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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Asian American Heritage Month, day 5

The Lotus Blossom and the Dragon Lady It is often said that the APIA activist community is heavily divided by gender. Asian American women claim it is a 'man's movement' because of the long-standing cultural sexism inherent in many Asian heritages, such as the heavy emphasis placed upon women to bear sons to carry on the family name -- bearing a daughter is considered shameful for a family and lead to high rates of infanticide and secretly giving up daughters for adoption by mothers under China's One Child Policy. On the other hand, Asian American men argue that the APIA policitized movement is a 'woman's movement' -- placing heavy emphasis on gender politics that affect and hypersexualize women, while placing little or no emphasis on the emasculated Asian male stereotypes. Many influential Asian American activists are women, argue APIA men, and not enough time is spent focussing the APIA community on questions of Asian American male identity. Unfortunately, today may be one of those times. Asian gender stereotypes began during the time of the Silk Road when the East was exotically described by traders emphasizing the fantastical differences between the so-called Orient and Western Europe. Men were hyperfeminized and women were described as agressive and hypermasculine -- the quintessential "dragon lady". Since that early Orientalization of the East, the West has been fascinated with tales of life in Asia, opening museums for Chinese artifacts and putting on plays meant to depict life in Asia. The West was particularly interested in the hypersexualized demure woman, especially in the peculiar act of foot-binding, which Europe and later America found so different from their own practices. As stories about the Orient trickled to the newly-founded America, Americans developed a perception of Asian women as obedient, subservient, and soft-spoken -- both exotic and exotically sexual. This perception was only heightened by the virtual invisibility of Asian women in early frontier America; Chinese women were seen rarely and when they were seen, they were primarily in the role as sexual slave or prostitute, subservient to their pimp owners or johns. The dragon lady or hypersexualized, extroverted Asian female reentered modern pop culture recently, and can be traced to such film representations as the prostitute in Full Metal Jacket, who popularized the phrase 'Sucky! Sucky! Five dolla!', 'Me so horny!', and 'Me love you long time!' No longer were Asian women demure housewives or pristine China dolls to be looked at and not touched, a conflicting stereotype had emerged of the Asian woman as sex driven, sex-defined, and sexually perverse. The exotic Orientalism of the dragon lady has also since been associated with sadomasochism -- eroticizing the role reversal of the submissive Asian schoolgirl Lotus Blossom, many S&M dominatrix characters in recent films have been played by Asian women. In both cases, though again we are seeing two extremes of Asian female perception, in both cases women are defined not as people but as an object of sexuality. Asian men may argue that this brings Asian women to a place of social influence that Asian men, demasculated and short-changed in the dating scene, cannot enjoy; however I would argue that being sexually objectified for mainstream culture is merely another form of dehumanization, oppression, and control. It is only by redefining Asian women as something more than the sum of our sexuality will we begin to find a real, feminist identity.

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