Science

The Deadly Consequences of Hypersexualizing Asian Women

It makes me nervous to write this. I’m a science writer, after all. I rely on data and interviews with researchers. I’m no expert on race, gender and social issues, but—like many other Asian American women these last few weeks since a gunman killed eight people in the Atlanta area on March 16—I suddenly found myself as an educator of sorts, a designated spokeswoman for the Asian woman experience in America. I took on this new role partly out of anger and sadness, and partly because I found my voice over the course of replying to texts from well-meaning white friends.

It was such a struggle even to get the shooting recognized as race related. Six of the people he killed were women of Asian descent, yet a sheriff’s deputy with a history of anti-Asian Facebook posts told us that there was no evidence the murders were racially motivated—that the shooter, who described himself as a sex addict, had been having a “bad day.” Lots of other white men, including some of my husband’s journalism colleagues, were quick to comment that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Well, that’s bullshit. Even for people who did recognize the shootings as an act of racism, I had to explain to them that it’s not just racism. It’s a racialized misogyny that’s very, very specific to Asian women.

Trump may have popularized the term “Chinese virus” about a year ago, but America has been fetishizing and hypersexualizing Asian women for much longer than a century. I had to look this up since I wasn’t taught any Asian history in school: Even before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Congress passed the Page Act of 1875, which banned the immigration of Chinese women by portraying them as prostitutes and threats to the institution of marriage. And you can’t talk about exoticizing Asian women without talking about the Korean and Vietnam wars. We’ve all heard stories about GIs and sex workers, and we’ve seen the movies. “Me so horny. Me love you long time”—you know what I’m talking about. I’ve had that shouted at me my whole life. Catcalls for us are always a bit racist.

Almost every movie or TV show with a minor Asian character further perpetuates stereotypes that serve to other us or objectify us. Sometimes it’s a quiet nerd, sometimes it’s a kicky action sidekick or a blade-wielding gangster fighting against a white savior. But more often than not, Asian women are either voiceless or they are sexualized, or both—submissive but also man-eating dragon ladies possessing secrets of the Orient. I can think of so many perfectly acceptable movies that were ruined by how the Asian female character was portrayed. The Asian teenager seduces the coach in Mean Girls; Chris Pratt is the best man in The Five-Year Engagement singing about interchangeable nameless Asian exes, and even my hero John McClane (Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series) went straight to “Asian hooker bitch” when he was talking about the villain’s right-hand woman. Representation matters.

Our famous vaginas or whatever are a running joke that’s popular not just among men, but among white female comics too. It would also be fair to say a lot of my own male friends and acquaintances have commented on it, often in the form of “I’ve never been with an Asian before, is it true…?” Maybe the shooter wondered that same thing at one point. He doesn’t see us as humans—just “temptations” that he could only eliminate by killing Asian women.

With so many mansplainers, whitesplainers and white feminists, I often feel like I have to pick my battles: Am I a woman today or am I a minority? Some years before the #MeToo movement, I remember having to plead with my now-husband and his other white guy friends to stop discounting my experience by saying I’m paranoid or overreacting. Because it wouldn’t happen when they were with me, they didn’t believe that I would be harassed walking home from the subway alone, for example. Or when a bartender told our group of mostly men that I was being shrill, I knew it was because I’m a woman.

But every now and then, I’m reminded that feminism only seems to matter when it’s white women—the rest of us are invisible. When Emma Stone announced the Oscar nominees for directing, she introduced them as “these four men and Greta Gerwig,” like forget the fact that one is a Black man and another is a Mexican immigrant. This time I didn’t have to pick between two parts of me: The shootings in Georgia weren’t just an Asian issue or a women’s issue; it was the first time in my lifetime that a mass murderer targeted Asian women.

Some of my white friends have told me that I haven’t experienced racism, that Asians aren’t people of color, and I can’t call myself an immigrant anymore because I don’t have an accent. One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about all this is because I’ve only recently become enraged, and I’m nearly 40. For most of my life, I enjoyed the attention or “uniqueness” of being an Asian woman or the token Asian offered me in certain circles and situations. I laughed along with the “tight vagina” jokes, and back in college, I used to wear a tight T-shirt that says “Everyone Loves an Asian Girl.” If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

While I’ve gotten the whole “where are you from” question a lot and a door slammed in my face once, I’ve never been called a chink or a commie to my face. I haven’t been told to “go back to China” this entire pandemic, and that’s not just because my white husband is my shield, but also because I have the luxury of working from home this whole time, unlike massage parlor workers. (Though marrying a white man did open up a whole new can of racism.)

So, how can I argue about microaggressions and “complimentary” stereotypes when other communities of color have to fight for their lives to matter, are called terrorists at an airport, and see their children kept in cages at our border. So, we endure it. In an awards ceremony haunted by #OscarsSoWhite, we were still given a humiliating bit about Asians being good at math and an emasculating comment about Asian men because racism against Asians is okay for some reason.

According to Stop AAPI Hate, there were 3,795 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate between March 2020 and February 2021. Every day on my social media newsfeeds, there’s a new video of someone being pushed or kicked or screamed at while being out and about their day. In particular, our elders are being assaulted and, in at least a handful of cases, literally killed on the streets. I haven’t felt this targeted as an Asian since the L.A. riots in 1992. And I would know.

We left Taiwan when I was two. And this was already the second time my parents had given up everything they know in the hopes of a better life. My parents were just kids when their families fled from China at the end of the civil war when the Communist Party gained control. Sometimes they regret moving us here. It created a huge language and cultural gap between us, and despite all their sacrifices, I’ll still never be white. When I was 10 years old, my parents opened a little Chinese restaurant in a dusty strip mall on Pico near downtown Los Angeles and Koreatown. For me, that meant we wouldn’t be able to take our annual winter trip to see snow up at Big Bear Lake. But it was fine because my parents got to be the bosses of their own small business—one that we had for about a year before it was burned down when tensions exploded between the Black and Korean American communities after Rodney King’s attackers were acquitted.

So, my parents had to start over, yet again. Around the same time, my brother went to Harvard, so whatever lessons about racism I may have learned, I promptly forgot. All I cared about was getting into a good college to make my mom proud. I fell hard for the model minority myth. Don’t demand reparations. Keep your head down, don’t make a fuss. Work hard and one day, no one will care that you’re not white.

Not only does the model minority myth drive a wedge between different POC communities, it also just isn’t even true. Each one of us easily became the villains of a global pandemic, and then we were murdered because a racist misogynist was having a “really bad day.” 

This is an opinion and analysis article.

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