Exotifying Asian Women: The White Racial Frame Again

Marie Clare online (ht Rosalind) has a recent article on “The New Trophy Wives: Asian Women,” which is both insightful and naïve at the same time, even white-framed. The author, Ying Chu, raises the provocative question of why many powerful, older white men are now partnering with younger Asian women:

When the venerable director [Woody Allen] scandalously left Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter, South Korean-born Soon-Yi Previn . . . he may as well have sent out a press release: Asian-girl fantasy trumps that of Hollywood royalty! . . . Rupert Murdoch walked down the aisle with fresh-faced Wendi Deng . . . .Then, CBS head Leslie Moonves wed TV news anchor Julie Chen; Oscar winner Nicolas Cage married half-his-age third wife Alice Kim; billionaire George Soros coupled up with violinist Jennifer Chun; and producer Brian Grazer courted concert pianist Chau-Giang Thi Nguyen. Add the nuptials of investment magnate Bruce Wasserstein to fourth wife Angela Chao and the pending vows between venture capitalist Vivi Nevo and Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang.

She then asks why this is happening, first suggesting this may be a type of colonial “yellow fever”:

The excruciating colonial stereotypes — Asian women as submissive, domestic, hypersexual — are obviously nothing new.

Her primary answer is that these are after all now omnipresent images and

often entertaining. Even now, how many cinematic greats, literary best sellers, or even cell-phone ads . . . characterize Asian women as something other than geishas, ninjas, or dragon ladies? . . . I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at the cheeky blog stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, which ranks Asian girls at number 11 because “Asian women avoid key white women characteristics, such as having a midlife crisis, divorce, and hobbies that don’t involve taking care of the children.”

So these old and new racialized images are entertaining? We are supposed to laugh at such stereotyping of Asian and white women? Racialized steretoyping is no laughing matter, even if some naïve websites think it is. Then she moves back to a more critical analysis:

“It’s like a curse that Asian-American women can’t avoid,” says C.N. Le, director of Asian and Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “From an academic point of view, the perception still serves as a motivation for white men.” . . . Richard Bernstein found that the Orientalist illusion continues to influence. “Historically, Asia provided certain sexual opportunities that would be much more difficult for Western men to have at home. But it remains a happy hunting ground for them today,” he says, citing one phenomenon in the northeastern region of Thailand called Issan, where 15 percent of marriages are between young Thai women and Western men well into their 60s.

She introduces the importance of the exotic Asian woman stereotype, but quickly drops it instead it and does not exploring what it means in the West. This sexualization of Asian American women in white-male minds is a major aspect of contemporary racism, and one deserving of much more analysis than we have in social science, never mind in the stereotype-riddled popular media. This stereotype is central not only for the elite-men-partnering issue, but much more generally to white (male) framing of Asian and Asian American women. There are, for example, a great many websites dedicated to pleasing the racialized exotic-Asian-female fantasies and images held by many white men across the Internet.

After suggesting that the partnering actions of white men may have some connection to their recognizing the power of China and the rest of Asia in contemporary globalization, she then reverses direction and asks why these often high-achieving Asian or Asian American women pair up with these aging white men of power:

While I’m sure that real love and affection is sometimes the bond in these culture-crossing May-December romances, could it be that power divorcés of a certain ilk make the perfect renegade suitors for these overachieving Asian good girls — an ultimate (yet lame) attempt at rebellion? Maybe these outsized, world-class moguls are stand-ins for emotionally repressed Asian dads (one cliché that is predominantly true).

So now we get her own stereotype of Asian men as somehow not really men as one explanation for the actions of Asian women such as these. As we point out in our recent The Myth of the Model Minority:

In the 19th century Asian American [and Asian] men were stereotyped in the white framing as oversexed and threatening to white women, but in more recent decades they have been more likely to be stereotyped as feminized or emasculated, a shift that may link to the rise of model minority stereotyping. . . . In the United States Asian American women are the group most likely to marry outside of their racial group. They outmarry more than other women and men of color, and much more than Asian American men. In many such cases a white racial framing in the minds of Asian American women may intersect with the sexualization of Asian American women in white male minds. Because their standard of an attractive male has become white-normed and because of the potential to enter directly into white middle-class [or upper-class] world, many Asian women find a white male partner appealing. In contrast, some white men are drawn to the Asian female stereotype of exoticized sensuality and submissiveness.


