The Madama Butterfly Effect
Copyright 2010 Yale Daily News Publishing
Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with Permission.
By Larissa Pham
I have never been more Asian than I am when here at Yale. Or maybe I should say, the fact that I’m Asian has never been so remarked-upon as it has been here — particularly in the context of my sex life.
But this story doesn’t really begin with me.
“There’s a long history of exoticism: of seeing Asian women as eroticized, seeing them as passive and compliant.”
That’s the view of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor Inderpal Grewal, who explained her understanding of historically-entrenched discrimination to me over the phone last week. I was sitting cross-legged on a mattress on the floor of my attic apartment as she spoke to me over the phone about depictions of Asian sexuality in pop culture. We were almost too casual. Alarmingly casual. And though warm, her tone was frank as she continued: we both understand quite well the ongoing effects of this myth.
“Those histories are important because they are a way of understanding images that become very sedimented in our societies, in our ways of thinking,” Grewal said.
Grewal is on to something the rest of Yale isn’t. For the past few years, campus has been astir with largely student-driven efforts to improve attitudes around sex. This quasi-movement has included workshops on consent and events like Sex Week, incorporating discourse on topics from body image to BDSM 101. These events are widespread and fairly widely attended: Yale talks about sex.
Yet there is one aspect of sex that is rarely, if ever brought up in public, campus-wide dialogue — race. Socially constructed racial stereotypes play a huge role in sexual dynamics in ways that affect everyone, perceived or not. And though we can’t really separate race from discussing sex and sexual attraction, we can certainly examine the language we use.
Take a seemingly innocuous screw date request. Some months ago I was helping someone figure out a date for his friend’s screw.
“Well, does he have a type?”
“Yeah — he said he wanted an Asian, one who would put out. He’s got yellow fever.”
So, an Asian girl. Any one would do. Just within this brief exchange, the identities of Asian women across campus were effectively compressed and confined into a one-dimensional exoticized and eroticized stereotype.
The fact is that being Asian, looking the way I do, I can’t escape this weird racist fantasy that seems to trail Asian girls. We’re so mysterious. We’re either naively asexual or exotic, sensual and crazy in bed. Actually, I’ll let you in on a secret: we are all and none of these things, and, what’s more, we’re all radically different. But such are the stereotypes that come with being an Asian girl. And people have spent a long time seeing us this way.
DEAR MADAMA BUTTERFLY, I AM SICK OF THIS
“Madama Butterfly,” a late 19th century book and opera, is one of the classic narratives of Asian eroticism. Its enduring success is just one example of the ways in which the eroticism of Asian women has been historicized and accepted in pop culture.
In the tale, Butterfly, the lover of all-American navy man Lieutenant Pinkerton, commits suicide after waiting years for her man’s return from the sea. She is ultimately revealed to have been nothing more than a convenience for Pinkerton, a white man who sought a Japanese geisha wife. She lived and died a sexual object.
In her senior thesis, “Madama Butterfly Birthed a Monster,” Stanford alumna Jocelyn Jiao discussed the coded inferiority and explicit sexual purpose of this classic female Asian character. Asian women like Butterfly “cannot even be respectable wives; they must embody the lure of the strange, the obscene,” Jiao writes.
“The patronizing roles they play do not give them any measure of independence or intelligence,” she continues.
That is, Asian women, as represented in the media, all too often occupy the role of the exotic, erotic “other.” And while Butterfly’s death is tragic and makes her a martyr, it doesn’t detract from the hard truth that her role in the story is very much that of exotic, kittenish, sexual naïf.
While our images of Asian women have inevitably shifted since that era, some aspects of those old images do still live on, perpetuated in large part due to Madama Butterfly’s success and then helped along by stereotypes about Asian women propagated in the U.S. after the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The 1960s, for instance, gave us the cinematic character of Suzie Wong, the prostitute with a heart of gold. While the film itself was named for Wong, the character still wound up inferior to her white lover.
“The old forms don’t disappear — they continue on, albeit in different ways,” Grewal told me.
