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What happens when white women hypersexualize Asian women onscreen

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Girls," "Mean Girls," "Weeds," "Senior Year" - there's a whole catalogue of TV shows and films that people, women and girls especially, have enjoyed and even celebrated over the years for their quirky, funny, raunchy and high-spirited female leads. But if you've seen some of these, have you noticed something else? The Asian women characters - well, I'll let writer Elaine Hsieh Chou tell it the way she wrote it in her recent piece for Vanity Fair, where she said, quote, "the figure of the Asian woman might be hyper-visible or erased, but she is always a whore." And Elaine Hsieh Chou is with us now to tell us more about why she says that and why it matters. Elaine, thanks so much for joining us.

ELAINE HSIEH CHOU: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, tough words, but you have the receipts.

CHOU: Right. There are even more out there that I didn't have time to put into the essay. But it's so prevalent. So many Asian women notice it, too. And many of them, after reading that essay, reached out to say, oh, I'm so glad you pointed this out. I've noticed this so often, but I've sort of gaslighted myself into thinking, am I overreacting? Am I being, quote, "too sensitive?" And so I felt it was time that we put a name to something, and putting a name to something is often the first step in stopping a harmful trope like Manic Pixie Dream Girl or the Gay Best Friend or the Mammy figure from "Gone In The Wind." I felt if I put a name to this, maybe we can finally put it to bed once and for all.

MARTIN: Do you remember when you first saw this? Like, do you remember how that came to you?

CHOU: Well, I remember a lot of these little moments where I would feel something like a pinch or a drop in the stomach from shows that I really admire, like "Fleabag." The introduction of the new girlfriend as - she's an Asian woman, and I couldn't explain, why do I have this feeling again?

And then I think what really hit it over the head for me was when I rewatched "Bridget Jones's Diary." And even though I remember the mom makes a racist remark about Japanese people being a, quote, "cruel race," it was upon watching it again that I realized, oh, an Asian woman is such a big part of this plot, but we don't even know her name. We never even see her face. She never really appears on camera besides a very quick shot of her naked on top of Daniel. But she's the source of their really long rivalry, which is such a big part of the film.

So that finally just kicked things into perspective for me. And I thought, this is - the more I thought about it, the more examples I could remember. And it just seemed high time that, you know, we put a name to it.

MARTIN: Well, you know, sort of flagging stereotypes in popular culture is something that has been around for a while. But one of the things you point out in your piece is that what feels kind of new and, frankly, kind of painful here is that these are shows or films efforted by women. These are shows or films in which women have power, either as - white women have power, either as writers or as co-writers or as producers. Does that change something for you when women are the ones who are the agents of this?

CHOU: Oh, absolutely. I think it speaks to the problem with white feminism and why if feminism is not intersectional, it's not feminism to begin with. You know, a lot of these women, they didn't act alone. They didn't create these harmful tropes. They were created by white men over a century ago. But what is especially hypocritical and troubling to me was the fact that the same white women who are essentially asking to be my friend and they want to go to brunch together are the same ones who are happily and very care-freely dehumanizing me on screen. So it was this - there's this really surreal feeling of how can white women - the same white women who think were quote-unquote "in the same sisterhood" and we're all in the fight together against patriarchy, how can those same white women hurt me and only see me really in these really dangerous, harmful tropes?

MARTIN: You mentioned that these depictions took place before now, but you can't help but notice that your piece arrives at a moment when the country is being made very well aware of violence directed at people of Asian descent, both men and women. And obviously, look; I'm not going to say that people are attacking Asian women because they saw "Bridget Jones's Diary," OK? Nobody's saying that, OK? But I want to ask you, what do you think it means in the broader context of this?

I mean, this is part of the argument that people have made with Dave Chappelle and his jokes about trans people, which is to say, you can't help but notice, then, that these are groups of people who are victimized in a very real way. And - I don't know. But then - and he then makes the argument that as an artist - and you are also an artist - that artists have to say what they want to say, because if they don't, something else fundamental is lost. How do you respond to that?

CHOU: Right. I think the repercussions, they are real. Asian women, because we've been stereotyped and there are all these lies and myths about us, from our bodies to our behavior - and most of this has been accomplished through media. And so if you see a hundred images of an Asian woman as submissive and weak - right? - eventually you begin to think Asian women are submissive and weak. And same with so many harmful racial stereotypes. And so I actually wanted to make a point that this isn't just art in a vacuum. All art is affecting real life, right? And it kind of becomes this vicious cycle. And so artists have an obligation to think, yeah, is my art injuring or curing? And for white women writing Asian women, they need to grapple with, you know, what is it in your subconscious that is leading you to make these decisions about how to portray Asian women?

MARTIN: What would make it better?

CHOU: There is a hope that when white women writers - but any type of writers - when they sit down to create an Asian woman character, that they think about the these harmful tropes, the history of them. But more than that, I realized, also, there's no point in waiting around and hoping these white creators will consider my humanity, you know, when they're making art. It's up to us. And I really hope if they are gatekeepers and they have access to power, that they will open the door for Asian creators and writers who are then very aware that this is a very privileged space to access, and now I have to open the door to other Asian creators.

MARTIN: Elaine Hsieh Chou is a writer. She recently wrote a piece for Vanity Fair with a word in the title that we cannot say, but the subtitle is "When White Women Hypersexualize Asian Women Onscreen, We Suffer The Consequences." Her latest novel is "Disorientation." Elaine Hsieh Chou, thank you so much for your time.

CHOU: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.