This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action
CW: misogyny, racism, sexual violence
On March 16, 2021, 8 people were shot and killed by a white man in Atlanta-area massage parlors, 6 of whom were Asian women. The police supported his claim that the killings were “not racially motivated” but rather a way for the shooter to “eliminate [his sexual] temptations.”
The shooter’s “temptations” stem from the fetishization of Asian women and misogyny-affected individuals — a violent result of Western imperialism in Asia. This is gendered racism.
Fetishization is the act of sexualizing and objectifying someone based on some aspect of their identity. A common example is stating one’s dating preferences along the lines of race. These racial “preferences” often perpetuate insidious stereotypes about groups of people.
Cartoon showing how having a “preference for Asian women” on a dating app is indeed racism (source)
What is difficult about identifying, problematizing, and combating racial fetishization is that it is often argued as something benign and even complimentary. For Asian women in particular, we are told — in part by other Asian people and especially by Asian men — that being sexually fetishized by non-Asians is “advantageous.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The same sexual fetishizations that some might name as “advantageous” contributed to the deaths of Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng.
Understanding the imperial history behind the fetishization of Asian women illuminates how racial fetishization is never flattery. Awareness of these histories is important to interrupt the gendered racism that occurs both within and outside of our own community and to affirming and protecting the lives of Asian women.
Asian women have historically inhabited two stereotypes while being fetishized: The menacing, sexually manipulative Dragon Lady and the docile, submissive Lotus Blossom. Both tropes have been used to justify Western imperialism in Asia and racism against Asians, especially Asian women, in the US.
Cartoon showing that when men, especially white men, fetishize Asian women, they see them not as human beings, but as stereotypes of the Lotus Blossom and Dragon Lady (source)
Dragon Lady Stereotype
An exotic and calculating temptress, the Dragon Lady is the feminine personification of “the Yellow Peril,” the racist fear that East Asian peoples were/are a threat to the “West.” She represents a sexual — and existential — threat to white supremacy to be exploited, conquered, colonized.
The Dragon Lady stereotype is historically tied to white American economic anxieties. The stereotype was predated by the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the entry of Asian women into the US on the grounds that they were dangerous and sexually immoral. The passage of the Page Act contributed to the hypersexualization of Asian women by labeling all Asian women as sex workers. It led to the further stigmatization of actual Asian sex workers, most of whom were forced into such work by the lack of other economic opportunities.
During the Vietnam War, the American government portrayed Vietnamese women as Dragon Ladies. The Dragon Lady stereotype was used to justify military intervention in Vietnam and the sexual colonization of Asian women’s bodies by mostly white American G.I.’s.
In Hollywood, Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, was often typecast as a Dragon Lady, such as the Chinese evil genius Fu Manchu’s daughter in the movie Daughter of the Dragon (1931). In her obituary, Times magazine even dubbed Wong “the screen’s foremost Oriental villainess.” Today, this stereotype is visible as Ling Woo (Lucy Liu) in the TV show Ally McBeal (1997-2002) and Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in the movie Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
The Dragon Lady trope reinforces the white supremacist view that the East is perilous, “backwards,” and must be “civilized” (violently colonized) by the West. It’s also an insult given to outspoken Asian women today.
Lotus Blossom Stereotype
In contrast to the Dragon Lady, the Lotus Blossom is helpless, subservient, and sexually compliant. The characterization of Asian women as defenseless is not random. For centuries, Western culture has feminized both Asian people and Asia as a place. The Lotus Blossom trope implies that because Asian women do not oppose being subordinate to white men, then all Asian people do not oppose—and even welcome — colonization by white empires.
Kim painted as a Lotus Blossom in “Miss Saigon” (source)
The widespread circulation of the Lotus Blossom narrative hides its sexualized racism, and audiences continue to view Asian female submissiveness as normal. Take Kim in Miss Saigon (1989). A Vietnamese girl forced to be a sex worker, who then falls in love with a white American GI who impregnates her and leaves her in Vietnam, coming after the war to take Kim’s child, but not Kim, back to the US. Having nothing else to live for, Kim kills herself. For most audiences, this is the culmination of romanticism.
In real life, the idea of “saving” Lotus Blossoms can be seen in the War Brides Act of 1945, which was passed at the end of WWII and allowed “alien spouses” of the US Armed Forces to immigrate to the US. The law was necessary because, at the time, no Asian person could legally enter the country thanks to laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924. War brides were usually Asian women from war-torn countries like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Over 3,000 South Korean sex workers in Seoul protest against sex industries and trafficking stemming from U.S military bases in 2004 (source)
The U.S. refuses to acknowledge the historical and ongoing exploitation and abuse of Asian women throughout Asia. Entire sex industries revolving around American military bases exist in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. They continue to disproportionately traffick Asian women and girls—and attract Western men. This is part of why Asian women still find work in massage parlors.
The Lotus Blossom trope is part of the white supremacist imagination that feminizes Asia as a place as docile, submissive, and receptive to Western imperialism.
Cartoon showing that the fetishization of Asian women makes white men think they have a right to their bodies and even their lives (source)
Impacts of Fetishization Today
Fetishization reinforces gendered violence against Asian women. By objectifying Asian women as symbolic sexual objects, fetishization justifies racism against Asians in the U.S. and Western imperialism in Asia.
41-61% of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime—significantly higher than any other ethnic group. Additionally, of the thousands of trafficking survivors with specified ethnicities who reached out to Polaris operated hotlines in 2016, 23% were Asian. Finally, women experience hate incidents 2.3 times more than men according to Stop AAPI Hate.
Fetishization is not flattering; it is neither a compliment nor a form of protection. Rather, it is a form of racialized and gendered violence rooted in imperialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. It’s what makes white supremacists feel entitled to Asian women’s bodies — and even their lives.
“We must destroy the stereotypes of Asian women, and Asian people, as a whole, so we can define ourselves, and be free to realize our full and total potential,” declared Evelyn Yoshimura, in the January 1971 issue of Gidra, a revolutionary Asian American magazine.
How to Take Action:
When an Asian woman or any other person says they are being fetishized — believe them. Affirm to them that that treatment is wrong.
Interrupt when others make racially fetishizing and or misogynistic comments about Asian women and other groups of people. This might include — counteracting friends and family who joke that fetishization is flattering or advantageous, censuring “locker-room talk” and other commonly accepted misogynistic comments, openly criticizing popular media portrayals of Asian women or others as sexual commodities.
Learn more about groups like our partner organizations Red Canary Song and Butterfly 迁蝶 that are fighting for the decriminalization of actual sex work and fighting against trafficking and police raids against migrant and Asian sex workers.
Check out resources at bit.ly/stopAAPIhate to stop anti-Asian hate and support Asian women!
Sources & Further Reading:
Valerie Bauerlein and Cameron McWhirter, “Atlanta Shooting Suspect Told Police He Targeted Massage Parlors Because of Sex Addiction” (in Wall Street Journal)
Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, “Statistics on Violence Against API Women”
National Network to End Domestic Violence, “Sexualized, Submissive Stereotypes of Asian Women Lead to Staggering Rates of Violence”
Edward Said, Orientalism
Evelyn Yoshimura, “G.I.’s and Asian Women” (in Gidra: The Monthly of the Asian American Experience)
Ji-Yeon Yuh, Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America
Judy Yung, Unbound Feet
Renee Tajima-Peña, “Lotus Blossoms Don’t Bleed” (in Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and About Asian American Women)
The Take, “The Lotus Blossom Stereotype - Dangers of the Asian Fetish” (video essay)
Sunny Woan, “White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence” (in Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice)