A series exploring how the rise of fetishization of East Asian culture, specifically in terms of appropriation and stereotyping, across mainstream media and within Western civilizations has impacted the modern Asian American’s experiences.
When considering the audience, it’s no surprise that many within the white majority of North America, lack the necessary education when investing in the appropriation of people of colour’s (POC) lifestyles. It seems as if there is a constant wheel of races being spun by the media giants, every week, targeting a new feature from POC and appropriating such to manifest the next social trend. Although there may be other factors, appropriation for the purpose of generating one’s revenue and social blade, seem to be the most common when explored digitally in the Western hemisphere. Today, we will be focusing on how these trends have caused an increase in the fetishization and appropriation of East Asian culture.
There were times that I feared ever saying I was from the Middle East, but others where I felt empowered and proud to be from my country. Black women were criticized for years over their racial features- their natural lips, their curves, their hair – to name a few; yet the features they faced great discrimination from soon became the same features fetishized by Western media, appropriated by non black individuals, and targeted as a new form of financial exploitation. East Asian culture has fallen victim to this pattern, and is no exception in being glorified as a trend to further capitalistic ideals. The concept of appropriation is hard to grasp and rather ironic overall, as the same groups of people who held internalized racism towards people of colour, are quick to disguise this racism as admiration, appropriating the traits for themselves, once said traits are deemed to be “acceptable” by an external influence. (In this case, social media).
As Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie notes:
“You can have ambition, but not too much
you should aim to be successful, but not too successful
otherwise you will threaten the man”
This quote depicts the struggle Asian Americans face and the concept of model minorities. In this case, the “man” serves to represent the white majority and others who somehow feel threatened by the success of minorities in the West. You can have ambition, but said ambition must fit the majority’s desires; as a minority, you can only ever be appreciated by what you can do for them, and not for who you truly are.
These trends are temporary however, and while the fetishization may lead to empowerment one day, it may easily lead to racism and stereotyping the next. For instance, in the last two years, the infamous “Asian Baby Girl” (ABG) stereotype has become fetishized greatly across social media, so much so that it is now used out of context from what the initial stereotype had encompassed. When taken from the internet, an ABG is defined as the following :
This is not to say that the stereotype is inherently positive or negative and to be clear, these definitions are based upon opinions – subject to change and not always truthful to reality.
In an article written by Rae Chen for Teen Vogue, she discusses how “many of these stereotypes have been generalized from a single ethnic group to all East Asian people.” The homogenization of such ethnic groups, whether it be based on misinformation or misrepresentation must not be accepted. Not only does this cause fellow East Asians who don’t fit the expected Western image to feel like outsiders, but this homogeneity only normalizes the appropriation of East Asian features even more. My own testimony will never be worth as much as that of an Asian woman’s, and because of that, I sought out my Filipina friend, Andrea Ybañez and interviewed her to gain greater insight on her perspective.
When asked “What do you think of when you hear the term ABG?” she responded with the following: “Despite what many people may think, an “ABG” is actually more of a personality trait that some Asian girls possess than a look. It is no secret that recently, ABGs have been idolized on various social media platforms. The idolization of ABGs affects Asian women because non-Asian people seem to associate physical traits with the ABG title rather than the personality traits. (Stereotype wise) If a non-Asian person saw an East Asian girl with smaller eyes, heavy makeup, false lashes, and dyed blonde hair, they would immediately call them an ABG without knowing a single thing about their personality. On top of this, they would begin to fetishize her, saying things like, “She’s definitely an ABG” and immediately become attracted to her for this sole reason, while the REAL definition of the term is completely forgotten.”
I then asked her to describe her experiences with fetishization to which she stated: “ [Yes] I have experienced the fetishization of my culture. I have seen many Filipino women on Instagram or TikTok get sexualized because of the way men fetishize Asian women. This has impacted my image of what an Asian woman should be because sometimes, I find myself thinking that men or people in general, will think of me as ‘unattractive’, and sometimes even refuse to believe that I am Asian, (which has happened countless times before) because I don’t look like their version of an Asian woman.” Chen made the same argument, denoting how individuals tend to “fall in love with a woman based on how well she fits the fantasy that they’ve created,” exemplifying further the pressures Asian women face to meet Western standards. It is important to note that hostility also exists between East Asian countries themselves, and so if they are to be appreciated at all, it is not without the criticism of not living up to the likes of their peers.
