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After more uncomfortable matches on the online dating app, Lillian used the to speak out about the fetishization and intersection of racism and sexism that Asian women like her often face in real life. For Asian women, the Atlanta spa shootings hit close to home.
The stumbles of authorities and media outlets in distinguishing spas from massage parlors the latter of which have a connotation of prostitution and sexualization also showed that people were already viewing the case with certain tropes in mind without engaging in the vulnerable realities these workers face. Even before the Chinese Exclusion Act ofwhich banned Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens, the US had passed the Act ofwhich ultimately banned the importation of Asian women, who were feared to be engaging in prostitution in the country, whether they were or not.
up to receive our newsletter each Friday. I spoke with Shimizu about the history of fetishizing Asian women and how it translates to the shooting in Atlanta. Our interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. How do you see it? So for me, I could see their image and their identities catapulted into the national stage in a way that made it clear how much we lacked knowledge of how they got there. Why are they working there? Who are they?
Are they immigrant women? What are their circumstances? Talk to me more about this silencing and the intersection of a vulnerability and stigma of these workers. So the arrival of Asian American women can really be captured as a genital event: The Act of reflected the fear of Chinese women as a source of contaminating sexuality.
That they were possibly prostitutes. That they were possibly going to introduce a polyamorous way of life into the United States at a time when there was a growing influx of Asians to the country. At the same time, there was also the beginning of a mass circulation of Asian women in plays; for example, The Good Woman of Szechuan in the s, Madame Butterfly in These cultural productions were occurring at a time of Asian encounters with the West and Western invasions of Asia.
There was a production in the circulation of Asian women as sexually different and sexually excessive. They love you so much that they are going to be blinded [to] your lack of regard and how that love is not reciprocated.
So this is going on in history, in the law, and this is going on in popular culture. For me, it captures producing otherness and the alienation and object status. You mention The Good Woman of Szechuan and Madame Butterfly — is it with this kind of representation in art that the Western fetishization of Asian women really takes off?
My first book, The Hypersexuality of Racechose to begin with Miss Saigon inwhich continues and really was one of the most lucrative Broadway productions. I wanted to begin there, because I was so arrested by the repetition of the same story — like what is so appealing about an Asian woman who loves a white man so much that she will choose to kill herself and give up her child and give it to him? One of her first films, Toll of the Seawas the same story in So my book really concentrates on about years of that repetition. Why are we addicted to that story?
What is so arousing and pleasurable about that construction? Who does it serve? But the United States protected him as soon as he was pronounced guilty; they shuffled him out of the Philippine courthouse, and he was never imprisoned in the Philippines.
Most recently, President [Rodrigo] Duterte pardoned him. The movement of trans Filipinx women who mobilized in order to say her name — and to make sure that her story did not get buried — tell us that the status of Filipinx trans women sex workers reflects the colonial relationship between the Philippines and the United States and the power inequalities between the countries. My research on The Hypersexuality of Race included uncovering some photographs that I found of women, photographs of the places where they worked, where they were enslaved, essentially.
There were makeshift beds and a pile of towels to aid them in cleaning themselves — and there were cartoon images that attributed the slanted vagina onto Asian women. There was pornography that eroticized the relationship between the war brides coming back to the US after the Korean War, for example.
And this was the first time that Asian women were in pornography that I saw, versus white women in yellowface. They were romanticizing the compatibility of a docile war bride, as an ideal American wife, because she was sexually servile but also a domestic servant. How can that innocence not shatter? And how come that person is given the microphone in order to continue this narrative that relegates this sexuality that drives white men crazy? The polar way we understand gender as virginal equals good or hypersexual equals bad is particularly a prison for Asian American women, because representations in between are hardly in the movies or are hardly around.
So, it does not allow for Asian American women to define their own sexuality, which would most likely be in the vast expanse of the middle. We really have to live with those scary and very limited polar opposites.
Yes, it seems there is little imagination of Asian women outside of the binary subservient and overtly sexual. Relatedly, there has been some hesitancy to talk about the possibility of these spas in the Atlanta shooting being places of sex work. I definitely think that this must be an opportunity for us to educate on the plight of vulnerable, poor, working women in every industry, including the sex industry. What are their conditions of work? How can we improve them, so that they are not any longer some of the most vulnerable in our society? I do see this definitely as an opportunity for us to educate ourselves on the plight that led these women to work there.
And also how there is the accepted linkage between Asian and Asian American women and the sex industry, due to the various wars in Asia and the non-accidental ways that the cities and towns that flank the US military bases had a prostitution industry that was supported by the US military-industrial complex.
We cannot normalize our ignorance around the conditions in which these women live and work. This is definitely an opportunity to improve their situations by finding out more about what we can do to help. In your book, The Hypersexuality of Raceyou encourage a shift in thinking about the way Asian women are sexually depicted. How can people move beyond that negative perception of Asian women as submissive sexual objects that have no agency? How should we be thinking about the nuance of Asian women and how does that nuance keep them safe? It can be a great life-giving source of physical and psychic pleasure of which we should not be deprived, if we wish to participate in it.
One fear that I have, in looking at over years of representing Asian and Asian American women as a source of excessive sexuality, is that Asian American women should be encouraged to do the work of defining their sexuality in the face of this heavy truck that is trying to tell them that they are a particular way. I concluded my book with a respectful, interrogative celebration of how Asian American women are using film precisely to explore their sexualities — and, of course, it includes their victimization, as well as their empowerment through sexuality.
We need to acknowledge this huge systemic force that relegates us into a particular kind of sexual role in society. We must take it in our own hands and really centralize our experiences and follow the lead of our foremothers, including Asian American women who worked in Hollywood and Broadway. I do hope that we can look at the way Asian American women — whether actors, activists, or scholars — have confronted this infliction of perversity and not run away from our own sexualities, and really use it as a force, not only to feel good for ourselves, but as an opportunity to capture how we are not yet free and that we have so much possibility to create new narratives about ourselves.
Why did the killer keep going back to those spas? Why did these women continue to deepen into an object status for him? The long history of brutalization of Asian American women has been a part of this country inside and outside it. We need to question our capacity of repressing those stories — and instead, we need to cultivate the need to hear about them and to know them. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower through understanding.
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The Atlanta shootings can’t be divorced from racism and misogyny