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The Hypersexuality of Asian Women in Film and Other Media

Updated on August 31, 2011

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."


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    • jackiemac profile image


      6 years ago from orange county, ca

      I was a film history student & took a lot of film genre courses, but asian film was not one of them. It was brushed over fairly quickly, so I'm very pleased to read this. Fascinating!

    • Obscure_Treasures profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Throughout film and television history, Asian women have been typecast into certain roles — the overly feminine China Doll, the servile Geisha Girl, the dominatrix Lucy Liu and the most contemporary example, Tila Tequila..........Beautiful lens....great topic

    • glassvisage profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Northern California

      Todd, thank you for your comment. I do hope that this Hub at least gets people thinking about possible other perspectives :)

    • glassvisage profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northern California

      Absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • profile image 

      8 years ago from Asia

      I am not that Woman by Kishwar Naheed

      I am not that woman

      Selling you socks and shoes!

      Remember me, I am the one you hid

      In your walls of stone, while you roamed

      Free as the breeze, not knowing

      That my voice cannot be smothered by stones,

      I am the one you crushed

      With the weight of custom and tradition

      Not knowing

      That light cannot be hidden in darkness.

      Remember me,

      I am the one in whose lap

      You picked flowers

      And planted thorns and embers

      Not knowing

      That chains cannot smother my fragrance

      I am the woman

      Whom you bought and sold

      In the name of my own chastity

      Not knowing

      That I can walk on water

      When I am drowning.

      I am the one you married off

      To get rid of a burden

      Not knowing

      That a nation of captive minds

      Cannot be free.

      I am the commodity you traded in,

      My chastity, my motherhood, my loyalty.

      Now it is time for me to flower free.

      The woman on that poster, half-naked, selling socks and shoes-

      No, no, I am not that woman!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Taking into consideration all the commentary,I will say this...asian women are truly underrepresented

    • profile image

      Jean Marc Roc 

      9 years ago

      To Glass visage, thank you for your understanding. To the others: In order to teach at the university level you need a PHD. In my opinion, unless you have a PHD in Anatomy and Physiology or some other field where the academic tradition really means something, I preferred to do other things. Phd's in media and film studies are essentially fluff. With respect to the making of my films, I was brought into this "business" by Mai Linn and many other Asian women who expressed an interest in what you call "porn". The films I have made are only one of the projects I am involved in on a "hobby" basis, be satisfied with this explanation: I do what I want to do the way I see fit to do it. If you know nothing about me (and from the critical comments made above I can see that the posters know about as much as Perreras does), then it is advisable to refrain from speculation in ignorance. The difference between Perreras and the casual flamer is the pretense of academic authority and one would suppose responsibility. As of today Perrera has still ducked my responses to her. Even though she dedicates half a chapter in her book to me, and seems to have used her fantasies about me for her personal and professional career.

      To John: You really do not know my work. I would suggest you visit my website and get some insight into the totality of what I do. There is nothing wrong with "so called bar girls". I find the implications ethnocentric and condescending thou... as if John has never met a woman at a bar, or never had a prurient thought. Sexuality is good and erotica is great.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I don't get it Jean Marc Roc. Why are you making Asian porn than? Most of the Asian women you use are indeed Asian bar girls.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Mr. Roc, you say: "I hold graduate degrees in the fields of interest that led me to do my research and work. It should also be noted that I have collaborated with Asian women in every step of my process of creation from the initial idea to the finished works." I wonder, now, why are you making pornography? Why aren't you holding a tenured position at a place like Columbia? I have no idea who you are, but if you came from a non-white matriarchal family, you need to re-think the way you make your money.

    • glassvisage profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northern California

      I'm sorry you have been portrayed in such a way, Jean Marc Roc. I don't hold grad degrees in these subjects, so I don't know much behind the writing. This was an article I wrote about the book after an interview with Shimizu. I thank you very much for adding this information and point of view.

    • profile image

      Jean Marc Roc 

      10 years ago

      Shimuzu's book, The Hypersexuality of Race, with regard to the chapter 6 "Little Brown xxx Machines" is offensive, inaccurate, and potentially libelous. Without fact checking, or investigation, in a complete disregard for the tradition of scholarship, she defames and misinforms readers on the motivations of myself, the creator of 101 Asian Débutantes, as well as the award winning filmmaker and creator of The Good Women of Bangkok. Shimizu's need to bend the unchecked "facts" towards her personal agenda have resulted in her branding myself, a completely non white male that comes from a matriarchal, non European, traditional society and culture, as a white male misogynist. This epithet is the antithesis of everything I believe in, and the opposite of my code of conduct. I found it ironic that , out of the hundreds and thousands of Asian "porn" films available to her which more suit her biased needs, Shimizu choose works by two men who are in personality, the exact opposite of the stereotype that she has tried to perpetuate. My academic adviser in Anthropology at Columbia was non less than Margaret Meade who's adviser was the father of Anthropology in the U.S., Franz Boas. I hold graduate degrees in the fields of interest that led me to do my research and work. It should also be noted that I have collaborated with Asian women in every step of my process of creation from the initial idea to the finished works. Shimizu and her academic mentors at Stanford and other schools, have made an inexcusable and unconscionable choice to disregard the rigors of the scholarly tradition, in order to portray through bad scholarship, a biased and ultimately wrong and libelous account of the scope and motivation of the work of myself and the other gentleman discussed in chapter 6. Her somewhat perverse fascination with explicit sexuality, while feigning academic interest and a prudish shock in witnessing it all, makes it clear that her career is more based on the economic and political exploitation of the subject matter as than the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and truth. In the presentation of this faux research for serious consideration, using obfuscatory, pretentious, and convoluted prose, The Hypersexuality of Race is revealed to be an exercise in self indulgent perversity. Indeed it is a strange academic act of public masturbation, and as such exposes the complicated and troubled morality and sexuality of the author, as well as bringing forward the need to publish for profit, and academic position. It thus, fails as scholarly insight into the premise of the book . Truth be damned and not even cared about, Shimizu proves that maintaining tenure, book and lecture benefits are more important than keeping true to the traditions of academic excellence and the scholarly tradition. I can only ask, if she gets chapter six completely wrong, if she has manipulated the chapter to fit her fantasies, how can anyone seriously see her work and professorship as deserving intellectual consideration as a whole, and under what light does this cast all her previous academic work?

    • Stooge profile image


      10 years ago

      I guess, the times are changing. I am not sure everyone in the western world thinks that way. Asians are such a prominent part of the society now, fuelling the economy and job market, contributing in arts and every other area. There may be some misconceptions about Asian culture but I dont think majority of people would classify every Chinese or Indian lady as a prostitute or a demon.

      Having said that, I am sure you must have had valid reasons to write the hub. It is really tough digesting what you outlined here. If this really happens, it is sad and draconian.

    • Hazok profile image


      10 years ago from Malaysia

      sad but an excellent hub.


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