In a TED Talk given by Asian American Canwen Xu, she notes how as an Asian American, she felt pressured to choose between “conforming to the Western stereotypes expected of her, or conforming to the whiteness that surrounded her.” She states that these interactions influenced her to “reject her own culture because she thought it helped her conform” and noticed how “the more she rejected her Chinese identity, the more popular she became”, subconsciously making the Western expectations her own norms. She goes on to state that these pressures to conform to one set of ideals versus another, caused her to become frustrated in understanding why Asian people cannot simply be appreciated for their own talent or skill independently. To understand why, all of their acts must be attributed back to race, and why their worth must be determined by what they can do for others? Ybañez had a similar experience and states “sometimes I find myself gravitating towards the Westernized view of how Asian women should be. I’ve noticed that non-Asian people often expect Asian women to have the following features: small eyes, a petite figure, and a tan. As opposed to East Asian countries, whose beauty standards are typically focused upon Asian women who are taller, and have big eyes, a nose with a prominent bridge, and a rather fair complexion.” Ybañez further exclaims that “As the years went by, I found myself beginning to sort of idolize the Westernized view and become more attracted to the “Wasian” stereotype that Western people have created.”
All three Asian women identify how at times it is hard to feel appreciated for their identities, because they cannot be acknowledged for something other than their race. Xu states: “if a boy likes me, it must be because he has the “yellow fever”” and [sarcastically] “if I’m good at math it must be because I’m Asian!”
In this way people of colour face a double edged sword, as they cannot solely be appreciated for their appearances unless they fit the Western standard, and when they do finally get acknowledged for something other than their ethnic background, people find a way to discredit them because of said background. Even technologically, this same philosophy applies, as seen through the recent speculations viewers have made towards the TikTok algorithm, identifying how when it comes creators of colour, the for you page falls short in promoting representative exposure.
POC on the app have discovered that they rarely generate a following based solely on their appearance, despite uploading as consistently and as comprehensively as their white peer counterparts. Creators claim that it’s not enough for them to be attractive as an individual and instead, they must be complex creators offering something more to their audience in order to grow their social blade. They cannot simply be a good dancer or be fairly attractive to gain views, instead, they must also be funny, they must also hold some form of entertainment value that their fellow white peers are not expected to hold. They have noted how it’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it promotes more talented creators of colour to others, but more often than not, it is harmful as non white passing POC must go the extra mile and differentiate themselves to gain recognition as creators. We see through this that POC, such as East Asians, cannot simply be empowered for their ethnicities online, and gain acceptance based on how well they conform to the expectations laid out by Westernized media. Yet this poses the elusive question: why is it not enough to just be Asian? Why do POC constantly have to change themselves in order to fit into a white washed box?
To understand these perspectives, we must realize that “someone else’s culture isn’t something that should be reduced to a single idea, then packaged and sold for our convenience.” (Chen, 2018). The truth is, the consumers, and rather, the general public fuelling these trends and fetishizations – don’t care about the culture at all, and rather, are only interested in stealing aspects of East Asian identity and exploiting it for their own benefit. They do not care for and are blissfully ignorant with their decisions, because they do not have to face the consequences of said decisions at the end of the day. They have never been disproportionately impacted because of their race or ethnic background and as a result, cannot see how negative media attention and the appropriation of a minority group’s culture contributes to the systemic discrimination these groups already face. A fault of which is entirely their own and one that is certainly not on the backs of East Asians or fellow POC to fix. It is not enough to know you are troubled, you have to do something to fix it (Trinkets, 2020); you have to be anti-racist, and you have to be willing to make a change.
Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé. ***Flawless, Beyoncé, Parkwood Entertainment, 2013. https://genius.com/Beyonce-flawless-lyrics
Chen, Rae. How To Stop Fetishizing My Chinese Identity, Teen Vogue, 2018. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-to-stop-fetishizing-my-chinese-identity
Ybañez, Andrea. 2020. instagram.com/andreaaybanez
Xu, Canwen. I Am Not Your Asian Stereotype, TEDxBoise, TEDxTalks, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pUtz75lNaw
Smith, Kirsten. Trinkets, Netflix, 2020 Netflix.com/trinkets