The Cherokee County Officials insist that the shooting of 8 people at two massage salons were sexually motivated and had nothing to do with race. Even though 6 of the victims were Asian women. Even though neighboring stores heard him yell, “I’ll kill all the Asians!” Even though Western culture has a long history of treating Asian women as sex objects. They’re trying to tell us this was just sexual in nature.
History has a different story to tell. Asian women have always existed at the intersection of misogyny and racism in Western Culture, and the Asian Massage Massacre is simply a by-product of over a hundred years of treating Asian women as sex objects. The shooter decided that these six women’s lives were less valuable than his “purity” and thus, expendable. How dehumanized were these women in his eyes? How much objectifying had to happen until they were seen as disposable objects? How fetishized did they have to be for him to believe their lives were less important than his feelings? This is where the critical lens of history helps us to interpret the intersectionality here of both gender and race.
“Konichiwaaaaa,” they call down the street as they kiss their teeth. “You from Chyyy-NAH?”
The fetishization of the “Orient” began after the Opium Wars opened trade to East Asia. Whose first encounters with Japanese women were those who were trapped by military sex work. Then there was the Philippine-American war, where American GIs raped local women to assert dominance. Then WW2, where American GIs and European soldiers frequented “Comfort Women”, girls from China, Korea, and the Philippines forced into sex slavery by the Japanese. Then the Vietnam War, where an official statement declared that “the military accepts access to indigenous women’s bodies as a necessity for GIs stationed overseas”. Their understanding of Asia and East Asian women was of sex and servitude— a sexual escape from the realities of war.
They did all this and then contorted their imaginations to fantasize that these women loved them and couldn’t live without them. You see versions of this fantasy in both Miss Saigon (1989) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960)— the sex worker waits longingly all day for her White lover to come to her, and when the love affair ends so must her life. Europeans brought home their colonial fantasies of pale, fragile, and diminutive Asian women. They imagined Asian women as existing purely for their pleasure and created “the illusion of access and perennial permission to Asian women’s bodies”, explains Jane Hong, associate professor of history at Occidental College. In other words, Western men grew up through decades of culture telling them Asian women’s bodies were theirs for the taking.
“Me love you long time!” Do you know how many men have quoted Kubrick at me? If you’re going to be gross, at least be original.
Even before the invention of moving pictures, the fantasy of Asian women as sexual escapes was incredibly pervasive. The American government passed the Page Act in 1875, a law that effectively banned the immigration of Chinese women based on a moral clause that considered them all “prostitutes”. People were specifically worried that they would entice young white boys to a life of sin… Sound familiar?
Movies only made it worse. What little time Asian Americans had on-screen was used to perpetuate this stereotype of hypersexualized, subservient, and accessible Asian women. In 1929, Anna May Wong stars in Piccadilly as Shosho, a nightclub dancer so divine she steals the main character from another dancer. She is demure and silent but sexual. She gets killed in end. In Rush Hour 2 (2001), Chris Tucker is presented with rows of women to choose from at a massage parlor. He describes them as a “buffet” and their sole purpose is to inflate his ego. Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) depicts American GIs bargaining with a Vietnamese sex worker from $15 each to $5 for both of them — a testament to how much they think she’s worth. Most famously, she uses broken English to proposition them “Me love you long time. Me horny. Me sucky sucky.” Scrolling on Twitter after the Georgia shooting, I was surprised but not shocked at how many Asian women shared their experience of men taunting them this catchphrase.
“Hey cutie, how much for a blow job?” Growing up, we weren’t allowed out on nights the US Navy was docked in Hong Kong.
These hypersexualized narratives lead to sexual violence. A study by Jennifer Lynn Gosset and Sarah Bryne revealed that out of 31 porn websites that depicted rape or torture, more than half showed Asian women as rape victims. Furthermore, images of Asian women in pornographic forms consistently came up through a keyword search for “torture”. The National Network to End Domestic Violence found that 41% to 61% of Asian women reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, a higher rate than any other ethnic group. “The everyday racism and sexism against Asian women yield deadly results, as this dehumanization creates a climate that makes violence excusable,” reports the NNEDV.
It results in a man shooting up an Asian-owned spa because he assumed it was sexual in nature.
We’ve been blessed with incredible Asian American stories in the last few years — The Farewell (2019), Minari (2020), even Always Be My Maybe (2019). But it’s not enough to undo a whole century of being exclusively represented as purely submissive and sexual.
Representation isn’t everything, but it matters. Prior to 2010, the average person could only name 1 Asian American actress. In 2018, only 0.1% of US advertising media spend represented Asian Americans. Stories of Asian people are continuously co-opted by White actors.
The bar for proper representation can be as basic as depicting us as normal, regular people — grocery shopping and going about their lives. But, done well, representation allows Asian people — Asian sex workers, specifically — to be seen as fully realized, complex individuals worthy of life.
“I bet your pu**y’s real tight.” Who the f*ck told you?
Amy Schumer did. In her 2012 comedy special, Mostly Sex Stuff, she jokes, “I can’t compete with Asian chicks, they’re better!” before rattling off a list of unfounded stereotypes about math and docility. She continued, “And how do they bring it on home for the win? Oh! The smallest vaginas in the game.” Even when Asian women are not depicted with the sole purpose of male pleasure, we’re still a sexual punchline. Cue the hypersexualized yet naive Harajuku twin “Fook Mi” and “Fook Yu” in Austin Powers (1997). Cue the botched trap when Aaron Samuels runs into Trang Pak and Coach Carr making out in the projection room above the auditorium in Mean Girls (2004). Cue the… cue the.. cue the…
While the silver screen can feel esoteric or separated from real life, it finds a way to impact real people.
Men have asked if sex with me is like hentai. They’ve assumed I’m great at massages. They’ve followed me down the street and cornered me in shops. They’ve called me their oriental flower after I had asked them not to contact me. They’ve knocked furiously on café windows and made blow job gestures at me while I’m sitting with my dad. They’ve bet my pu**y’s real tight.
“It’s just a joke!” I laugh along because I’m not sure what gets to survive: his ego or me.
1. East Asian “China Doll” or “Dragon Lady”? Joey Lee. Bridges, An Undergraduate Journal of Contemporary Connections 2018.
2. Atlanta spa shooting suspect’s ‘bad day’ defense, and America’s sexualized racism problem, Nancy Wang Yuen. NBC THINK 2021.
3. “Click Here” A Content Analysis of Internet Rape Sites, Jennifer Gossett and Sarah Bryne. Gender & Society 2002.
4. How the Media’s Depiction of Asian Women Harm Them, @diet_prada. Instagram 2021.
5. Multicultural Groups in US Remain Underrepresented in Media Spend. Marketing Charts. 2019.