More contemporary evidence for Grewal’s point may be found in the portrayals of Asian women in the movie “The Social Network,” depictions that Grewal said she considers derogatory and ridiculous, serving neither to further the plot nor provide any real value for the movie.
“The women are just eye candy. It’s wacky!” she exclaimed, referencing the studious Asian Harvard girls who, despite other stereotypes surrounding Asians at university, were portrayed as exotic and erotic women.
And yet, because these images have drawn and will draw audiences, Asian women continue to be depicted this way in the media. These fictional depictions then naturally influence the way society at large thinks about actual, individual people.
“Sexuality is a racialized process, and racialization is a sexualized process,” writes film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, in a Yale Journal of Law and Feminism piece entitled “Queens of Anal, Double, Triple, and the Gang Bang: Producing Asian/American Feminism in Pornography.”
To put that more simply: we can’t extricate race from sex, and we can’t extricate sex from race. To be an Asian woman means to deal with the full scope of personas and fantasies imposed upon you. To be an Asian woman means to see the effects of this long history, and to see these images recycled over and over and over again.
Here’s a quick experiment that can be run from your very own computer. Open up Google Image search. Turn off Safe Search. Now run four terms, in order: American. European. African. And Asian.
For the first three searches you get flags, maps, maybe some scenery or landmarks, maybe some other national paraphernalia. And for Asian? You get hardcore porn. And not even one flag. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.
But all of this is not to oversimplify what happens in the real world, in the world of flesh and blood. Yale’s world. It’s a lot more complicated.
NEITHER TABLE NOR CHAIR NOR SEX TOY
First, a quick definition of objectification, as the author sees it: to cause someone to lose agency in any situation or relationship. Objectification doesn’t just mean seeing someone as a table or chair — it’s more nuanced. It’s taking away the agency of that individual and her ability to control how she’s perceived and treated and acted upon. It becomes objectification when someone doesn’t have a say in what’s happening anymore and when someone’s exoticized — or eroticized — without consent.
Jane Hu ’09 told me in an email that she believes the Yale community is capable of objectifying Asian women, and underappreciating the intersection between race and sex, because many of its members are clouded by their own racial and socio-economic privilege.
“I think the weirdness about race and gender on campus is inextricably tied to the amount of privilege most students have experienced in their lives, and, more importantly, the explicit denial that they have this privilege,” Hu wrote, identifying herself as an Asian woman who has experienced her share of Asian jokes and being called “exotic” during her time at Yale.
Hu speaks to a culture of Yale which has allowed and encouraged us to think how we want, act how we want, make arguments how we want. But the flip side of this openness is the creation of a space in which any discourse, even that which may actively offend other members of the community, becomes seen as acceptable.
“It always seemed depressingly benign,” Hu said, thinking back to when she would hear what she defines, simply, as “Asian jokes.” “I felt like a lot of these people had simply never had to deal with Asians before, and hadn’t stopped to think of me as a person, not just an idea.”
The truth is, a lot of people here haven’t dealt with Asians before, at least not in a context where they form one-fifth of the population. Many come from very white, or non-white, non-Asian places. And, according to Asian students at Yale, when their peers do deal with Asians, they often choose one of two options: hyper-sexualization or asexualization. Is this just reaching for familiar concepts? Maybe. But even for students who are normally conscientious about language regarding race, Asian jokes somehow frequently seem to make it past the filter.
“[The jokes] go beyond jokes about ‘yellow fever,’ which are offensive enough,” Angie Shih ’14 wrote to me in an e-mail. “I’ve heard, countless times, women be reduced to their ethnicity, and had it done to me as well — sometimes even by friends of mine, who are otherwise very culturally sensitive.”
We all, to some extent, fit stereotypes. That still doesn’t make it right to trivialize someone’s interests or behavior by claiming that they represent a set of preconceived notions.
“It’s not okay if people are coming to certain conclusions by looking at me, even if it’s not serious,” Meghan Uno ’13 said. “And whether that’s because I’m an Asian girl, or how I carry myself, it’s not a full representation of who I am.”
But it’s hard for everyone to admit they might be making these kinds of judgments. We are taught to make decisions for ourselves, to act convincingly and to speak persuasively. We don’t want to think cultural and historical tropes are helping make our decisions for us. We often think we’re too smart and progressive for that.
