Rebecca Kamm: The sexual fetishisation of Asian women

A clip from the trailer of the documentary, Seeking Asian Female.Photo / YouTube
A clip from the trailer of the documentary, Seeking Asian Female.Photo / YouTube

I AM not Asian, which you may have gathered from my headshot. Therefore I have no idea how it feels to be the object of "yellow fever": the term used to describe the sexual fetishisation of Asian women. None at all.

But discussion of the phenomenon has cropped up in mainstream(ish) culture of late, acting as an education for women like me, who have never had to deal with the doubly insulting blend of gender and racial profiling. Or the particularly ignorant brand of sexual objectification that so often results.

Earlier this year, Chinese-American filmmaker Debbie Lum drew attention to the issue with the release of her documentary Seeking Asian Female, which follows the complicated relationship of 60-year-old Asiaphile Steven and his 30-year-old Chinese mail-order bride, Sandy. Lum told ABC News she wanted to explore the psychology behind yellow fever, something she had experienced over and over again:

"Every Asian American woman knows exactly what I am talking about. Men come up to you in a way that really looks like a stare, which lasts a bit longer than it should. You can feel it.

"It's like they are looking through you .... [yellow fever] is very painful for the Asian-American community. What I would love is for people to talk about it in new ways that engage conversations."

Along a similar vein but using an entirely different medium is Creepy White Guys, a blog that catalogues the online dating messages received by its female Asian author:

"Every Asian girl who has ever tried online dating, whether on POF, OKCupid, or Match has experienced it: messages from Creepy White Guys with Asian fetishes. I just got back into the dating scene and am already being bombarded with some absolutely horrifying messages."

You can read through the posts for yourself, but in the interests of collective despair, here is a particularly golden nugget from a prospective suitor:

"Your profile pretty much sums up why I exclusively date Asian women .... The modern American white woman has no idea how to treat a man, has no concept of a man's need to be the dominant one in the relationship, and constantly goes about trying to assert her 'independence' by mistreating men and making them feel useless."

Lum's documentary and Creepy White Guys are American-based, but the key assumptions that make up yellow fever are alive and well the Western world over: Asian women are submissive and easier to please. A blissful haven next to ball-busting, autonomous white women, who no longer know how to be women, or how to let men be men.

A social media call-out triggered a flood of first-hand accounts. This, from a young Filipino woman:

"YES YES YES: this is my life and the life of many other Filipino women I know. I have been asked a few times if my vagina is indeed smaller because of my ethnicity. I have been told I would be a good lay if this is so.

"I am often asked, 'Where are you from? Phillipines? I hear women there are really subservient and make great wives.' There are MANY MANY MANY more."

Why is this different from liking women with blonde hair, or from women expressing a liking for Italian men? It's a question often asked, but also pretty easily answered by one word: power. Racial-sexual profiling of any minority extends beyond an appreciation for olive skin, or pretty hair: it's inextricably linked to centuries-old ignorance. Assumptions about "foreign" women - about their sexuality , or personality traits - didn't appear out of the blue from nowhere. They grew from a well-watered soil of prejudice, privilege, colonialism and entitlement.

Or, as writer Lauren Smash put it recently, "[Yellow fever] relies on stereotypes that turn us into exotic sexual objects instead of real women. Stereotypes turn people like me into things that are measured against a caricature, and they strip me of the individuality that, frankly, I would probably have been more freely assigned if I were white."

Obviously, for 99.9 per cent of white male/Asian female couplings, "yellow fever" - or the collection of harmful stereotypes the term represents - has nothing to do with it. To suggest otherwise isn't just insulting and patronising, it's as damaging as the stereotypes themselves.

But inversely, to claim the phenomenon isn't socially harmful, that in fact any racial fetishisation isn't inextricably linked to ego, power and dominance, is naïve.

One of the key characteristics of misogynists is their tendency to wrap women up into easily-defined clumps of sameness; 2-Dimensional cartoons called "sluts", or "ball breakers", or "gold diggers".

Why? Because love is unpredictable, and being vulnerable is scary. Shrinking the object of your fear (and/or desire) into over-simplified parts makes it easier to cope. Hence why all Asian women are so submissive and eager to please. And such good wives - all of them. Every single one.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

Topics:  asian online dating relationships social media

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