Margaret Cho no longer goes out.
While that sentence might seem unsurprising for life during a pandemic, Cho’s decision – and her fear – did not stem from the virus. Or, at least, not directly.
“I’m not leaving,” the longtime comedian and actor said in an interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I’m an older Asian-American woman. So it’s like – all the things that I see every day, it’s really us who are being attacked.”
Cho was referring both to last month’s shooting at several Atlanta-area spas in which eight people – including six Asian women – were killed, as well as a recent spike in anti-Asian racism and violence. .
As a result, she says she weighs the risks of going out in public: she wonders if she’s ready to document any attack she might experience and if she thinks she wants – or should – defend herself.
“It’s a very real threat,” Cho said. “So it’s very strange to actually ask yourself, like, ‘Oh, it’s cloudy with a risk of racism.'”
WATCH | Review of anti-Asian racism in the media:
His fears are not isolated. In one recent Statistics Canada surveyChinese, Korean and Southeast Asian respondents were the most likely to have experienced more cases of harassment or attacks because of their race since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, analysis According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by almost 150% in 2020, despite an overall decline in such crimes.
Indeed, the three women interviewed for this story expressed their fear of going out specifically because of the rise in attacks on Asian women. And all three indicated a probable culprit.
“Invisibility is the problem,” Cho said.
She was referring to how realistic depictions of Asian people, especially Asian women, are excluded from pop culture. Instead, they’re replaced with overly sexualized caricatures, she said.
Cho says the lack of authentic representations of Asian people in popular culture has contributed to the sexual objectification of Asian women. For centuries, she says, “the characterization of Asia has been used in a way as a form of dehumanization.”
This pattern, according to Cho and others, has real-world implications. For example, Robert Aaron Long, 21, the man charged with eight counts of murder in connection with the Atlanta shooting reportedly told police the attack was not a hate crime but rather stemmed from his “sex addiction”.
The hypersexualization of Asian women is not new, Cho said, and in fact directly contributes to the violence perpetrated against them. Hollywood and the television industry have a history of portraying Asian women as sex objects, one-dimensional “model minorities,” or not at all, Cho said.
“We have gone from invisible to untouchable,” she said. “And these two combinations add to a dehumanizing effect, because we’re either superhuman or we’re not.”
A story of hypersexualization
Filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu has been looking at this trend for years. In his book The hypersexuality of the race, she documented how the trend of “subservient, suffering, tiny” Asian women took root in early mass culture through Madame Chrysanthemum and Madame Butterfly.
During this time, these stereotypes were also at work far beyond the stage. They occurred around the same time as the Page Act, which effectively banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States due to racist perception that they were likely to be sex workers. These ideas spread in a way that has echoed for decades, Shimizu said.
“We have heard these sayings attributed to Asian women that still resonate in popular culture today,” Shimizu said. “[Full Metal Jacket’s] ‘I have loved you for a long time’ or [The World of Suzie Wong‘s] “I stay with you until you tell me to go away.” This broken and choppy English that affirms this servility and these words on the screen are repeated in the scenes of the daily life of Asian women. “
WATCH | Celine Parreñas Shimizu on the historical representation of Asian women:
These performances permeate popular media, Shimizu said – from Hollywood classics to more everyday examples such as Austin Powers, Family guy and Office, what was recently criticized by guest star Kat Ahn for the way her character was portrayed in the episode “A Benihana Christmas”.
And until very recently, Shimizu said, these examples dominated pop culture. This left Asians struggling with the obligation to disprove or embrace them, Shimizu said. But either way, the impact is impossible to ignore or avoid.
“Asian women – young, old, different categories of various professions – talk about how hypersexualized they feel,” Shimizu said. “They feel that call, that definition is forced upon them, which means we have to use the media to define us.”
Some progress, but a long way to go
This situation improved somewhat, paving the way for what Shimizu calls “the vast middle” between hypersexualized characters and those treated as one-dimensional props or simply excluded from the narrative.
Canadian actor and producer Amanda Joy, who created the series Second Jen about two second-generation Asian Canadians, okay. She also said there was still more to do.
She saw the industry start to change firsthand. She described how early in her career in the 2000s, an agent told her to hide the fact that she was Filipino “unless all you want to do is play maid and nanny.”
A recent wave of projects is starting to turn the tide – as of 2019 The farewell at Empire bling see you this year Minari and even the recently canceled one Kim’s convenience.
But many of these examples represent figures of East Asian descent. Portrayals of South and Southeast Asian characters did not reflect this progress, Joy said.
And even when we see projects that break the tradition of subordinate or hypersexualized characters, she says, these are exceptions instead of the norm. During this time, she says, she and other Asian actors are often called upon to play characters who serve “white protagonists, white characters, or white heroes.”
“The stereotypes we see in the media contribute to the way we see the world,” Joy said.
She pointed out KimThat’s one example: a popular show about a Korean Canadian family that caused a heated uproar when it was recently canceled.
“When you have so few shows that represent a community… when they end, the impact of that is felt in a so much bigger way,” Joy said.
“Of course, it’s sad when the show ends. But also, why is this the only show?”