“The denial of privilege is what makes it hard to talk to people about it,” Hu wrote. “Which is in turn why it keeps happening around campus: people don’t realize the privilege they have, and take for granted that they and everyone around them is ‘liberal’ and ‘socially aware.’ So if I tried to have a real discussion about it, or to tell someone that what they said hurt my feelings, people didn’t take it seriously… [or said] it was just a joke.”
Heidi Guzman ’14, a Yalie of Dominican heritage, said she believes that another part of the privilege that prevents honest conversation about latent racial discrimination is the fact that some people gain from a system which defines them as more attractive simply because they are white.
There’s both qualitative and quantitative evidence for Guzman’s conclusions. Davis Nguyen ’15 spoke to me about the observations he could make about race and sexual preference based on a matchmaking survey he designed for last semester’s Freshman Screw. His questionnaire asked respondents to specify the factors they would like in a potential date — while including traits like alcohol-friendliness, Nguyen also chose to ask his respondents about their racial preferences.
“When I was setting up screws, I figured people would have a preference, and I wanted to give them the freedom to state that preference,” he told me.
Then, in a comment indicative of the sensitivity surrounding this issue on campus, he added: “The survey was anonymous — when we publicly state that we have a racial preference, we might be considered close-minded or racist, and I wanted people to have the liberty to say it in private.”
Of the nearly 150 students in the class of 2015 who responded to Nguyen’s survey, 75 percent of those who chose to specify their racial preferences specified it as “Caucasian.”
This right here is indicative of the privilege white people have in a sexual context — at least here at Yale. Although we can’t change these things, we can begin to see why these issues compel us to assume responsibility for the way we behave.
SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE OF DESIRE
It’s hard to reverse-engineer attraction. Why are we attracted to the people we’re attracted to? Well, who knows, really? I don’t. And there is nothing wrong, essentially, in liking whom we like. But it is important to critically examine whether forces beyond our control are affecting the way we treat the people we interact with — particularly in a selective sexual context.
Asked his own stance on how to discuss racial preference, Nguyen seemed uncertain.
“Race carries with it certain connotations. As in, if we share the same race, we share the same culture and interests. It’s a generalization, it’s not defining, but it’s something we do naturally,” he said.
Natural as expressing racial preferences might be, the way we do so may be problematically antagonizing — particularly when, as in some communities, people express what they like by identifying exactly what they don’t. Some gay male Yalies identify the issues faced by black gay men on campus as a clear result of such exclusionary expressions of preference.
“There is a particular problem of white gays saying they’re not into black men, for example,” Nicholas Leingang ’13 said. “The thing that’s racist about that is that it reduces the complexity of an entire group of people to a single other, in opposition to one’s self. And not only is there an other, but the other is [seen as] less desirable than the self.”
This particular reductive attitude can be attributed to the lack of representation of the black queer community on campus, said Gabriel DeLeon ’14.
“Images of gayness or queerness as black are estranged and rare compared to images of monolithic gayness… What is monolithic gayness at Yale? A capella. Theater. The Art School. The Divinity School. These are cultural items that maintain visibility and social currency, and perpetuate the archetype that casts the shadow on the other — in this case, the black queer community,” he added.
In cases like that of Asian women, when the minority community is larger and more widespread, others may approach individuals on the basis of affirmative declarations of racial preference that the sought-after individual finds suspicious — and wrongfully rooted in generalization.
“Quite frankly, ‘racial preference’ is a euphemism for ‘fetish’ that makes you feel like less of a sexual object. It doesn’t disguise the fundamental principle: when a man tells me that he prefers Latinas or Dominicans or Caribbean women, he almost always has a particular idea of what that identity entails,” Guzman said. “He assumes that I fulfill whatever idea he has of this identity on the sole basis of my nationality or last name, without knowing anything about me. He has reduced a part of my identity to a vacant essence.”
The most self-empowered response to this is, said Jenny Mei ’13, is to recognize that one may be objectified — and do one’s best to not let it happen.
