(TW: racism, sexual violence, rape)
tl;dr - Asian women are fetishized and sexualized to their detriment in our society. When Katy Perry puts on Asian culture to give her boring song performance an “exotic” flavor for a few minutes, she doesn’t have to deal with the the stigma of being an Asian woman for the rest of her life. She can take the metaphorical chopsticks out of her hair and resume life as a white woman immediately after the song ends. In those five minutes where she “played Asian”, however, she reified and normalized the white fetishization of Asian women and Asian culture. This fetishization harms the Asian women that are dehumanized as submissive sexualized objects, and has been proven to lead to violence against Asian-American women.
In this essay, I plan on making five key points:
1. Katy Perry’s “geisha” performance tonight was culturally appropriative.
2. There is a long history of mistreatment and ill-will towards Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans.
3. Western culture “otherizes” Asians by assigning all Asians certain characteristics.
4. Asian women in particular are fetishized. This sexualization of Asian women causes increased sexual violence against Asian-American women.
5. Racism against Asians is often swept under the rug because of the model minority myth, and that won’t change until we start to address racist acts head-on.
1. What happened tonight?
Katy Perry performed at the AMA’s tonight with a “geisha”-themed display that included a sexualized “geisha” costume (which people have pointed out also resembles a cheongsam), stunted pseudo-Asian dance/walking, cartoon Kabuki makeup on her backup dancers, lots of fans, people in “Oriental” costumes beating drums, rice paper screens, and lots of paper umbrellas. Here’s video of her performance and more pictures. Perhaps the most perplexing part about the performance was the fact that the song she performed, “Unconditional”, has no ties to Asian culture or aesthetics. Ms. Perry, however, does seem to have a fascination with Japanese culture. In a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel, she said “I’m obsessed with Japanese people though”, and, speaking about a Japanese person (in the same interview), “I’m so obsessed, I want to skin you and wear you like Versace.”
What happened way before tonight?
Lest we forget the history of American treatment of Asian people, let’s do a quick recap. A large number of Chinese immigrants came to the West Coast during the 1850’s to work in mines and on the railroads. They were met with strong opposition in the form of riots and physical attacks. The Central Pacific relied on Asian workers to build their tracks, but after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, Asian workers were literally thrown out of railroad towns. Chinese workers, termed “coolies” (Asian slaves), were thought to be incapable of independent thought required to vote. In 1878, a law passed banning Chinese immigrants from citizenship. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed, barring any Chinese laborers from entering the country. The Act was finally repealed in 1943, a year after the US began interning Japanese Americans, 62% of whom were American citizens. Internment ended in 1946, and Congress finally apologized in 1988. I’m not going to go into much detail on the phenomenon of American soldiers stationed in Asia raping Asian women and exploding the demand for Asian sex workers, but feel free to look that up on your own.
How do we view Asians?
Edward Said’s landmark 1979 book, “Orientalism”, discussed the concept of “Oriental” Eastern culture, which is a product of Western thought. Said defined Orientalism as a construction “for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” This idea has been applied to the conceptualization of Asian culture in America. Examples of Otherization of Asian culture and people are plentiful. In terms of Asian culture, we can see his most easily in the “Japan is weird” trope, which is usually seen affixed to a picture of something weird that happened in Asia. Interestingly enough, Japanese nationals that were shown the photos seemed to have the same reactions of disbelief and WTF-confusion as Western nationals. When it comes to Asian people, Otherization takes the form of imposing a set of physical and personal characteristics that are, in reality, not true for many Asians. This includes yellow skin, straight dark hair, and slanted eyes. Asian people are also further stereotyped as all being part of one homogenous cultural/ethnic group with little to no differences in physical features or history/culture, i.e. “All Asians look alike.” Mentally grouping all Asians into one indistinguishable mass, or “Otherization”, helps differentiate between white and non-white.
How do we view Asian women?
The sexualization of Asian women in Western culture is prominent, and dates back to the era of colonialism (if you want to read more on the topic, I’d suggest Prasso’s 2005 book, “The Asian Mystique”). A couple articles about this have recently been making the rounds, including the study of Asian women and online dating, and articles about the documentary, “Seeking Asian Female”, which explores the world of white men with yellow fever.
This fetishization has been empirically proven to hurt Asian women. 41-61% of Asian women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime, the highest rate for any ethnic group. Between 5,000-8,000 Asian women are trafficked into the US each year for sex slavery, also the largest amount for any ethnic group.
There are also more specific examples at a micro level. In Washington state, two white men and a white woman hunted five random Japanese women to kidnap, rape, torture, and videotape them. The police report stated that the rapists were fueled by a sexual fantasy of Japanese women as “submissive”. In another case, a serial rapist in LA sought out Korean women to rape and rob. Thirteen women were attacked, and the police suspected that there were more who had failed to come forward. In 2002, a NC State University student was murdered by a white classmate that was “infatuated” with her Asian-ness. The fetish-leading-to-violence phenomenon also extends to the Ivy League. A few years ago, Princeton graduate student Michael Lohman admitted to terrorizing over fifty Asian women around campus for three years by “clipping snippets of their hair, spraying them with his urine and pouring his semen or urine in their drinks at university dining halls when they weren’t looking.”
