The Problem with “Yellow Fever” and the Sexual Fetishism of Asian American Women in Film 

Featured Artwork: LA Johnson

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Throughout cinematographic history, the young Asian American woman has been misrepresented. Asian Americans were nearly nonexistent in classic Hollywood; the industry often ignoring Asian issues, characters, and actors. However, as films began to include Asians, not only were actors sought after to play people from an Asian country (not as Asian Americans), but their stories were told from a white perspective. Additionally, as Asian men entered the industry, they were typically cast into stereotypical, minor roles that were dependent solely on their ethnicity. Yet, Asian American women have seen larger barriers and marginalization in film and Hollywood throughout history. The most glaring example of this is the sexual fetishism of women of Asian descent, sometimes referred to as “yellow fever.” 

Asian Americans are described as a group of people in the United States who trace their ancestry back to the continent of Asia. This can include Chinese Americas, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Indian Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and so on. According to the United States Census Bureau, 5.6% of the country’s population identifies as Asian with 9,679,817 identifying as female. Thus, Asian American women make up roughly 3% of the U.S. population.  

Overall, I believe the way the media portrays Asian American women is predominately harmful. While great strides have been made over the past few years, many today still have an unrealistic and damaging perception of Asian American women. This can be contributed to the submissive and exotic stereotype that the media perpetuates. Mainstream media continues to promote the idea of “Asian fetish” despite Asian American women containing multitudes, like any other group of individuals. Essentially, movies, television, magazines, and advertisements sexualize the Asian American experience, creating a harsh reality for such women to live in.  

This preference of Asian women (or men) is sometimes referred to as “yellow fever.”

Yellow fever plays on a pun to describe a person who is inflicted with a disease, implying that someone with an Asian fetish has a sickness. Throughout Western history, the old stereotypes of Asian women are that of being docile and passive yet still sexually suggestive.  

According to research titled “Made in the USA” by Maggie Chang, the image mainstream media has depicted “can be broken down into two contrasting stereotypes: the diabolical, immoral, seductive Dragon Lady and the docile, passive, obedient doll, the Lotus Blossom.” Both stereotypes are demeaning and demonizing as they eventually lead a white protagonist to their downfall. Change writes how not only are these characteristics extremely sexist, but they are also reflective of America’s exposure to Asian women mainly through immigration and military involvement in Asian countries during the 20th century. Nevertheless, both women are illustrated for the male gaze.  

One of the earliest portrayals of an Asian woman in classic film is the stereotype of the Dragon Lady. Authors Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin of America on Film equivocate the Dragon Lady to Fu Manchu, “an evil genius, using his ‘Oriental tricks’ to bend the rest of the world.” Additionally, “the Dragon Lady was likely to be a spy or a criminal mastermind in her own right, but along with violence, she used her sexual wiles to entrap unsuspecting white heroes.” This figure in media set the tone for Asian women who followed. Interweaving elements of Asian culture, dress, food, and tradition into characters emphasized the exotic appeal and allure of the Asian American woman 

Even years later in modernday America, Asian American women are still mostly valued based on their physical appearance. A modern example of this is Lucy Liu’s character, Alex Munday, in the Charlie’s Angels franchise. Munday is extremely skilled in Kung Fu and other Chinese martial arts which helps her take down the films’ antagonists. Clad in formfitting and revealing attire, Munday repeatedly utilizes her good looks and mystery to trick and tackle the enemy, much like the seducing Dragon Lady.  

This fixation of Asian American women transcends traditional Hollywood films. Sunny Woan states in her academic article “White Sexual Imperialism” that “few mediums reveal the White sexual imperialistic exploitation of Asian women more so than pornography.” Statistics found out of 31 pornographic websites that depicted rape or torture of women, more than half showed Asian women as the rape victim and onethird showed white men as the perpetrator. Such race-specific pornography may contribute to race-specific sexual violence. Thus, Asian women are at a greater risk of violence and sexual harassment.  

As written by Woan, “the overrepresentation of Asian women in pornography perpetuates the entire cycle of White sexual imperialism as experienced by Asian women today.” In fact, in a study conducted by the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, in the U.S., as many as 55% of Asian women have reported experiencing intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime. 

A consistent stereotype is detrimental to young Asian American women in and out of media. Yellow fever can result in psychological burden and negative social meanings in general. Robin Zheng’s research in “Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering” found that Asian American women tend to be wary of men and dating. They are cautious as to whether or not they are being targeted for their race. “While Asian/American women are already subject to sexual objectification as women, racial depersonalization involves a further dimension of objectification that Martha Nussbaum calls ‘fungibility’ and in which a person is treated like an object interchangeable with other objects.”  

Zheng states that one must love themselves for who they are, yet “the racial depersonalization inherent in yellow fever threatens Asian/American women with doubts as to whether they are or can be loved as individuals rather than as objects in a category.” Therefore, yellow fever can certainly negatively affect how young Asian American women view themselves and how they view themselves in terms of love growing up.  

Clearly, yellow fever is dangerous to Asian American women. Yet, why is it still present in modern forms of media? This can be answered in numbers offscreen. The number of Asian American individuals, more specifically women, who control what the media produces is seemingly nonexistentAccording to a report authored by the Women’s Media Center titled “The Status of Women in U.S. Media 2019”, a 2017 study of print and online newsrooms found that nearly onethird of employees identified as female while 4.25% identified as Asian. In terms of film, television, and advertisements, of 1,100 films released during 11 consecutive years ending in 201738 of the 1,223 directors, 3.1%, were Asian. Only 3 of the 38 were Asian females. 

It is fair to assume that the reason why Asian American women are so disproportionately and inaccurately represented is due to the lack of Asian American women being in positions to advocate for the representation of their community on screen and in media the way white men and women are. If white men are the only ones in positions of power to create, they will continue to cater to the male gazeeven if it includes the continuation of yellow fever 

The way media portrayed and continues to portray Asian American women is predominately harmful to the community of Asian American women. Through sexual fetishization and yellow fever, mainstream media continues to play off old stereotypes and caricatures to create modernday Dragon Ladies and Lotus Blossoms. These representations transform into psychological burdens and even race-specific sexual violence aimed towards Asian American women. Unfortunately, the little growth rate of Asian American women in positions of power means this problem will continue to occur within media for years to come.