In case you missed it, Victoria’s Secret recently launched a new lingerie collection. Entitled “Go East,” it’s the kind of overt racism masked behind claims of inspired fashion and exploring sexual fantasy that makes my skin crawl.
From the website: “Your ticket to an exotic adventure: a sexy mesh teddy with flirty cutouts and Eastern-inspired florals. Sexy little fantasies, there’s one for every sexy you.” The collection varies in its level of exoticism. The “Sexy Little Geisha” is a perversion of its reference, featuring a sultry white model donned in lingerie, chopsticks in her hair, fan in her hand. Other items in the collection include red sleepwear and nightgowns with cherry blossoms. I might have glossed over some of these pieces entirely–except the catalog descriptions had me reeling. “Indulge in touches of Eastern delight.” Translation: “Buying these clothes can help you experience the Exotic East and all the sexual fantasies that come along with it, without all the messy racial politics!”
When someone creates a collection like this, making inauthentic references to “Eastern culture” (whatever that means) with hints of red or a fan accessory or floral designs, it reinforces a narrative that says that all Asian cultures–and their women–are exotic, far away but easy to access. It’s a narrative that says the culture can be completely stripped of its realness in order to fulfill our fantasies of a safe and non-threatening, mysterious East.
But when a company takes it one step further by developing a story about how the clothes can offer a sort of escape using explicit sexualized and exploitive language, it takes the whole thing to another level. It’s a troubling attempt to sidestep authentic representation and humanization of a culture and opt instead for racialized fetishizing against Asian women.
And while such sexism and racism is relatively predictable from the tabloid press and bitter US coaches, the more liberal media and all kinds of “sports scientists“ came out publicly raising their well-educated eyebrows over Ye’s performance and analysing her race down to her last stroke. I can guarantee you that Ledecky’s swim will not come under anywhere near the level of scrutiny as Ye’s. Of course, I have no idea whether either of them are on drugs. Both their tests have come up negative but it’s possible that they might still be found positive in years to come as technologies catch up with each other. But I’m no more suspicious of Ye than I am of Ledecky, or of any Olympic athlete for that matter. And whatever happens from here, the level of quasi-scientific objectification of Ye’s body and performance that has already taken place (overwhelmingly by white men), is overtly reminiscent of an Orientalism that has formed the basis for shameful histories of sexual violence and racism.
Unable to offer any actual evidence that Ye was doping, media attention turned to her training regime. Whereas sports enthusiasts generally pride themselves on how hard “their” athletes train and how much they want to win it “for team GB/Australia/ team USA/insert country here,” the Internet was suddenly full of scathing attacks on what, having never been to China and having no understanding of Chinese culture, they assumed Ye’s tortuous training regime and nationalist indoctrination to be. Images from a Chinese article about unhappy children at gymnastic training camps were taken out of context by western journalists to prove how heinous and inhumane the “brutal training camps“ of China really are. Whereas identifying sporting potential at an early age and receiving a sport scholarship to live and train at a specialist institute is held in the highest prestige in Australia, the US, and other western countries, the same practices in China were deemed barbaric, heartless, and reflective of China’s vicious one-party “totalitarian” regime.
Now, I don’t have room here to go into the details of the Chinese political system and the life chances or “happiness levels” of an average Chinese citizen compared to citizens of multi-party western states. But no one reacted to Michael Phelps’ highly anomalous 17 Olympic gold medals by opening up a debate about the various problems of the US political system and the desperate measures that US athletes go to in the hope of Olympic glory. And at any rate, anyone who thinks human rights violations and standards of living are significantly worse in China than they are in, for example, the US, needs to have a critical think about the criteria they are using to make those judgements. None of this is to say that they aren’t massive problems with the Chinese state but, ultimately, it has to be asked why it is that when a young Chinese woman wins an event in a white-dominated sport, white men the world over feel both the need and entitlement to prove that she must have either been cheating or that she’s subject to a tortuous training regime unthinkable in the liberated west. So, true to every bad Hollywood movie you have ever watched featuring an Asian woman, she must either be a villain or a victim. In actual fact, Ye Shiwen is the hero in this story, and it’s about time we let her have the credit she deserves for playing that role in these Olympics.
The only thing I’m going to say about Sarah Keenan’s right-on breakdown of the racism and sexism on full, waving display against Ye Shiwen is:
Okay. I’m going on another rant here and forgive me, but I saw something that just irks me so, and I’m feeling the need to grab people and shake them and beg them to just understand please.
So I’m reading various things on tumblr, related to Legend of Korra, the portrayal and representation of dark-skinned characters in fiction, and the question that comes around is: Why is this even important?
Let me answer that for you.
Okay, so I have a boyfriend. He’s black, and like me, he’s into cartoons, anime, tv shows, etc. On his facebook, he keeps an gallery of images of dark-skinned characters. Doesn’t matter if they’re Egyptian, South American, Indian, etc. Just dark-skinned characters in general. A friend once asked him why this gallery exists in the first place, and bf answered how they were all positive portrayals of black/dark characters in anime/video games/cartoons.
