Fetishization and Vulnerability: Asian Women in a System Designed for Western Benefit

By: Teiah Palhetas

Edited by: Cynthia Stringer

The structure of nations governed by a patriarchal system has given rise to various methods that oppress women, with one significant aspect being the exaggerated sexualization of the female experience. This tendency deeply affects women from Asian backgrounds, whose racial and gender identities are often unjustly reduced to simplistic sexual stereotypes in Western perceptions. Through cultural and legal frameworks, through media and Hollywood–Asian women are frequently portrayed as flat, overly compliant caricatures, leading to damaging misconceptions about them, especially among white men. In addition to the West’s hypersexualization of Asian women, which has persisted for many years, the recent surge in Asian hate crimes ignited by the COVID-19 outbreak also intensified the risk of sexual violence committed against East Asian women. The fetishization and stereotyping propagated by systems designed to favour white men and accentuate hypersexualization frequently result in the heightened political, social, and economic vulnerability of East Asian Women.

In Western societies, particularly the United States, the interplay between law and culture significantly influenced the hypersexualization of Asian women. The U.S. Page Act of 1875, for instance, stands as the first restrictive immigration law that specifically targeted Chinese women. It presumed they were prostitutes, and it barred their entry into the country. Although no longer active, this legislation perpetuated dehumanizing narratives against East Asian women, and it laid the foundation for the West’s sexual objectification of them. Another historical instance of the West perpetuating damaging sexual perceptions of East Asian Women occurred during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The combined presence of U.S. soldiers and the surrounding sex work industry in these regions further reinforced the “submissive Asian woman” stereotype, leading to a culture of objectification and exploitation. This expedient sexualization and demonization, where the use of racist and derogatory language is used to describe East Asian individuals, illustrates the hypocrisy within racialized gender discrimination. Hypersexualization conveniently justifies Western men’s predatory behaviour and violence against Asian women.

Media and Hollywood have played pivotal roles in both perpetuating the hypersexualization of and inciting emotional and physical harm against Asian women. Though primarily falling under the umbrella of “temptress,” East Asian women have been continuously cast into various sexually stereotypical roles. These portrayals not only strip these women of their multi-dimensional identities but also reduce them to mere sexual innuendos. Imperialistic productions like Miss Saigon, for example, a musical which tells the love story between a young Vietnamese prostitute and an American soldier during the Vietnam War, perpetuate damaging stereotypes by portraying East Asian women as primarily subservient and sexually available to white men, particularly in military contexts. The pervasive impact of the entertainment industry is evident in pornography as well. East Asian women are too often depicted in porn as sexually submissive and deceitful, further reinforcing existing stereotypes. 

The convergence of racism and sexism in media representations of East Asian women reflects a more significant issue. Stereotypical portrayals not only diminish their identity but also influence societal perceptions, contributing to tangible and damaging real-life consequences for East Asian women. In the entertainment industry, an overwhelming 80.9% of Asian and Pacific Islanders report experiencing microaggressions at work, with women bearing the brunt of these discriminatory behaviours. The challenges East Asian women face are not confined to the West; they permeate across borders, underscoring the pervasive dangers these women encounter in their home countries as well. Tragic events like that which occurred in Hong Kong in 2014 reveal the global extent of violence fueled by hypersexualized stereotypes against East Asian women. At the end of October 2014, a high-ranking British banker living and working in Hong Kong brutally tortured, raped, and murdered two Indonesian women. Evidence later uncovered showed that the murderer had enjoyed their pornographic torture and recorded the events on his smartphone. The need to challenge and rectify harmful stereotypes for a safer and more equitable environment is an urgent one.

At the onset of COVID-19, East Asians were scapegoats for the virus’ spread, resulting in a surge of targeted hate crimes against them. Statistics show that when hate crimes like verbal and physical harassment against Asian Americans spiked, a disproportionate number (74%) of the victims were East Asian women. On March 16, 2021, amid heightened anti-Asian hate, a man shot and killed a total of eight individuals at two spas and a massage parlour in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were Asian women. This tragedy highlights the perilous impact of stereotypes and misinformation. The perpetrator, attributing his actions to a supposed sex addiction, sought vengeance by targeting businesses commonly associated with East Asian women and the sexual temptation they represented. Despite initial reluctance to label it as such, Asian communities and scholars are adamant that the incident was racially- and gender-motivated. Many argue that the attacker’s actions were fueled by the fabricated portrayal of Asian women as seductresses and that he blamed them for the shame he felt for his sexual attraction to them. This tragedy reignited discussions on the systematic marginalization and hypersexualization of Asian women, emphasizing the dangers of misconceptions about minority groups. The shooter’s actions were rooted in imperialist and racist perceptions of Asian inferiority, perpetuating a cycle of violence against Asian women.

The violence against Asian women stems from a harmful mix of racist misogyny, often perpetuated by policies designed to favour and protect the interests of the white male. These policies often rely on superficial stereotypes to justify actions, reinforced by the media, Hollywood, and even the U.S. military. To address the deep-seated racism and sexism ingrained in Western culture, a comprehensive effort across all societal realms is crucial. Educational initiatives should incorporate the impact of imperialist conflicts in Asia on the depiction of Asian women in the West. It is vital to have open discussions that critically examine how Hollywood perpetuates these stereotypes. At a policy level, collaborations with local communities to reframe the narratives deeply entrenched in Western society. 

It is crucially necessary to pave the way for a future which ensures the safety and well-being of Asian women. Through the combination of education with proactive anti-racism measures, future generations can critically engage with damaging stereotypes, understanding their societal, political, and economic implications, and recognizing and deconstructing the pervasive stereotypes discussed herein. We can – and indeed, we must.



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Image Citation:

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