“Yellow Fever” and the Hypersexualization of Asian Women in Film
Illustration by Beena Mistry
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 war film Full Metal Jacket, Papillon Soo-Soo plays a Vietnamese sex worker soliciting American GIs. Scantily clad in a leather slit skirt and teetering high heels, she takes a long, slow drag on her cigarette and recites the lines, “Me so horny. Me love you long time.”
The term became sensationalized. You might have heard female vocals ooze the phrase in a 1989 2 Live Crew track. It was repeated ten years later in the film Payback by Lucy Liu’s Pearl, a sex worker characterized by her garish black leather lingerie and fishnet stockings.
From the introduction of motion pictures in 1890 to the Marvel superheroes that took over Hollywood in 1993, we’ve seen incredible changes that have altered film as we know it today. However, one thing has remained constant: the portrayal of East and Southeast Asian women as disposable, quiet and invisible.
Ask anybody who came of age in the early 2000s and they can describe, faintly like an afterimage, their encounter with Asian women and girls in film. They’ll think about the hundreds of faceless characters in silk robes and conical hats they’ve seen flickering across television screens. Maybe they’ll briefly recall a heavily-accented sultry voice dripping from glossy red lips. They might even put a name to one or two side characters that served as a cheap punchline, like Japanese twins Fook Mi and Fook Yu from the third Austin Powers film or Trang Pak, one of the Cool Asians from Mean Girls.
Even with the emergence of new feminist concepts in film, from the controversial Bechdel test to the constantly-shifting idea of a “strong female character,” we see history repeating itself time and time again when it comes to the representation of Asian women in film.
In Madame Butterfly, a critically-acclaimed 1904 American opera, 15-year-old Japanese character Cio Cio San commits suicide after her white lover abandons her. Cio Cio San exemplifies the “Lotus Blossom” or the “China Doll” trope – hyper-feminine, subservient and docile.
More than a century later, a tasteless Family Guy joke implies that Quagmire, the Griffin family’s “sex-crazed” neighbour, was keeping Asian sex slaves in his basement. When they escape, half-naked and babbling incoherently in a racist caricature of an Asian language, Quagmire says, “Don’t worry about it, they’re tagged.” It’s meant to be a throwaway line, but ultimately leaves viewers wondering if he’s “too gross to be funny.”
Traditionally, if Asian women in film aren’t “Lotus Blossoms,” then they are “Dragon Ladies,” a stereotype that depicts Asian women as strong, deceitful and sexually alluring.
The Dragon Lady trope was borne from the same theme of hypersexualization and exoticism where Asian women are portrayed for a male-driven fantasy. The idea is nothing new.
In the age of mainstream feminism and digital technology, creatives and directors are making conscious efforts to include “strong” women in their narratives, often in the form of a martial artist or fighter. DC samurai warrior Katana in Suicide Squad and Kill Bill’s O-Ren Ishii were portrayed with little identity beyond their martial arts prowess. Thousands of Asian women on screen are depicted wielding swords and nunchucks in skimpy armour, but physical strength and agility are not substitutes for personality.
One Twitter user brought up Hollywood’s trope of rebellious Asian women with colourful streaks of hair, from Glee’s Tina Cohen-Chang to Nikki Wong from 6teen. Why did so many Asian American women sport that streak of blue or lavender against otherwise jet-black hair?
Film directors often use colourful hair streaks to differentiate a subversive, bold and fiercely independent Asian woman from the rest of her race. Plenty of Asian American women bring home tubs of bright Manic Panic hair dye to subvert stereotypes, but in the world of television, coloured hair streaks are often just a crutch creators lean on to avoid developing complex Asian characters.
The fetishization of Asian women has become a commodity rooted in U.S. militarism. When wars wreaked havoc in Asian countries, thousands of women were forced into prostitution to survive. “Where there are soldiers, there are women who exist for them. This is practically a cliché,” said Katherine H.S. Moon, a professor of political science at Wellesley College.
The emergence of films after U.S.-led wars in Asia solidified the image of the submissive, hypersexualized Asian woman.
The term “yellow fever” surfaced only shortly after. Colloquially, it’s used to describe a person’s “type” or a “preference” for Asian women – but there is nothing flattering about a racial fetish. At its root is an uncontrollable desire for East and Southeast Asian women akin to contracting a disease or “fever.” The term has moved beyond social circles and is taking place in the recent wave of anti-Asian hate and violence.
