Speech – The Fetishisation of Asian Women, from the Race and Sex Event by The Runnymede Trust

Runnymede Trust event

Picture by Runnymede Trust

Last night, I took part in a panel debate organised by The Runnymede Trust, on how race influences our ideas around beauty, sex and desire. Chaired by Sondhya Gupta, my fellow panelists were Christina Fonthes and Dr Ornette Clennon, and it was a fantastic evening filled with insightful and stimulating discussion. Follow this link for a summary of our opening presentations, and learn more about the End Racism This Generation campaign here.

My speech centered around the fetishisation experienced by Asian women; you can read it in full below:

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First of all I’d like to thank the Runnymede Trust for inviting me here, it is an honour to be able to speak to all of you on a subject I’m very passionate about, which is the sexualisation of race. I’ll be talking about the fetishisation of Asian women, more specifically East Asian and South East Asian women.

So, 2 years ago, I was working in a job that required interaction with customers. A man started a conversation with me, and after the inevitable “Where are you from” question and finding out that I was from Singapore, he asked, “Shall I go there? Does everyone in Singapore look like you?”

There was also the time a man asked if it was true that Asian women had no hair on our bodies, and the time a stranger said, with a look in his eye, “I dated an Asian woman once.”

Most Asian women will have plenty of stories like these, but where the fetishisation of Asian women really reveals itself is on the internet, where anonymity and the lack of perceived need for social niceties allows racist attitudes to flourish. A tumblr called creepywhiteguys.tumblr.com even collates offensive messages sent to Asian women on online dating sites, which makes for some interesting reading. So widespread is the phenomenon of mainly white men exoticising Asian women, that the term “Yellow Fever” has been coined, with sites and forums filled with men ‘celebrating’ this ‘special interest’. The Asian woman is held up as the feminine ideal — having long hair, soft skin, and most importantly to them, a meek and submissive attitude towards men.

But where do these ideas about Asian women come from? It is easy to dismiss them as isolated instances of ignorant, individual men, but the truth is, these comments and attitudes are reflective of our society at large; they both stem from, as well as feed back into, the status quo.

The portrayal of Asian women in the media is seriously problematic. Often, we are rendered invisible, or relegated to the background, or portrayed as submissive, subservient, and in need of a white male hero. Films like The Last Samurai enact the ultimate patriarchal, colonialist fantasy — where a white man enters an Asian community, kills an Asian man, then claims his wife as his prize. And in the musical Miss Saigon, the story centres around Kim’s need to be saved by a white American GI, ending with her sacrificing her life for him and their son. In British TV, East Asian women almost never appear, except maybe for ten minutes in Peep Show, where we meet an Asian love interest with no speaking lines at all.

This stereotyping of Asian women denies us our individuality and humanity, casting us as merely sexual objects for the pleasure of white men. Type “Caucasian” into Google Images, and compare what comes up to what appears when you type in the word “Asian”. It is clear what many think of when they think “Asian” — scantily clad women in sexually submissive poses — ready to please, ready to serve.

6 months ago I wrote a piece for Media Diversified, entitled “I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower”, in which I condemned the exotification of Asian women by white men. I received many responses from white men, the most common sentiment being that Asian women exoticised them, and it was therefore the same. The thing is, this idea reveals a lack of understanding of sexism and racism, and ignores the power imbalances at play. Of course, there are Asian women who prefer white men, but this comes from imperialistic notions of white supremacy, the equating of whiteness with power and prestige, and descends directly from colonialism. This is a far cry from the fetishisation of submissiveness and powerlessness that Asian women are subjected to.

So why are fetishisation and stereotypes so harmful? It has been well-documented that sexual objectification is harmful to women. In studies by Caroline Heldman and Lisa Wade, objectification, in particular internalised sexual objectification, has been linked to depression, eating disorders, a decrease in self-worth, a decrease in cognitive and motor functioning, and a lack of political efficacy.

For Asian girls in particular, it creates a society where they grow up seeing themselves through the eyes of white men, their identity a sexual fantasy above all else, moulding themselves to fit the demands of a white supremacist, patriarchal society.

