who fears nothing. Though less common than the “Lotus Blossom” stereotype, it still runs rampant in many pieces of media like Kill Bill, the DCU, and really anything with Anna May Wong (we’ll get to her in as second) or Lucy Liu in it (No offense to either of them of course; they’re both amazing but type casting does exist)

Lucy Liu (left) and Anna May Wong (right), both of whom often play[ed] stereotypical “oriental dragon lady” characters.
It got its start in the early 1920’s, with actress Anna May Wong, considered to be one of the first Asian actresses, and constantly played the role of “oriental” villains. She actually stopped acting because of the way Hollywood casted her, leaving with the quote “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain-murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass?” Anna May Wong, like most should, saw the harmful trends in the parts she was playing and decided not to continue with her acting career because it was doing a lot of harm.
Though it’s a near complete opposite from the “Lotus Blossom”, they have similar roots in intense racism. The “Dragon Lady” trope comes from the fear of Asia, often called “Yellow Terror” or “Yellow Peril”. Originating in the 19th century, it was the thought that the “other” in the east is scary and threatening and bad. It was often paired with insanely offense drawings and comparisons of Asian people to monkeys/ape, or declarations that Asian people were lesser than white ones. The “Dragon Lady” stereotype is an “evolved” version, it doesn’t call Asian people less than or ugly, but it still demonstrates fear of Asian bodies and existence.
In Asian media you may see women and men who fit these stereotypes. It fine for Asian people to be portrayed that way in Asia because there’s not a struggle for proper representation in Asia. In Asia, Asian actors are playing everything, singing everything and doing all the dances; sexual and non-sexual. There’s no over-the-top fetishizing of an “other” culture because it’s their culture. (In regards to the fetishization of Asian cultures. Asian media has a bad habit of culture appropriation but that’s not the topic)
Sexualization Outside Of Scripts
The fetishization of Asian people and cultures obviously happens a lot in TV and movies, but it also happens in everyday occasions. With the rise in popularity of things like K-Pop and anime in the west, it’s being brought to everyday life as well. As Asian entertainment gets popular outside of Asia, people are going to want to learn more about those cultures. Asian media reaching a western audience allows for people to get more used to cultures they haven’t been exposed to, and that can help fight xenophobia. Some people will even take and modify certain aspects of these cultures and make them theirs. Not quite cultural appropriation, just inspiration Other people though, don’t do it as respectfully nor as smoothly.
Many Asian cultures are built on respect, which is often shown through difference in formalities in greetings, honorifics, and more. Korean culture isn’t an outlier. There’s a myriad of ways to say “Hello”, “Would you like to eat?” and even “No” depending on your relationship with the person you’re talking to. Even if you’ve reached the point of a mostly informal level with a person, you’d still refer to them with honorifics, just less formal ones. Younger men call older women “Noona” and older men “Hyung”, while young women call older men “Oppa” and older women “Unnie” (including siblings and significant others). It’s a very common thing to see in any Korean entertainment, often shown in variety shows, dramas, and any off-stage content with K-pop idols. Japan is similar, and though Japanese honorifics aren’t as gendered, they are still there, with ones like “Senpai” (used to refer to upperclassmen) and “-Chan/-Kun” (to refer to women and men respectively). The practice of formalities like this, even with close friends was and is still foreign to most people in the west, and they didn’t know how to treat it. In a lot of fan-made media for K-pop idols and anime these honorifics were turned into a new version of calling someone “Daddy”. Western fans turned parts of cultures based solely on respect into an kink; so much so that some people have expressed discomfort in using honorifics. Think about that for a second. Some people have sexualized honorifics so much that people of those cultures aren’t comfortable using them anymore.

Proper wear of an áo dài vs how Kacey Musgraves did (Left: hadynyah via Getty Images, Right: Screenshot from Musgraves’ instagram )

It’s not limited to honorifics either, in fact it happens more often with clothes. Every culture has traditional clothes, and they’re usually beautiful. The Japanese kimono, Vietnamese áo dài and the Chinese qipao are just some of the better known examples. Trends in fashion are always changing, and that constant evolution of fashion often comes with branches into or out of other countries and cultures. That expansion into other places can go really right or really wrong. Kacey Musgraves, a famous country singer is a perfect example of it going really wrong. She wore an áo dài on stage, which wouldn’t have been a horrible issue (she’s not Vietnamese, but if she did it respectfully it really wouldn’t have been too bad) but she took the pants out from underneath it. The áo dài is a traditional Vietnamese dress that is to be worn with the loose fitting pants. If she wore a dress with higher leg slits, it wouldn’t be a problem, but mixed with the vaguely “exotic” jewelry (also in bad taste, as the jewelry she’s wearing doesn’t seem to have any cultural significance) and the fairly obvious inspiration of an áo dài, it’s not the best choice of clothing.

