The history of fetishizing Asian women in Orientalist tropes

Lillian, a young Asian American woman, was fed up with the flurry of fetishizing messages white men were sending her on Tinder. In 2017, she decided to create a meme Instagram account to show how men would slide into her inbox with remarks such as “I want to try my first Asian woman” or “I need my yellow fever cured.”

After more uncomfortable matches on the online dating app, Lillian used the account to speak out about the fetishization and intersection of racism and sexism that Asian women like her often face in real life. “I began to realize that these interactions on Tinder matched up with my lived experience of being an Asian woman,” she told Vice’s Broadly in 2018, “and I realized I could use this platform to talk about those experiences — and help others find validation through them, too.” Although Lillian stopped posting that same year, the account still has more than 19,000 followers, many of whom are Asian women who have commented on similar experiences of being sexualized.

For Asian women, the Atlanta spa shootings hit close to home. When Robert Aaron Long — the white 21-year-old gunman who was arrested on Tuesday and charged with the killing of eight people, six of whom were Asian women — told the police he had a “sex addiction” and that the spas were a “temptation he wanted to eliminate,” many were also quick to note the intersections between racism, misogyny, and racial fetishization. The stumbles of authorities and media outlets in distinguishing spas from massage parlors (the latter of which have a connotation of prostitution and sexualization) also showed that people were already viewing the case with certain tropes in mind without engaging in the vulnerable realities these workers face.

As Vox’s Li Zhou reported, Long’s statement about his “temptation” speaks to the longstanding stereotypes about not just the businesses, but also “Asian American women who have been exoticized and fetishized as sexual partners as far back as the 1800s,” Zhou writes.

Even before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens, the US had passed the Page Act of 1875, which ultimately banned the importation of Asian women, who were feared to be engaging in prostitution in the country, whether they were or not. And while many scholars point to different origins of Eastern fetishization, film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu, author of the book The Hypersexuality of Race, says the emergence of films and artwork after US-led wars in Asian countries is when the trope of the hypersexual but docile Asian woman really took hold in America.

With Asian women, “there’s this construction of a being for others, and a being for the white man, usually, that were in these drawings and films and other cultural materials, that really extends to the way that we are capable of giving voice to this gunman who says that he was ‘sexually addicted to the temptations’ that [these Asian workers] offered,” Parreñas Shimizu told Vox. Meanwhile, “the Asian women who were killed were essentially silenced.”

I spoke with Shimizu about the history of fetishizing Asian women and how it translates to the shooting in Atlanta. Our interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Rachel Ramirez

People seem quick to want to label the motives of the Atlanta shootings with one definitive answer — it’s racism, it’s misogyny, or it’s “sex addiction,” as the shooter claimed. But it’s much more complicated than one thing. How do you see it?

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

This particular event of Asian American women who work in a place that’s been attributed to sex work really hit me hard, because I’m a scholar that studies the representations and lives of Asian and Asian American women who are sex workers.

So for me, I could see their image and their identities catapulted into the national stage in a way that made it clear how much we lacked knowledge of how they got there. Why are they working there? Who are they? Are they immigrant women? What are their circumstances? What I’m thinking about is how their death has led to further silencing and burial — and how this killing has led to the amplification of the gunman’s voice and the simplification of a “sex addiction,” which further dehumanizes and decontextualizes the Asian women.

Rachel Ramirez

Talk to me more about this silencing and the intersection of a vulnerability and stigma of these workers. The shooter called these spas “a temptation he wanted to eliminate.” What comes to mind when you hear these words?

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

So the arrival of Asian American women can really be captured as a genital event: The Page Act of 1875 reflected the fear of Chinese women as a source of contaminating sexuality. That they were possibly prostitutes.

That they were possibly going to introduce a polyamorous way of life into the United States at a time when there was a growing influx of Asians to the country. If you look at that law, it’s revealing that race has always been tied to gender and sexual difference. That there’s a fear of genital sex, and that there’s a fear of new kinds of sexual culture that these racialized women were representing.

