In Leslie Bow’s Betrayal, she touches on the idea that conflicting definitions of community lead to confusion and loss of communal belonging. In the United States, Asian American women have been held to several different stereotypes: sensual, exotic, man-pleaser, and devious, just to name a few. These stereotypes place women in a box and define who they are to society. In a sense, these differing stereotypes are like differing communities, and when Asian American women see themselves portrayed as someone different than who they are, it leads to a loss of belonging. I’d like to focus on where we get these conflicting definitions, who is really controlling them, and what effects do they have on Asian American women. Most of my analysis will come from insights I’ve pulled from a personal essay, “Asian Misrepresentation in Media Propels Stereotypes,” by Irene Ly that ran in her college newspaper.
In the film Slaying the Dragon, we learn how the stereotype of Asian American women changed over time in the film industry. After watching this film, I really thought about media’s influence over society. If the media portrays Asian American women a certain way, most of society will then see them through that lens, and make assumptions based off of what they have seen in the media. Ly describes how she grew up watching Hong Kong dramas and listening to music that portrayed Asians as well-rounded characters that could have any type of personality. When she transitioned to Hollywood films, Asians were suddenly few and far between, and when they were on screen they were either the nerds, kung fu fighters, or immigrants. These images on-screen conflicted with Ly’s perception of her own culture and, if it weren’t for her love of Hong Kong movies, she could have seen herself through media’s manipulative lens.
Media companies want money. They make money by selling movies and shows. The sell movies and shows by attracting an audience. They attract an audience by appealing to their perspectives and ideas of what “normal” is. People like “normal.” By now, Asian American stereotypes have become so prevalent that the stereotypes have become the new “normal.” Therefore, if people in an audience disagree with the portrayal of certain people (i.e. Asian Americans), that film will most likely receive negative reviews. So is the problem the producers that portray the stereotypes on screen? Or is the problem the people that happily absorb the stereotypes and cringe when they see something that isn’t “normal?” The discussion of society’s resistance to change is a whole other conversation, but their contentedness with stereotypes is disturbing.
Circling back to Bow’s piece, the plethora of accepted stereotypes makes it hard for Asian American women to identify themselves and find who they are apart from these accepted beliefs. Ly comments that it is very easy to say that “it’s just a movie” and nothing should come from these portrayals, but when she or any other Asian American women sees the same idea again and again, it can become easy to believe that the stereotypes must be true. She feels that, if she had not spent so much time with her Hong Kong movies and culture, she would have been less proud of her Asian identity. That fact alone—that stereotypes can make someone less proud of who they are—should be a cause for change in media. Yet, here we are, accepting the same fucked up ideas of who someone should be based on the color of their skin, or where their ancestors are from, time and time again.
The Encyclopedia Britannica definition of hegemony states that it is the dominance of one group over another, often supported by legitimating norms and ideas. Media is a hegemonic power. It has the ability to influence society by producing ideas that “they” think should be the norm. Asian American women are victims of the media’s bias, constantly being told how they should look, how they should act, what they should be doing. Asian American women have to exercise their agency to prove that they are their own, individual person, with their own ideas of what it means to be Asian American.