One area where we can see this most blatantly is “Asian” porn. The sub-genre of “Asian” porn typically features women speaking in accented English who eagerly submit to the demands of (primarily white) male pleasure. The power dynamic in this type of pornography has been described as “the holy trinity of inferiority, exoticness, and reverence for the white man and his penis.” Sexual violence is prevalent in this genre. A 2002 study by Jennifer Lynn Gossett and Sarah Byrne found that nearly half of the pornographic websites which used Asian women depicted them as sexualized rape victims. Let that resonate for a second - half of all porn featuring Asian American women is rape porn.
It’s also worth including at least a quick note on the emasculation of Asian men in American culture - whether it’s Long Duk Dong, William Hung, or Matthew Moy on “2 Broke Girls”. These Asian men are often stripped of any sexuality and presented as overgrown children. Making Asian men look “foolish” and “childish” is a way of sidestepping a perceived threat of “Asian Invasion” by denying Asian men power or sexuality. Combined, the result is that we assign Asian women an exotic sexuality packaged specially for the white male gaze, and deny Asian men any sexuality at all. This shows the pervasive influence of Western hegemony, and that it extends to the realm of sex and policing Asian bodies.
Why don’t we care more?
The stereotype of Asians as the “model minority” actually hurts Asian-Americans by pushing problems they face under the rug. The economic success of Asian-Americans, even though it is quite an accomplishment, is not because Asians don’t face racism - it is in spite of the fact that Asians face racism. Moreover, this model minority status means that even traditional lefty sources, who are usually more politically correct when it comes to people of color, will be more open with anti-Asian racism. I’d point you to the examples of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Kill all Chinese people” sketch, Gawker’s articles like “Following Hallowed Nerd Tradition, Michael Phelps Dates Asian Chick” (choice quote: “So it’s funny that he’s gone and done what so many newly-rich, videogame-anime-lady-obsessed nerds have done before him: he’s found himself an Asian girlfriend.”) There’s also the 2012 movie, “Cloud Atlas”, which starred Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and a slew of other white actors - in yellowface. Instead of hiring Korean actors (the roles were written specifically for Koreans), they hired white people and put them in yellowface makeup. Victoria’s Secret even released a line of Asian-ish lingerie called “Go East”, which featured a $100 Sexy Little Geisha Costume, containing a little fan, hair chopsticks, and a mesh teddy.
Katy Perry was not the first (and she will likely not be the last) pop princess to appropriate Asian culture. Rihanna did the same geisha song-and-dance on her song, “Princess of China”, with Coldplay. Previously, Gwen Stefani spent a couple years with four mute Harajuku Girls, who she named Love, Angel, Music and Baby after her album (L.A.M.B.). Beyond using them as backup dancers, she also had them follow her around on the red carpet and to public events. And, taking objectification of Asian women very seriously, she turned the Harajuku girls into L.A.M.B. perfume bottles.
Even shitty indie bands have gotten into Asian stereotypes. The band “A Day Above Ground” released a song called “Asian Girlz”, which contained choice lyrics like “I love your sticky rice/Butt fucking all night/Korean barbecue/Bitch I love you/I love your creamy yellow thighs/Ooh your slanted eyes/It’s the Year of the Dragon/Ninja pussy I’m stabbin’”.
Even in the aforementioned case of the Washington rapists, the DA and police failed to report or prosecute the case as a hate crime, even though the defendants admitted to hunting exclusively Japanese women. The same thing happened with the serial rapist in LA.
In many Asian households, including the one I grew up in, racism is a very taboo topic. My family, and many of my friend’s families, believed that the best way to succeed was to ignore racism whenever possible, and to silently tolerate it when it popped up. When I was around five, I went to visit the Vietnam Memorial with my (Korean) mother on Veteran’s Day. A drunk veteran who happened to be there saw us, and, assuming we were Vietnamese, proceeded to follow us from the Memorial to our car, over a mile away, using racial epithets and threatening to kill us under his breath. Similarly, one of my friend’s parents owned a convenience store, and was terrorized by a group of older white men for months, who swore they were going to hurt him for being a “gook”. In both cases, there was never any family discussion of what was happening, or how to respond. Instead, we lived with our fear, and tried to avoid conflict (I’ve never been back to the Vietnam Memorial, and my friend’s father moved his store at great personal cost). However, this pattern of silence is, in conjunction with the fallacy of the “model minority”, keeping us from acknowledging and stopping the pervasive racism against Asian-Americans in our society. That’s why I’ve dedicated this many words to something as arguably insignificant as a Katy Perry performance, and that’s why I, as an Asian-American woman, will continue to speak up and blog to call out racist or problematic behavior.