In March 2021, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, [Robert Aaron Long fatally shoot eight women (https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/27/us/atlanta-spa-shooting-plea/index.html) at three Asian-owned spas offering massage services in Atlanta, six of which were of Asian descent. The deadly string of shootings took the world by storm, sending investigators scrambling for more information – and while it’s been confirmed that the shooting was racially motivated, few know the twisted secret behind the shooter’s motives who plead guilty to the crime later in the year.
Long told the police he had a “sex addiction” that triggered the shooting and saw the massage parlors as a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.” “We don’t know if any of the women were engaged in sex work,” said Stacey Hannem, an associate professor of criminology at Wilfred Laurier University. “But they were still killed because the shooter apparently thought they were.”
On-screen portrayals bleed into reality, stripping away the myriad diverse cultures that flourish in Asian communities and replacing Asian identities with one big monolith centred around whiteness and Orientalism.
Nancy Wang Yuen, an American sociologist and professor of sociology at Biola University, told Teen Vogue, “The first images of Asians were played by white actors in yellowface in villainous, exotic, and demeaning ways.”
In 1937, German actress Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her yellowface portrayal of O-Lan, a struggling Chinese farmer in The Good Earth. Anna May Wong, the first Asian American movie star in Hollywood history, initially auditioned for the part of O-Lan, but MGM passed her over to the role of a scheming courtesan. “You’re asking me,” she said, “with Chinese blood, to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” Miscegenation laws, which did not allow for interracial romantic relationships on-screen, further limited Wong’s opportunities.
In 1944, Dragon Seed was released with white actress Katharine Hepburn playing Jade, a Chinese peasant woman. Hepburn, portrayed with slanted eyes and blunt bangs, is one of Hollywood’s most glaring examples of yellowface. The first time I saw Hepburn’s hollow caricature of an Asian woman, all I could think was, Is this what we are to you?
Most Hollywood films reflected a white director’s imagination of Asian Americans. Even when Asian actors and actresses began to play Asian American characters, they were plagued by the same stereotypes that saddled their white predecessors. Many were forced to leave Hollywood and mainstream media to create their own projects.
Anna May Wong criticized Hollywood’s portrayal of Chinese and Chinese American characters as stereotypical villains. The glamorous and politically-outspoken movie star was known for her roles as the villainous temptress in Daughter of the Dragon (1931) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). She is typically associated with the Dragon Lady trope.
We didn’t begin to see major improvements until the late 1950s. In 1961, Flower Drum Song was released. It was a big-budget major motion picture set in Chinatown, featuring a predominantly Asian American cast. This kitschy film highlights the stories of Chinese immigrants and contains a thinly veiled commentary on racist immigration policies. But, despite its efforts, movie buffs have been critiquing its whitewashed depiction of Chinese characters and Chinatown.
Characters like Julie from Friends (1995) and Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls (2000) redefined Asian narratives on screen during the late 90s and early 2000s. We see well-rounded Asian women and girls taking the stage where their identities are no longer front and centre in the roles they’re given. Lane, Rory Gilmore’s childhood best friend, played by Keiko Agena, navigates the challenges of living with her conservative Korean mother while pursuing her rock-and-roll dreams. Gilmore Girls, despite its tasteless characterization of South Asian culture, strived to love its Asian American cast and characters. Other actresses, like Sandra Oh and Ming-Na Wen, were trailblazers for Asian Americans in the film industry.
In recent years, we’ve seen major changes in Asian storytelling. Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh and Vietnamese-American actress Hong Chau were recently nominated for the 2023 Oscars. Films like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) were written or directed by Asian Americans, revealing fresh, funny and ultimately more nuanced Asian leads.
Asian voices in film have grown a lot since the early 1900s. I remember watching The Half of It, a quiet coming-of-age comedy following Ellie Chu, the clever, well-read Chinese American lead who helps an earnest jock win the affection of a girl they’ve both fallen for. The Half of It gave me the first queer Asian story that did not focus on these parts of her identity, but rather the story she had to tell.
Asian women and girls are not expendable. We are not the cause of your “yellow fever” or exotic objects of desire for white male fetishization. We are not your sidechicks, scheming femme fatales or homewreckers.
Slowly, we’re seeing Asian women solidify into the heroines of their own stories – we’re seeing women who are strong and fiercely independent, yet incredibly human.
But, like with most aspects of humanity, we still have a long way to go. In the words of American writer Audre Lorde, “Revolution is not a one-time event.”
About the author: Robina Nguyen (she/her) is a Vietnamese-Canadian student based in Toronto. Her work has been featured in Nova Ukraine, West End Phoenix, Shameless Magazine and more. She loves to paint, haunt local bookstores and argue about the Oxford comma.