In response to “Consuming Asianness,” Mr. David Regenold asked a very thoughtful follow-up question that I haven’t, until now, had a chance to address. He wanted to know, “Exactly where is this [“domestic” and “submissive” stereotype of Asian women] coming from? White Guys? Or is it a reflection of historical Asian domestic expectations?” I’d like to answer this question by considering the colonial logic behind productions of Asian femininity. By looking at porn, of course.
But before we get ourselves too worked up, let’s begin with some general observations on racialized desire. As bell hooks (who spells her name in lowercase) recounts in Black Looks, racial fetishes confront us even while roaming the streets of New Haven, Connecticut:
Seemingly unaware of my presence, these [‘very blond, very white, jock type’] young men talked about their plans to fuck as many girls from other racial/ethnic groups as they could ‘catch’ before graduation. They ‘ran’ it down. Black girls were high on the list, Native American girls hard to find, Asian girls (all lumped into the same category), deemed easier to entice, were considered ‘prime targets.’… ‘Naturally,’ the presence of the Other, the body of the Other, was seen as existing to serve the ends of white male desires…. They claim the body of the colored Other instrumentally, as an unexplored terrain, a symbolic frontier that will be fertile ground for their reconstruction of the masculine norm, for asserting themselves as transgressive desiring subjects. (23-24)
From these types of situations, we see that feminine bodies are racially objectified and desired in particular ways. The suggestion that Asian girls are “easier to entice” than their black counterparts, and thus should be “prime targets” for sexual conquest, perpetuate assumptions of Asian submissiveness Regenold found so perplexing. That they’re there and constantly propagating seems obvious enough, but where do these stereotype of submissive Asian women come from?
White Man’s Burden
That’s a complicated question, and it deserves a decent answer. The young men hooks overhears indeed reproduce a particular racial attitude, but the myth doesn’t start simply with “white guys.” And it’s history isn’t the history of “Asian domestic expectations” either, but one involving imperialist logic and the so-called “White Man’s Burden.”
According to the “White Man’s Burden,” colonialism is justified because it is a noble pursuit to save the heathens from damnation and their own self-destructive ways. In “the Orient,” this burden is often envisioned in the form of saving domestic women from their abusive husbands and impoverished lifestyle. Mail-order brides (the pun seemingly lost on its participants) practices this colonial logic down to a tee. To this day, the sex-tourism industry in Asia remains a prime destination for Western men seeking cheap sex with adoring women–the ones who, it’s imagined, are eager and willing to “love you long time,” no matter how fat or middle-aged you are. Even as the world has (arguably) turned away from imperialism, colonial logic has remain inscribed within our cultural unconscious.
In the self-proclaimed “color-blind” and “post-race” era, issues and biases of race and gender have been encoded in supposedly non-threatening terms. But like repressed rage, this silence and denial doesn’t quite resolve the underlying issues. The “post-race” era, let’s not forget, is the same cultural period that gives rise to the thinly veiled racial attack on America’s first black president. The Birthers’ questioning of President Obama’s Americanness, despite the recent release of his “long form” birth certificate, suggests an investment in a belief contrary to fact.
It doesn’t take much to recognize that the word “American” acts as a code for “white” for many in the Birther movement.
Images associated with the movement (as seen in the image on the left), project a false radicalized dichotomy: Obama is either “President or Jihad,” as if the question of his “un-American” eligibility immediately turns him into a terrorist.
But these highly charged formulations also occur outside of the partisan world of politics. As promised, let’s look at a contemporary example from a profitable, wildly successful industry whose business is helping us get off on precisely those desires and fantasies that we say we don’t believe in.
Pornography and Society
As much as we’d like to think otherwise, pornography reveals quite a lot about our society’s beliefs and desires. There are those who will suggest that pornography depicts only the extremes of our social psychology, and thus is not representative of society at large. I’d argue that it’s relegation to the social fringes works, counter-intuitively, to better highlight our hidden repressions. As a marginalized industry, porn exists both in and out of the mainstream cultural milieu. Its discursive practices are produced by the same socio-historical conditions that influence the mainstream media (if porn parodies and porn-inspired content of shows like Hung and Spartacus are any indication). At the same time, because of its marginality, porn isn’t beholden to political correctness and so is free to express and exploit the darker repressed beliefs, urges, and desires that fuel the industry’s ubiquity and immense profitability.
