Challenging Representations of Asian Americans in Film

Dana Roy


“What if we reclaim the hypersexuality of Asian women on screen as both enslaving and empowering?” –Shimizu

In Shimizu’s The Hypersexuality of Race, I became interested in the ways that Asian women are represented in the media.  Shimizu asserts that sexual critique cannot be examined without also examining the Asian American woman. As I watched more movies and became aware of this idea, I started to notice the ways in which this statement is true even still. Asian women are often still characterized with a dangerous sexuality and alluring seduction. The image of Asian women as femme fatale is perpetuated by the roles that actresses such as Lucy Liu have made famous. In reading Shimizu’s theory on understanding the role that Asian actresses play in hypersexualized roles, I found it interesting that she involved the idea of a “passionate attachment”. I understood this to mean that Asian women must have the desire to play a subordinate role. This desire also reaffirms a visuality we become familiar with again and again. Does this mean that Asian actresses/actors are perpetuating these  hypersexualized characters because it is their only option? Are we generally accepting of this image of the Asian woman in our generation?

As I reflect on the roles that have been taken up by actresses like Lucy Liu, Anna May Wong, and Nancy Kwan, I see how their roles have supported the storyline of the films they are cast in. I never thought about how their roles aid the character development of the protagonists, who are usually Caucasian. Shimizu uses the example of Anna May Wong in The Thief of Bagdad to illustrate how her role helped contrast the princess’s role as a pure character. Anna May Wong’s character as a Mongol slave girl is further sexualized through her actions of drugging the princess. Shimizu analyzes this as a “serious determination” in characterization which further demonstrates her role as the subject-in-struggle. In connection to our discussion in class about alternative femininity and alternative masculinity, the roles that Asian/American actresses/actors portray can be seen as representations of a new envisioning of gender roles.

This new envisioning can be evinced by the characters that Bruce Li has played. He challenges society’s idea of masculinity by the way he treats women in romantic scenes, never asserting physical acts of sex, but rather, showing a sense of control, caution, and respect. His character is supported by the women’s character in a way that allows him to demonstrate responsibility as a citizen as well as an ethical man. I think that these character roles show more complexity and give more opportunities for Asian American actors and actresses to breakthrough the stereotypes that they have been categorized to in the past.


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