Asian girls and women deserve better than this. We will not be silent, we will not be submissive, we will not be content to be lovable dolls and playthings. We have a voice, and we will be heard.

Thank you.

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Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived As Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value

Doctors

The gender wage gap has long been an issue of importance for feminists, and one that consistently finds itself on the UN and government agendas. Despite this, there is a persistent idea among many in mainstream society (mostly men, and some women) that the gender wage gap is simply a myth, that women are paid less on average because of the specific choices that women make in their careers. Everything, they claim, from the industry a woman chooses to establish herself in, to the hours she chooses to work, to her decision to take time off to spend with her children, and so on, leads to lower pay, for reasons, they confidently assure us, that have nothing at all to do with sexism. Now we could delve into, and rebut, these points at length, but in this post, I will focus only on the assertion that the wage gap exists partly because women choose to go into industries that just happen — what a coincidence! — to be lower paid.

So here’s how the argument usually goes. Women, they say, gravitate towards lower-paid industries such as nursing, cleaning, teaching, social work, childcare, customer service or administrative work, while men choose to work in politics, business, science, and other manly, well-paid industries. Those who propagate this idea usually aren’t interested in a solution, since they see no problem, but if asked to provide one, they might suggest that women behave more like men, one aspect of this being to take up careers in male-dominated industries that are more well-paid (and respected, but they seldom say this out loud).

But is this really a solution, even a small one? What their analysis misses out is the question of how the average pay levels of different industries are decided in the first place. There’s demand and supply, of course, but another factor is the perceived value of the role, and what it means to society. Let’s examine a traditionally male-dominated role that is very well-respected, and well-paid, in many parts of the world — that of a doctor. In the UK, it is listed as one of the top ten lucrative careers, and the average annual income of a family doctor in the US is well into six figures. It also confers on you significant social status, and a common stereotype in Asian communities is of parents encouraging their children to become doctors.

One of my lecturers at university once presented us with this thought exercise: why are doctors so highly paid, and so well-respected? Our answers were predictable. Because they save lives, their skills are extremely important, and it takes years and years of education to become one. All sound, logical reasons. But these traits that doctors possess are universal. So why is it, she asked, that doctors in Russia are so lowly paid? Making less than £7,500 a year, it is one of the lowest paid professions in Russia, and poorly respected at that. Why is this?

The answer is crushingly, breathtakingly simple. In Russia, the majority of doctors are women. Here’s a quote from Carol Schmidt, a geriatric nurse practitioner who toured medical facilities in Moscow: “Their status and pay are more like our blue-collar workers, even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.”

What this illustrates perfectly is this — women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. This means that anything a woman does, be it childcare, teaching, or doctoring, or rocket science, will be seen to be of less value simply because it is done mainly by women. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.

So it is not enough for us to demand access to traditionally male-dominated fields. Yes, we need to stop holding women back in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, and yes, we need to allow more women to take an interest in, and succeed in business and politics. But far more than that, we need to change the culture that imbues us with a sense of the inferiority of women, that tells us, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that anything a woman does is obviously easy, requires little effort, and is of minimal value to society.

The Disbelieving of Women

Earlier this year, two male television hosts from The Netherlands decided to go through simulated labour contractions to have a small inkling of what childbirth might be like. The video, which shows them writhing and screaming in agony, went viral on social media, attracting many comments from men who, it appeared, had just had the realisation that childbirth was indeed rather painful after all. The two Dutch TV hosts are not the only men to have done this. The narrative seems to pan out in a similar manner each time — the men begin their journey happy and intrepid, sometimes even cocky, and end up wracked with pain, expressing a newfound respect for mothers. The audience is delighted, and the videos make their rounds.

Yet, one question continues to bug me — why did these men feel the need to ‘experience’ it for themselves before they could acknowledge the extent of the pain of childbirth? What astounds me is that despite the well-known fact of the agony of childbirth, a common theme of doubt lingers among these men. Before undergoing the simulation, Zeno, one half of the Dutch duo, wonders, “Do you think the pain will make us scream?” Another video contains a pre-simulation quote from one of the participants — “According to women childbirth is the worst kind of pain there is. But did you know, according to men, women exaggerate everything?”

