The University Record, February 4, 1997

Films show Asian, Asian American women as stereotypes, panel says

By Anita Chik
News and Information Services


Mysterious, exotic, sexy, gentle and pretty---all these elements found in the "dragon lady" on films may not always hold true for all Asian women. "Celluloid Images of Asian and Asian American Women," presented as part of Martin Luther King celebration activities, featured three panelists discussing the origins of stereotypes of Oriental women after a short film screening.

"It's easy for people to meet any Asians and make them as a representative of their culture," Yale Chinese history doctoral student Yili Wu said. "It's important for us to know that each individual is different."

Wu referred to the two films shown before the discussion: a feature, Picturing Oriental Girls: A Re-Education video, and a documentary, Slaying the Dragon. She said she agrees with the general concept of Asian women presented in both films. The first film featured a series of film clips from Karate Kid II, Star Trek and Twin Peaks to You Only Live Twice. It demonstrated how images of a muscular American man with a nude Asian wife or girlfriend continue to exist in today's films and how Chinese women are usually portrayed as beautiful, sexually available, exotic, and loyal but submissive. Slaying the Dragon combined film, television and interview clips of directors and Asian American actresses. It discussed how media portrayals of Asian women change as different historical events, such as the Vietnam War and World War II, change society's perceptions.

Wu said both American and Asian men's ideals imposed on women over the past centuries contribute to the stereotypes of Asian females displayed on the screen.

"If you examine the history of China, you'll find that many Asian women try to fulfill the desire of Chinese men," Wu said. "Chinese women, for example, used to be passive. They had to obey their father and their husband, doing all the housework.

"We still see the same situations happening in modern Asian and Asian American families," he said.

Wu added that white people often categorize Asian women as unusual and mysterious mostly because of their ignorance of Asian countries and traditions.

Panelist Vanessa Nolan, a U-M doctoral student in Chinese literature, questioned whether people should extend the definition of stereotype beyond race. She said most Americans classify Asians as Chinese, Japanese and Korean only, ignoring other Asian cultures. Nolan said Asian American and Asian women should explore their own cultures and the Western influence they receive to understand the origins of media bias.

U-M doctoral student in Chinese literature Jin Feng echoed Nolan's comments: "Everybody, not only Asians, should be aware of their own stereotypes."

Feng said people tend to accept positive stereotypes from the media, such as those depicted in The Good Earth---a Chinese female peasant with great strength, dignity, patience, sensitivity and sympathy. The media portrayals, she said, are often images of imagination. She said people often pick up fragments of film images and internalize them to make the stereotypes part of the image they want to present to Westerners.

"All people have stereotypes to help them handle reality," Feng said. "We have to know our limits. We should identify what those stereotypes are, and how different reality and imagination are."