For decades, women of East Asian origin have been surrounded by negative and often harmful stereotypes. Such stereotypes are numerous and so are people who cling to them. Television has been the power that permits both the dissemination and reinforcement of such stereotypes. In the early 20th century, in the heyday of American cinematograph, Chinese women were often portrayed as submissive objects of sexual desire and/or cunning feminine villains. In the first case, the most common TV roles attributed to Chinese women were those of a servile “sexual doll”, “lotus blossom baby”, “geisha girl” or more generically a “sexual fantasy figure”. In the second case, they were depicted as “gold diggers”, “cunning dragon ladies” or more generally as artful and opportunistic beings. Not only scriptwriters for movies but also hosts of various TV programs made jokes about them. Now, after the US has made remarkable strides in eradicating social prejudice and promoting social equality, the situation has changed. Yet, the stereotypes of Chinese women have constantly recurred in the US television over the last decade. A study conducted by researchers at the University of California confirms such idea, stressing that even stereotyped roles for Chinese actresses have been scarce on American television (National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, 2005).
First, Asian American women have been largely underrepresented on American TV. Although Asian Americans compose approximately 5% of the US total population, they receive only 2% of all TV roles. Except for a couple of news anchors and reporters, there are few Chinese women on the US television. Even when they appear in movies, sitcoms and other projects, their images are being deliberately slanted. Thus, Chinese females are portrayed as submissive and docile, on the one hand, and coquettish and cunning on the other. They often appear to be asocial aliens with a poor grasp of English who should be avoided due to their prowess as martial-arts fighters. The vast majority of all TV projects features sexist and/or racist overtones in regard of Chinese women. Even in TV sitcoms they seldom appear as easy-going, good-humored damsels.
Overall, according to Ling-chi Wang, mainstream media coverage of Chinese women is miserable at best (cited in Kim, 2008). A cursory glance at the history of Asian exclusion in the US reveals that stereotypes may be socially damaging. The alleged “yellow peril” hysteria, fanned deliberately around Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, clearly demonstrates such point. The present paper scrutinizes the current state of affairs surrounding Chinese women’s representation on American TV and offers a potential solution to the problem. The bottom line is that representation of Chinese women on the US TV has not changed significantly in the past ten years and remains both at a low level and, to some extent, biased.
There has been enormous scholarly attention to the issue of Asian American women’s representation on the US television. However, most sources are outdated, tracing as far back as the late 1990s-early 2000s. Conversely, articles published recently are lacking in scientific merit. It is also unnerving to realize that many authors studying the problem have tried to show an overall picture of Asian American’s representation on TV, without considering the role of genders. Few authors have scrutinized the representation of Chinese women, preferring to research the problem in Asian American context in general. Nevertheless, in writing present literature review the author tried to strike a delicate balance between quality and recentness of the sources.
The American cinematograph and show business in general have long been domiciled in Los Angeles, California. Interestingly, California is home to the largest Asian-American population in the United States. Yet, Holtzman and Sharpe (2014) ask a rhetorical question of why people of Asian descent, including Chinese women, are underrepresented in American films and TV shows. They make a clever argument that the Americans who use television as the vicarious form of social life would be ultimately misled into a false belief that Asians constitute a tiny minority of the world’s population, because they seldom appear on the screen. At the same time, the authors argue that there is a veritable army of Chinese women trying to make their way into the television world. Although the authors contend that Chinese women cannot receive a prominent role or other television-related job in the American show business, they also agree that the problem is common to all young hopefuls of Chinese origin.
Dill’s (2013) book offers a short review of the current literature on the subject of Asian representation in the US television. She argues that people of all Asian nationalities account for only 2% of television characters, even though they compose approximately 5% of America’s total population. Considering that males and females are equally represented in the television industry, it appears that only 1% of all US television characters are of Asian extraction. The researcher does not venture a sentence about the percentage of Chinese women in the industry, but insinuates that it is contemptibly small. Furthermore, Dill (2013) also argues that it is a commonplace that white rather than Chinese women frequently play roles of Asian protagonists. Wang (2013) also argues that Chinese actors and actresses seldom receive major roles in American movies. Even when they do, the researcher contends, the American audience does not perceive them as such. Wang (2013) uses The Flowers of War, a 2011 Chinese film depicting the story of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, to show that such movies rely on the image of American actors to appeal to the American audience. Even though the movie was supposed to be centered on Chinese women, the posters and the trailer promoted Christian Bale. Wang (2013) concludes that Chinese actresses need to have control of their own television image to part with such conventions.
