By Kaitlin Wright
(Photo: Actress Anna May Wong depicting Asian women stereotypes. Source:Hyphenproject.wordpress.com)
In The Hypersexuality of Race, Celine Parreñas Shimizu discusses the idea of the “bind of representation”. Shimizu articulates that popular images of, in this case Asian American women, relegate the Asian woman to a simple, confined role. In the examples cited in Shimizu’s text, the female Asian character is an overly sexualized woman who is mysterious and exotic and the characters are often portrayed as prostitutes. In Western films, the roles that are made available for Asian American actresses are not very diverse– They can either play the submissive, lotus blossom or the sexual dominatrix. It is interesting that that these two characters have completely opposite attitudes when it comes to Asian American experience.
These roles are limiting and people fear “the coexisting desire for Asian American women’s hypersexual visual representation to involve the possibility of verifying real Asian women” (88). Asian American actresses are often type-casted for certain roles because casting directors and producers are looking to fulfill a particular image. An interesting point that Shimizu makes regarding this image is her analysis that these roles are so one dimensional that the audience cannot relate to the character. For example, the conniving, brutal, sexual tease that embraces violence is “rendered inhuman, a sex machine (88). The idea of inhumanity relates to this broader topic of the Asian American “other”. The constant grouping of Asian Americans as separate from all other members of society has perpetuated the conception of Asian Americans as foreign.
Even though this unrelatable, inhuman character, does not represent many Asians in actuality, their is a risk that constant employment of Asian Americans for these particular roles “captures the projection of group racial characteristics” (89). All of Asian Americans begin to be viewed as the same as all other Asian Americans. Performers are casted based on everything, from height, to length of hair to race. Shimizu makes a point that as this topic is discussed more, there is “an understanding of stereotypes as living images and not simply frozen one[s]” ( 64). Stereotypes are repeated and enlivened anew constantly. With the hypersexuality of Asian American woman as an example, we can see that this image is not something that is a stagnant remnant of past media representation. The role still exists.
On the underside of this discussion, is the acknowledgement of the male Asian American roles in film. Also written by Shimizu, Straitjacket Sexualities discusses the role of men in Western cinema and focuses on the apparent lack of heroic qualities that would make the Asian American a masculine, leading man. The discussion in this book relates somewhat to the role of women talked about in Hypersexuality of Race because it deals with the same medium. In this book, Shimizu makes a point that “it is in the location of the spectator in the act of any viewing that we can see the potential to transform our culture” (202). Media needs to transition out of these habitual characterizations and accept updated, non-racialized, portrayals of people. The hypersexualized Asian American female is a role that inhibits the agency of Asian Americans in not only the film and TV industry but in the greater social context. As Shimizu says, “hypersexuality, performed and consumed pleasurably as well as painfully, expresses yearning for better representations and realities for those marginalized by race and gender” (5).