And there we arrive at the heart of the matter. Disbelief, the curse of Cassandra in Greek mythology, is a curse that has fallen on, and continues to plague women today. Represented in popular culture as either unable to fully understand or articulate her own experiences, or scheming and manipulative, or else histrionic drama queens, or simply irrational, society has been conditioned to take women’s words with a pinch of salt. The default reaction to anything a woman says seems to be to disbelieve her, unless faced with incontrovertible evidence.

Cassandra. From: Wikipedia

Cassandra. From: Wikipedia

If you are a woman who holds and expresses strong opinions, particularly online, you’ll be able to relate to this — the unceasing demand from men for us to present them with academic studies to back up our points. Now, not for a second am I denigrating the importance of using hard evidence in an argument, or the citing of one’s sources. Yet, when men are constantly asking women — and only women — for sources during casual conversation, and in a challenging, sneering manner at that, something else is certainly at work here, and it isn’t simply a passion for academic rigour.

Nowhere is the knee-jerk disbelief of women more apparent than in the public reaction to a woman’s reporting of rape or sexual abuse, particularly if the man in question is a celebrity or in a position of power. Despite all the evidence pointing towards the extreme rarity of false rape accusations, too many people automatically dismiss a victim’s story when she speaks up, preferring to believe the protestations of innocence coming from the accused instead. Often, not even a guilty verdict can convince them of the victim’s veracity; Ched Evans’ victim has had to endure anger and threats of violence, and is called a liar by complete strangers to this day.

This habit of disbelieving women is no trivial matter, and it has to end. Not only does it deny victims justice and deter other victims from coming forward, it also enables perpetrators to get away with their crimes, and reassures other would-be perpetrators that their chances of evading punishment are high. If our words carry no weight, then it serves to reaffirm and cement the second-class status of women in society, by invalidating our experiences and dismissing our interpretations of them as exaggerated, ill-informed, or straight-out malicious lies.

And you know what? If men can only believe in the agony of childbirth by watching another man go through a mini simulation of contractions, it’s a very sad state of affairs indeed.

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First published at The F Word.

Exotification – I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower

“I love Asian women!” “Asian women are so hot.” “Japan, Korea, China?” “Asian women know how to treat a man!”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you? If they do, congratulations, you’ve come across (or you are) a man — probably white — with so-called “Yellow Fever”.

As an Asian woman living in a country full of white men, I meet these guys a lot. You know, the ones who blurt out all of the above sound bites, who try to guess what ‘type’ of Asian I am, whose favourite actresses are Gong Li, Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi, who insist on discussing Korean/Japanese/Chinese dramas with me despite me not having seen the series in question, who tell me about all the other Asian women they’ve dated, who complain about how ugly white women are and why Asian women are so much better, and who try to get me to tell them that white men are so much better than Asian men.

Of course, such exotifiying sentiments are meant to be complimentary. After all, the patriarchy asserts, what could be higher praise for a woman than the approval of a white man?

Only…it isn’t praise. It is patronising and dehumanising, and inextricably bound up with the social power of race and gender. To them, ‘Asian’ is our defining characteristic, in a way that ‘white’ would never be used to define themselves. When the “Yellow Fever”ed men speak to me, they aren’t speaking to me, they’re speaking to their idea of an Asian woman, their fantasy made flesh. They’re speaking to every Asian woman they’ve ever seen in the media, every Asian porn actress they’ve ever leered at on their computer screens. My personality tries to push itself forward, but is rendered invisible, obscured by the lenses of racial stereotype.

And what a horrifically misogynistic stereotype it is too. Have a wander round any online dating site or Internet forum discussing Asian women, and you’ll notice that one of the most attractive things about Asian women, according to white men, is our apparent ability to “treat our man right”. But what does “right” entail? Well, to put it simply, “treating a man right” is to treat him as superior. Time and time again, Asian women are lauded for our supposedly meek and gentle natures, for our submissive attitudes, for our rejection of feminist values. (Hah!) Through their fetishisation and racist assumptions about Asian women, they reveal their attitudes towards relations with women in general: one should be quiet and meek, contented with a subordinate status, and eager to serve.