That someone, who was Caucasian, was like, oh, and simply though it was a small quirk, little hobby, something my bf does when he’s bored.
For bf and me, who are both persons of color, that gallery means much more than a quirky hobby. I can’t explain it well, but basically, it’s a huge deal for us, particularly him. It’s a collection of the few black/dark characters in fiction, it’s representation, it’s him seeing people who look like him be scientists and geniuses, do martial arts, kick ass, look beautiful, be human; it’s people who are dark-skinned be valued and be deep, developed characters and have their own stories and desires and goals; and it’s so damn rare in fiction that he has a gallery of about only 50 characters and that’s it. Compared to, say, the hundreds of thousands of light-skinned characters.
My bf, he’s a writer. He wants to one day make books and tv shows and movies where the main character will be anything other than a straight white male character. He’s making his life goal to do so.
Because growing up and even now, still, he was loved seeing characters that are black like him. Loved characters that looked like him getting to be heroes, go on adventures, save the day, be cheered on and loved - showing him that little kids like him, black kids, kids of color, can do anything they want and they are just as good as the white kids who are already heroes and adventures and princes and princesses and whatever the hell there is to be. In a society where he eventually grows up to tell me, one day, when we were out for a drive, how to respond if I ever get pulled over by a cop, to be respectful and calm and make no sudden movements - he doesn’t know if it’s different for Asians but still, be safe - and he has to do all this, be extremely careful simply because he’s black…well, it’s something when black/dark characters are portrayed as anything other than dangerous or expandable or a bunch of horrid shit.
And then there’s me, who’s Chinese and tans easily and, along with my dad, is the darkest in the family. And let me tell you how screw-up colorism, light-skin-is-better-than-dark-skin mentality is, because there’s my mom (pale) who looks down on my dad for having olive skin and would hush hush tell me when I was younger how ‘dark’ my dad was and how ‘dark’ his family was, it was such an unfortunate thing, let’s hope that I don’t turn out like them, and made it as if their being ‘dark’ (at most an olive skin tone, geez) had something to do with all their flaws and whatnot. And then she goes through the trouble of wearing gloves when driving just so her arms wouldn’t get tanned and take out an umbrella when going outside on a sunny day. And I grow up in this setting, being told how pretty I would be if only I was pale like her.
I hate it. I hate all that and love it whenever I see somehow who is olived-skinned or dark-skinned and they were beautiful - considered beautiful, are beautiful-, and I would know that I am pretty too. And I hope no kid would ever grow up in a screwed-up environment like that and they can look everywhere and see that their dark skin is beautiful, desirable as well.
So, Korra. Dark-skinned Korra, gorgeous and headstrong and desirable and powerful and Avatar, protector of the whole world - it’s one of the first time a dark-skinned character has been portrayed as so, main character of such a beloved mainstream TV-series. (My bf loves Legend of Korra and its predecessor series before it. I do too.) And if she is in fact getting lighter, even unintentionally. Well. That would be a devastating blow.
And that’s why skin color in fiction is important. Because of formative influences, of subtle stuff in psychology that worms its way into the mind of little kids, telling them this is how the world worked, this is how your life will eventually be, this is the way you should think. Of the simple fact of having positive role models for all types of children.
Please try to understand. And at the very least, please don’t just brush off and scoff these concerns.
UC-Berkeley professor Elaine Kim’s documentary “Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded” details the frictionless path by which pop fantasy transitions into real-world perception, with troubling real-world consequences. And, as the documentary points out, the same slippage that conflates media fictions with flesh-and-blood people also imposes imagery emerging out of the “exotic East” on Asian women in the West.
“Asian women as prostitutes – the oversexualization of our image – we have to live with that history,” DeAnza College Asian-American studies professor Christine Chai says in the film, which goes on to point out that virtually every Asian-American woman, regardless of how independent, educated, successful and strong she might be, has at one point or another found herself uncomfortably boxed into a stereotype by those whose primary exposure to “Asian” culture comes from cinematic blockbusters and pulp bestsellers.
The price can go far beyond discomfort. DePaul law professor Sumi K. Cho has linked the Asian-woman-as-prostitute stereotype to what she calls “racialized sexual harassment,” professional exploitation rooted in the expectation that Asian women are culturally amenable to sexual advances.
One year I vacationed in Mexico and spent the entire time in the water, body surfing and boogie boarding. My skin got really dark, which I don’t care about one way or another, though I am afraid of sun damage and skin cancer, in that order. I made one mistake that trip though, and it wasn’t forgetting sunscreen (always, always remember sunscreen). My mistake was going to see my grandmother right after. The first thing she said, once she got over the shock, was “How did you get so dark?!” For the rest of the visit, she introduced me to her friends as “My Granddaughter-Who’s-Normally-Not-This-Dark.”
Light skin is still prized in Asia for a number of reasons that have to do with longstanding notions of race, class, and gender. Good thing then, that there’s a booming market for skin whitening creams, many of them manufactured by Western companies! And good thing the companies who make these creams also make commercials, because quite a few of them–beyond their creepy, disturbing premise–are kinda hilarious.