Here's how pop culture has perpetuated harmful stereotypes of Asian women

Elyse Pham
·11 min read

In “Full Metal Jacket,” a critically acclaimed film about the Vietnam War, there’s a two-minute long scene whose cultural legacy has endured far beyond its 1987 debut.

A Vietnamese woman, clad in a miniskirt and hot pink tank top, sashays up to a few American GIs. “Me so horny. Me love you long time,” she says, running her hands over her body. For $10 each, the GIs can get “everything” they want.

Over 30 years later, six Asian women were killed and the suspect, a white man, reportedly told investigators that he had a sexual addiction and viewed their massage parlors as a “temptation” that he “wanted to eliminate.” People condemned it as a shocking act of violence; they wondered how such a twisted worldview came to be. But Asian women — whether it’s growing accustomed to negative portrayals of themselves in the media or stomaching offhand comments from friends and strangers alike — know that Robert Aaron Long’s words are hardly new. And according to experts, the ingrained imagery of Asian women as sexual objects can easily spill over into tragedy. A recent report by Stop AAPI Hate found that over the past year, Asian women made up 68% of the victims of anti-Asian hate crimes.

“They’re objectified, right? So if they’re thought of as prostitutes and sex workers, then they’re objects to be purchased, to be had, but not subjects to know and respect and understand,” Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist who specializes in Hollywood’s representation of Asian Americans, told TODAY during a phone call. “You’re there for one purpose, and one purpose alone.”

This conception of Asian women didn’t emerge out of nowhere — instead, it’s been continually established and re-established throughout the history of the United States. The Page Act of 1875, for example, technically prohibited the immigration of “Oriental” laborers brought against their will or for “lewd and immoral purposes.” In practice, though, it only enforced the latter criteria, functionally banning all East Asian women from entering the country.

“They were characterized as potentially carrying sexual diseases. They were also characterized as being temptations for white men,” said Yuen. In this way, the country’s first ever restrictive federal immigration law cemented a double-edged trope of Asian women: not only as prostitutes, but also as forever foreigners, incompatible with America itself.

Moreover, America’s endless military presence in Asia — from Japan to Vietnam to the Philippines — has resulted in the occupation of Asian women’s bodies as much as the occupation of land. Around military bases are “camp towns,” Yuen explained, where there's a high incidence of sex work. But the uneven power dynamic between American soldiers and Asian sex workers mean that these relationships are generally exploitative, premised on the idea of unlimited sexual access to Asian women.

Such histories have heavily influenced pop culture, which has, in turn, materially impacted Asian women in their everyday lives. According to Yuen, almost every East Asian and Southeast Asian woman she knows has been propositioned by men on the street — catcalls that often invoke the “exotic prostitute” trope displayed in “Full Metal Jacket.”

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After the attack in Atlanta, Asian women took to social media to share the reality of this phenomenon. “I've been cornered on the street as men say ‘me love you long time.’ I've been offered money for a ‘happy ending massage.’ I've been hit on because I'm Asian and told it's a ‘compliment,’” wrote one Asian woman on Twitter, garnering over 48,000 retweets. Countless other women replied with their own experiences: They’ve been called “China doll” on the subway, or subjected to “five dollah sucky sucky” as a so-called joke.

“It’s a sexual connotation that cannot be removed from race,” Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Director of the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University, told TODAY over the phone, pointing out that Long targeted businesses commonly associated with Asian women. “And it’s attributed to a particularly long history of the hypersexuality of Asian American women in our international consciousness, and in the fantasies that have been offered by the theater and film.”

TODAY asked experts about what these harmful fantasies look like — and how some of society’s most beloved pieces of pop culture might have perpetuated them.

The ‘lotus blossom’

A perfect recipe of romance, violence and tragedy, the dramatic saga of “Miss Saigon” remains one of the most vivid representations of the Vietnam War in pop culture. Since its London opening in 1989, the musical has won thirty prestigious awards, reached eighteen countries, and enjoyed the largest advance ticket sale in Broadway history.

But when a national tour of the musical came to Madison, Wisconsin, in 2019, Lori Kido Lopez — a media and cultural studies professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — protested outside of the theater. As she told TODAY over Zoom, “Miss Saigon” embodies “the classic story of the self-sacrificing Asian woman.”

Kim, the protagonist, is a sex worker who falls passionately in love with an American GI — a romance that is, as Lopez pointed out, “already extremely uncomfortable because there’s a power dynamic where he’s paying her for sex.” He promises to take her back to the states; she promptly becomes pregnant. But the plan fails, leaving her languishing in war-torn Vietnam with a child to raise on her own.

“So many times in the media, we see the romantic pairing of white men and Asian women,” said Lopez, describing the trope of the "lotus blossom." “The Asian woman is very quiet and submissive and can’t speak for herself. Oftentimes, the plot revolves around her literally needing to be saved… and needing the white man to both romance her and do things for her that she could never do for herself.”

“Miss Saigon” ends with Kim shooting herself so her son can move to America with the GI’s family and pursue a better life that she can’t provide. Up until that point, Kim’s character remains passive, lovesick to the point of despair. Self-destruction — and the implicit admission of helplessness — is her only real act of agency.

Memoirs of a Geisha ((C)Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection / (C)Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Eve)
Memoirs of a Geisha ((C)Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection / (C)Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Eve)

Where else in pop culture can I find this stereotype?