A “geisha” costume on sale on Ebay under the title “Sexy Adult Geisha Girl Halloween Costume China Doll Japanese Concubine”

This also tends to happen with the Japanese kimono, a lot of anime will show highly sexualized characters in kimonos and/or put characters in kimonos in compromising positions. A lot of people have taken this as permission to take the kimono, and turn it into lingerie or something in relation to it. Kim Kardashian, for example, was going to release a line of lingerie under the name “Kimono”, a cute pun, but disrespectful to the history and culture behind actual kimonos. The mayor of Kyoto, Japan’s capital, even sent her a letter asking for her to rethink the name (which she did, it’s under a different name now). It’s also common to see Halloween “geisha” costumes that have the kimono ending a mid-upper thigh, and have it cut way too low. Cultural appropriation aside from becoming a geisha incorrectly, it’s more often than not white or non-Japanese people doing this. Geishas play a central part in traditional art forms in Japan, so turning that rich history into a sexy costume is disrespectful and wrong. Disrespecting traditional clothes like this isn’t just disrespectful to the people and culture, it’s also disregarding the history and stores behind the tradition.
Walking down a street and getting catcalled isn’t a pleasant experience, as you probably know. Misogyny and racism run deep within the “compliments” given on the street. Walking down the street and getting called a “china doll” by an older white man, or being called “exotic” when you walk past that group of college on the corner isn’t the most comfortable. It’s uncomfortable in real life, and even more uncomfortable on social media, where people don’t have to deal with the consequences of what they do and say to people walking down the street. On social media, it’s also not limited to women, Asian men get a lot of the heat online too, sometimes just as bad or even worse. Social media has allowed for videos like this: to exist.

Even if people are in the comments shaming this person, the internet is a megaphone for opinions; people who also think that way will see this and go “Oh! I’m not the only one! It’s a perfectly fine and normal thing to do!” , visit the comments, defend themselves, and end up reinforcing their opinion. Social media “areas” like K-pop stan and anime twitter, J-pop fan accounts on Instagram, and even groups on Facebook just keep the cycle going, intentionally or not because everyone idol ad character is Asian, and some people are going to take it as a push or as permission to look as people and go “They’re only attractive because they’re Asian”.
Television and social media didn’t start the trend of fetishizing Asian cultures, but they’re the ones that normalized it, intentionally or not. The way Asian traditions are taken and turned into lingerie or eye-candy and no one says anything is the fault of people in media normalizing it.
Why It Even Matters
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t find Asian people attractive. You can still do that. No one is saying “If you find an Asian person attractive, you’re a racist and a fetishizer!” It’s racist and fetishistic when you take traditional clothes with a rich history and turn it into lingerie. It’s racist and fetishistic when you find a Japanese or Chinese person attractive because they’re Japanese or Chinese. The problem arises when you only view them as their race and disregard their history and culture.
To those that aren’t Asian, it might not seem like a big deal. They might even think that we should be flattered by it. The amount of times you’ll hear “Oh, you should just take it as a compliment! Be happy someone is attracted to you/your race!” is way too high and has some racist and just plain mean undertones implying that either you are too ugly for someone to be interested in, or your entire race/ethnicity is.. It’s not flattering to watch your culture (that often has it’s roots in modesty and respect) be turned into a sex symbol. It’s insulting. Being fetishized isn’t something to be happy about. It just takes away the individuality and history of someone and narrows them and their culture down to just their race; but instead of being the subject of a hate crime, they’re the subject of some not-so-kid-friendly websites and videos.

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Samantha Anne McDonough, Puzzle Master

Sam McDonough is a senior at Clayton High School. They are the Puzzle Master, constructing crosswords for each issue. They have been on staff since their freshman year and started...

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  • C

    CrystalJan 9, 2021 at 4:52 pm

    Great article! As a Filipina, this spoke to me. There is definitely more need of Asian women representation in media that show us simply as human beings without being hyper sexualized or as sex objects. Keep up the good work, Samantha.

  • K

    Kareen PunsalanJan 9, 2021 at 3:01 pm

    As an older Asian woman, I am inspired to see the younger generation use their voice for change and empowerment. Samantha’s article shines a light onto how thin the line is between admiration and fetishization, how easy it is to cross, and how dangerous it is to normalize. As we (Asians) continue to fight for more representation in everything from leadership to media, we are reminded by their article that it’s not just the amount of representation, but also the type of representation that matters. Their article shows the influence media has on how Asian women are viewed. It is inspiring to have women like Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono representing Asian women. While at the same time frustrating to see how much they have to fight for the respect they have earned, as the nation witnessed when VP Elect Harris said, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”, to claim back her time in the debate. And even more infuriating to see how some media outlets portrayed it as aggressive. Their article is relevant to not only Asian women, but all women. For when media defines women by only one of two stereotypes (be it lotus flower or dragon lady, virgin or whore, mother or career woman) these dangerous tropes are perpetuated for another generation. Articles like Mx. McDonough’s are needed to remind us of the importance of being mindful of not only what media we consume, but how we consume it.

  • J

    Jaime PunsalanJan 9, 2021 at 11:41 am

    Thoughtful and relevant. I am heartened to know that issues like these are examined and thoroughly addressed by the youth of our society. Indeed, being the change they wish to see in the society within which they grow. Little by little, they usher in a world where the inappropriate objectification of women and the appropriation of culture are less and less acceptable. Ms McDonough is a national treasure. Thank you for this article.