For (White Men’s) Entertainment Only: Unpacking Hollywood’s Fetishization of Asian Women

For (White Men’s) Entertainment Only: Unpacking Hollywood’s Fetishization of Asian Women

By: Julita Fenneuff

January 13th, 2022

“Me love you long time.”

It’s a phrase that many recognize, and even if they don’t know its exact origin, most have at least heard it. The line comes from a two-minute scene in the 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket,” wherein a Vietnamese woman prostitute convinces a handful of American army men to buy her services. While “Full Metal Jacket” is far from the first film to portray Asian women as sex-obsessed, deviant beings, it bred a highly recognizable line that manages to perfectly encapsulate the way Asian women have always been seen in the United States.

There has never been a safe space for Asian women in Hollywood. Opportunities for representation have always been few and far between, and those that have arisen have typically been attempts to paint Asian women as nothing more than sex objects who are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to please their lovers. For decades, Hollywood has been eager to include Asian women in films––so long as they fit into one of the few molds they’ve created for them. These molds are rooted in racism, sexism, xenophobia and fetishization, and Asian women have fought for decades to break free from them.

“You’re told to shut up and be grateful,” Kat Ahn told the Washington Post in March 2021, when reflecting on her short time on the U.S. version of “The Office,” where she and another Asian actress Kulap Vilaysack were “just there to be the joke.” The specific episode the two were brought on for was “A Benihana Christmas.” In it, Michael Scott invites two Asian servers (from what he calls “Asian Hooters”), portrayed by Ahn and Vilaysack, back to their office Christmas party. It is revealed later that Michael had marked the wrist of one of the women so that he could tell them apart. 

In this case, fans could argue that the butt of the joke is intended to be Scott because he’s so desperate for affection that he’s willing to accept it from two women he can’t even tell apart. But it just doesn’t read that way. Sure, maybe the joke is that Scott is desperate, but he’s also racist—and the entire bit is, too.

“The Office” is supposed to be humorous, and many have argued that Scott’s overt racism, sexism and homophobia depicted in the show is supposed to be a parody. Viewers are supposed to hate Scott. But in scenes like this one, the true racist nature of the show shines through. It’s hard to see Scott as the laughing stock when he’s actively participating in racist stereotypes, and ultimately the audience is expected to laugh at the idea that “all Asians look the same.”

These stereotypes surrounding Asian women have also bled into the portrayal of teenage Asian girls. “Mean Girls,” released in 2004, is regarded as a quintessential chick flick by many. It also includes harmful stereotypes that viewers may not have even noticed. 

In “Mean Girls,” two girls, Trang Pak and Sun Jin Dinh (both of whose names appear to have been made up entirely by Tina Fey, the writer of the film), are both revealed to have been taken advantage of by their teacher, Coach Carr. However, the two are framed as promiscuous for sleeping with the same man, and there is a whole scene dedicated to the two girls fighting over him. The real problem here is that a teacher is regularly assaulting his students, yet the students are seen as the problem, once again being portrayed as overly sexual beings just because they are Asian.

From “The Office” to “Mean Girls”—both of which are considered iconic pieces of pop culture—this is the reality that many Asian actresses face. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for Asian actresses to find job opportunities that don’t involve their fetishization when anti-Asian rhetoric is embedded in U.S. history. In Hollywood, Asian women have always been portrayed as sex objects, and this idea that Asian women are overtly sexual beings and nothing else has literally been written into American law. 

“Chinese women were specifically accused of spreading sexually transmitted diseases. They were scapegoated. That sexualized stereotype stuck,” researcher and author Dr. Kevin Nadal said in an interview for the History Channel. These stereotypes resulted in the passing of The Page Act of 1875, an anti-Asian immigration law that targeted Asian women. The law was enacted to prevent the immigration of those believed to have arrived for “lewd or immoral purposes.” The “importation of women for the purposes of prostitution” was strictly forbidden. Because Asian women were stereotyped as promiscuous and generalized as prostitutes, the Page Act was used as a way to bar their entry into the United States.  

