The Myth of the Oriental Beauty: The History of the Hypersexualization of Asian Women

The Myth of the Oriental Beauty: The History of the Hypersexualization of Asian Women

Morgan Dewey, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) Development and Communications Coordinator, says that “41 to 61 percent of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime”. This is significantly higher than any other ethnic group. This appalling result relates to centuries-long stereotypes which depict Asian women as sexualized figures who are often involved in prostitution.

The Page Act of 1875 heavily restricted the number of Asian women immigrants to the US, purportedly in an effort to decrease prostitution. Later, the Vietnam War and Korean War led to a high demand for Asian sex workers — “comfort women” as many called them. These same women were characterized as a source of “disease” for American soldiers as they allegedly carried sexually transmitted diseases at high rates.  

Meanwhile, artists enthusiastically created art which played into this stereotype. As the famous cultural critic Edward Said suggested, Orientalism is known for “disregarding, essentializing, deluding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region”. Its influence in art is profound and has evolved with the ever-changing cultural environment. Orientalist art gained popularity in the 19th century, painting the “East”, as a fantastical, exotic world filled with eroticism and debauchery. This vision, of course, reflected only Western artists’ perceptions of Asian society. This was not reality. 

When one thinks about famous Asian female figures in Western pop culture, we generally think of characters like Madame Butterfly in the opera Madama Butterfly by Puccini. She is presented as a beautiful Japanese Geisha who is so infatuated with an American soldier that she sacrifices her beliefs, her family, and even her life to her unfaithful lover. Another popular figure is the stereotypical Dragon Lady, originally based from the movie Daughter of the Dragon (1934), who embodies the insidious, deceitful, and sexually-alluring Oriental seducer. As embodied by these two examples, Asian women are frequently depicted as either submissive and impotent figures rescued by masculine white men or dangerous sex objects, free to be exploited and leered at. 

This racist and sexist stereotype is not the only reason why Asian women are being hypersexualized. Gender inequality within Asian countries also plays a vital role in disadvantaging Asian women. Most Asian countries rank disappointedly in the Gender Inequality Index. Even high-income countries, like Japan and Korea, reported the largest gender pay gaps among all OECD countries. Growing up in a culture where gender equality is severely downplayed, many Asian women still fall victim to the engrained norm in which obedience and modesty are the most prized values in a woman. As a result, they’re pressured to stay quiet and conform to the image that’s been imposed on them. Even for those who migrate elsewhere, speaking  out against these societal injustices often leads Asian women to be sneered at, not taken seriously, and, yet worse, viewed as nothing but sexualized objects unworthy of respect. When searching online, one can find many reports about Asian female immigrants disclosing their unpleasant stereotype-related encounters.

Even worse, the prejudice they face could deteriorate into assault and murder. This is what happened in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16, 2021: A 21-year-old white man shot at Asian spas, killing eight people, of which six are Asian women. Following this incident, there has been a surge of protests against anti-Asian hate all over the world. Protestors, mostly from the Asian diaspora, are asking for more protection for all marginalized minorities. Recently, more and more Asians are being attacked and blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic, this largely incited by Donald Trump’s racist comments.

People immediately connected the shooter’s motive with the wide-spread hatred aimed towards the Asian community. Although the hate crime supposedly resulted from the shooter’s “sex addiction” which led him to “see these locations as a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate”, police forces have confirmed that none of these spas are suspected of sex work. After nearly 200 years, Asian women are still not being given the respect and dignity that they deserve, all because of a sick and incorrect stereotype. When will the world stop seeing Asian women through this hypersexualizing and dehumanizing filter? That is the answer that the six Asian women who died tragically in the shooting will never know.

Edited by Olivia Shan

Photo credits: “Tamaki Miura statue” by Chris Gladis Published September 8, 2006. This work was sourced under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license. No changes were made.

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