The Portrayal of Asian American Women Essay

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Representation of Asian Women: American Television Sitcoms and Media


American Asian women exist within a culture that is at times resistant at providing a realistic portrait of what an Oriental woman is and how she expresses herself. This can be seen in personalities like Margaret Cho, whose sitcom, All-American Girl forced her to see the reality of how America perceived Asian American women and Oriental people in general. These negative images, stereotypes of Asian American women as 'demon women', 'hookers', and submissive, are translated not just in television sitcoms, but in movies like Ghost in the Shell and force cultivation of beliefs that stick to the minds of people long-term. It is through these shows and movies that people understand what is an Asian American and unfortunately, how badly they are depicted. This essay will shed some light on the potential origins of these negative stereotypes and why they continue to exist today. Furthermore, a quick look into American beauty standards and the Asian American women that experience it will offer another angle at the bi-cultural identity undertaken by these women.

Literature Review

To begin the literature review is to start with Margaret Cho's All-American Girl. The sitcom was the first to feature an Asian American family prominently. Margaret Cho, a true pioneer in entertainment, had to deal with various obstacles while filming. For example, the image of the slender Asian woman is quite popular and was hard for someone like Cho to contend with due to her full-figure physique. If it was not pressures in maintaining a certain, there was also having to deal with the negative stereotypes that permeated the writing of the show. Still, Cho was able to give some sense of belonging to the millions of Asian Americans that live in the United States. "All-American Girl was the first network sitcom to feature a predominantly Asian American cast—a milestone that brought tempered hope for a group that had for decades been reduced to kung fu fighters, dragon ladies and kooky bucktoothed neighbors in mainstream media portrayals" (Woo, 2016). It was her and others like Lucy Liu, that enabled some progress in reversing the negative images of Asian Americans.

Negative images and stereotypes are what really keep Asian Americans from having more of a presence in media and television sitcoms. Why is that? Why is there such a reluctance to express the Asian American experience and the continued reinforcement of things like 'dragon ladies' and hookers?

Edward Said's book, Orientalism, offers some insight. In his book he details how in the electronic, postmodern world, there is a reinforcement of stereotypes rather than a dispelling of them. "Television, the films, and all the media's resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds. So far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic" (Said, 2014, p. 26). If one looks at other shows like Ally McBeal or even new ones like Sherlock, Lucy Liu, who worked in these shows is portrayed as a 'demon woman' or dragon lady or a submissive (Shimizu, 2016).
It is a rarity that Asian American women are not only front and center, but also not expected to be this object of desire or fear. This is a big problem for Asian Americans because without those positive images to help circumvent the old stereotypes, the continued myths of the Oriental person prevail.

These images continue to prevail especially when chances for Asian American actors to work decrease due to whitewashing of Asian characters. Case in point an article discussing the casting choice of Ghost in the Shell. Although more acting jobs are being given to Asian American actors, the ones where they are the main character are instead given to white actors like Scarlett Johansson. "Asian American actors said there had been an increase in diverse roles in recent years, though, and some were hoping that the recent controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell – which starred Scarlett Johansson in the remake of an anime classic – would inspire directors and producers to stop whitewashing Asian character" (Levin, 2017). One of the reasons for this is because directors and producers assume a bigger name, typically a white actor, will pull in more audiences. However, Ghost in the Shell performed abysmally and some of that was because of the casting choice of the main character. Rather than cast a Japanese woman for the role, they cast an Asian woman for the 'real-life' version of the character who appeared in only minutes of the film.

Casting choices like this do not bridge the gap of understanding for American audiences and Asian American people. Rather, they create a divide and further propagate the use of negative Oriental stereotypes. The use of the word Oriental has even been met with some apprehension. Orientalism is a representation of European beliefs of Asian culture. Asians are varied and have different traditions within their countries and communities. To compress that altogether into one image is again, detrimental towards understanding (Said, 2014).

Said and Orwell are discussed in an article concerning Orientalism and Imperialism. Here it is noted how Imperialism creates a culture divide because one group of people are regarded as superior while the other, inferior.

George Orwell as a Western writer experienced imperialism at first hand while serving as an Assistant Superintendent of Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927. One of Orwell’s major concerns during his life was the issue of imperialism and colonialism which is reflected in his first published novel, Burmese Days. Orwell’s own political purpose in this novel was to convince the reader that imperialism was morally wrong (Shabanirad & Marandi, 2015, p. 22).

Countries in Asia like Vietnam and the Philippines, had to deal with invasion by European forces, where they’ve had to endure a forced culture on them. From forced religious beliefs, to forced beauty standards, this….....

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Chen, Y. (2014). New modern Chinese women and gender politics: The centennial of the end of the Qing Dynasty. London [u.a.: Routledge.

Elliott, C., Stead, V., Mavin, S., & Williams, J. (2016). Gender, media, and organization: Challenging mis(s)representations of women leaders and managers. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Kim, M., & Chung, A. Y. (2005). Consuming Orientalism: Images of Asian/American Women in Multicultural Advertising. Qualitative Sociology, 28(1), 67-91. doi:10.1007/s11133-005-2631-1

Levin, S. (2017, August 18). 'We're the geeks, the prostitutes': Asian American actors on Hollywood's barriers. Retrieved from

Said, E. W. (2014). Orientalism. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Shabanirad, E., & Marandi, S. M. (2015). Edward Said’s Orientalism and the Representation of Oriental Women in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, 60, 22-33. doi:10.18052/

Shimizu, C. P. (2016). Equal Access to Exploitation and Joy: Women of Color and Hollywood Stereotype. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 33(4), 303-321. doi:10.1080/10509208.2016.1144021

Smith, S. E. (2017, March 24). Lucy Liu Talks Candidly About Racism and Stereotypes in Hollywood. Retrieved from

Snell, K., & Tsai, W. S. (2017). Beauty for Asian American Women in Advertising: Negotiating Exoticization and Americanization to Construct a Bicultural Identity. Advertising & Society Quarterly, 18(3). doi:10.1353/asr.2017.0022

Woo, M. (2016, May 20). 20 Years Later, Margaret Cho Looks Back on 'All-American Girl? Retrieved from

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