Hollywood Portraits of
an Asian Woman

Ruby Wang

I never understood why people typecasted Asians to all look alike. Beyond our shared dark hair, we did not resemble one another in features. But I knew others didn’t know these differences. Growing up, I dealt with the giggles of my classmates who would joke about how I was siblings with fellow Chinese classmates, all because they could not differentiate “Zhang” from “Wang”. After introducing myself as “Ruby”, I’d receive questions such as “but what’s your real name?” Later, I learned that people believed Asian women shared similar personalities. We were either cute and docile or silently sexy in an “exotic” way. Popular culture and media only reinforced these experiences I had during my upbringing. Unfortunately, the ideas circulated in too many films lead to the deep-rooted dehumanization of women that exists today.

As a young teen, I adored Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls”. The film shaped my perceptions of high school, as I began looking around for the Plastics and jocks of my school. Yet, nowhere to be found were the movie’s typecasted “Cool Asians” and “Asian Nerds”. The characterization of Asians to fall under these two stereotypes isa dehumanizing narrative, as it supports the false perception of Asians to have no personality other than being sexy or nerds. Trang Pak and Sun Jin Dinh, both members of the Cool Asian clique, serve no purpose in the movie other than being hypersexualized teens. Fey’s decision to portray Asian characters as the “sexy” girls who hook up with Coach Carr deepens the fetishization and prostitute stereotype of Asian women. Fey uses their roles solely as comedic relief, as the script offers no discussion on how two underage girls fight for the attention of a predator. While I still admire certain iconic lines from Mean Girls, I’m disappointed at how the film continues to be upheld as a favorite chick flick by many.

Quentin Tarantino features similar sexualized stereotypes of Asian women in his film Kill Bill. Lucy Liu portrays O-Ren Ishii, a sexualized, violent woman fitting the “Dragon Lady” stereotype. Essentially, films portray the Dragon Lady as cunning, dangerous, mysterious, and sexual villains. The Dragon Lady trope originated from early Hollywood films during the Yellow Peril movement, when the U.S. government attempted to limit the number of Chinese women allowed to enter U.S. borders. By portraying Asian women as promiscuous “Dragon Lady” prostitutes, American media promoted negative sentiment towards Asians. Unfortunately, such tropes continue to dehumanize and objectify Asian women as exploitable sex objects. Anti-Asian rhetoric runs rampant in this country, and many don’t even bat an eye. While Asian advocates seek Asian representation in media and popular culture, Hollywood fails to cast Asians in roles other than innocent or sexualized characters.

Hollywood ensures Asian women cannot be portrayed beyond their stereotypes by casting white women in Asian roles. Adaptations from Asian works become white-dominated movies. Scarlett Johanson played the role of Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action remake of the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell. The Last Airbender and Dragon Ball Evolution, both originating from Asian stories, became a white-washed live version with predominantly white actors. The list continues: Emma Stone played Allison Ng, a Chinese-Hawaiian character in Aloha, Matt Damon alongside an entirely Asian cast in the Great Wall, or Tilda Swinton as the Buddhist mentor in Doctor Strange. Because many of these movies cater to family friendly audiences, I cannot imagine how the erasure of Asian characters will reshape the children growing up to these films. The lack of Asian characters in the movies I consumed related directly to the lacking sense of community I felt growing up. Equally, many white children will also grow up consuming such films, further entrenching the perception that all the heroes, protagonists, and beloved are white, while the hypersexualized and fetishized are Asian.