East Asian cultural appropriation has been living under a veneer of acceptability for centuries. Let's break it down.
In a racially motivated, misogynistic hate crime, eight people, six of whom were women of East Asian descent, were shot dead by a white man on the 16th of March outside Asian-owned spas in Atlanta, Georgia. The United States has seen a spike of about 150% in anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of a series of global lockdowns in March 2020, with. The COVID-19 pandemic is widely blamed on China, the origin of the virus. But the blame has been mercilessly and illogically transferred onto East Asians, with people from other regions blaming their food habits and, by extension, their lifestyles for the pandemic. New York State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou said this could be blamed on hypersexualisation, dehumanisation and fetishisation of East Asian women, which is “dangerous and reinforces harmful stereotypes”.
Let’s unpack some of these.
The “Colonial Gaze”
British and French colonialism has had troubling implications on the perceptions of beauty and intellect. The colonised mindset debases non-Western cultures, dehumanises those who created them, and extracts their motifs and artefacts for economic profit. Eastern dialects are ridiculed and Eastern cultures are considered intellectually backwards. “Me love you long time” is a punchline often used to mock East Asian accents, and is most canonically used in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Ryan Murphy very delicately transcends this colonial gaze very early on in Netflix's Hollywood, whose first episode features a fictionalised Anna May Wong expressing her indignation at Hollywood's treatment of her as an appropriated, fetishised prop in films like 1929’s Piccadilly. The colonial perception of Eastern cultures, along with institutional misogyny, is referred to as “Western sexual imperialism”, where the Asian woman is meant to be “docile, unassuming, exotic and demure – yet wildly sexual and uninhibited” (AsAm News, 2013). But what does this look like in the postcolonial world? Let's now turn to the modern, structurally adjusted form of cultural colonisation: neoliberal capitalism and democracy.
Western Capitalism, Rationalism and Democracy
Neoliberalism is a form of free will economic thinking where each individual consciously makes deliberate economic decisions free from any social influence, and is responsible for their own progress. Social interactions and structures are left out of economic transactions and the individual is held responsible for their actions, with each being either explicitly economically good or desirable, or being explicitly bad. The “good” and the “bad” can only be rationally evaluated on Western standards, however. This reverence for Western structures was evident in George W. Bush’s proclamation that the Afghanistan War was meant partly to liberate the women of Afghanistan. The liberation he referred to was not from violence or repression, but from Afghani culture. Western countries find it very easy to label violence perpetrated by “other” cultures and people of colour as terrorism but fail to acknowledge hate crimes and acts of terrorism by white people, refusing to label them appropriately.
A neoliberal approach divides morality and rational thinking into two sects: “Western” and “other”. This segregation is insensitive to cultural nuances and treats any deviation from Western rationalism as “other”.
The place of Western capitalism in the essentialization and denuding of Eastern culture is a crucial one. The individualistic, neoliberal concept of democracy, propagated by leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, has dominated Western perceptions of morality, and political systems like that of China are increasingly easy to villainise in political discourse. This institutional bias becomes amplified over social media. This is why “having a bad day” might be deemed an acceptable explanation for outright violence if it is perpetrated against an inferior political system.
Orientalism and the Origins of Cultural Appropriation
Coined by Edward W. Said in 1978, “Orientalism” is a term used to describe the Western conceptions of Eastern society as developmentally stagnant and culturally backwards. The orientalism that is present in film and art can essentially play two roles: hypersexualising Eastern women and emasculating Eastern men, or appropriating Eastern motifs. Asian women are fetishised and used as exotic, sexual props in productions such as Miss Saigon. Films such as Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs, set in Japan, present East Asian cultures as mystical backdrops for Western narratives. Anderson’s omission of any meaningful dialogue from East Asians themselves and his use of Eastern culture purely for aesthetic purposes not only limits the empathy viewers might feel for people within the culture but also dehumanises them1.
This separation of Eastern products and symbols from Eastern cultures, systems and individuals is evident in today’s consumerist society. K-dramas, bubble tea, matcha and Chinese food are consistently consumed without any regard for the culture that they belong to. Little Mix’s 2019 collection for PrettyLittleThing exoticised and fetishised Japanese kimonos, using an “exotic” culture for economic profit while othering and dehumanising that very culture. The mindset that appropriates such commodities isn’t confined to the West. It spills over into colonised cultures, which act as extensions of the colonial mindset. Bollywood’s Made in China uses the background of Chinese culture without ever involving Chinese people in the narrative (except for, as one would expect, a Chinese girl who serves a purely sexual purpose). This toxic perception of East Asian culture gains more traction over social media, which catalyses the spread of anti-Asian bias. East Asian practices are used as punchlines (take “Kung Flu”, for example) by more dominant cultures to ridicule East Asians while also being used as entertainment. This hypocrisy inherent to the consumption of Eastern culture is characteristic of orientalism and Western colonialism.
Find out more about the critical theory surrounding ‘the gaze’ and Orientalism:
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York Pantheon Books, 1978.
Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Routledge, 2014, pp. 115-131.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6–18.
Sartre, Jean P. Being and Nothingness. 1956, p. 347.
John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing, Episode 4’ on YouTube
Written by Nitya Khirwar
Edited by Thenthamizh SS and Adi Roy
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