  1. caroline

    good analysis of her analysis. but i’d like to see this taken one step further–what are the damages of exotifying asian/asian american women? what are the damages of idealizing white men? we can take this from an asian/asian american woman’s standpoint (which i’d prefer, as an asian american woman myself) or from any other perspective.

    i can start a little… being exotified goes hand in hand with being sexualized, as many articles, academic and popular alike, have analyzed. what many of them haven’t connected to is the sexual violence. because asian women are seen as sex objects, oppressors, commonly white men, treat us as such. the media, especially in the porn industry, normalize the violence. statistics about violence, assaults, harassment, murders, etc. committed on asian women pile up, but there is little to no coverage about them, much less a concerted response. one exception may be the recent murder of annie le. for reasons why she is covered and not another asian american woman who was murdered recently, i’d like to defer to this article: http://www.disgrasian.com/2009/09/murder-of-young-asian-woman-youve-never.html

    i personally do not feel safe around many men because of the way my sisters and i are typecast.

    another article covers this really well: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jaemin-kim/lets-call-it-what-it-is_b_163698.html

  2. Dave Paul

    As much as I enjoy stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, it is hardly a laudable source for commentary.

    Regarding stereotypes, it is important to note the mainstreaming of porn, which has no doubt helped cement these erotic-exotic images into the white (male) frame.

    I am also glad you mentioned sex-tourism in asia, which often leads to white male-asian female marriages of convenience.

  3. distance88

    I believe recent studies (sorry, I don’t have any links) have shown that young Asian-American women have a high rate of suicide and suicide ideation–rates which rival or surpass any other demographic group (race, age, sex, SES, etc).
    I think this very real mental health issue (which, to a large extent, has gone unnoticed) is another example of the damage done by the commodification of Asian women in American culture/media and constantly having to live up to ‘model minority’ status.

  4. JDF

    Thanks for the post, Joe. Despite differences in content, the form is often quite similar in how members of oppressed groups are perceived by the dominant group. In this case, Asian women are perceived as either dragon ladies or lotus blossoms, with the latter the more “positive” of the two (positive in that they don’t represent a threat to white power). This analysis is great for understanding the intersections of race, class, and gender: I think the “yellow fever” of (mostly middle-class and up) white men is the perception of Asian women as docile, meek, and submissive to male authority in the post-women’s rights movement era. As for this article by Chu, I can’t help but think how this could be yet another instance in which members of minority groups must buy into the white racial frame in order to gain recognition for their efforts; a catch-22 of sorts. Wouldn’t surprise me to find the editor saying to her at one point to make the article a “balanced” discussion of the issue; i.e., softening the blow for their white readers.

  5. adia

    I just read an excellent book by Kumiko Nemoto called “Racing Romance: Love, Power, and Desire Among Asian American/White Couples.” Nemoto looks at Asian American women/white men couples, focusing on Asian American immigrant women with white men as well as second or third generation Asian American women w/ white men, and white women with Asian American men. Interestingly, she finds that among the couples she interviews, these relationships are rarely transgressive and typically fail to challenge (or even address) racist assumptions or stereotypes. Instead, they often are built on or reproduce gendered racist ideas that denigrate Asian Americans and ultimately uphold white hegemonic masculinity. It’s a really interesting read and an important contribution to the literature on this subject.

  6. Thanks Adia for helping me remember where I first read about the startling trend tha asian/american men were least likely to marry outside their group. I can’t remember the author, it may have been Nemoto (if this person is a woman), but the essay I read went deeper than the marieclare article.

    I guess what’s odd for me is that my own view of Chinese/Japenese/Korean men is that they can be domineering when challenged even if superficially unthreatening. (My view of darker skinned Asians would be off topic here. ;} ) I don’t quite see them as emasculated as more asexual. Though, that could be because I’m at least a little successful at resisting the white and/or American frame of reference. (That Hamm twin totally did not win the all around that Olympic year. 04?)

