The Madame Butterfly Effect
Illustrations by Juliana Wang
“I can’t compete with an Asian chick,” says the comedian Amy Schumer. When a busty, blue-eyed blond—a type that launched a thousand wet dreams—admits she can’t contend with Asian women, it signals a certain shift in our culture’s preferred sexual tastes.
In her act “Mostly Sexy Stuff”—one of Comedy Central’s most watched stand-up routines of 2012—Schumer lists off all the reasons she can’t contend: Asian women are good at math, they have “naturally silky hair,” they cover their mouths modestly when they laugh “’cause they know men hate when women speak.” But trumping all of that? Asian women have “the smallest vaginas in the game.” Schumer, creator and star of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, has been described in the New York Times as having a “laserlike focus on sex and sexual politics,” yet her Asian-chick joke merely echoes already hackneyed stereotypes of Asian female anatomy.
This perception of our bodies had been news to me some 15 years ago, when I visited a friend at his MIT frat house. His fratmates—adhering in every way to the MIT stereotype (brainy, gadget-driven, perhaps involuntarily celibate)—proceeded to inform me of all the ways Asian women were desirable. As they deconstructed the female body, they ticked off features like they were taking inventory: Asian women had dark eyes, straight black hair, petite frames, and small hands (which, in the throes of third base, “make your dick look bigger”). When they gathered in the parlor to watch a pornographic video, they extended an invitation to me and I consented—when in Rome, I suppose. The screen flicked onto a white man and an Asian woman. As the man spun her in various sexual positions, the fratmates’ running commentary was punctuated with oohs and ahhs about the tightness of the Asian porn starlet’s genitalia. From that night at the frat house to Schumer’s joke and a million places in between, there is a casualness and ease when talking about this fetish, as if discussions about sex with Asian women were a normal everyday aspiration.
A recent study released by the online dating app Are You Interested found that Asian women are the most “desirable” racial group among white men (and men of all other races, for that matter, with the interesting exception of Asian men). What is particularly noteworthy about the AYI study is how quickly it went viral, despite its shaky stats. The data contradicted an earlier study published by sociologist Kevin Lewis examining interactions between OKCupid users. Lewis’s data showed that most potential dates preferred to initiate contact with people of the same race with the exception of Asian women, who were more likely to message white men than Asian men.
Yet the AYI chart quickly gained traction across social media outlets; even NPR ran a story based on the data, titled “Odds Favor White Men, Asian Women on Dating App.” Cultural evidence abounds that Asian women are “trending.” Terms like “Asian fetish,” “yellow fever,” and “Asiaphiles” circulate regularly in our modern-day vernacular without the need for an explanation. White male–Asian female pairings are so commonplace it’s almost a cliché. As a recent date once informed me: “You’re only my second Asian.” Writer, comedian, and performance artist Kristina Wong, in an XOJane.com article, writes: “White guys with Asian fetishes used to be easy to spot—pathetic social pariahs planning their sex tour vacations to Thailand, creeping around Japanese language classes. Now, Asiaphiles are attractive tattooed hipsters that possess fantastic social skills, and we meet them through friends of friends.”
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Asian women might be the flavor du jour, but the construct of the sexualized Asian female has been centuries in the making.
“There’s been a very long history and tradition in Europe of a kind of fascination with and terror of the Eastern ‘Other,’” says Kim Brandt, associate professor of Japanese history and author of Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan and the forthcoming Japan’s Cultural Miracle: Rethinking the Rise of a World Power, 1945–1965. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Western male fetishized the veiled Middle Eastern woman. One need only watch The Thief of Baghdad (1924) to catch a glimpse of some of these perceptions at work. In the 1840s, following the end of the First Opium War, the treaty port cities in China, Japan, and Korea were the site of a feeding frenzy for the United States and other Western powers—all desiring a piece of the profitable trade-route action. This led to a rise in the Western bourgeois desire for Oriental art and collectibles: decorative fans, postcards (more often than not bearing sexualized images of geishas), and other bric-a-brac.