Cogan and Kelso (2009) speak in detail about what Dell (2013) only mentions in her research. They argue that casting white actresses in ethnic roles is a widespread practice in the American filmmaking industry. To this end, filmmakers use a variety of methods, ranging from the abundant use of makeup to simple Americanization of the source content. It all started in the early 20th century, when the cinematograph was still in its infancy and Chinese immigrants were still coming to the US in droves. Hollywood filmmakers willingly used American actresses to replace Chinese characters wherever a film featured one. The researchers complain that by perpetuating such century-long practice filmmakers only traumatize impressionable minds. Today, when the western civilization flaunts its tolerance, it has to revise some of its discriminatory practices.
Often, Caucasian actresses play Asian characters without makeup within the settings of original stories, which looks awkward and inappropriate. At the time when there are crowds of talented Chinese American actresses waiting to get a role, it seems discriminative to deprive them of a right to be involved in a film making. Similarly, substitution of Chinese actresses for their American counterparts is inimical to the maintenance of cultural authenticity as seen by young Chinese people living in the US. They watch television to find a role model with whom to identify, but realize that roles promoting ethnic Chinese heroes are often played by non-Chinese actors. Cogan and Kelso (2009) also use mild sarcasm to describe Caucasian actresses as being ready to play any role, whether the character originally is yellow-skinned or black-skinned. Whenever casting agencies choose a white actress to play a bashful Chinese woman, they show their own cultural incompetence, promote cultural misunderstandings among broad masses of American population and, what is more important, distort the film they are producing.
Wang (2013) is one of the precious few authors who wrote a book dedicated to Chinese women solely. Wang (2013) sums up conventional wisdom when she says that the United States is a cauldron of different nationalities. However, she asserts that not all nationalities enjoy equal representation in films and TV shows. As far as content of US-made movies and TV projects is concerned, it would be churlish to complain about a lack of diversity. Yet, Wang (2013) argues that in terms of engaging representatives of different nationalities to stress such diversity, the US television makes a big mistake. In her opinion, it will take many years and probably decades until Chinese women will play more everyday roles. Among the major factors that militate against broader Chinese women’s representation on TV are the absence of Chinese marketable stars and lack of control over media on the part of Chinese people. The two problems are interrelated, in fact. Unless Chinese Americans manage to win a bigger share of the television space, few Chinese women will be able to become marketable stars, thereby promoting better representation of their counterparts on TV. In fact, Chinese people have some media strength in the US, but it is limited and incomparable to that of other minorities.
Dill (2013) too frowns upon the quality of Asian representations in the US television rather that the quantity thereof. Referring to a solid body of research, she suggests that American filmmakers tend to portray Chinese women as villains. Cinematograph was a powerful instrument of American propaganda in the height of the Cold War. It was mainly geared to defaming, calumniating and otherwise demonizing Soviet agents, but it also targeted Chinese people, especially at times of prowling political tensions between Beijing and Washington. Today, decades after the US and China normalized their prickly relations, Chinese women are still portrayed as wrongdoers and malefactors in American movies. Similarly, there are many stereotypes surrounding Chinese women in the US-made movies. They are often described as devious in nature and well-trained in martial arts. Similarly, most American directors have a penchant for depicting the Chinese female villain as a sexually attractive, albeit dangerous, object. Likewise, Chinese women often appear to be overemotional and irrational in their judgment in American movies and TV projects, while white women are more restrained and emotionally constipated.
Poindexter, Meraz and Weiss (2010) opine that Chinese women are considerably underrepresented in the news media landscape. Like in most sectors of the US television industry described above, the problem pertains to all people of Asian descent. After the resounding success of Connie Chung, who became the first Chinese woman to co-anchor one of the most popular news programs in the US in 1993, no other Chinese woman has been able to reach the same result. Connie Chung has worked as a news anchor for a number of other major television news networks, including CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and CBS. Other Chinese rarely lead news programs or similar talk shows in major television news networks. Referring to the study of the Asian American Journalists Association, Poindexter, Meraz and Weiss (2010) point out that Asian women outnumber men in news programs five to one. Approximately the same figures can be indicated regarding the Chinese women. The explanation behind such incongruence is twofold. First, Americans stereotype Chinese women as desirable beings, which puts them in a privileged position. Second, discouraged by the current situation in the television news industry, fewer Chinese males enroll in university journalism programs. Poindexter, Meraz and Weiss (2010) argue that other TV shows also lack Chinese women and/or circulate disappointing stereotypes about them. In the advertising market, the situation is not much better. Chinese men and women tend to appear in advertisements for technical products, such as smartphones and laptops, because Americans perceive Asians as technologically literate. Although Poindexter, Meraz and Weiss’s book went to press in 2010, the situation has not changed much since that time.