What, then, can we make of our preferences? The reality of the situation — in our lives, in our beds — is infinitely complex. But in order to make any progress, we need to talk. We need to, at the very least, hear both sides.
ASK AN ‘ASIAN GIRL’
So what happens when you’re the preference?
The only way to find out is to talk about it. To hear about it.
“‘He’s really into ‘the Asian thing’, ‘He’d definitely like you’ or variations of the same aren’t uncommon — as if one’s ethnicity were the only facet of their identity that’s noteworthy,” Shih wrote to me.
At Yale, Shih thinks that believing in such stereotypes is “prevalent,” she added, particularly when Elis are discussing the sexuality of Asian women.
This type of judgment extends to women of mixed Asian ancestry, who are forced to deal with these imposed identities and personas. One student, who asked that her name not be used, wrote to me about her experience regarding her half-Asian ancestry and its effects on others’ perceptions of her.
“Mixed Asians, particularly women, are supposed to be ‘so beautiful’ in this reductive, exoticizing way,” she wrote. “It’s a ‘positive’ stereotype at that, but nonetheless lazily shoves varied and un-categorizable experiences and appearances into a convenient, ‘positively neutral’ and vague myth.”
So where is the dialogue? Melanie Boyd ’90, the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and director of the Communication and Consent Educator (CCE) program said Yale needs to have productive discourse surrounding these topics.
And while the CCE program she directs has been talking a lot about racial dynamics and racially motivated romantic sexual interests, Boyd said it is not in its purview to specifically offer a forum to express dissatisfaction or negative experiences.
“It is more productive — more empowering to the community — to foster discussion on positive dynamics, imagining strategic possibilities for a culture in which everyone can thrive,” Boyd said. “The CCEs seek positive, often oblique angles of intervention.”
Some of the CCEs are already collaborating with the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) on a series of dinner discussions about this and other related issues.
“Among the CCEs, we have started some dialogue about racialized sexual preferences, particularly with those of us who operate in conjunction with the cultural houses,” said Emily Hong ’14, a CCE liaison to the AACC. “At least with the AACC, we are hoping to pilot specific facilitated discussions and workshops that explicitly talk about issues of Asian-American sexuality. Some examples include the hyper- versus asexualization of Asians, ‘the sex talk you never got from your parents’ [and] ‘Being Queer and Asian-American.’”
Still, even as these initiatives are being developed, students currently lack an institutional place to voice their thoughts — however cathartically negative or optimistically constructive these thoughts may be.
“There is a complete lack of dialogue on campus, in my opinion.” Shih wrote.
For now, campus remains largely silent about the intersection of sex and race.
WHERE WE’RE HEADED
Near the end of my work on this piece, I sat down to speak with Professor of American Studies and History Mary Lui, who offered me a nuanced yet optimistic perspective of these racial and sexual dynamics and their evolution.
“Things don’t never change,” she assured me.
And indeed, things are already not never-changing: there we were, two Asian women comfortably discussing our ideas in a place of academia opened to our particular demographic just 40 years ago.
“I think this situation is incredibly complex; it’s grown more complicated in recent years. People are aware of the circulation of these images and don’t let their relationships play out these narratives. They understand these images and are thinking about them,” Lui said.
Do people still exoticize or eroticize Asian women? Of course; it still happens in some places. But according to Lui, “there’s enough of a pushback.”
During our conversation, Lui encouraged me to acknowledge and embrace the complexity of the situation. Rather than letting the narrative of the dangerous narrative itself create a dangerous precedent, I — and others — ought to consider all the different factors that go into why people choose their sexual partners.
In a follow-up correspondence, Lui wrote to me regarding how we might learn to properly speak the language of desire.
“I can only say that with broader cultural awareness and higher visibility of Asian-Americans that there are now more people than ever challenging those racist and sexist images you discussed,” Lui wrote. “That is what makes me hopeful.”
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Larissa Pham is a contributing writer to the Ellipses Project. She makes art, thinks about making art, and thinks about thinking about making art. She believes emotions and bodies are inherently valid. As a junior at Yale College, she is involved in the studio art, history of art, and psychology departments.