By: Myra Khan
Content warning: discussion of gun violence, hate crimes, and sexual violence against Asian women
On March 16, 2021, six Asian women were shot and killed in Atlanta by a white male. Asian activists immediately began calling the shooting a hate crime, citing the location of the shootings at visibly Asian-owned spas. However, the gunman claimed his attack was an attempt to curb his sex addiction.
The media jumped on this explanation, insisting that the perpetrator’s motive was not racially motivated because it was about his sex addiction.
What most of the (largely white) media did not seem to understand is the fact that the shooter’s words only confirm that it was in fact racially motivated, as he knowingly or unknowingly spoke to the long-standing history of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women.
In other words, the victims were not killed simply for being Asian, but specifically for being Asian women.
The hyper-sexualization of Asian women began during the age of European colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries. When European settlers arrived in Asia, they began fetishizing and exotifying aspects of Asian culture because of its perceived foreignness.
This system of fetishization is known critically today as Orientalism, a term coined by Palestinian author Edward Said. Orientalism can also be understood as a social and aesthetic phenomenon centering around exotified misrepresentations of Asian and African places, objects, and people. Orientalist art often focused on exotic foreign objects such as vases and rugs or environments like bazaars and deserts, Asian women were a common subject for Orientalist paintings and writings.
Like the vases and bazaars, these women were treated as exotic objects to be “collected” by the European colonizers. Orientalist paintings frequently depicted Asian women (whether East, Southeast, South, or Western Asian) lounging in harems, mostly nude with voluptuous, pale bodies and inviting gazes.
The function of these women in the paintings was to entice the white European viewers with promises of luxury to be found in the nebulous East. They had no autonomy or desires of their own, existing only to satisfy others. These paintings also existed in contrast to the ideal proper European woman of the time; where the European woman was modest and chaste, the Asian was promiscuous and immoral.
The creators of the Page Act were concerned that all Chinese women entering the country were “prostitutes” who would tarnish the moral standing of the country. Because of economic desperation and lack of social social services provided by the government to impoverished immigrants, some Chinese-American women at the time were indeed involved in sex work. These women were motivated primarily by self-preservation, not by their perceived nymphomania or immorality.
Moving into the 20th century, the objectification of Asian women became a key part of Hollywood’s stories. Female Asian characters frequently fell into the “Dragon Lady” stereotype, a direct descendant of the Page Act. The Dragon Lady, much like the Orientalist conception of the Asian woman, was a hypersexual character, though far more dominant and mysterious than the passive harem women.
Rather than being a foreign object to be exploited through colonization, the Asian woman was now constructed as being an active threat through the Dragon Lady. Though the term did not come into use until the 1930s, the Dragon Lady stereotype is best seen at play through many of Anna May Wong’s roles, most notably in “Daughter of the Dragon.” The sexualization of the Dragon Lady lies in her “exotic” qualities, her association with the “Orient.” In other words, the Dragon Lady is not a temptress who happens to be Asian, but a woman whose sexual nature is directly derived from the fact that she is Asian.
The Dragon Lady stereotype, in time, did not disappear but instead morphed into what is frequently called the Lotus Blossom stereotype. Like the Dragon Lady, the Lotus Blossom (also sometimes referred to as the “China Doll”), is a hyper-sexual Asian woman.
However, where the Dragon Lady is dangerous and unpredictable, the Lotus Blossom is demure and submissive. It is no mistake that the Lotus Blossom began to replace the Dragon Lady during the Cold War, when the United States began to fight imperialist wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Lotus Blossom stereotype served as wartime propaganda to motivate American men to fight the perceived “evil” Asian men to save the damsel-in-distress Lotus. This perception of Asian women also played a role in enabling American men to commit atrocities in the countries, such as the mass rape and murder known as the My Lai Massacre.
The consumption of such media is often accompanied by the proliferation of harmful stereotypes about Japanese culture and Japanese women. Anime and manga superfans, known derogatively as weeaboos, frequently perceive Japanese women as being more attractive, submissive, and coy than non-Japanese women due to their consumption of Japanese popular media.
This misogynistic obsession also often merges with pedophilia due to the hypersexualization of Japanese school uniforms as well as the young girls who wear them themselves.
Similar to the Orientalist art, Western male audiences are enticed by these fictional characters and perceive them to be representative of real Asian women. The result is that many white men treat real Japanese women like the objectified anime characters they adore, unable to distinguish between reality and fiction. The difference is that the source media of anime and manga itself is not causing this hyper-sexualization, but rather the fandoms and their associated fan art.
Like with the other stereotypes, the idea of Japanese girls and women being submissive has real world consequences. At the start of the millennium, several female Japanese students were kidnapped and raped by two white men and a white woman in Spokane. The perpetrators not only had a fetish for Japanese women, but one that specifically centered around their perceived submissiveness. This damaging stereotype also led to the rapists’ mistaken assumption that the girls would not report the kidnappings to preserve their family’s “honor.”
The wars in the Middle East have also encouraged a new form of hyper-sexualization of Western and South Asian women similar to the Lotus Blossom. Because of the villainization of Middle Eastern (overwhelmingly Muslim) men, many Western men have begun to view Middle Eastern women as oppressed and submissive damsels who need to be saved by American and European military forces.
This phenomenon is best exemplified through the exploitation of Lebanese-American personality and former pornographic actress, Mia Khalifa, who appeared in an adult film wearing a hijab. Khalifa became infamous from the video, to the point where American soldiers deployed in the Middle East began looking for their very own Muslim sex object.
The shooting in Atlanta is a deadly reminder to Asian-American women that they are seen by many white men as sex objects who exist to satisfy their warped desires. It is crucial to understand that violence against Asian women, like what occurred in March, is the direct product of stereotypes and media portrayals.
The hyper-sexualization of Asian women in Hollywood and the porn industry alike is actively contributing to violence against these real women and it is an act of complicity to say otherwise.
In order to put an end to the hyper-sexualization of Asian women, we must demolish the systems of heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and neo-imperialism.
It is not enough to simply mourn for the victims. Allies of the Asian-American community must play an active role in making the world safer for Asian men and women. Financial support through supporting Asian businesses and contributing to community mutual aid campaigns is crucial in materially empowering Asian communities lacking in resources.
Beyond material donations, allies should be active in their support by speaking up against workplace racism and intervening in witnessed acts of hate and violence.
Those in power should commit themselves to holding those who contribute to anti-Asian racism accountable and advocating for particularly marginalized subgroups, such as sex workers and undocumented immigrants.
Popular media, from movies to music, should also be expected to uplift marginalized communities like the Asian-American community.
Dismantling institutionalized oppression requires different types of action at different levels, though it must all be exactly that: active. When hate is active, love cannot be passive.
In the words of artist and director, Jess X. Snow, “In the future, our Asian community is safe. We no longer need to be memorialized because white supremacy is of the past. We are the stars, seeds, and motherland all at once, a force so expansive, no one can hurt us.”
In remembrance of Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. May they find peace and justice and may we carry their names in our hearts.
Reach the writer on Twitter