White Sexual Imperialism

by Lindsay Wong

The fatal Atlanta shooting on March 19th this year was just one instance of the ongoing violence against Asians in the US. In addition to targeting Asians, the shooting targeted women in particular, highlighting the very real truth that white sexual imperialism still runs rampant in the West. Eight people were killed, of which six were Asian women, in a spa. The incident was not labelled as a hate crime, despite it being pretty obvious that it was. The perpetrator claimed that the incident could be attributed to his sex addiction – an excuse to justify his actions. This incident exemplifies how normalized the sexualization of Asian women still is in society.

The model minority myth, a seemingly positive representation of the Asian community in the West, often hides the sexist and racist violence that Asian women are subject to. This myth can be toxic and used against other people of color as a white supremacy tactic. The history of white sexual imperialism has shaped how Asian women are perceived in society today.

A history of colonization linked to sexual conquest, tracing back hundreds of years, caused Asian women to be continuously objectified and exoticized. Through rape and war in various occasions on the Asian continent, white men have asserted their dominance over Asian women. Nearly every Asian country was colonized by a Western country, so Western control over the country’s politics, economy and military compelled women from that country to be sexually submissive. Women of color were left in a subordinate position. They are presented as the ideal complement to the masculinity of White men.

During the three wars – the Philippine-American War, World War 2, Vietnam War – women were the objects of soldiers, framed as trophies to be won and to satisfy their Western desires. Therefore, Asian women became hyper-sexualized in the media, with repercussions in society since media has such a strong influence after all. Even though colonization took place in Asia, it has negative consequences on the widespread Asian diaspora.

Many tropes and stereotypes of Asian women emerged as a result of colonization. Asian women are perceived to be docile, shy, submissive and desperate, at the mercy of White men. This stereotype is known as lotus blossom. The other stereotype is dragon lady, which refers to Asian women who use their sexual prowess for deadly means. It exhibits ‘yellow peril’ – the idea that a malevolent Asia is going against the innocence of the West and therefore is harmful. Dragon ladies are hypersexualized and depicted as violent.

In ‘Miss Saigon,’ an American marine and a Vietnamese bar girl have a one night stand and she soon fantasizes about having a strong GI to protect her. However, he leaves her stranded with their son and returns to the US, marrying a White woman and living happily. He and his new wife go to adopt the son, and when the Vietnamese girl realizes that he has no intention of marrying her, she commits suicide. ‘Miss Saigon’ is also a prime example of the white savior complex, which portrays Asian women needing to be saved by White men. It is harmful because it conveys the idea that Asian women cannot be independent or do anything for themselves. These negative stereotypes affect Asian female identity and portrayal in the media today.

Asian women have had their identity shaped by this history and these stereotypes. Even now, in the 21st century, modern Asian entertainment sexualizes Asian women. In K-pop, females are sexualized in music videos and on stage. Many girl groups are forced to portray a sexy concept so that they can increase sales by appealing to male fans. These involve drastic outfit changes and choreography with provocative movements. Music videos and performances are framed in a way in which the girls would have to expose their body parts to the audience.

Similarly, in anime, female characters are oversexualized to appeal to male audiences. Body types and proportions are highly unrealistic and serve to satisfy the audience’s desires. Even if a female character plays an integral role in the narrative, it is overshadowed by her sexuality. Since K-pop and anime have both found huge popularity in the West, this has also framed how Western audiences view Asian women, especially considering historical Western presence in Asia.

Yellow fever has emerged partly because White men are attracted to Asian women that they can conquer and consider their race before anything else. Many Asian women living in the West experience yellow fever on campus, dating apps and in microaggressions. Yellow fever is problematic because it erases a woman’s individuality and is demeaning. However, people are starting to embrace characteristics of Asian women that stray away from stereotypes.

There are some positive representations that have gained media attention, such as ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ and ‘Never Have I Ever.’ These portray Asian girls as the girl next door – having fun, growing up and going about their lives while dealing with teenage drama and angst. They have also received positive acclaim as young Asian girls have noted that they enjoyed seeing themselves represented in a positive manner.

Media can play a massive role in influencing change, for example by portraying Asian women in a wide range of roles that do not conform to any stereotype. By continually putting Asian women in roles that fall within negative stereotypes, the media is reinforcing ideals rooted from white sexual imperialism that evidently have adverse effects on real life women today. It’s the 21st century -- society should be moving past this and showing a more diverse range of characteristics of Asian women in the media to more accurately represent them.