Media depictions of asians and woc

This is a draft of a piece I sent in to The Guardian when they asked me to comment on the nanny incident. This is what got published.

“In a world noisy with news of terrible atrocities, why are arguments about assuming an asian woman is the nanny and not the wife, worth our time? Here’s a 1-2-3: if we don’t consider certain people to be as human as ourselves, their happiness or wellbeing is less important to preserve. We get to treat them how we like or we stand by as they are treated badly. And lo! People get killed.

Overdramatic, simplistic extrapolation, I hear you cry. Here are some provocations assuming white heteronormativity as, well, the norm:

Media depictions of asians and woc

If you happen to spot a person of colour (brown, black, yellow etc.) in UK media today, they are more than likely to be reinforcing unhelpful racial stereotypes. Of course, stereotypes come from real life – there are plenty of real life East Asian nannies, Thai mail order brides, exotic sex workers, Filipino or Indonesian maids, martial arts experts, sexy mathematicians, scientists or masseuses, fierce tiger mothers, ball-breaking career women in legal or financial firms, dead cockle pickers, trafficked underage girls, innocent non-English speaking virgins, rude waitresses in Chinatown or bored women behind the takeaway counter.  Hang on, surely that’s a nice cross-section of society? No, what we never see is a woman who happens to be asian doing “normal, everyday” things. In fiction, on stage, in TV and in films, we have various tests – for example the Bechdel Test (do women talk to each other and do they talk about anything other than a man), and the Sexy Lamp Theory (can you replace all the female characters with lamps and not affect the storyline) etc. –  to check if women are being devalued. Asian women occupy an even lower status than white women. The most cursory of research throws up popular storylines

  • Hero is attracted to Asian woman for a short time but then leaves. She dies. (Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon)
  • Asian woman is distractingly sexy. White man overcomes this and wins mission. He ends up with white woman if there was room for another woman in the first place
  • Asian woman facilitates hero’s mission by being good at maths, science, or computers (Black Mirror, Episode 1; Lucy Liu in Elementary)
  • Asian woman needs rescuing or a visa (Coronation Street)

Jami Rogers at the University of Warwick researched Shakespearean roles and found that, if a production chooses to include actors of colour, very specific characters – sidekicks, the baddie, or undesirable characters – are allocated to certain races which serve the fictitious character’s defining trait. For example, a second in command or servant goes to a yellow or brown body as Asians are seen as good at following orders or acting on behalf of a white master. Asian are often seen as “white adjacent”.

The hypersexualisation of asian women, in particular, east asian women, in media is problematic. Data from dating apps show that, in the digital realm, all men apart from Asian men, prefer Asian woman. I am interested in whether these men want to marry Asian women or just date them. See above for reminders from media about what to do with Asian women once she’s provided sex or assistance.

Isn’t it problematic that we categorise women into those we’d marry and those we’d only use?

What kind of woman do we expect a professor Robert Kelly to marry? Classy? Charming? Upright! The asian woman in Robert Kelly’s home is the nanny because she seems to behave in a subservient way. She seems scared, flustered, her posture is low to the ground and she doesn’t make eye contact or speak.  She can’t possibly be the heroine because asian women are routinely depicted secondary figures in the media, if they are visible at all.

What do we notice when we see an interracial couple on the street? Do we wonder about their lives together in a way we don’t question a couple of the same skin colour? On screen, which interracial couplings are ok (white man – sexy black/Latino/asian woman), and which disturb you (black/asian man – white woman)? Remember that I am using heterosexual examples here, and let’s assume the man is older than the woman in all situations, because age and sexism complicate the picture of who is allowed to fall in love with who.

The act of seeing is an active thing. Doesn’t our worth lie in more than our gender and skin colour? Does it lie in the sum of our age, accent, life experience, subjective attractiveness, or economic value? I love and value entertainment, comedy, and fiction. It’s wonderful to have an imagination. I am not for policing thought, I’m concerned about unjust or violent actions based on unchecked biases. All of us categorise and make sense of the world based on what we see but too often media depictions making our worlds smaller and simplistic. I worry about whether we act unjustly based on thoughtless assumptions. What can we do? Slow down, ask questions. Keep asking questions.”

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