Imagine the Victorian Western man—buttoned-up, moving stiffly through a society with strict social codes and uneasy views on sex and bodies—confronting the image of a Japanese geisha: a diminutive female dressed in rich fabrics, thick makeup painted across her face, jet-black hair piled high on top of her head. The geisha—the name coming from gei (art) and sha (person)—was at her essence an artist/entertainer. She was a separate entity entirely from the paid-for-hire prostitute (though she did engage in sexual favors if she so chose). Still, the geisha became a highly sexualized image for the Western male. “The East Asian female in native dress,” Brandt says, “was viewed as a decorative object but also a sexual object.”
At its core, to fetishize something—or someone—is to objectify it to the point that it becomes divorced from the person herself. And it’s easy to see how the fetishization of Asian women developed. Valerie Steele, in her book Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power, turns to 19th-century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing for an early working definition of fetishism: “The association of lust with the idea of certain portions of the female person, or with certain articles of female attire.” According to Krafft-Ebing, “in pathological eroticism the fetish itself (rather than the person associated with it) becomes the exclusive object of sexual desire.” There is an inherent deconstruction at work in this definition of the fetish, one that breaks down the actual female body. Steele posits that some degree of fetishization is the norm for men (but not for women); to indulge the old adage “divide and conquer,” one reading of fetishization could be the male attempt to conquer the foreign female body.
French writer Pierre Loti’s wildly popular 1887 novel, Madame Chrysanthème, largely cemented Western perceptions of Japan and, in turn, of Japanese women. (See our abridged timeline of the Madame Chrysanthème/Madame Buttefly archetype here.) The book is a semiautobiographical tale of a naval officer who travels to Nagasaki and takes a temporary wife—a woman who is painted as a plaything, another piece of Oriental artifact to be acquired. The wife he desires? A “little, creamy-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes. She must be pretty and not much bigger than a doll.” The novel is peppered with details of “slim,” “graceful,” “dainty” “little women” with “delicate hands, miniature feet” and “natural skin of deep yellow,” who are the “exact types of the figures painted on vases.” In one scene the narrator describes how the local women “grovel before me on the floor, placing all this plaything of a meal at my feet.” What we see emerging from Loti’s text are continual images of tiny, doll-like Japanese women no more human than, in Loti’s own words, “china ornaments.”
In The Chrysanthème Papers: The Pink Notebook of Madame Chrysanthème and Other Documents of French Japonisme, Christopher Reed describes the unquestionable impact of Loti’s novel—translated into every major European language and reprinted over 200 times during the course of the author’s life alone—on the Western construction of the East Asian woman. Reed writes that while Madame Chrysanthème still evokes a nostalgic pleasure for its era in French literature, recent scholarship on it and Loti’s other popular novels—which include similar travel narratives of Western men taking on a native woman as lover from Turkey to Tahiti—“often assess them as tools of sexual and cultural exploitation.”
Reed goes on to tell us that Loti today “is widely read as exemplifying what went wrong with Western approaches to the East.” Still, the image of miniature Asian dolls scuttling about with food trays was already set in motion.
Madame Chrysanthème is widely acknowledged as the source for Puccini’s famous opera, Madama Butterfly. The opera, which premiered in 1904, chronicles a similar story: Pinkerton, an American officer, travels to Japan and takes on a local wife during his sojourn, only to return to the West to legitimately marry a white American woman. Cio-Cio-San, the abandoned Japanese wife who has given up everything—her religion, her family, her son, and finally her own life—to be with Pinkerton, became a new archetype. Now the image of the Asian female—dainty, diminutive, doll-like—gets compounded with yet another feature: self-sacrifice. This specific narrative is so intertwined with the perception of Asian women that it was reworked with another Eastern locale in the 1989 musical Miss Saigon, set in Vietnam with the American war as a backdrop. After an announcement of the 2014 London revival of Miss Saigon, presale tickets were reported to be $4.4 million on the first day, breaking box office records and proving that the narrative is not just still popular, but profitable as well.
