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

Thursday, April 1, 2021 - 15:10

By Elyse Pham of Today

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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