When Rachel Rostad took the stage for the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational final in 2013, she shattered all expectations for how a young Asian-American woman should behave. By flipping the script and becoming the subject of art rather than the object, Rostad challenged notions of submissiveness and passivity. Rostad’s angry and passionate performance has since garnered over one million views online, turning her first-person narrative into a wider critique of systems that seek to oppress Asian women. For many young Asian women, including myself, Rostad’s poetry provided an example of how to analyze and dissect the media we view and our own lived experiences. Through her critique of the Harry Potter character Cho Chang, Rostad bridges the conflict between her rejection of long-standing depictions of Asian women and her desire to be accepted and loved.
Cho Chang provides an interesting choice in character on Rostad’s part. The Harry Potter series is set in England, a country with a long colonial history in China, which is allegedly Chang’s ethnicity. Rostad accuses author JK Rowling of being “the latest participant in a long tradition of turning Asian women into a tragic fetish.” Chang is a representation of the Lotus Blossom archetype that was created out of colonial control of Asian women: they are “subordinate, submissive, subplot.” Yet Rostad’s poetry bridges the controlling images of Asian women in England to the ones used here in the United States. The US has just as much history of imperialism in East Asia, including occupying Japan and South Korea. “No wonder Harry Potter’s got yellow fever,” she explains. Chang is the perfect accessory for the white male hero as the caricature of an Asian woman.
To further demonstrate her point, Rostad delineates a short history of Asian women who fall for white men but are ultimately abandoned – for the character of Cho Chang, this happens when Cedric Diggory is killed and when she is never truly considered to be the woman Harry Potter would end with at the end of the series. Rostad points to Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon, and Memoirs of a Geisha as notable instances of this phenomenon.However, Rostad then shifts the narrative, dropping “Lucy Liu in leather, schoolgirl porn” as instances of Asian fetishization as well. Rostad is bridges the two stereotypes, the Lotus Blossom and Dragon Lady, as not only stemming from the same place of sexual fetishization, but as two sides of the same coin.
Rostad expresses a rejection of this same narrative in her own life, refusing to be controlled by white men. She spends most of her poem lambasting Rowling’s portrayal of an Asian woman, justifying her own subversion of that stereotype. However, she also tells the story of her own relationship with a white man. In Bridge, Nellie Wong wrote, “when..a white man wanted to take me out, I thought I was special, an exotic gardenia, anxious to fit the stereotype of an [O]riental chick” (6). Being chosen by a white man was perceived as being an exception to the controlling images placed onto Asian women. Despite her clear knowledge of the ways that white men have exerted their power over Asian women, Rostad cannot help but desire this feeling of being exceptional. When her white partner tells her that “her skin was so much more beautiful” she wants to believe that this is truly the case.
Rostad takes a sentiment that runs throughout A Bridge Called My Back, that “the personal is political,” and takes it to heart through her first-person spoken word piece. Through the use of her own body and her own voice in the poem, she is following in the same tradition of the women in Bridge to use her art and her words to bridge her inner conflict. Her performance is radical in bringing her personal narrative to a larger audience and connecting it to hegemonic structures. “We were just following the plot,” she states after her white partner leaves her. Rostad’s narrative of her own interracial relationship casts doubt on the viability of any other relationship between a white man and woman of color. She and her partner could not overcome the colonial pressures and histories between the two of them, and perhaps no one can.
In the introduction to This Bridge Called My Back, Cherríe Moraga states that “…we cannot escape recurring self-doubts about the actual power of our acts of resistance against global patriarchy” (xxiii). Although the act of calling out images that blatantly fetishize the bodies of Asian women is radical, Rostad conveys that nothing is quite that straightforward. Despite the growing consciousness of the problematic nature of these images and the history of so-called “yellow fever,” our socialization leads us to still seek out and desire acceptance from the white male patriarchy. Rostad’s poem argues that as long as we continue to operate within these systems of white hegemony, we cannot fully subvert them.