Asian women have been subjected to pretty limited stereotypes over the ages in Hollywood. They’ve either been typecast as sidekicks or as vamps (I use this term loosely) in martial arts roles/films or have been delegated to the ‘Madame Butterfly’ roles where they’re the subservient love interests of (most often) white males. It is sad to see that this was the case in the early 1920’s when cinema actually started to take off, with Myrna Loy being cast as the Asian female character in films, as opposed to casting actual Asian actresses. The early dynamics in Hollywood actually restricted the entry of Asian actors in the industry. With many actors relying solely on their acting stints to support themselves, it was natural for them to lobby against casting Asian actors/actresses in films and the role invariably always went to a Caucasian actor.
Not much has changed in the last few decades in Hollywood. This seems strange to me when I compare the media landscape in America to, say, Great Britain or other parts of the world. The UK has a considerable immigrant population, not unlike the US, but I see a greater representation of other ethnicities in the media, both in front of and behind the camera. Some examples that come to mind are directors such as Gurinder Chadha and Deepa Mehta (who, I admit, is more prominent in Canada). The representation of Asian talent on screen is seen through female actors such as Parminder Nagra and Archie Panjabi. Although it has to be said that they suffer from most of the same stereotypes that actresses are subjected to in American media. Some glaring examples are the films Bend it like Beckham (although it was meant as satire), Bride and Prejudice, Slumdog Millionaire and East is East.
The premise of Bend it like Beckham is about the younger daughter in an orthodox Sikh family staying in the UK, who disapproves their daughter playing soccer. The very fact that the director has portrayed a Sikh family staying in Great Britain is a stereotype, as that country has a large population of Indian migrants and the plethora of South-East Asian restaurants in London has led to ‘curry’ being deemed the national dish of the UK(!). Jess, the character Nagra portrays, is the rebel in the family, who would rather play soccer and scrape her knee than wear traditional Indian clothes and get married and settle down, which is what her parents want from her. In one scene, when she is being measured for the dress she will wear for her elder sister’s wedding, the seamstress complains that she is flat-chested and that she would add padding to the dress to make her bosom look ‘like ripe mangoes’ which is ‘what Indian men like’. The film shed light on the fact that Indian girls are expected to be subordinate and be concerned with household duties, as opposed to going out and doing something unconventional, like, playing a sport.
The film East is East also tells a similar story, of an family in the UK with a Pakistani father and a British mother, and touches upon subjects such as arranged marriage, homosexuality and circumcision in a Muslim family. Archie Panjabi has a minor role in the film and does not have much screen time, because the film is primarily based on the tense relationship between a father and his sons.
Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair are other women film makers who have made English language films starring both, Asian and Caucasian female actors. It is interesting to note the representation of women directors in various countries. I can speak for India having a multitude of women directors: Reema Kagti, Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair & Zoya Akhtar to name a few (a full list can be found here) but surprisingly, I could not find a similar comprehensive list for women directors in Hollywood. I’m assuming the only well-known ones are Kathryn Bigelow and Nora Ephron. The glaring lack of women directors has a direct impact on what we see on screen. As Lisa French writes in her essay ‘Women in Film’:
“The understanding of being a woman is central to female experience, as it follows that women filmmakers might find gestures, enactments, and significations to explore that experience. Thus, what women represent in their films, and the modes of representation, may well differ from that constructed by men (and vice versa). If women are not given access to, or find it difficult to produce films, female aesthetic approaches and worldviews will have significantly fewer outlets for expression.”
I felt it was important to point this fact out before starting my analyses of other media objects, because the lens through which we view them is complex and ever-changing and certain factors need to be considered before reaching a conclusion. Each media object is unique and they cannot be blanketed by the same criteria. Therefore, keeping that in mind, in the following few posts, I will be trying to analyze the representation of Asian women in the American media and try to gauge the changes the roles have undergone (if any) in the past few decades.