Loti’s and Puccini’s influence also found its way onto the pop charts; the band Weezer gave a direct nod to Madama Butterfly in their album Pinkerton (1996). Take, for instance, the lyrics to the song “Across the Sea,” dedicated to an 18-year-old Japanese girl: “I wonder what clothes you wear to school/ I wonder how you decorate your room/ I wonder how you touch yourself/ And curse myself for being across the sea.”
Hollywood’s Golden Age gave rise to another archetype of the sexualized Asian female: the dragon lady. Unlike her “butterfly” counterpart, the dragon lady was a fierce Asian woman who wielded power—more often than not of a sexual nature—to the detriment of the men around her. This vampy femme fatale was first popularized by the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, who, as the only high-profile Asian American actress of that era, “fascinated European and white American men at the time,” says Elaine H. Kim, professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley and writer and director of the short film Slaying the Dragon Reloaded: Asian Women in Hollywood and Beyond. The character was an exotic (read: dangerous) seductress, and Wong’s dragon-lady status was epitomized in her role as Fu Manchu’s daughter in Daughter of the Dragon (1931). Yet the characters Wong played always met the same tragic end; in many ways, dragon-lady roles were merely a racier rehash of Loti and Puccini’s quivering butterflies.
But perhaps the biggest factor sealing the image of the sexualized Asian female as we know it in the United States was the U.S. military presence in Asia, beginning in World War II and continuing through the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Military camp towns cropped up around the U.S. bases, and a local industry—namely “juicy bars” and brothels—was created with the sole purpose of servicing U.S. soldiers. With the universal draft, American men who may not have held preconceived ideas of Asian women were now shipped to Asia, where they would be confronted with local women working in the sex industry. Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket (1987), about American gis in the Vietnam War, made famous the following quote, uttered in broken English by a Vietnamese female prostitute: “Me so horny. Me love you long time. Me sucky sucky.” Mixed in 1989 as a sample in 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny,” the quote has taken on a pop-culture life of its own.
The American soldier–Asian female union began as one of commerce: money exchanged for sexual services. But historians layer a possible second reading to this narrative: colonization. The American GI—representing a first world power with first world resources and privileges—colonizes the Asian female, who comes from a place of poverty, weakness, and everything else often associated with the “third world.” The Asian female sex worker could be read as another version of the “dragon lady”—a seductress capitalizing on the demand for sex.
The end of the Korean War in the early 1950s created a rise in overseas adoption. War orphans were airlifted from Korea and later Vietnam. The aftermath of the wars abroad brought about “an idea of benevolence toward Asian countries—of bringing women and children into our beautiful families,” Kim explains. “At that time, it was possible to think of bringing an Asian woman into your family, and not just someone you take in the back alley.”
A savior narrative began to take shape—Asian women became the native women who needed to be whisked away from their impoverished homeland. In the backdrop of the emergence of “blended” families came two films introducing the archetype of the “noble-hearted” Asian prostitute in need of salvation: Sayonara (1957) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). The “native” woman gets her fairy-tale ending: The Western man marries her.
This salvation narrative is also exemplified in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American, set just before the dawn of the Vietnam War. When the titular American, a young, overly idealistic man named Alden Pyle, first lays eyes on Phuong, a young Vietnamese dancer who is already mistress to an older British journalist named Thomas Fowler, he says, “She seems fresh, like a flower.” Later, Pyle informs Fowler of his plans to steal Phuong away from him and take her back to America as his wife. “I want to keep her,” Pyle insists. “I want to protect her.” To which Fowler, who is already married to an Englishwoman back home, retorts, “I don’t. She doesn’t need protection. I want her around, I want her in my bed.” Greene’s novel presents both forms of the romanticized Asian female: the native woman as “layover” wife during your foreign sojourn as well as the native woman you want to airlift from the wreckage and whisk back to the safety of American soil. As for Phuong, the object of desire for these two Western men, she remains ever silent. For the majority of the novel Pyle and Fowler talk over her, filling in her desires and wishes with their own.