At the same time, there was also the beginning of a mass circulation of Asian women in plays; for example, The Good Woman of Szechuan in the 1880s, Madame Butterfly in 1904. These cultural productions were occurring at a time of Asian encounters with the West and Western invasions of Asia.

There was a production in the circulation of Asian women as sexually different and sexually excessive. They love you so much that they are going to be blinded [to] your lack of regard and how that love is not reciprocated. It’s such a maddening, scary love and sex and feeling and desire that is contained in an Asian woman’s body. So this is going on in history, in the law, and this is going on in popular culture.

When I hear those words, that the Asian women at those spas were “temptations” that he wanted to eliminate, it really captures the legacy of the history and the law and popular culture constructions of Asian women — that they are the vessels of excessive sexuality. For me, it captures producing otherness and the alienation and object status. It’s really a dehumanizing move.

Rachel Ramirez

You mention The Good Woman of Szechuan and Madame Butterfly — is it with this kind of representation in art that the Western fetishization of Asian women really takes off?

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

My first book, The Hypersexuality of Race, chose to begin with Miss Saigon in 1989, which continues and really was one of the most lucrative Broadway productions. I wanted to begin there, because I was so arrested by the repetition of the same story — like what is so appealing about an Asian woman who loves a white man so much that she will choose to kill herself and give up her child and give it to him?

That was from 1904, so it’s really almost 100 years, and it wasn’t just repeated in Miss Saigon; there were other incarnations of it, like in the movies of Anna May Wong. One of her first films, Toll of the Sea, was the same story in 1920. So my book really concentrates on about 100 years of that repetition. Why are we addicted to that story? What is so arousing and pleasurable about that construction? Who does it serve? It isn’t a happy romance; the man and woman’s intimacy are torn apart. In the end, it’s revealed that she has no value, that she is unimportant.

I don’t know where fetishization began. I think there are many stories that we don’t know about, regarding the colonial encounter between Asia and the West. But what I do know is that the hierarchy of value when we enter that relationship between a white man and an Asian woman, whether it’s in the context of the military-industrial complex.

One recent story is the one of Jennifer Laude, the trans Filipinx sex worker, who was killed by an American GI in the Philippines. But the United States protected him as soon as he was pronounced guilty; they shuffled him out of the Philippine courthouse, and he was never imprisoned in the Philippines.

Most recently, President [Rodrigo] Duterte pardoned him. The movement of trans Filipinx women who mobilized in order to say her name — and to make sure that her story did not get buried — tell us that the status of Filipinx trans women sex workers reflects the colonial relationship between the Philippines and the United States and the power inequalities between the countries.

Rachel Ramirez

I want to stay on this, because I am also thinking of the massive US military presence in Asian countries — particularly in Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, and Japan — and the immediate colonization of not just the lands but of Asian women’s bodies. That Asian women’s bodies are for Western men’s taking.

How does this translate to the events in Atlanta, particularly that the suspect insinuated he wanted to eliminate these spas because he couldn’t control his own addictions?

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

My research on The Hypersexuality of Race included uncovering some photographs that I found of women, photographs of the places where they worked, where they were enslaved, essentially. There were makeshift beds and a pile of towels to aid them in cleaning themselves — and there were cartoon images that attributed the slanted vagina onto Asian women.

There was pornography that eroticized the relationship between the war brides coming back to the US after the Korean War, for example. And this was the first time that Asian women were in pornography that I saw, versus white women in yellowface. They were romanticizing the compatibility of a docile war bride, as an ideal American wife, because she was sexually servile but also a domestic servant.

There’s this construction of a being for others and a being for the white man, usually, that were in these drawings and films and other cultural materials, that really extends to the way that we are capable of giving voice to this gunman who says that he was “sexually addicted to the temptations” that they offered, and how the Asian women who were killed were essentially silenced.

It’s stunning, too, that there’s still this innocence that’s being projected onto a man who killed so many people. How can that innocence not shatter? And how come that person is given the microphone in order to continue this narrative that relegates this sexuality that drives white men crazy? To say that these women hold in their bodies temptations that he can’t resist, and using that as a reason to justify their killing.

