This article is the fifth part in the “East Asian Representation in Mainstream American Cinema & Television from 1970-2013” series.
While Asian masculinity is mostly represented through characters that are embodied by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, one of the most definite types of Asian femininity is that of the Warrior Woman or the Dragon Lady. In films with main Asian male stars, female Asians are sidelined as plot devices to shape the male hero (The Way of The Dragon) or as national artefacts rather than three-dimensional characters (Lucy Liu’s role in Shanghai Noon). Since the action genre started to become synonymous with Hollywood mainstream Asian representation, films and television shows continually present the Dragon Lady or the Warrior Woman image as the image of the ‘strong’ Asian woman to counteract the typically demure image.The two most prominent actresses who have embodied these roles are Malaysian actress Michele Yeoh and Asian American actress Lucy Liu, who became one of the most well known and recognisable Asian actors in America.
Liu, herself the child of Chinese immigrants, played the role of the Dragon Lady and the Warrior Woman in films like Kill Bill (2003) and Charlie’s Angels (2000) and in television shows like Ally McBeal (1997) and Cashmere Mafia (2008). Liu first became prominent in mainstream American television through the role of Ling, the cold, hard-hitting and sexually adventurous lawyer in Ally McBeal. As Ling, she is set up as the antithesis to the white female lead. She is the ferocious dragon lady who is “often shown literally baring her fangs and growling”. Likewise, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill sees Liu’s O-Ren Ishii as the Asian counterpart of The Bride (Uma Thurman). Both characters fight for dominance amongst men, both are masters of samurai swords, and both are motivated by a desire for revenge. Unlike the other vipers, the film dedicates a whole chapter to O-Ren’s story and the entire first volume of Kill Bill is the tale of these two women journeying to find each other.
Tarantino writes O-Ren as the ultimate Dragon Lady; she is emotionless, assumes absolute power over men, and has an ambiguous relationship with her half-French half-Japanese best friend. O-Ren’s Dragon Lady image is further heightened by the presence of her lieutenant Gogo Yubari, whose character also presents a sexualization of the innocent school girl image. Tarantino uses these characters’ heritage as the biggest tool in establishing them as ‘the others‘, especially against white characters. Both Gogo and O-Ren are always in their culturally-defined costumes – Gogo in her Japanese school uniform and O-Ren in her kimonos. Here, the racial politics devised by Tarantino can be interpreted in two different ways, especially considering criticism against Tarantino for “exploitation of the female body as a spectacle” [Rajgopal, 155.].
Firstly, that it is an homage to his own love for Asian martial arts film. Secondly, that it is exoticism and fetishisation of both the Asian culture and its women. The extremely contradictory nature of these two interpretations lend credit to the latter, especially since the film is essentially centred around a white woman and her navigation through an Asian landscape. In the end, it is essential to note that it is the white figure who defeats and vanquishes the Asian Dragon Lady. She does so by besting O-Ren’s skills as a samurai sword master, therefore ‘beating her at her own game’ and assuming her foe’s cultural identity. Therefore, not unlike the representation of Asian masculinity, ‘strong’ Asian female characters are still limited within a character trope. The Dragon Lady or the Warrior Woman are tropes which, unlike the image of Asian masculinity, easily prone to be fetishised through the white male’s gaze.
More diverse roles of the Warrior Woman can be seen in films like Disney’s Mulan (1998). In the case of Mulan, the character does come with so called ‘Asian sensibilities’ while also maintaining a sense of Americanism which makes her relatable to a Western audience. The film, based on a long-enduring legacy in the Chinese cultural repertoire, is riddled with Chinese proverbs, music and setting. Some of the main themes of the film are honour and family duty – themes which are stereotypically ‘Asian issues’ in Hollywood films.
Mulan’s heritage is also further emphasised by the different dynamics in her relationships with other characters. Unlike in other Disney princess films, Mulan and her love interest do not even share a kiss. Their relationship appears more chaste and restrained. Mulan’s relationship with her family, particularly with her father, is also very traditional and distant. While her initial journey breaks the norm of the traditional Chinese woman both in the traditional Chinese way and the American imagination, she later rejects the Emperor’s wish to give her the ‘male’ position in the counsel. Instead, she chooses to return home to her family and assume her duty as a daughter.