  • "The World of Suzie Wong," a 1960 romance film about a young British artist who falls in love with a Hong Kong prostitute

  • "Mean Girls," the infamous 2004 comedy in which two Asian high school girls who can't speak English are portrayed as promiscuous for hooking up with the football coach — even though they're the ones being taken advantage of

  • "Memoirs of a Geisha," a 2005 epic drama about a woman sold to a geisha house

The ‘dragon lady’

The 1967 James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” features two Asian women as Bond girls — an impressive fact when you consider the rarity of Asian women on the big screen today. But the impressiveness certainly fades a bit when in bed, Sean Connery’s Bond asks Ling (Tsai Chin), “Why do Chinese girls taste so different from the others?” Referencing the Chinese dish, Ling tells him, “Darling, I give you very best duck.”

Then, suddenly, Ling pushes a button and mobilizes two armed Asian men into trying to kill him.

On the flip side of the submissive "lotus blossom" stereotype is that of the more dominant "dragon lady," said Yuen. “You’re either an object that’s for the taking or something that could be a temptation, a temptress.”

Oftentimes as sexual as the lotus blossom, the dragon lady manipulates her sexuality toward deadly ends. Ling’s sexuality, for example, was a disguise for her role as a spy. One moment, she was the epitome of submissiveness, playing into Bond’s sexual pleasure; the next, she posed a threat to his life. She revealed herself as duplicitous, cold and morally bankrupt.

It’s “servile yet dangerous… a double move,” explained Shimizu. “What’s fascinating about the figure of the Asian woman is this coexistence of the powerful forces of the sex drive and the death drive. She’s a subordinated figure, but she also possesses a force of destruction through her actions.”

You only Live Twice (PA Images / PA Images via Getty Images)
You only Live Twice (PA Images / PA Images via Getty Images)

The combination of sexuality and danger has been inscribed onto Asian women throughout history — another version of "yellow peril," which pits a scheming, malevolent Asia against the innocence of the West. And while it might appear to push back against the lotus blossom trope, Lopez argues that Hollywood’s dragon ladies are similarly flattened into racialized caricatures.

“I’m sure people think, ‘Oh, it’s so great that they’re so powerful,’ but they’re also violent and hyper-sexualized,” she said. “As well as being side characters who we don’t get to learn a lot about, or villains, so they have to be removed by the end.”

In other words, Asian women are rarely given a personality beyond this extreme, sexualized form of aggression. They're mysterious and unknowable and, necessarily, less deserving of empathy.

It places the burden on Asian women to constantly prove their humanity, said Shimizu. "Like, I can be a normal kid, someone who has a job, and a different kind of person that isn't subsumed by this sexuality that's fearsome."

Daughter Of The Dragon (LMPC / LMPC via Getty Images)
Daughter Of The Dragon (LMPC / LMPC via Getty Images)

Where else in pop culture can I find this stereotype?

  • "Daughter of the Dragon," the 1931 crime drama about the daughter of Chinese crime lord Fu Manchu who carries out his murderous biddings

  • "Kill Bill," the 2003 Quentin Tarantino film that, while featuring a host of female assassins, shows Lucy Liu's character committing her murders in traditional Japanese costume

  • "Ally McBeal," the '90s legal-comedy drama in which the one Asian female character is defined by being both ruthlessly mean and sexually adventurous

Lucy Liu ((C)Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection / (C)Miramax/Courtesy Everett Colle)
Lucy Liu ((C)Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection / (C)Miramax/Courtesy Everett Colle)

Positive representations

Few Asian actresses have accrued cultural capital — and the ones who managed to do so have long been subjected to criticism, with members of their own communities asking why they've willingly embodied racial and gendered stereotypes. But it's important to remember that those stereotypes were, until very recently, the only roles that Hollywood offered: Either Asian women played into them or couldn't be on-screen at all.

"When you have very limited media representations... it has more power to impact the way that other people see them, and the boxes that they put them into," said Lopez.

The problem isn't necessarily Asian women playing, say, sexy murderers, but the fact that the media neglects to show them as anything else.

Moreover, characters that appear to conform to a stereotype — or storylines that surround stereotypical topics — might, under closer examination, be worthy of celebrating.

"That's the challenging thing about stereotypes... You can't just point to a stereotype and name it and say, 'Therefore, that's a bad media representation,'" Lopez explained. "Because all of these stereotypes can be recuperated in some way if the movie focuses on them, or the TV show allows that character to grow and change and have interesting plot lines."

As slow as the change may be, experts hope that the entertainment industry is beginning to move in that direction. Lopez pointed to Melinda May from Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D"while viewers might initially perceive her as a classic dragon lady, her character's evolution and emotional depth defies that categorization.

Lana Condor (Netflix)
Lana Condor (Netflix)

Netflix content, such as "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," "Never Have I Ever" and "The Half of It,"was a source of uplift for Shimizu throughout quarantine, she said. In these coming-of-age stories, Asian teenage girls certainly don't shy away from exploring sex and sexuality. But unlike the lotus blossom trope, those topics aren't "overdetermined by this strange perversity."

Instead, the characters exercise agency over their sexuality and set the terms of it. Whether it's Lara Jean navigating her first-ever boyfriend or Devi on a mission to lose her virginity, these movies and shows allow young Asian girls to see people who look like them just growing up, having fun, and ultimately, embodying full and complex characters.

"It's really important to... assert that the need to define ourselves, as sexual and racial figures beyond what they say we are, is an ongoing project that we continue to have the space for," said Shimizu. "We can unsay what they say about us when we make our own stories."