ALL KINDS OF WOMEN have been sexualized: white women, black women, skinny women, fat women, older, younger, big-breasted, small-breasted, submissive, dominant.
So when someone argues that a woman like Lucy Liu, who plays a sexy lawyer named Ling Woo on FOX TV's Ally McBeal, reinforces stereotypes of Asian women as exotic sexual beings, the complaint seems to ignore the larger reality that women—especially women in film and television—are constantly portrayed as erotic subjects.
Liu is poised to be the most visible Asian-American actress ever. Aside from her roles in Ally McBeal and this summer's Jackie Chan blockbuster Shanghai Noon, she will star later this year alongside Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore in the highly anticipated film version of Charlie's Angels. For Asian Americans like myself who've grown up hungering for images of other Asians in mainstream media, Liu is a potent figure, the Farrah Fawcett of Asian-American pop culture. Yet it is also Asian Americans who voice the most damning criticisms of her.
In a Village Voice article titled "The Ling Thing," New York writer Chisun Lee argues that "Ling frequently brings to mind the dragon lady, the geisha, and the inscrutable Oriental, often in whiplash-inducing rotation." She questions if Hollywood, as well as the general public, "is capable of viewing the nation's leading Asian-American actress as more than the fetishized sex symbol she plays on TV." Her views are supported by Darrell Y. Hamamoto, associate professor of Asian-American Studies at University of California, Davis, who says that Ling is "a neo-Orientalist masturbatory fantasy figure concocted by a white man whose job it is to satisfy the blocked needs of other white men. . . ."
Such reductive assessments seem unfair, considering that all of the characters in Ally McBeal are hypersexual. The fictional law firm, as created by writer-producer David E. Kelley, includes three couples who get embroiled in more discussions about spanking and sex in cars than about litigation. One might wonder if it is not Ling's cheesecake appeal that rankles some Asians, but that she is yet another Asian woman coupled with a white man. There isn't an attractive Asian male character on the show for Ling to date. Instead, she dates a chauvinistic white lawyer named Richard Fish (Greg Germann). Though she may be a farcical caricature, Ling is a stinging reflection of what is going on in the real world: Approximately half of Asian-American women date and marry outside the race. And they're often accused of selling out.
In the cover story of the June/July issue of a Magazine (an Asian-American publication), Liu denies that her character's relationship with a white man perpetuates stereotypes of Asian women as sensual or exotic: "It's been a battle of gender and has never had anything to do with racism or where somebody originates from. It hasn't been like I've pinned him to the wall with chopsticks or anything like that. It's really more about a mental battle than anything."
Asian woman, white man: a short dating history
The combination is common, but not always welcome. In 1987, when I was a college freshman in upstate New York, I dated Richard, a white, long-haired architecture major. The following year, after Richard and I had broken up, I became acquainted with Han, a Korean-American pre-med student whose social circle was comprised mostly of other Asian Americans. At one point, he told me that when he used to see me with "the white hippie," he wanted "to slap some sense into me." He said that his Asian friends considered me a snob who preferred to date white boys. While their assumption was false, it signaled a serious gender gap within the Asian-American community. If interracial dating and marriage is a sign of cultural assimilation, then Asian-American women were being accepted into white middle-class society at a far higher rate than the men. It also meant that many Asian-American men were feeling rejected by those who should be their closest allies.
In 1995, while working for the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, I had dinner with a group of indie filmmakers visiting from all over the country. There were six men and two women, all of whom were in their 20s or early 30s. The conversation revolved around Asian women dating white men. Many of the filmmakers expressed distaste for mixed-race couples. But their bias was very gender-specific: They were tired of seeing Asian women with white men, and suspected that many of the women— especially those who were recent immigrants—were being taken advantage of. While there may be some truth to their suspicions, I was surprised; I would have thought that these filmmakers, who had defied so many Asian stereotypes and expectations, would be more hip to interracial dating. I did not reveal that I was dating Larry, a white guy.
Now I am dating Albert, a Chinese-American. I introduce him freely to Asian acquaintances. Having him at my side gives me the semblance of a politically correct Asian-American female. My last two brief relationships were also with Asian men—a Filipino- and a Korean-American. I am clearly down with my race.
