Krystal Hur: Emasculation and “yellow fever”

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 - 5:22pm

As children, my friends and I used to watch TV shows, usually produced by Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. Some of our favorites included “Hannah Montana” and “Drake and Josh.” We idolized the characters and the actors who played them, and, of course, with such media consumption came childhood crushes. From what I remember, glossy posters of teenage heartthrobs Jesse McCartney and Justin Bieber covered many girls’ bedroom walls. The “Twilight” craze that came later resulted in perhaps one of the most talked about debates for not just teenagers, but all fans of the franchise: Team Edward or Team Jacob?

However, as far as I can remember, there were no Asian characters, other than the occasional extra who served a role that fulfilled stereotypes, such as a “math nerd.” There certainly wasn’t anyone worthy of having a crush on.

This kind of limited and often flat portrayal of Asians bolsters the message that all Asians are damned to be “nerdy” and weak. This depiction of Asians aligns with a general consensus in American society that Asian people are not attractive, or are attractive for reasons rooted in disgusting and untrue stereotypes. These messages are not only false but perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Asians that homogenize them. Interestingly enough, Asian men and Asian women are defined by differing stereotypes, with Asian men often emasculated and Asian women fetishized.

Steve Harvey mocked Asian men on his talk show in early 2017 by first stating no woman would ever want to date a man of Asian descent and then asking, “You like Asian men? I don’t even like Chinese food, boy. It don’t stay with you no time. I don’t eat what I can’t pronounce.” He later apologized for his comments on Twitter, claiming the “humor was not meant with any malice or disrespect whatsoever.” It’s interesting to note he believed stating that all men of Asian descent are not attractive would not be offensive. Is it so deeply ingrained in society that Asian men are not attractive that it’s not even considered to be offensive to joke about it? Obviously, that’s not the case for everyone, since Harvey’s joke received backlash for its insensitivity.

In a New York Times op-ed titled “Hey, Steve Harvey, Who Says I Might Not Steal Your Girl?” Eddie Huang, the writer of TV series “Fresh Off the Boat,” wrote, “Attractiveness is a very haphazard dish that can’t be boiled down to height or skin color, but Asian men are told that regardless of what the idyllic mirepoix is or isn’t, we just don’t have the ingredients.” He further discussed how after hearing Harvey’s jokes, he “told (himself) that it was all a lie, but the structural emasculation of Asian men in all forms of media became a self-fulfilling prophecy that produced an actual abhorrence to Asian men in the real world.”

In contrast, Asian women are fetishized for their supposed heightened femininity, and such a perception has birthed the term “yellow fever.” Yellow fever is when men, often Caucasian, have a strong sexual preference for East Asian women. This offensive exoticization of Asian women can be seen both in media and in everyday life: the musical “Miss Saigon,” which depicts a tragic love story between a white U.S. GI and Kim, a South Vietnamese bar girl, supports stereotypes that Asian women are docile and weak. Tim Teeman reveals in “Sexism, Race and the Mess of ‘Miss Saigon’ on Broadway” Kim is represented as a woman who lacks agency, stating “Kim’s solo songs … are ones of sacrifice and the impossibility of dreams or love being fulfilled. She is often lying down, looking up and cowering. The one moment where she takes action against a villain gets a resounding cheer — and she is only then protecting her son.” Kim’s depiction in “Miss Saigon” exemplifies widespread beliefs in America that while Asian women can be beautiful, their beauty only comes from their supposed weakness and ability to “take care” of others.

Such characterizations affect Asian women in everyday life, and these effects are not limited to the United States. In an article from the British paper The Telegraph titled “‘Yellow fever’ fetish: Why do so many white men want to date a Chinese woman?” writer Yuan Ren explains how she is affected by stereotypes. She writes, “I’ve heard my Caucasian friends recommend to their male, single mates that they should date ‘nice Chinese girls,’ with the added bonus that Chinese women are far more sexually open-minded than Caucasian girls.” She also mentions one interaction, writing, “One acquaintance told me in wonderment that Chinese women are great in the bedroom — as if I wasn’t one — to being casually asked if I’d be interested in a guy ‘who has been with Chinese girls and likes it.’” These interactions took place in the United Kingdom, but similar ones exist in other places as well.

The media’s portrayal of Asian people homogenizes a diverse group of people who are resilient, and yes, attractive. Promoting stereotypes about Asian people, unintentionally or not, only serves to further alienate Asian people from American society by establishing them as an “other” defined solely by untrue stereotypes. I’ve seen this type of behavior in my life, with people automatically assuming I must be uninteresting and bookish because I’m Asian-American, as well as people emasculating my Asian-American male peers. People expect me to by shy and docile, when they don’t expect such characteristics of people who aren’t Asian, and are surprised when they find out I am neither. Such preconceived notions about people of Asian descent are unfounded and need to stop being perpetuated.

Asian men are attractive, and it is through their strength that they are able to achieve success in a society that tells them that they are not good-looking or interesting enough. Asian women are not sexual objects meant to cater to men’s sexual fantasies and they possess powerful agency. It is time that the media treats people of Asian descent with respect and create a truthful depiction of what it means to be Asian.

Krystal Hur can be reached at kryshur@umich.edu.