To this day, that idea of Asian women as promiscuous and inherently sexual beings is embedded into pop culture. Asian representation in film and television is rare, and when it is present, it’s generally stereotypical and only exists to further harm Asian women. Two of the most recognizable archetypes that Hollywood has created for Asian women are the Lotus Blossom and the Dragon Lady

While both the Lotus Blossom and the Dragon Lady are harmful, sexual stereotypes, there are key differences in the way the two are portrayed. The Lotus Blossom is self-sacrificing, obedient and submissive. She does as she is told, dedicates her life to her white lover, and does not speak unless spoken too. She is always ready and willing to fulfil the sexual desires of the men around her, especially once she has fallen head-over-heels in love with them.

The Lotus Blossom can be found in the likes of “The World of Suzie Wong” (1960), “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005), and much more, but perhaps the most well-known Lotus Blossom is Kim from the musical “Miss Saigon.” Originally opening in 1989 in London, “Miss Saigon” has since been performed in over twenty-five countries and won over thirty awards. It is a story about the Vietnam War and follows Kim, a sex worker who falls in love with an American G.I. It’s heavy on themes of yellow peril and US militarism and light on proper representation of Asian women.

Already, the idea of Kim and the American Chris falling in love is alarming due to the pure power imbalance between them because Chris is paying Kim for sex. However, the musical goes on to show how Kim dedicates her life to Chris, even after he gets her pregnant, moves back home and marries another woman. The musical ends with Kim committing suicide so that her son can go to America with his father’s family, sacrificing her life so that her child can have a better life. 

This is the epitome of the male fantasy. A woman who provides him with all the sex he wants, bares him a child, and sacrifices everything, including her own life, for him. 

On the other hand, the Dragon Lady wields her sexuality like a weapon. She is head-strong, cunning and dominant. She is tempting, a symbol of what a white man wants but cannot have. She plays into the desires of the men around her and uses the sexual power she possesses to reach an end goal. 

From “Daughter of the Dragon” (1931) to “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007) and more, one quintessential example is that of James Bond’s experience with a Dragon Lady in the 1967 film “You Only Live Twice.” In it, Bond encounters Ling, the first Asian Bond girl. It’s an impressive feat for the sixties, but the idea of breaking the race barrier with the first Asian Bond girl dulls when viewers realize she is depicted as a stereotypical Dragon Lady.

After the two sleep together, Bond and Ling have a brief yet painful-to-watch conversation wherein Bond asks Ling, “Why do Chinese girls taste so different from the others?” Ling replies, “Darling, I give you very best duck.” In true Dragon Lady fashion, shortly after this, Ling is revealed to be a double agent and tries to have Bond killed. For the nth time, Hollywood fails to present Asian women as being in control of their sexuality if it is not to reach an end. 

People often mistake the Dragon Lady for good representation of Asian women, mainly because she is being portrayed as having power and strength. However, she is still drawn as a hypersexualized being who can only get what she wants by using her sexuality. Asian women being portrayed as conniving and violent is hardly the positive representation they are seeking. 

One stereotype for Asian women that has blossomed in popularity lately is the Hairstreak Asian. Perhaps in a bid to steer away from the other age-old stereotypes, the Hairstreak Asian was born, only to once again be a mold that Asian actresses are being forced into. The Hairstreak Asian stereotypes seem to be more commonly found in shows and movies directed at a slightly younger crowd, which is perhaps why it is one of the few Asian women stereotypes where the sexual undertones are more subtle.

The Hairstreak Asian is rebellious and bold. She wears leather, rides a motorcycle, and she’s definitely not like other girls. And viewers know she’s certainly not like other Asian girls because the Hairstreak Asian dyes a chunk of her hair a fun color. Tina Cohen-Chang from “Glee,” Mako Mori from “Pacific Rim,” GoGo Tamago from “Big Hero 6” and Knives Chau from “Scott Pilgrim” are all examples of the Hairstreak Asian. 

The Hairstreak Asian stereotype is harmful because it’s a weak, one-dimensional characterization. Oftentimes, Hairstreak Asians have no personality other than being rebellious and different, and their characters fall flat. Glamour called the Hairstreak Asian the “exoticized Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” which hits the nail right on the head. 