How, you may ask, do these men reconcile their ideas of Asian women with the existence of Asian feminists? Easy; they decide that she has been “brainwashed” by Western feminist values, has been contaminated, and has neglected her cultural roots. The fact that they assume submissiveness to be so inherent in Asian women that any feminist ideas must be mere parroting of the ideas of white women, is insulting in the extreme. Nor do I appreciate their assumption that Asian culture is static. I would love for them to cast their eye over their own cultural history, going back hundreds of years, and then tell me — what is “Caucasian culture”? And by rejecting the values their ancestors espoused, have they betrayed their cultural roots?

So please, men with ‘Yellow Fever’, stop objectifying, fetishising and exotifiying us. Instead, try seeing us as individual human beings with individual, unique personalities. Cool idea, no? And next time you have the urge to tell me about all the Asian women you’ve dated and how much you loved Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Memoirs of a Geisha — don’t.

What Does Physical Attractiveness Have To Do With Sport?

Picture the following scenes. It’s November, 2012, and President Obama has just won the US election. Amid the celebrations, keyboard warriors take to social media to comment, “Obama? President? What a joke, he can’t tap dance at all.” Or perhaps a group of students are in the classroom learning about Einstein, and wonder aloud, “Why is Einstein so admired? He clearly didn’t know much about hairdressing.”

Naturally, we recognise these to be completely absurd. One’s ability to tap dance has no impact on one’s effectiveness as a leader, and to be a theoretical physicist, hairdressing skills are unnecessary. To link them is simply ludicrous. Yet, this line of ‘logic’ was precisely what drove the actions of a horde of social media users in the wake of Marion Bartoli’s victory in the Wimbledon final.

While Bartoli, overwhelmed by happiness, hugged her family and friends, these men (for they were mostly men) took to Twitter and Facebook to express their anger over how “ugly” and “fat” she was. And judging from their tone and language used, there was some serious rage going on. Laura Bates of @EverydaySexism captured and tweeted a tiny selection of the comments, which you can see below. (Warning: abusive, violent and misogynistic language)

SexistTrolls

What is most bewildering is this idea that Bartoli “didn’t deserve to win”, and that she “shouldn’t have won”, due to the fact that she was apparently, to them, so unattractive. I’ve always thought of the Wimbledon Championships as a tennis tournament, and wasn’t aware that it was a beauty pageant as well. I can think of plausible reasons why an athlete might not deserve to win — perhaps they simply got lucky on the day, perhaps they constantly display unsporting behaviour, perhaps the referee/umpire/judge made a mistake. But an athlete being less attractive than their opponent is not one of those reasons, and to say so is every bit as absurd as condemning Einstein’s achievements on the basis of his hairstyle.

Of course, this weird logic only seems to apply to women, and Marion Bartoli is not the first female athlete to be judged on her looks instead of her skills. During the Olympics last summer, British weightlifter Zoe Smith had to defend herself from a bunch of sexist Twitter trolls, keen to share with her their thoughts regarding her appearance. After some pictures of Olympic triple-gold medallist Leisel Jones appeared in the media, showing her with a tummy that was (oh, horror!) not completely flat, the public was abuzz with criticisms. And we hardly need to be reminded that Serena Williams has always been on the receiving end of similar vitriol.

This isn’t confined to female athletes either; women in every possible field are somehow expected to meet with the approval of the male gaze, even when physical beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with their jobs. From politicians like Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel, to Professors like Mary Beard, to singers like Susan Boyle, it seems that beauty is a compulsory attribute for every woman to have, if we do not wish to be bombarded by misogynistic trolls publicly declaring their fury and hatred.

What does physical attractiveness have to do with sport? Absolutely nothing. And if we want to encourage little girls to pick up a racquet, to throw a ball, and to aspire to sporting greatness, then we need to stop cementing the notion that female athletes, and indeed all women, will only be successful and appreciated if they happen to meet societal beauty standards as well. Marion Bartoli is a tennis player who has just won her first Wimbledon title. Let us rejoice with her and recognise her for her sporting success.

