The Harsh Truth About Yellow Fever
In March of 2021, eight people were killed in three Atlanta spa shootings. Six of these people were Asian women. In 2019, rapist Brock Turner’s victim revealed her identity as an Asian-American woman. From the overrepresentation of Asian women in violent porn categories, to the hyper sexualization of Asian female characters in movies; harmful stereotypes of Asian women have been around for generations. Many of us are still feeling the negative impact of them to this day. A global report on trafficking by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that Asian women are the most trafficked group worldwide. An organization called Stop AAPI Hate found that since the pandemic, Asian women reported hate crimes 2.2 times more than Asian men. So, why these alarming statistics? And, why is this false narrative of the Asian woman as an exotic temptress so dangerous? Because for so many of us Asian-American women, our very existence is reduced to a punchline.
For Asian-American women, the experiences of racism and sexism are oftentimes inseparable. To grow up as an Asian-American woman is to experience a very sexualized form of marginalization that is rooted in misogyny, masked as complimentary Asian fetishization. Hollywood’s favorite way of placing Asian female characters on screen is to reduce them to the stereotypical exotic sex worker, the fierce dragon lady, or the forbidden lotus flower—an exotic fantasy for men to chase after. The constant in all these character depictions is the presence of sexuality. This portrayal of Asian women is echoed in movies, porn, literature, and even talk shows and comedies. In 1989, the musical "Miss Saigon" debuted, which attempted to portray life in Saigon during the Vietnam War. A synopsis of "Miss Saigon" online describes it as a “powerful tale of love” in a war-torn country between a Vietnamese orphan and an American GI hero. Underneath this romantically painted portrait however, exists a twisted distortion of the traumatic experience of Vietnamese people during the war, glamorized as a sexual fantasy. The overrepresentation of Vietnamese women as submissive and passive sex workers looking to be saved by the white American hero reinforces the objectification of Asian women and the entitled ownership over their bodies, even justifying violence against Asian women. This constant dehumanization of Asian women in media is a result of the long history of violence and inequality against Asian women in the United States, reinforced through larger institutions such as the U.S. military and the government.
Dangerous stereotypes of Asian women can be dated back to the 19th century, where Asian women were seen as exotic conquered objects by American military officials and missionaries during their time in Asian countries. The 1875 Page Act, which was the first U.S. immigration law based on race, prevented East Asian women, predominantly Chinese women, from migrating over to the United States. The reasoning for this was rooted in the false narrative that Chinese women were all prostitutes who wished to come to the United States to marry American men. Laws such as this and The Chinese Exclusion Act were the blueprint for the anti-Asian sentiment that continues to exist in the United States to this day, and especially during the pandemic through phrases such as “kung flu” and “Chinese virus.”
During the mid-20th century where various wars occurred between the United States and Asian countries, such as Vietnam and Korea, American soldiers experienced a version of these countries that was reduced to the sex industries surrounding military bases, or the service workers that were on base. This limited interaction with Asian women perpetuated the narrative that most Asian women existed as a service to men, either through their sexuality or their obedient hard work. These layers of stereotypes, such as the exotic sex worker and the obedient service worker, create a misogynistic view of Asian women that is birthed from toxic masculinity and male entitlement.
The hard truth about “yellow fever” is that it isn’t a compliment, an advantage, and especially not a privilege. We need to continue to change this dangerous narrative by telling our stories as Asian-American women, by shutting down rude comments such as “me so horny,” and by continuing to advocate and raise awareness for our fellow sisters. For Suncha Kim, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and the many Asian women outside of the Atlanta spa shootings who have been victims of hate crimes. In May of this year, the Georgia district attorney stated that she will seek the death penalty and hate crime charges against the suspect of the shootings, Robert Aaron Long. This is a victory for Asian-American women everywhere, and a stark reminder that we aren’t your property, your “sex addiction,” your temptresses, or your model minority. We are human, and our experiences matter.
Cover image: Jason Leung