Of course, not all of these portrayals are inherently bad. As Lori Kido Lopez told Today, “That’s the challenging thing about stereotypes… You can’t just point to a stereotype and name it and say, ‘Therefore, that’s a bad media representation,’ because all of these stereotypes can be recuperated in some way if the movie focuses on them, or the TV show allows that character to grow and change and have interesting plot lines.” It’s entirely possible for characters who may appear to be purely stereotypes at first to develop overtime. 

For example, take Melinda May from Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” While she was originally considered a typical Dragon Lady, both fans and Ming-Na Wen, who portrays May, have argued that she has shown to be so much more than that over the course of the show. About her character, Wen said, “People could interpret Agent May of being somewhat of a stoic ‘Dragon Lady,’ but at the same time, she doesn’t need to be making strong demands, she’s just very confident. I think that’s a very great representation of what a woman can be.”

Plus, it’s important to remember that for decades, these stereotypical roles were the only way for Asian women to appear on the big screen. The Lotus Blossom, Dragon Lady and Hairstreak Asian are not inherently bad characters, nor do they deserve to be written off completely in the discussion of representation for Asian women. However, all are tired, overused cliches. Asian women are so much more than their sex appeal. 

While these Asian women mentioned thus far have all been examples of fictional characters created to please the white man, what’s not fictional is the real-life harassment and violence that Asian women face because of these harmful stereotypes. 

Asian women from all over the country have come forward about their experiences with provocative comments they have received from men just for being Asian. They are subject to suggestive, inappropriate Tinder messages and hearing “me love you long time” when just going about their business, among other things. But one of the most heartbreaking realizations of the fetishization of Asian women is the shooting that happened in Atlanta on March 16, 2021.

On that day, Robert Long opened fire in three separate Asian-owned spas, killing seven people, six of whom were Asian women, and injuring an eighth, the only person to survive the attack. While law enforcement officials initially held off on calling the shooting a hate crime, Asian-Americans knew the truth the entire time. 

Long claimed to have committed the crime as a way to eliminate his “temptations,” a result of his “sex addiction,” and officials were extremely hesitant to call it a hate crime. Cherokee County Sheriff Captain Jay Baker said that Long had “a really bad day,” while Sheriff Frank Reynolds said that, in terms of whether or not the shooting was a hate crime, “the indicators right now are it may not be.” Even President Biden took to Twitter to write “we don’t yet know the motive, but what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain tonight.”

To Asian-Americans, each of these comments and every one similar to them was a slap in the face. Asian women have been hypersexualized and fetishized in America for decades, so to try to separate Long’s self-proclaimed sex addiction from the identities of the Asian women’s lives he took is to erase decades of US anti-Asian rhetoric. 

In an interview with NPR, Biola University professor of sociology Nancy Wang Yuen said that when she first heard the officials were considering that the attack was not racially motivated, “I thought… these police officers and maybe all of America just doesn’t understand how racism and sexism intersect.”

And it sure seems that way. It is impossible for Asian women to separate their identities as Asian people and as women, yet those with authority who were evaluating the situation were able to isolate the identities of the victims from the perpetrators sex addiction as if they were two completely separate issues. Long was eventually prosecuted for committing a hate crime, though this will never be enough justice to make up for the lives he took. 

The sexualization and fetishization of Asian women is something so deeply embedded in U.S. history that it’s impossible to discuss Asian representation in media without bringing it up. What many people fail to realize is that normalizing harmful archetypes of Asian women in film and TV only normalizes the same stereotyping that takes place in real life. While these portrayals may start out only on screen, these harmful stereotypes translate into real violence against Asian women. 

If you want to learn more about Asian and Pacific Islander stereotypes in film, start here. And if you want some good representation of Asian people in film, start here. 

Julita Fenneuff is a senior majoring in public and professional writing with a minor in Spanish. She currently writes and edits for In her spare time she enjoys reading, listening to music and spending time with her pet bunny.