Rachel Ramirez

As you mention, on one hand, Asian women are stereotyped as hypersexual; on the other, they are also seen as “submissive” or “docile.” In fact, there was a study done in 2013, which basically found that Asian women are the most “desirable” racial group among white men and other races. How have these two different stereotypes contributed to Asian women being not just objectified but seen by white men as a more “desirable” race?

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

The polar way we understand gender as virginal equals good or hypersexual equals bad is particularly a prison for Asian American women, because representations in between are hardly in the movies or are hardly around.

So whenever we appear, we must contend with the inheritance of excessive sexuality, where you have to say I am not that, and in the act of saying I am not that, it’s easier to go toward the place that says I am a good woman without that scary sexuality. So, it does not allow for Asian American women to define their own sexuality, which would most likely be in the vast expanse of the middle. We really have to live with those scary and very limited polar opposites.

Rachel Ramirez

Yes, it seems there is little imagination of Asian women outside of the binary subservient and overtly sexual. Relatedly, there has been some hesitancy to talk about the possibility of these spas in the Atlanta shooting being places of sex work. While we don’t know much about the victims and would never want to assume or lean into stereotypes, are we also ignoring an important vulnerability these women faced, even if by connotation alone, one that is made worse the more we stigmatize it?

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

I definitely think that this must be an opportunity for us to educate on the plight of vulnerable, poor, working women in every industry, including the sex industry. While we don’t know if there were indeed sexual transactions, what we do know is it is really important to highlight questions like: Are these women safe at work? What are their conditions of work? How can we improve them, so that they are not any longer some of the most vulnerable in our society?

I do see this definitely as an opportunity for us to educate ourselves on the plight that led these women to work there. And also how there is the accepted linkage between Asian and Asian American women and the sex industry, due to the various wars in Asia and the non-accidental ways that the cities and towns that flank the US military bases had a prostitution industry that was supported by the US military-industrial complex. We cannot normalize our ignorance around the conditions in which these women live and work. This is definitely an opportunity to improve their situations by finding out more about what we can do to help.

Rachel Ramirez

In your book, The Hypersexuality of Race, you encourage a shift in thinking about the way Asian women are sexually depicted. How can people move beyond that negative perception of Asian women as submissive sexual objects that have no agency? How should we be thinking about the nuance of Asian women and how does that nuance keep them safe?

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

Sexuality is a part of all of our lives — whether we love it or are ambivalent about it or don’t want to participate in it. It can be a great life-giving source of physical and psychic pleasure of which we should not be deprived, if we wish to participate in it.

One fear that I have, in looking at over 100 years of representing Asian and Asian American women as a source of excessive sexuality, is that Asian American women should be encouraged to do the work of defining their sexuality in the face of this heavy truck that is trying to tell them that they are a particular way.

I concluded my book with a respectful, interrogative celebration of how Asian American women are using film precisely to explore their sexualities — and, of course, it includes their victimization, as well as their empowerment through sexuality.

We need to acknowledge this huge systemic force that relegates us into a particular kind of sexual role in society. We must take it in our own hands and really centralize our experiences and follow the lead of our foremothers, including Asian American women who worked in Hollywood and Broadway.

I do hope that we can look at the way Asian American women — whether actors, activists, or scholars — have confronted this infliction of perversity and not run away from our own sexualities, and really use it as a force, not only to feel good for ourselves, but as an opportunity to capture how we are not yet free and that we have so much possibility to create new narratives about ourselves.

Why did the killer keep going back to those spas? Why did these women continue to deepen into an object status for him? There’s a pornography to this whole thing in terms of what he chose to see about them, and how he chose to narrate that encounter, in a way that continues their devaluation, so that in his mind, in his actions, their lives were not worth living or saving but instead had to be extinguished.

The long history of brutalization of Asian American women has been a part of this country inside and outside it. We need to question our capacity of repressing those stories — and instead, we need to cultivate the need to hear about them and to know them.