Butterflies, Slumdogs, And Tiger Moms: Asian American Women And The Rescue Narrative


By Sayantani DasGupta at Racialicous

“Can we try it more mysterious, with that mystique from the East?

… Channel a late night sex chat ad

… Maybe go back further into your heritage … A little more ethnic.”

Remember those racist-alicious ads from Michigan senatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra, the ones where the docile, limpid eyed, bike-riding Asian woman thanked “Debbie Spend It Now” for spending so much American money that she singlehandedly ruined the U.S. economy while giving more jobs to China? Well, that Sinophobic Super Bowl ad promptly inspired several spoofs including this one from Funny or Die, and this clever one from Kristina Wong that I found recently on Disgrasian.

In it, Wong plays an actress obviously starring in a “Debbie Spend it Now”-type commercial. The disembodied (presumably white, male) director’s voice is off-camera, insisting that Wong play her role with more ethnic “authenticity.” At one point, he asks her to read the lines like her mother might. When Wong delivers the lines in an American accent, the frustrated director corrects, “But that’s the same as you read it last time, is that how your mother talks?” Wong nods, deadpan. “She was born in San Francisco.” Later, he reminds Wong that she is “in a rice paddy.” To which she exclaims, “Oh, I thought we were in Runyon Canyon.”

Kristina Wong’s spoof speaks to the continued conflation of Asian American and Asian identity. No matter how many years, or generations, we’ve been in this country, we Asian Americans remain ‘contingent citizens’ and ‘perpetual foreigners.’ (You’ve heard the question: “Where are you from? … No, where are you really from?”)

Wong’s spoof also speaks to the sexualized, passive tropes surrounding Asian American womanhood. In a recent talk I gave for Wellesley College’s GenerAsians Magazine, I suggested that three tropes still seem to encapsulate much of how Asian American women continue to be perceived:

Butterflies: This Madame Butterfly/Miss Saigon trope of submissive-Eastern-femininity-waiting-forlornly-for-her-Western-lover-to-return, has a not-so-hidden sexual undercurrent. Don’t be fooled by her shyness; she’s lush, lavish, and sensual beneath the surface! This is what I affectionately call the “Kama Sutra” underwing of the butterfly (and in so doing, bring South and East Asians into the same awesome disgusting trope).

The passive-yet-sexual butterfly is easily seen in all sorts of modern cultural spaces, including Asian and Asian American book covers, as demonstrated by this helpful instruction manual constructed by Sociological Images. My favorite tip is Element #2: “Fans (preferably held so as to partly obscure a woman’s face (or genitals), and if you can get blossoms on the fan, you get bonus points).”

Courtesy of Red Light Films, HBO/Cinemax Films

Slumdogs: Funny how these tropes go along animalistic lines, right? Okay, maybe not so funny. Anyway, this second trope is the one modeled on the ever popular fascination with “poverty pornography,” as exemplified by Slumdog Millionaire and other films. Like the butterfly trope, the Slumdog fundamentally undercuts Asian women’s agency. Consider, for instance, the Academy Award winning documentary Born into Brothels, which follows Western photographer Zana Briski as she teaches a photography class to group of children from Kolkata’s red-light district. Although Briski’s project, at one level, was to give these children the tools to represent their own world through their own eyes, the film itself undermines this message by casting Briski as its protagonist–a white heroine who is seemingly the only adult who cares for the children of Sonagachi. The film’s portrayal of the sex worker/mothers as, at best, neglectful and, at worst, horrifically abusive, is highly problematic, as noted in an open letter from a sex worker/ grassroots organizer to an Indian newspaper:

The film is a one-sided portrayal of the life of sex workers in Sonagachi. It shows sex workers as unconcerned about the future of their children….The documentary does not shed light on the valiant efforts of the sex workers to unite in order to change their own lives as well as that of their progeny…We fear the global recognition of such a film, giving a one-sided view of the lives of sex workers in a third world country, may do a lot of harm to the global movement of sex workers for their rights and dignity.