The Objectification of Women – It Goes Much Further Than Sexy Pictures

When feminists decry the objectification of women, most people immediately think of the images that saturate our magazines, movies, adverts and the Internet, of women in varying stages of undress, dolled up and presented for the male gaze. Yet, while sexual objectification is a huge problem, it is, sadly, only a fraction of the objectification of women that permeates our world, from the moment we enter it.

Because it is all too obvious and difficult to ignore, we tend to focus on sexual objectification. The difference between the way women and men are portrayed in national newspapers and other media is stark— women are too often reduced to the sum of their body parts, heavily photoshopped to fit into an ever narrowing ideal of female beauty. It grabs our attention, we recognize that something isn’t right, and we confidently assert that this is sexism in action.

And we’re right, of course. Yet, an overemphasis on the ‘sexual’ aspect can obscure the much more problematic aspect of ‘objectification’, the iceberg of which sexual objectification is the visible tip. After all, being presented in a sexual way doesn’t always mean objectification. Sexy pictures of men, in contrast to sexy pictures of women, frequently portray them as sexual subjects, actors exercising their sexuality, instead of objects meant to gratify someone else’s sexuality.

Who is the subject, and who is the object?  Source: CNE

Who is the subject, and who is the object? Who is acting, and who is acted upon?
Source: CNE

So, what do I mean when I say that sexual objectification is simply the most visible part of objectification? Well, let’s start by differentiating between subject status and object status. While a subject is active, with agency, an object is passive, being acted upon. This dichotomy is reflected in our grammar; when we hear, “Fiona stroked the cat,” we recognize that ‘Fiona’ has subject status, while ‘the cat’ has object status. Now in an ideal world, we would find ourselves randomly cast as either subject or object at different times, depending on the situation, with no problems. However, in society’s dominant narrative, subject and object status is heavily gendered, with men granted subject status the vast majority of the time, and women severely objectified.

These messages start right from the cradle. A study by Janice McCabe showed that male characters in children’s books far outnumber female ones, and that even when characters (eg. animals) are gender-neutral, they are often referred to as male when parents read them to their kids. This pattern is consistent in children’s TV shows, where only a third of lead characters are girls. The Smurfette principle, where only one female character is present in an entire cast of male ones, still holds true for many TV shows, with ‘female’ seemingly a characteristic of its own.

Having been brought up on a diet of stories revolving around boys and men, this male-centeredness continues to dog us throughout our lives. The vast majority of films produced tell the stories of men, with women cast as girlfriends, wives, or mothers, or in other periphery roles. In a typical year, only about 12-15% of top grossing Hollywood films are women-centric, focussing on women and their stories.

It isn’t just the media that does this. In everyday conversation, male pronouns dominate our speech and ideas. Every dog we see is a ‘he’, every stick figure a ‘he’, humans thought of as simply ‘mankind’. There are exceptions, though. Boats, cars, bikes and ships always seem to be ‘she’, but this is hardly exciting once we realise that they are all objects, and possessions of (usually) men, at that.

Anyway, the cumulative effect of all this is that we are socialising generation after generation to view the world, and the women in it, from the point of view of men. As a result, only men are seen as full and complete human beings, not women. Women are objectified — this means we are denied agency, and are seen from the outside, our own consciousness, our thoughts and feelings, utterly overlooked.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Tomb Raider’s executive producer, Rob Rosenberg, finds it natural to assert that players “don’t project themselves into [Lara Croft's] character,” that they think “I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.” Even though they are actually playing as Lara.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that when society is presented with a case of male violence or sexual abuse, everyone looks at it from his point of view: “Oh, he must have been provoked to have done that,” “He was a nice man who just snapped,” “He must have been confused by her signals,” “Maybe he’s been falsely accused, how terrible to have to go to jail for that.” With every victim-blaming, rape / violence apologist comment, society reveals through whose eyes it looks, and the answer is invariably the man’s.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that even good men, when speaking out against violence against women, tell other men to imagine her as “somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s sister,” it never occurring to them that maybe, just maybe, a woman is also “somebody”.

It is frightening to consider just how deeply entrenched objectification of women really goes. We must certainly combat sexual objectification, but the battle will not end there. Women are objectified in more profound ways than we realise, and we must tear down every entwined shred of the patriarchy, in order to achieve our modest goal of being recognized and treated as human beings.