The Hypersexuality of Asian Women in Film and Other Media
A prostitute. A demon. Are these the images that come to mind at the mention of Asian women? Filipina-American Celine Parreñas Shimizu, a film scholar and filmmaker, investigates the depictions of Asian women in western, modern, moving-image visual cultures like early cinema, gonzo and stag pornography, sex tourism films and documentaries, Hollywood blockbusters and musicals.
As a part of a national tour, she is giving talks about her book "The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian American Women on Screen and Scene." Some of what Parreñas Shimizu studies are as well known as the musicals "Madame Butterfly" of 1904 and "Miss Saigon," as well as the works of Asian American feminists Margaret Cho, Evelyn Lau, Helen Lee, Machiko Saito and Grace Lee. She even interviewed actors from "Miss Saigon" and Asian American feminist filmmakers.
Parreñas Shimizu's experience in this area began with an outrageous incident on a late-night bus, when, as a 17-year-old undergrad at UC Berkeley, she was approached by an older man who insisted they had met in military base towns in the Philippines, where he thought he had known her to shoot ping pong balls out of her vagina.
"Shock and fear gave way to another response," she remembered. "I recall my silent reflection - I am not that woman, I am a good woman, an undergraduate at a major research university."
The man's response motivated her to investigate the gray area between "good" and "bad" women.
"His misrecognition of me should not lead to a binary between women as bad and good," she said. "What links us as women across our differences? What binds us as women wherein I am misidentified as an Asian woman, as a prostitute? Is there a binary between us, dividing us as women?"
Parreñas Shimizu, who is also an associate professor in women's studies and film and video in Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara, has a wealth of education behind her studies, including a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Modern Thought and Literature. She also received an M.F.A. in Film Production and Directing from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, where she worked as a professional production designer.
"After working all night on many productions, I felt half-alive, incomplete, without the space or the ability to historicize and theorize the power of what I was making," she said. "So I applied to the Modern Thought and Literature Program to do film studies, ethnic studies and feminist studies and to read, read, read and screen, screen, screen so that I would get the training to produce socially relevant knowledge regarding the sexual representations of Asian/American women in western industry images."
Also, at UC Berkeley, she worked with Trinh T. Minh-ha, Elaine Kim, Cherrie Moraga, Barbara Christian, who are women-of-color artists who enabled her to imagine a life doing creative and scholarly work, and not to see them as mutually exclusive passions.
Representations of Asian-American women intrigued Parreñas Shimizu, and she soon recognized that early actresses like Anna May Wong were too easily dismissed when mentioned.
"She was demonized as a dragon lady... aiding Asian men in the yellow peril project... constructed to create fear about an Asian invasion in a time of intense racial anxiety in the United States," she said. "Asians were coming in, exclusion laws drawn up, race-suicide fears at low birth rates for whites, scientific racism that drew up a racial hierarchy based on biological and physical differences."
In looking at images of Anna May Wong, Parreñas Shimizu became interested in two things: 1) How to account for the creative process of acting? In her craft and her engagement with fan culture, did she as an Asian woman in America author herself into history?; and 2) Is there a direct relationship between history and ideology? Do bad race relations equal bad images? What is the role of the work of representation in not only maintaining inequality, but also offering articulations of fantasy and anxiety?
"I wanted to get a more complete picture of the work of images in our understanding of race and sex in the United States," she said.
By pursuing this project, Parreñas Shimizu hopes to achieve a better understanding of the power of representation on ideas about ourselves and others, as well as "to make space for women to talk about how sexuality subjugates, disciplines and also makes joy and pleasure - helping to comprise us, our dreams, hopes, and desires."
"Asian American women's histories are understudied, and their representations on screen and in scenes of everyday life, especially in and around issues of sexuality, are dismissed as understandable," she said. "They are bad images, stereotypes that maintain inequality, silence, invisibility."