Holtzman and Sharpe (2014) reckon that Lucy Liu, Olivia Munn, Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet, Née Wang are among the brightest Chinese luminaries in the US television industry. However, they believe that a regular American would fail to name more than five Chinese women from the screen. Moreover, the authors maintain that there are no indications that things will improve in the nearest future. In 2015, TV-channel ABC plans to broadcast a situational comedy about a Taiwanese family in the US, which will be the first project of such type since 1994. Any attempt to find robust representation of Asian Americans in the period between those years will fail. What is more important, there has not been a single situational comedy featuring a Chinese family. Overall, literature review suggests that Chinese women, as well as other persons of Asian descent lack proper representation in the US television.
Discussion of Media Artifacts
The film Rush Hour 2 has been chosen for the purposes of current paper. It is a widely popular movie produced in 2001 but occasionally aired on different American channels. Most importantly, though, it is full of racial stereotypes and to a lesser extent prejudices towards both Chinese males and females. The roles played by Chinese women are episodic, but still they are surrounded with stereotypes. Thus, the film’s relevance to the topic under consideration cannot be contested. In the appendices section there are several captioned pictures taken from the movie, which can help the reader understand the arguments made here better. Whereas pictures 1 and 2 attest to the existence of sexual stereotypes in the movie, pictures 2, 3 and 4 clearly portray Chinese women as villains or, as they are sometimes called, “cunning dragon ladies”. The discussion also relies on arguments made by Park, Gabbadon and Chernin (2006) who were among the first to have studied racial stereotypes in Rush Hour 2.
In conformity with Doane’s (1982) “film and the masquerade” theory, a woman is often an object of voyeuristic and fetishist gaze. In other words, many directors tend to portray women, irrespective of their ethnicity, as sexual objects not only to satisfy lecherous male viewers but also to make a film more gripping to the audience in general. However, it is also true that women of East Asian, particularly Chinese women, are portrayed as “sexual fantasy figures” more often than women of other ethnicities. Rush Hour 2 is an edifying example of how Chinese females are represented on American TV. James Carter, one of the two main protagonists, is totally ignorant of Chinese culture and constantly makes a laughingstock of himself as a result of it. It is necessary to make a caveat at the outset that his view of Chinese women is stereotypical but not prejudiced, which means that the producers of the movie probably wanted to ridicule him rather than offend Chinese women.
Anyway, once Carter arrives in Hong Kong with his partner, he starts displaying his cultural ignorance. He yells to a company of girls in the car next to his, “Let’s get some sushi!”, although sushi is an authentic Japanese dish. It appears that he does not know the difference not only between national cuisines, but also between Japan and China, and considers all women with slanted eyes as Asians. Such scene not only testifies to his own ignorance on the matter, it also suggests that many other Americans hold similar opinions. Later in the movie, another scene alludes to Americans’ stereotypes about Chinese women. When Carter and his partner Lee came to the massage parlor, the former did not even try to conceal his licentiousness and “ordered” five women (Pictures 1 and 2) at one time, thinking that they would give him something more than just a massage. According to Anderson (2013), Chinese women from the massage parlor embody the “stereotype of obedient oriental dolls readily fulfilling Americans’ sexual desire and fantasies” (p. 77). In line with the well-established ethos of American movies, virtually every Chinese woman appearing in the US-made film is represented as a desirable thing.
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The third major American stereotype about Chinese women that reappears throughout Rush Hour 2 is that Chinese females are dangerous, albeit sexually appealing, martial arts fighters. Pictures 3, 4 and 5 depict Chinese women as being exceptionally artful, tough and murderous. Moreover, earlier in the movie, when Carter and Lee curiously chased a gang member at the market they stumbled upon a vicious woman who was just slaying a chicken with a menacing grimace on her face. Overall, Chinese women are often portrayed as brandishing guns (Pictures 3 and 5) or other weapons, not only in Rush Hour 2 but also in most other American movies in which they star.
In general, Rush Hour 2 is filled with stereotypes about Chinese men and women. Even though most of the stereotypes displayed in the movie are intended to elicit innocent laughter from the audience, some are blatantly unethical and racist. After all, an ethical stereotype is an oxymoron. However, while it is not totally reprehensible to play racial stereotypes on television, the producers should be very careful in making such movies so as not to perpetuate such stereotypes. Although Rush Hour 2 is most likely to draw gales of sardonic laughter from the audience, it is still a good example of how Chinese women are represented on the American television.
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