The growing movement against Hollywood's hypersexualization of Asian women

Following an increase in anti-Asian violence, Asian actors and scholars have begun a campaign to change how they are portrayed in movies and TV.

'We've gone from invisible to untouchable,' says comedian Margaret Cho

Images from (from left) Madame Butterfly, Austin Powers, and The World of Suzie Wong are shown. Scholars say they are examples of negative representations of Asian women in the entertainment industry. (W. and D. Downey/Getty Images, New Line Cinema, Bert Cann/Paramount British Pictures)

Margaret Cho doesn't go outside anymore.

While that sentence may seem unsurprising for life during a pandemic, Cho's decision — and her fear — don't stem from the virus. Or, at least, not directly.

"I don't leave," the longtime comedian and actor said in an interview from her home in Los Angeles. "I'm an older Asian-American woman. So this is like — all of the things that I'm seeing every day, it's really us who are under attack."

Cho was referring both to the shooting last month at several spas in the Atlanta area in which eight people — including six Asian women — were killed, along with a recent surge of anti-Asian racism and violence.

As a result, she says she weighs the risks of going out in public: asks herself if she's willing to document any attack she might experience and whether she feels she would — or should — fight back.

"It's a very real threat," Cho said. "So, it's very strange to actually wonder, like, 'Oh, it's cloudy with a chance of racism.'" 

WATCH | Re-examining anti-Asian racism in the media:

Re-examining anti-Asian racism in the media

2 years ago
Duration 2:12
After an increase of attacks on Asian people, there's a growing campaign to change their portrayal in the media and more people in the entertainment industry are vocalizing frustrations about stereotypical depictions.

Her fears aren't isolated. In a recent Statistics Canada survey, Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian respondents were the most likely to have experienced more instances of harassment or attacks based on their race since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, an analysis by California State University's Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism found hate crimes against Asian-Americans rose nearly 150 per cent in 2020 despite an overall decline in such crimes. 

Indeed, all three women interviewed for this story expressed fear about going outside specifically because of rising attacks against Asian women. And all three pointed to a likely culprit.

"Invisibility is the problem," Cho said.

She was referring to how realistic portrayals of Asian people, particularly Asian women, are excluded from pop culture. Instead, they are replaced with overly sexualized caricatures, she said.

Margaret Cho hosts the Closing Ceremony of WorldPride NYC 2019 at Times Square on June 30, 2019 in New York City. Cho says she no longer goes outside due to fears around rising anti-Asian violence. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

Cho says the lack of genuine depictions of Asian people in popular culture has contributed to the sexual objectification of Asian women. For centuries, she says, "the characterization of Asian-ness has somehow been used as a form of dehumanization."

That pattern, Cho and others have argued, has real-world implications. For example, Robert Aaron Long, 21, the man charged with eight counts of murder in connection with the shootings in Atlanta reportedly told police the attack wasn't a hate crime but instead stemmed from his "sexual addiction."

The hypersexualization of Asian women is not new, Cho said, and in fact directly contributes to the violence perpetrated against them. Hollywood and the television industry have a history of portraying Asian women as sex objects, one-dimensional "model minorities" or not at all, Cho said. 

"We've gone from invisible to untouchable," she said. "And those two combinations are adding to a dehumanizing effect, because either we're superhuman or we're not there." 

A history of hypersexualization

Film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu has been looking at that trend for years. In her book The Hypersexuality of Race, she documented how the trend of "servile submissives, suffering, diminutive" Asian women took root in early mass culture through works such as Madame Chrysanthème and Madame Butterfly

Meanwhile, those stereotypes were also at work well beyond the stage. They occurred in the same era as the Page Act, which effectively barred Chinese women from immigrating to the United States over the racist perception that they were likely to be sex workers. Those ideas spread in ways that echoed for decades, Shimizu said. 

"We've heard these sayings that are attributed to Asian women that still resonates in popular culture today," Shimizu said. "[Full Metal Jacket's] 'Me love you long time' or [The World of Suzie Wong's] 'I stay with you until you tell me go away.' This broken, chopped-up English that asserts this servility and these words on screen get repeated in the scenes of everyday life for Asian women."

WATCH | Celine Parreñas Shimizu on the historical representation of Asian women:

Celine Parreñas Shimizu on the historical representation of Asian women

2 years ago
Duration 1:04
Film scholar and filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu explains how racist tropes in the entertainment industry contribute to the hyper-sexualization of Asian women.

These depictions pervade popular media, Shimizu said — from Hollywood classics to more everyday examples such as Austin Powers, Family Guy and The Office, which was recently criticized by guest star Kat Ahn for the way her character was portrayed in the "A Benihana Christmas" episode. 

And until very recently, Shimizu said, those examples have dominated pop culture. That's left Asian people grappling with having to either refute or embrace them, Shimizu said. But either way, the impact is impossible to ignore or avoid. 

"Asian women — young, old, the various classes of various occupations — talk about how they feel hypersexualized," Shimizu said. "They feel this call, this definition being imposed upon them, which means that we must use media in order to define ourselves."

Some progress, but a way to go

That situation has improved somewhat, paving the way for what Shimizu calls "the vast middle" between hypersexualized characters and those treated as either one-dimensional props or who are simply left out of the narrative. 

Canadian actor and producer Amanda Joy, who created the series Second Jen about two second-generation Asian Canadian women, agreed. She also said there's still more to be done. 

She's seen the industry start to change firsthand. She described how early on in her career in the 2000s, an agent told her to hide the fact that she was Filipino "unless all you want to do is play maids and nannies."

Amanda Joy, right, appears alongside her Second Jen co-star Samantha Wan. While the amount of positive representation of Asian actors is improving, Joy said it's still the minority. (Rogers)

A recent spate of projects are starting to reverse the trend — from 2019's The Farewell to Bling Empire to this year's Minari and even the recently cancelled Kim's Convenience.

But many of those examples depict characters of East Asian descent. Depictions of South and Southeast Asian characters haven't mirrored that progress, Joy said.

And even when we do see projects that break the tradition of subservient or hypersexualized characters, she said, they are exceptions instead of the norm. Meanwhile, she says, she and other Asian actors are often called in to play characters who serve "white protagonists, white characters or white heroes."

"The stereotypes that we see in media contribute to the way that we see the world," Joy said.

When Kim's Convenience was cancelled, fans fought for its renewal — even starting the hasthtag #SaveKimsConvenience to spread the campaign. Joy says the passion shown for the sitcom now that it's ending is evidence there are too few of its kind. (CBC / Kim's Convenience)

She pointed to Kim's as an example: a popular show about a Korean Canadian family that prompted a passionate outcry when it was recently cancelled. 

"When you have so few shows that are representing a community … when they end, the impact of that is felt in such a greater way," Joy said. 

"Of course, it's sad when the show ends. But also, why is that the only show?"

With files from Eli Glasner