These are things which set Mulan apart immensely from other Disney ‘princesses’ and gives her a more unique footing culturally but, fundamentally, Mulan is still a Western interpretation of the Chinese legend and it is much more of a western tale which portrays Mulan as “a coming of age heroine”. In some ways, Mulan is the stereotypical American girl hero; she is shown as smart and clumsy, an outcast and known for “speaking without permission”. Her journey is also the typical ‘American’ journey of self-discovery, independence and, just like other white Disney leads, a journey towards the realisation that ‘you are special’. The American sensibilities in the film are even more heightened by the American sense of humour brought about by the casting of Eddie Murphy as Muchu the dragon. All these contrasting elements make Mulan straddle the line between cultural authenticity and Westernisation. It is far more accurate to say that Mulan is not a Chinese character, but rather an Asian-American character who is born out of multi-culturalism. This reflects back to Bruce Lee’s own hybridity and more so to Jackie Chan’s image in his Hollywood films, opening up more doors for onscreen racial diversity but also supporting the argument which questions cultural purity.
A film which has been heavily criticised for Asian fetishisation and its portrayal of East Asian women is Memoirs of a Geisha. Adapted from the novel by American author Arthur Golden and told entirely in English, the film follows the story of a young girl called Sayuri (played by Zhang Ziyi) from the moment she is taken from her family and begins her training as a geisha. Her journey is to get as close as she can to the Chairman Ken Iwamura (Ken Watanabe), a kind man she meets and falls in love with as a child. Here, the use of geishas again highlights how Asian women are only allowed to explore their humanity in an exotic setting. Asian women are still being “defined and delimited in erotic terms” and such is the reason for the abundance of “geisha girls, dragon ladies, china dolls, Miss Saigon and Madame Butterfly” [Hillenbrand, 50.].
To this day, most people’s fascination with geishas boils down to their sexual agency and the film has no qualms in exploring this subject. The film plays with the concept of Asian women being an exotic commodity through the Western male gaze. Watching the film is, essentially, watching the construction and creation of a woman. When Sayuri is first taken to the geisha household, the audience witness her being ‘put together’; she gets showered, dressed up, has water poured on her and is beaten as part of her disciplining process. Then when she comes of age and starts her training as a geisha, she is taught to bow, walk and move. There are great many scenes which put emphasis on Sayuri’s transformation and specifically on her physicality. There are close ups of Sayuri washing, of her applying powder to her neck, of applying lipstick and make up, and most importantly, ‘glamour’ shots of her getting dressed layer by layer in her kimono. The film’s fascination with the female Asian body is also felt in scenes like the one of Hatsumomo (Gong Li) getting dressed.
In Memoirs of A Geisha, the audience are not only invited to enjoy their own fascination with these women, but also to enjoy these women’s fascination and obsession with each other. The story creates this “tiny world of women” where they are not only pitted against each other, but eventually develop a love/hate relationship. A clear example is Sayuri’s relationship with Hatsumomo. Their relationship involves both of them constantly watching and spying on each other. In many instances, they talk right in each other’s faces and Hatsumomo even asks Sayuri to swear herself to her. Also, playing on the concept of geishas, the women are very aware of each other’s bodies; Sayuri’s is inspected almost throughout the film and, in one significant scene, Hatsumomo’s is inspected by Okasan for evidence of a sexual relationship with a man. Although much of Sayuri’s emotional journey is grounded in human reality, the film’s selling point is that it takes place in an exotic setting and is driven by the audience’s fascination with the mystical Orient.
Fundamentally, Memoirs of A Geisha presents the vision of the exotic oriental woman who is willing to “sacrifice [herself] for the love of a man” and, not unlike Kill Bill’s O-Ren, can easily be turned into a product of the white male’s fantasy. Therefore, this film and its portrayal of East Asian women are best interpreted through the words of Song Liling in Madame Butterfly:
“The West thinks of itself as masculine – big guns, big industry, big money – so the East is feminine – weak, delicate, poor … but good at art, and full of insrutable wisdom – the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated – because a woman can’t think for herself.” [Ling, 315].
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- Shoba Sharad Rajgopal, ‘“The Daughter of Fu Manchu”: The Pedagogy of Deconstructing the Representation of Asian Woman in Film and Fiction’, Meridians, 10,2 (2010), p. 149.
- Lisa Brocklebank, ‘Disney’s “Mulan” – the “True” Deconstructed Heroine?’, Marvels and Tales, 14,2 (2000), p. 278.