Albert tells me that he has several Asian-American female friends who are reluctant to date Asian men. His roommate, Susan, a Chinese American, bluntly says that she is not attracted to Asian men. I find this appalling—yet I know where she's coming from, because I felt that way when I was younger. While I dated a few Asian-American boys in high school and college, I honestly felt better standing next to a Caucasian guy—it meant that I had a better chance of being perceived as an American.
Speak for yourself
Everyone has a different story; obviously, no one article can represent the views of an entire population. But more often than not, individualism is a luxury for minorities. Some Asian Americans will find my story familiar, others will find it foreign, even offensive.
I grew up in communities where Asians were rare. I spent my childhood in Mississippi, Texas, and later, in New York. When I entered junior high school in Long Island, there was only one other Asian girl in the entire 300-plus class of seventh-graders. No doubt being a conspicuous minority during my youth has had tremendous influence on my views. Like other teenagers, I was plagued with insecurities, but mine were primarily race-based: For years, I was convinced I was ugly simply because I wasn't white. Negative images of Asians on TV and film reinforced my sense of being an outcast.
Many Asian Americans who grew up in the '80s will speak of watching Sixteen Candles (1984) as a traumatic experience. The film featured a greasy-haired Chinese exchange student named Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) who chased after a horrified Molly Ringwald. (The crashing of a gong heralded his on-screen appearances, reminding the viewer of his foreignness.) I was 14 and at a video party with a bunch of white friends. While everyone else laughed at the ridiculous figure, I wondered if Molly Ringwald rode off with a studly boyfriend in a Porsche, was someone like me supposed to be paired off with a guy like Long Duk? Was I the living counterpart to this hideous creature? I sunk into my chair and faked a smile at the sight of the poor guy.
Sixteen years later, there's another similarly crude portrait of an Asian man on the Internet. Despite this summer's protests from Asian-American civil rights groups, Icebox.com continues to feature its insulting animated series Mr. Wong, starring a sickly, yellow-faced butler with buck teeth. Wong's unfunny jokes revolve around his not being able to pronounce the letters l and r properly.
Yellow is the new black
Aside from the Connie Chungs and Lori Matsukawas of urban network news broadcasts, there are virtually no Asians in the media, and when there are, they're usually uncool. To put it bluntly, they're Chinks thrown in for comic effect for a non-Asian audience. In one episode of HBO's Sex and the City, an Asian woman with a heavy, fake accent appeared as a sadistic maid. It was the only time an Asian was cast on the show, which is set in multiracial Manhattan. Then in a recent episode of ABC's Dharma & Greg, an Asian woman was cast as a mail-order bride. The portrait was so insensitive that it recalled the kind of treatment that blacks received in the media several decades ago. As for Asian men in the media, they need to know karate and fight off a dozen thugs to get any respect. Yet even Jackie Chan played a bumbling, inept Japanese in Cannonball Run (1981), his first role in an American production. Talk about taking a step down on new territory.
Dan Wu, publisher of a 'zine titled Oriental Whatever thinks it's a matter of representation versus self-representation. How Asian-American is a character like Ling if she is being penned by a white writer? "On the one hand, she's watchable and interesting. On the other, she's playing up to some combination of the dragon lady/lotus blossom," Wu says.
To purge our popular media of negative stereotypes or anything else that is potentially offensive would leave our entertainment industries about as exciting as a PTA meeting. But film and television in America are largely a celebration of the average white person, very often of the average white guy (who ends up with a long-legged beauty). Why can't producers trust audiences to see themselves similarly through an Asian character? Why isn't there an Asian member on a show like Friends? Why aren't Asian actors ever cast in real, full-on romantic leads? Jet Li, who played a kung-fu knight in shining armor, never even kissed his Juliet in Romeo Must Die. Neither did the suave Chow Yun-Fat in Anna and the King or the Replacement Killers.
Connie So, a lecturer of Asian-American studies at University of Washington, points out that while Asian superstars like Li and Chow are gaining more American fans, Asian-American men are still invisible in the media. "The ones who do make it are mixed-race, like Russell Wong and Keanu Reeves, who doesn't even play Asian-American [roles]."
Frustrated by Hollywood's brand of racism, many Asian Americans are taking things into their own hands. This fall, Seattle filmmaker Jay Koh, who has directed three independent films about Korean Americans, will be launching igooTV.com, a Web site that will be streaming feature programs for and by Asian Americans. "Power brokers of white Hollywood and network TV show only a tiny pinch of what Asian Americans are really like. They obviously only see nerdy techies or kung-fu masters in their circles," Koh says.
