The Violence Starts with Hollywood
While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the violence against Asian Americans, it is important to note that this is not a new phenomena. The terms “kung-flu” and “Chinese virus” are directly linked to the rise of Asian xenophobia (Kaya Long’s article explains the pandemic's impact here). However, the recent killing of six Asian Americans in Georgia signifies a history of anti-Asian sentiments, specifically the fetishization of Asian women.
Robert Aaron Long’s “bad day” entailed targeting Asian spas in Atlanta because the spas were “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate” (NBC News). The shooter’s remarks are not uncommon. The current fetishization of Asian women is a culmination of racism from American policies, Hollywood, and the perpetuation of stereotypes.
Western media significantly exacerbated the "Otherization" of Asian Americans. Hollywood capitalized on the American government’s legal and political action against Asians. The Page Act of 1875, in writing, only prevented prostitutes from migrating to the United States. However, the law was applied to exclude Chinese women from entering America. During the Philippine-American War, World War II, and the Vietnam War, American soldiers had a “history of soliciting sex worker and patronizing industries that encouraged sex trafficking” (Kaur). As these perceptions of Asian women started to take form from American policies, Hollywood perfected the stereotype to further enmesh it in our society.
According to a report by Joey Lee, the United States popularized “the two Holywood archetypes of the submissive, delicate, and overly emotional China Doll, and the threatening, cold Dragon Lady.” These binary representations force East Asian women into two separate categories with no middle ground. Though opposite, both stereotypes imply the fetishization of Asian women and the reduction of their humanity. Popular films, such as Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, give Asian women a role dependent on their white lover. In these films, the “East Asian tragic Butterfly character” lives to fulfill her lover’s desire and has virtually no other power or role in her life or relationship. The portrayal of these women exoticize and dehumanize them to the point where they are seen as only an object of sexual desire.
These stereotypes continue to exist in recent films. Modern cult favorites, such as Mean Girls and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, normalize the hypersexualization of Asian girls. Tina Fey has a long run of belittling Asian people with the long-running joke that Asian women are hyper-sexual or seeking green cards in relationships. Her and NBC’s works have been repeatedly called out by BIPOC for their problematic depictions of Asian women, yellow face, and other racist content. However, it’s not just NBC or Tina Fey; Asian people are consistently used as the punchline of a joke which leads to the normalization of racism against Asians. From the 1870s to today, the problematic depictions of Asian Americans continue to hurt our community and lead to the violence and racism we see today.
However, recent films are indicating progress towards representing Asian Americans authentically. The TIME reports that the success of Crazy Rich Asians opened the door for Asian American actors and filmmakers. Awkwafina became the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe for her role in The Farewell. Additionally, Sandra Oh became the first Asian woman to receive multiple Golden Globes and the first Asian host of the Golden Globes. Most recently, Steven Yeun became the first Asian-American actor to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. The increase in positive representation is encouraging; however, it will not automatically undo the long-held stereotypes people hold of Asian Americans.