• • •
Surveying the history of representation in text and film, the Asian female has continually been exoticized and eroticized, an image that persists today. Last year Katy Perry’s performance of “Unconditionally” at the American Music Awards was both lauded and derided as a form of “yellowface.” Perry appeared onstage in a Hollywood (read: sexier) version of a kimono, along with a troupe of similarly clad backup dancers. They spun their paper umbrellas on a set designed like a Japanese garden and sang about, well, unconditional love. Bloggers dubbed it Perry’s “geisha performance” and criticized it as perpetuating images of the groveling, self-sacrificial woman who has been abandoned.
Cases of extreme “Asiaphiles” abound—the subject of Debbie Lum’s recent documentary Seeking Asian Female is a self-described Asiaphile named Steven Bolstad, a 60-year-old white male who finds his bride in China through an online service. When asked what drew him to his prospective wife, he simply responds, “She looks so Chinese!” but fails to elaborate on what he actually means by “Chinese.” The abhorrent and potentially harmful case of Michael Lohman, a Princeton graduate student who “admitted to pouring his urine and semen into the drinks of Asian women more than 50 times” in the graduate school cafeteria is an example of an Asian fetish gone too far.
But perhaps the Asian fetish is best captured in the song “Asian Girlz,” released last summer by a band called Day Above Ground—a song that quickly went viral with lyrics like the following: “I love your creamy yellow thighs/ Ooh your slanted eyes/ It’s the Year of the Dragon/ Ninja pussy I’m stabbin’/ Asian girl, you’re my Asian girl.”
Rivaling the lyrics was the video itself; it featured a skimpily dressed Asian woman who drinks a magic potion, shrinks down a troupe of (white) men, and locks them up in a cage. The public may have decried the crassness of the song, but no one was asking for explanations for the references made in the lyrics—once again demonstrating how pervasive stereotypes of the sexualized Asian female have become in our culture. The band quickly released a statement explaining what they called their satirical tribute to “the always lovely Asian woman [...] some of the most gorgeous women on the planet.”
In a recent New York Times piece, Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Mahler writes, “When you fetishize—as opposed to value—something, you wind up celebrating the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself.” In other words, the fetishized subject becomes the objectified. And when this fetishization applies to a whole group of people, like Asians, it translates to an obsession with the idea of the Asian woman, rather than the individual herself. UrbanDictionary.com, that shorthand source on all matters current and crude, cites the “primary” definition of the Asian fetish as a “strong attraction to Asians, most prevalent in Caucasian males. Although Asian girls have A’s in more than just grades: what they lack in boobs, they make up for in beauty. Usually exotic and petite, guys don’t necessarily feel superior but more masculine around them.”
The perception of sexualized Asian women was informed by a long tradition of the Western male writing and controlling that perception, leaving the women with no agency and no control over their own representation. Asian women in the media have been few and far between; what few there were often had no choice but to take on the archetypal roles of Asian females. But the landscape is changing. The earlier Asian female icons are joined by a growing rank of women working to shed the stifling images of self-sacrificial butterflies or the dragon-lady seductress. From Connie Chung to Julie Chen, from Margaret Cho to Sandra Oh to Saving Face director Alice Wu, we are seeing a rise of Asian American women taking control of their own representation. With heightened visibility and the increased diversity of voices in our culture, we hope to have more nuanced narratives about the lives of Asian women. It might be only a matter of time before these pervasive, confining archetypes of Asian women themselves become dated. Soon the Asian female may no longer be presented as wordless Phuongs, leaving the Western male to fill in the ellipses of her narrative.
Patricia Park has been published in the New York Times, the Guardian, Slice Magazine, and others. Her forthcoming first novel, Re Jane, is a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre. Follow her work at patriciapark.com.
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