"I don't want a bunch of middle-aged white guys writing dialogue and stories about an Asian-American girl," continues Koh. "I want igooTV shows to be authentic, I want Asian Americans who are bursting to pour their stories onto the screen."
Professor Hamamoto of UC Davis observes, "Black cinema has exploded in the past 10 years. It's our turn now." To that end, he's putting together an all-Asian-American television network, called YENTV, or Yellow Entertainment Network Television, which he expects to launch next year. "There is already a huge library of Asian-American programming that [YENTV] will tap into. This will be complemented by news/ information and original drama shows," says Hamamoto.
Defending our brothers
Inevitably, many Asian Americans have internalized the media's racist images. Professor So's UW classes often prompt deeply personal confessions from students. "Some of my male students say that they don't get as many girls. They [assume] the girls only like white men. I ask them, 'Do you even ask them out?' And they say, 'No.' Then I say, 'Why not? Because I bet you not all women are just into white men, including white women and black women.' "
But So herself is married to a white man and is quick to defend her choice, pointing out that she met her husband when attending Princeton University, where 90 percent of the student body was white. "You don't marry someone just because of their ethnicity," she says. "You marry for other [reasons]. . . . It just so happens that my husband and I attended two schools together . . . and we were both English majors in undergrad, and we had other things in common."
If Asian men have been emasculated in our society, some Asian women, like Professor So, are making conscious efforts to revamp their public image. Cyn, a Taiwanese-American university administrator in San Diego, has created a site called Goldencandy.com, featuring pictures of single Asian-American men. Cyn writes provocatively on the site, "We like to look at your ass. Yes, we check out your legs. We admire your shoulders, we take in your arms—we find you fuckable."
Cyn explains that she developed the site in response to the dearth of sexy images of Asian men on the Web. "I couldn't find even one amateur photo of a naked Asian man. I searched for it, and it was all targeted toward the gay population. Why can't women have eye candy too?"
But there may also be a more personal reason for creating Goldencandy. Cyn is married to a Caucasian man and has been "labeled a sell-out" by some Asian-American acquaintances. "I never claimed to only like white men, though," she says. "I've had plenty of crushes on Asian-American men."
How does Cyn's husband feel about the site? "He wasn't pleased, but he supported me. He knows it's easier and safer to allow me my whims than to fight about it," she says.
Asian men, white women
Asian men are the topic du jour. In February, Newsweek reporter Esther Pan published an article titled "Why Asian Guys Are on a Roll." The story discusses how actors like Jet Li, Rick Yune, and Chow Yun-Fat are showing that Asian stars can be objects of lust, while men like Jerry Yang of Yahoo! are changing the image of Asian males as "son of a laborer or laundryman" to "future Internet millionaire." It cites the increasing numbers of Asian men marrying outside the race. "Ten years ago, an Asian man dating a white, Hispanic, or black woman would have been a rare event. . . . [but now, according to a study of California marriage licenses] Asian-American men born in the United States are far more likely to marry women who are white (18.9 percent), or other Asian ethnicity (22.7 percent), or another racial minority (6 percent)." In one ridiculous moment that is to be remembered in many a follow-up story, an interviewee jokes that Asian men are the next "trophy boyfriends." His Caucasian wife agrees: "It's almost like Asian boyfriends are the fashion accessory of the moment."
The article was circulated heavily on the Internet among Asian Americans. I received a copy from the local Korean American Professionals Society mailing list. My friend Steve received one from an Asian-American female friend, who prefaced the attachment with, "To all my Asian brothers out there: We knew it all along."
Then in May came a package on Asian men in the Sunday Seattle Times, featuring a satirical essay by David Nakamura, who was so overjoyed by the new popularity of Asian men that he "could have kissed (his) pocket protector." Alongside Nakamura's piece is an article by Sharon Pian Chan, who says that Asian men "are the hottest things since sizzling rice." Both stories incite a flurry of letters from readers who talk about how wonderful and sexy Asian men are.
