Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Evolution of Female East Asian Stereotypes

Like most other races, East Asians have suffered under a vibrant and ignoble history of racial stereotyping and imagery in the Western mind. For East Asian women, the primary two archetypes are the submissive, docile "China doll", and the hypersexual, deceitful "dragon lady." Asian men are similarly cast as either deceptive and untrustworthy, or personality-less "grinders".

Yet the public image of East Asians in America has been growing consistently more positive. Continued academic success, and a potential incorporation into Whiteness have both contributed to this dynamic. As White society has, uneasily, grown to grudgingly acknowledge East Asian "game", the old stereotypes no longer fit the new social understandings. And I think there has been an evolution in the stereotypes of East Asian women to match this (interestingly, I haven't observed a similar shift in stereotypes of East Asian men).

While I am by no means suggesting that the old stereotypes are gone, when I think of popular stereotypes of East Asian women today, two more spring immediately to mind. The first is the bookish, whip-smart student. The second is the martial arts expert who can kick the ass of everyone in the room. One can see the roots of the older forms in both of these -- the student-type tends to be quiet and deferential, like the China doll; the martial artist is powerful and sexual like the Dragon Lady. Nonetheless, I submit that both of the "new" stereotypes are socially coded as positive.* The student is the type of woman that you're supposed to marry one day. The martial artist is the hip, bad-ass action star.

Moreover, the stereotype-shift has seemingly tracked internal cleavages within the East Asian community. Though often cast as monolithic by the West, there is a huge difference -- culturally, socially, economically -- between, say, American Chinese communities versus American Hmong or Vietnamese communities. There is, to some degree, a hierarchy here, with the Japanese and Chinese occupying the elite niches, followed by Koreans, South East Asians, and finally residents of the island states. I was talking to a friend whose family hails from Vietnam, for example, and she told me that her parents would consider it beneath her to marry someone from the Philippines, and that she was sure a Chinese family would think the same about her. This hierarchy tracks American socio-economic status pretty closely. And when I see those pop-up ads advertising docile Asian brides, they tend not to say they'll be from China or Korea -- they're saying Thailand or the Philippines.

Again, I'm not saying that a Chinese-American woman doesn't have to deal with the "old" stereotypes anymore. But I do think we're observing a very interesting social shift that is deeply tied to a broader realignment in America's racial dynamics. The whole point behind White supremacy is that it is the supreme group. When White society "absorbs" another racial or ethnic grouping, it simultaneously recodes it from inferior and less-than, to admirable and superior. My (admittedly anecdotal) observation is that we are seeing very similar behavior here, which makes me wonder whether in 50 years we'll be seeing books titled "How the Asians became White."

* We can say even "beneficial" stereotyping never actually is, but I do think there is a qualitative difference between being part of a group stereotyped as cool, useful, or inspiring, versus feared, mocked, or loathed.


Rebecca said...

A correlation to this is something that Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic has been talking about - while Asians or Hispanics (at least light-skinned Hispanics) may get absorbed into "whiteness," African-Americans remain the quintessential Other that does not get assimilated.

PG said...

Do light-skinned Latinos get assimilated or are they (consciously or unconsciously) "passing"? I have a friend who I assumed when we first met was just plain white, but I found out later identifies as black because she was raised by her African American mother in a predominately black neighborhood. (She looks white because her father is white and her mother's family is light-skinned.) I wouldn't say she is assimilated so much as she "passes" for white; people just assume she is white based on her appearance.

The Gaucho Politico said...

im not sure i see the old stereotypes fading away as much as you do. the submissive asian women is extremely common ime. While i acknowledge the growth of the "positive" student and bad ass martial arts stereotypes i think the submissive, passive ones still exist. The bad ass one seems to have developed mostly due to bruce lee and cinema.

If asians are becoming "white" it is surprising given the visible skin color difference that sets them off as well as the general time frame it took for them to achieve the whiteness status.

David Schraub said...

The skin tone thing shouldn't surprise you too much -- there are plenty of non-phenotypically white White people (think southern Europeans, like Italians or Greeks, or hell, Israelis). Light skinned Latin@s and Arabs also sometimes are socially coded White, depending on the situation.

I certainly don't mean to say the old stereotypes are gone, just that we are seeing at least some transition -- and nowadays, when I see those creepy ads for submissive Asian wives, they're advertising Thailand or the Philippines, not Japan or China.