As seen in this year’s Saving Face, a documentary about acid-attacks in Pakistan, the Slumdog trope is favored by the Oscars–which seems to love films which teach “us” about a victimized “them.” So, too, mainstream filmgoers (lest you think the Slumdog trope is only relevant to South Asians, let’s remember the Amy Tan Joy Luck Club syndrome). Just consider The Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel and film about women’s friendship, yes, but also about the practice of foot-binding in historic China. There is a pleasurable voyeurism in learning about “exotic” and oppressive practices, and conflating the two (exotic/Eastern = oppressive), while usually ignoring on-the-ground, local, grassroots activism against such oppression.

Courtesy of TVTropes.com

Tiger Mothers: Even though Amy Chua only burst onto the scene in 2011 with her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and infamous Wall Street Journal essay entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” the Tiger Mother trope seems to draw its strength from a combination of two older ones. The first is the hackneyed model-minority myth, as exemplified by that Gawd-awful Time Magazine cover from the 1980’s on “Those Asian American Whiz Kids”–good at math, but noncreative, nonspontaneous automatons (undoubtedly beat into psychological submission by their Tiger Moms). The other is an old racist favorite–the Dragon Lady. Indeed, we can see evidence of the fearsome, cruel dragon lady in the way that Chua was vilified by mainstream and Asian American communities alike. To look for more evidence of the Dragon Lady in modern-day pop culture, look no further than actress Lucy Liu, who was recently described by Joanna Robinson at Pajiba as “too sexy… chilly… like ice water in your veins.” (Luckily, Sylvie Kim at Racialicious was there to put her race-privileging ways right.)

Between all three tropes, the organizing principle is one of Asian Women needing rescue–the Butterfly due to her sexual passivity, the Slumdog from her poverty/’backward’ cultural practices, and the Tiger Mother from her delusional self. (She’s alternately reviled as a Dragon Lady if she rejects this rescue). Now, the White Savior Complex has gotten some public attention as of late, thanks to the KONY 2012 debacle. As seen in the endless rescue narratives of New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, this complex also has distinctly gendered components. David Henry Hwang talked about the gendered underbelly of rescue narratives in his brilliant play, M. Butterfly:

“As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East — he’s already confused. The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. …Basically, ‘Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.’ The West thinks of itself as masculine — big guns, big industry, big money — so the East is feminine — weak, delicate, poor…but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom — the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated — because a woman can’t think for herself. …You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.”

Such a narrative is also consistent with scholar Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak’s notion of “white men saving brown women from brown men”–where the “saving” of women (from “the veil”, foot-binding, sex work, acid attacks, child marriage, etc.) actually becomes a justification for colonial aggression of the “white man” over the “brown man,” where the voice of the “brown woman” remains silenced. (to read more about how this trope was operationalized to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–framing them as missions to ‘rescue’ Muslim women from ‘the veil’–see Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”)

While America’s cultural fascination with Jeremy Lin has unmasked an easy racism around Asian American men (for an alternate, more positive spin on Linsanity check out this fascinating ESPN commentary), popular cultural tropes around Asian American women’s lives are certainly also well and thriving, tropes that particularly support a rescue/colonialist mentality of West over East.

Like the Magical Negro trope for African American characters in films, the Butterfly/Slumdog/Tiger Mother tropes of Asian American womanhood limit the kinds of stories that are told about us but, even more dangerously, the stories we can tell (and get published) about ourselves. No one is saying that stories about Asian/Asian American women’s suffering or victimization should not be told; rather, we should examine how such stories are told, by whom, and for what purpose. Most importantly, we should ask what other stories are being silenced for not fitting into these narrow tropes.

Despite the presence of some fantastic Asian American women in popular culture that challenge the ‘rescue narrative’–voices like that of Margaret Cho, television faces like that of Archie Panjabi, and writing like that of Keshini Kashyap–what we need is more voices, more faces, and more writing to counteract what writer Chimamanda Adichie has so articulately called “the danger of the singular story.” From Kolkata to Kansas, from rice paddies to Runyon Canyon, Asian and Asian American women’s lives are complex, heterogeneous, contradictory, and vibrant. And our visual, print, and other cultural stories should reflect these realities.

Originally posted on Racialicious. Cross-posted with permission.

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