Porn and the Male Gaze
Now, to return to the question at hand: where does the perception of Asian women as desirable for their willingness to (sexually) please, for their deference to white male authority, and for their little-girl bodies come from? Everywhere. It pervades our cultural discourse. Take a closer look at the categorical organization of porn. One of the most prominent is “Asian.” “Asian Fetish” is a term nearly everyone knows. It has become such common knowledge precisely because, like most media productions, it is shot from the perspective of the male gaze. Through that gaze women are always the objectified – they are the ones the camera gazes upon; they are not the ones who determine what the camera sees. Women must submit to it and claim to enjoy that submission.
This is the same gaze that gets reproduced in mainstream women’s magazines. Even as the content is supposedly directed at women, the portrayal of female beauty and desirability is oriented around male desire: the women in its ads and photospreads are meant to arouse that desire.
More specifically, they are objects of desire who invite and affirm that what women are here for, what they want, is to be looked at and to submit gratefully to others’ desiring gaze. Why else do guys like sneak-“reading” Cosmo? It’s not for the quizzes.
As blatant as women’s magazines are, porn is even less subtle. Through whose eyes is the camera gazing? Are you looking at the man’s face? Panning slowly over his body? Zooming in on his ass? Even when this does occur, it happens in gay porn with the male gaze still intact. Whether straight or gay porn, the power to look and to desire belongs to the man. The woman in straight porn exists to be looked at – the only desire allowed her is the desire to be desired.
What does that mean for the Asian Fetish?
In the category of “Asian” porn, the women are fetishized for their exotic, “oriental” backgrounds, which is sometimes represented by actresses who speak accented English and show a particular eagerness to submit to the demands of (implicitly white) male pleasure. “Me Love You Long Time” has become a popular slur/catch-phrase for a reason: it succinctly captures the powerful fantasy of Asian femininity. The accent and imperfect English express a power dynamic that isn’t simply about depicting female submissiveness but about seeking in Asian women the holy trinity of inferiority, exoticness, and reverence for the white man and his penis. It promises that Asian women want white men to want them, that they want to please white men, and that they prefer to be (culturally, sexually) dominated, especially by white men. The faltering grammar of the phrase is even more revealing: the Asian woman refers to herself in the objective “me” rather than the subjective “I.” She sees herself as an object, and she wants you, wielder of the white male gaze, to see her that way, too.
A similar issue occurs with the porn categories of “Ebony,” “Indian,” and “Latina.” In all these instances the point of view is always male, and the men doing the fucking are almost always white. There’s a reason porn categories are organized by the race of the woman rather than the man: the man is assumed by default to be white. If he’s not white, his body distracts from the exoticness of the women these categories are there to fetishize. In the rare instances the male gaze is non-white, it gets marked as a separate category, “inter-racial” (restrictively defined as between black men and white women) being the most prominent. The categories of “Asian,” “Ebony,” and “Latina” are notably inter-racial, not intra-racial. (Quick, how many western-produced porn videos can you find starring an Asian guy or couple?) The categories’ racialized monikers alone tell you who’s doing the categorizing and the fucking – those who see “Asian,” “Ebony,” and “Latina” as a separate category, as other than themselves.
The presumptive logic behind these distinctions has larger implications for our understanding of social productions of racial relationships in mainstream society. That porn assumes a default male whiteness isn’t a characteristic particular to just porn. The question of why Asian-White inter-racial relationships are skewed so one-sided, for example, suggests the pervasiveness of unconscious iterations of the white male gaze. Growing up in a society that constantly reinforces such a gaze, we all – to varying degrees – reproduce those same normative assumptions. Thus, the Asian duo from “Consuming Whiteness” felt the need to intervene when confronted with my participation in a non-normative inter-racial relationship.
Or, why, as I gave my girlfriend a hug, bell hooks’s “very blond, very white, jock type” guy did a comically exaggerated double-take straight out of The Three Stooges. Apparently the sight of an Asian guy and a white girl together unsettled his unconscious assumptions of racial and sexual possibilities. So much so that he actually had to question the reality of what he saw – and look again.
So the stereotypes often ascribed to Asian women have a very specific history, but it doesn’t come just from white guys or some imagined history of Asian domesticity. It’s part of an internalized logic of desire that caters to white masculinity but covertly encourages all of us to take up and get off on its desires. Maybe it’s time we notice and did our own double-take.