    The attraction between white men and Asian women seems logical if not rational to me. Most Asians receive some tangible, if backhanded, benefit from anti-black and anti-latino racism. So it makes sense that they would buy into the white racial frame. As bad as the plight may seem for Asian men, I wonder if they don’t deem white women more desirable than Asian women. And also, I wonder if this acceptance of the white racial frame is due in part not only to its benefits, but also to the fact that 1st and maybe even 2nd generation Asians haven’t developed collective/widespread distrust of white(nes)s.

    And lastly, this is off-topic and I hesitate to re-center the conversation so I’ll make this quick and easy. I don’t think I’m unique among black women in that in general, white men just aren’t “masculine” to me. (Sorry, Joe.) I’m not saying the majority of us feel that way; just enough so that I know I’m not in a single digit minority. So, without re-centering the discussion (because even if you think I’m racist, we can discuss that later), I do wonder how white men came to be the standard of attractiveness to Asian women. Maybe because as youngsters, their time was spent with white girls fantasizing about white boys/men/movie stars? I don’t know, just a guess.

    And also, are Asian fathers just repressive in the sense that Asian culture might be repressive; or, are they repressive in the sense that black mothers are overbearing, meaning the child-rearing choices have more do with the racist culture outside the home and less with Asian cultural repression.

  7. NDiv

    This is a such a bewildering discussion. The initial post states one of the primary drivers of the prevalence of Asian female out-marriage is one of the sexualization of the Asian female and de-masculanization of the asian male. Then in responses we have someone saying she does not see white men as masculine, and posits that many or most African American females would agree!?

    Ontop of that, we have the common confusion of anecdote with data. Rich men have always married much younger women, the marriage of Rupert Mudroch and a few other people to younger women does not make a “trend” anymore than two black people robbing a store makes a “trend” about what black people are doing.

    And as to the discourse about Asians being blind to white-racism and therefore accepting anti-Hispanic or anti-Black racism, you are wrong. I can speak on that with authority. Racism against people of darker skin colors existed in China before contact with the west, and it is an attitude many if not most Asian immigrants carry with them. In my experience, it is second and third generation Asian Americans who are more accepting of people with darker skin tones, American or “white” society is not the origin of Asian racism. How people who spend their lives studying race can be ignorant of such a simple fact is shocking.

    • cordoba blue

      I agree with NDiv that racism biased against people of darker skin existed in China before Asians had any contact with the west. It is not because of white Europeans that Asians in general are biased against Africans. They were biased for thousands of years, literally.
      I do agree that America has demeaned black people via many media outlets filled with stereotypes such as “the scary black criminal” or “the mammy” or the docile “uncle Tom” or the belligerent don’t-you-mess-with me “angry black woman”.So this hasn’t helped in the 20th century. What this did was nurture previous bias. The bias was in place a long time ago. I’ve quoted older Asian sayings such as “a lighter skinned woman hides many defects”. This is meant to say that light skinned Asian women were considered more attractive than darker skinned ones. This attitude did not derive from Europeans.
      It’s easier to study racism in terms of what white Europeans think and do, and how this affects the rest of the planet. But Asia and Europe, except for trading purposes, had very little contact for thousands of years. Asians brought to America their biases. America did not create them.
      However, and here’s where it gets dicey, only in the past 20 years have I seen a considerable amount of bias against Asian-Americans by European-Americans truly dissipate. Previously, Asians were the subject of plenty of racial slurs and stereotyped images. However, at the present time, Asians are “in vogue” and I even know a woman who told me her daughter dyed her hair black so she could look exotic.
      So Asians themselves were actually encouraged, on arrival in America, in either direct or more subtle communication, to “blend, blend, blend” and look, talk, and dress European. Asians discriminated against Aficans and Europeans discriminated against Asians. In some novels written in the 18th century by Europeans, I have found references, by the characters in the book, to Asians as “monkeys”.
      In summation, Asians have survived the racial bias of white America, and are now embraced by this country. But African Americans are still discrimated against, not only by white Europeans but by Asian-Americans plus Asians living tody within the Pacific basin.

      • NDiv

        Well said. If this were Daily KOS I would +1 your reply, but I don’t see any way to do that here.

        The belief that racism was borne by white people or the west is itself a exoticization of the orient. Racial hierarchy existed in a very strict form in India under the caste system while most white people were still burning witches.


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