The Portrayal of Asian Women in the Media (Past vs Present)

Since the start of immigration, the mass media has been creating stereotype after stereotype of Asians. During the Gold Rush, Asians were described as evil thieves who stole work from the Whites. The Japanese immigrants during WWII and the Chinese immigrants during the “yellow peril” and the Cold War were both depicted as aggressive and ominous.  The portrayal of Asian women in the media has changed since its first screening, though not necessarily for the better.  The portrayal of Asians has since then grown to be more passive and submissive group due to the Model minority myth – “the belief that Asian/Americans have achieved the American Dream through hard work and passive obedience.”

Asian women were portrayed by White women long before any Asian actresses were allowed into Hollywood.  Makeup artists would apply prosthetic eyelids and draw winged tipped eyeliner to imitate the “Asian” look on White actresses.  Once Asian actresses were allowed on screen, a new issue arose: scripted behavior.  Asian women were cast as submissive, obedient, and frail roles throughout their early decades on screen. Later on they became what is known as “The Dragon Lady”. Strong women who used their sexuality and gender to their advantage to get what they wanted. They were powerful and sexy woman who defied what they were told to do.

Typical portrayals of Asian women like “the Lotus Blossom baby,” are usually seen as a “China Doll, Geisha Girl, and shy Polynesian beauty” and the “Dragon Lady,” who are prostitutes or very cunning women. Both images stimulate sexual voyeurism of White men and continue to objectify the exotic Oriental as their property. Many of these women are unable to resist White men, or exploited and betrayed by Asian men and later saved by a White male hero.  Early portrayals of said Asian women were seen as weak, fragile, and delicate.  In modern times, Asian women are portrayed as strong individuals with unparalleled sex appeal.  Asian women have come a long way since their first portrayal in movies.  We have advanced into a more accepting era, but there are still racial microaggressions at hand.  Though Asian women are not as patronized anymore, the microaggressions against Asian women seen in media spark discomfort amongst their community.  It is clear that “the sexploitation of [Asian] females is still apparent.” (Cheng, Hsieh, Lu, Talgo)

“Dragon Lady” Stereotype

Asian women were portrayed by White women long before any Asian actresses were allowed into Hollywood.  Makeup artists would apply prosthetic eyelids and draw winged tipped eyeliner to imitate the “Asian” look on White actresses.  Once Asian actresses were allowed on screen, a new issue arose: scripted behavior.  Asian women were cast as submissive, obedient, and frail roles throughout their early decades on screen. Later on they became what is known as “The Dragon Lady”. Strong women who used their sexuality and gender to their advantage to get what they wanted. They were powerful and sexy woman who defied what they were told to do.

Flower Drum Song was a 1961 film musical adaptation by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  The film was based off of a 1958 play and both were based off of a 1957 book of the same title by C. Y. Lee. Flower Drum Song is about a daughter, Mei Le,  and her father that stow away on a cargo ship to San Francisco from China so that the daughter can be sold as a picture bride to a man named Sammy Fong that runs a show house. When they find out that the man she is supposed to marry has been dating someone, a showgirl named Linda Low,  for 5 years, he tries to give her to a friend’s nephew, Wang Ta. It’s found out that the long time girlfriend is cheating on him with the nephew. The whole thing is very complicated and you will get lost very fast in the convoluted plot if you’re not paying enough attention. While being one of the first films with a full Asian American cast, they also made sure that all the extras that faced the camera at any point or were in full view were also Asian. This film also portrays both stereotypes of Mei Le being a perfect picture bride. She is quiet, innocent, and compliant with delicate features and  in the song “Don’t Marry Me” she even shows that she could be treated in a horrible manner and still be a compliant wife willing to do everything she’s asked to do. On the other hand, there is Linda Low. Linda is the sassy, sexy show girl that is willing to do anything to get her way. She is strong and outspoken and knows what she wants and describes it in the song “I Enjoy Being A Girl”.

In the Memoirs of a Geisha, Rob Marshall, the director, attempts to tell the story of a young Japanese girl hustled into the world of geisha.  His depiction of Asian women is quite accurate, especially because he shows how Western influence destroyed parts of sacred Japanese culture.  The geishas in the movie are portrayed as graceful, but with an intellectual edge.  Then, after World War II, Western influence infiltrates Japan and begins to change their culture.  Geishas are no longer respected and held at high esteem, rather, they are sexualized and viewed as mere prostitutes.  Western military men are attracted to the geisha’s intimacy, which they often mistook for prostitution.  In the movie,a young girl, named Chiyo, is sold to the geisha school.   Over the years, she rises quickly in the ranks of geisha culture when she demonstrates her intellectual ability and poise during ceremony.  Then, as WWII occurs, Chiyo goes into hiding to protect herself.  When she emerges, she finds that Western culture has enveloped Japan and geisha are no longer valued at high esteem.  In a short decade, Chiyo went from famous and respected geisha, to degraded prop.  Marshall shows, in great detail, how Japanese women once were, and then how they were treated once Western culture influenced Japan.  Memoirs of a Geisha is considered to be a breakthrough film by many because Marshall casts Asian women for all Asian roles.  However, not all the cast is Japanese.  Both lead Japanese roles are played by Chinese women.  Hollywood has come a long way in terms of casting general ethnicities, but there are still discrepancies amongst the Asian community.

The Good EarthThe film The Good Earth, directed by Sidney Franklin, depicts a story of an ambitious Asian farmer named Wang and his wife, O-lan. O-lan’s character is your typical Asian stereotype of the 1940s: terribly shy, hardworking, and extremely faithful to her husband. She is willing to go to great lengths to help her husband – at one point in the movie, even when she is close to labor with her first son, O-lan went out in the fields to help her husband rescue the crops from hail. O-lan stays faithful to Wang for her entire life (from marriage to death) and even stays by his side when he becomes rich and finds himself a second wife (Lotus). Even when Wang starts ridiculing O-lan and takes O-lan’s most prized possessions for Lotus, O-lan stays a faithful wife and listens to Wang obediently. In the very end of the movie, Wang goes back to O-lan, who finally realizes that she was the “perfect wife” and he tells her on their son’s wedding night, and right before she dies. O-lan’s character creates the ideology that Asian women are perfect wives for white men – they are submissive, hardworking, and they will stay faithful and obedient to their husbands, no matter what they might be put through.

Asian portrayals have come a long way since their first screening in theatres. At first, Asians were played by white actors wearing prosthetic eyelids and winged eyeliner, while wearing culturally inappropriate clothing (white-washed Asian clothes.) Though actors are now cast under the general ethnicity, their roles are still questionable.  Asian women in media are still patronized and sexualized in even minor roles.  As shown in Memoirs of a Geisha, Asian women continually depicted as weak and fragile, though many are quite the opposite.  Asian women have come a long way in terms of being accurately depicted in media, but they still have a long way to go before they are correctly identified on-screen.

 

 

Works Cited

Chan, C. Asian American women: The psychological responses to sexual exploitation and cultural stereotypes. The Politics of Race and Gender in Therapy. Ed. Lenora Fulani. Haworth, (1988).   31-38.

Cheng, Joy, Hsieh, Charles, Lu, Scott, and Sarah Talgo. “Sexploitation of the Asian American Female Body.” Media Representations of Asians. (2014): Web.

Kim, Minjeong, and Angie Y. Chung. “Consuming orientalism: images of Asian/American     omen in multicultural advertising.” Qualitative Sociology 28.1 (2005): 67-91.

Taylor, Charles R., and Barbara B. Stern. “Asian-Americans: Television advertising and the “model minority” stereotype.” Journal of advertising 26.2 (1997): 47-61.

 

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