Wait a minute—what just happened here? Asian women have long been accused of whoring themselves to white men, but now, we're practically told, "Hooray, Asian men are sleeping with white women." When Asian women outmarry, it's betrayal; when Asian men do it, it's social progress. While the articles may indeed indicate a more accepting society, it is disturbing that this new popularity of Asian men amongst white women is seen as validation of their appeal. Some of the published comments in response to the Times article sound like racist jokes. One white woman married to an Asian man writes, "Asian men make love even better than they make television sets."
If Asian-American guys were repulsed by lines like "Me so horny," uttered by a Vietnamese woman in Full Metal Jacket, they are now seeing themselves portrayed in a similarly degrading manner.
Steven Haruch, a Korean-American adoptee and a recent UW MFA graduate in creative writing, has dated both Asian and non-Asian women. Of the Newsweek and Seattle Times stories, he says, "I felt more marginalized after reading those articles. It was like they were saying, 'Hey, look, you guys can feel better about yourselves now.' If I read something like that about another group, I'd feel pity for them. And I don't want to feel pity for my own sexuality."
Tommy Kim, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota who teaches a class on the sexualization of race, concurs. "A million and two things pissed me off about [the article in] Newsweek. On a superficial level was simply the fact they chose a really dorky-looking guy [for the photo]. If they're going to write about the fetishizing of Asian men, couldn't they have found someone a little more worthy of fetishization? More substantively, I don't like the way the article reified stereotypes. It accepts as truth that Asian men are dorks, but that dorkdom has now become financially lucrative. . . ."
"The fact that Asian-American men are seen as nerds hasn't changed, only the appeal of nerds has," Kim continues. "Nerds are now rich in this dot-com world, and money has always been sexy."
Professor So observes, "It's kind of pathetic that Asian-American men have to say they're good-looking. Of course they're good-looking. Like any men. There are subjectively good-looking men and not so good-looking men. . . . I think it's sad that Asians have to cry out . . . but it tells you how much [racism] is ingrained, because of what's happened historically to Asian Americans in the US."
Can you separate sex from race?
Because Asian Americans have been misrepresented for so long, we are especially attentive to the few images of us that do exist. Perhaps in some cases we are overzealous in our critiques. Lucy Liu is just one of many successful Asian-American women who have polarized the community; novelist Amy Tan has also been accused of pandering to Orientalist desires. Many Asian-American literary scholars feel that Tan's best-selling The Joy Luck Club exoticizes the Chinese culture and portrays Chinese men as oppressors and white men as saviors. When the book was made into a movie, many Asian men were upset by the idea of white men attracted to the mostly female cast. Some called it The Joy Fuck Club, disregarding the film's positive impact on viewers who may not have been previously aware of San Francisco's multigenerational Chinese-American community.
Professor Hamamoto feels that Ling's exaggerated sexuality is an extension of the intercontinental Asian sex trade. In an e-mail, he writes, "Like I was telling my class . . . the White Man's lust for the Yella woman stems from his imperial presence beginning in the Philippines, to occupied Japan . . . to Korea . . . to Vietnam, to Thailand. . . . Linked to this imperial presence is the system of military prostitution that has migrated overseas to the US in the form of 'Oriental' massage parlors, dating services, and marriage brokerages. I understand the character 'Ling' played by Lucy Liu in this larger context. For Liu or any other Yella woman to feel flattered that the White Man fetishizes her simply as an un-raced, ahistorical, universalized 'human being' is simply deluded."
History can't be altered, but continuing to judge Asian-American women in light of an ugly past is dangerous. For one thing, it makes Asian women out to be victims. But by making the most of her stereotyped role on Ally McBeal, Liu has become a more successful and powerful actress than her white costars. As for ordinary Asian-American women who find themselves under a social spotlight whenever we choose to date a non-Asian man, our issues are not necessarily about racial inequality and public perception. Just what makes Asian men think that they treat Asian women any better? It would be a much simpler world if things were black and white (and yellow), but in reality, sexism and racism aren't traits confined to white male TV producers.
More external links
For David Nakamuras Seattle Times article, Theyre hot, theyre sexytheyre Asian men, visit the Seattle Times search page. (You must type in David Nakamura's name and May 7, 2000 for issue date.)
For more information on Gedde Watanabe, visit this Fametracker.com page.
For more on portrayals of Asians in the media, visit this DemocracyWeb.com page.