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The Problem with Madame Butterfly

July 7, 2016

Picture this: a line of 20 college students in the back of the classroom, all side-by-side. Their instructions: take a step forward if the statement applies to you, stay where you are if it doesn’t.

Simple, right?

“Take a step forward if you feel like you’re correctly represented in the media.”

Well, maybe not.

This statement is just one of many that can be used during an exercise known as the “Privilege Walk”. This activity challenges participants to see how you compare to each other in the lives that you lead and the things you have been able (or unable) to do. It’s eye-opening, thought-provoking, and potentially a catalyst for change.

I stayed where I was standing.

I am a 20-year-old female college student of Filipino heritage, aka short, young, a woman, educated, and Asian, 4 attributes I’ve had to learn to be proud of, mostly because I don’t exactly see people that look like me in TV or movies.

When you see Asian women in the media, you see one of two things: either the silent type who has no agency whatsoever, or the silent type that can kick ass and take names. Either way they’re seen as sexualized and exotic.

So how and why did media start hypersexualizing Asian women?

The hypersexualization of women is called  the “Madame Butterfly Effect” by researchers, named after a famous opera written in 1904 about an American naval officer who abandoned his temporary Japanese wife when he decided to return to the States; the Japanese wife went on to give up everything, including her faith and home, to be with the naval officer. The story and US military presence in Asia from World War II to the Vietnam War cemented the Western portrayal of Asian women: small, submissive, fragile, in need of saving, and exotic.

Enter the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong defied the “butterfly” stereotype by portraying exotic seductress who could kick some ass, but alas, the  tough exterior only hid the submissive nature that she was prone to.

Think of all the Asian actors and actresses you’ve seen in the media. Off the top of my head, I think of Lea Salonga aka the voice of Mulan, Lucy Liu from Elementary, Ken Jeong from Community, Jackie Chan, and that guy who played Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Not much diversity, and not very representative of Asian women or men. Unfortunately due to the long tradition of archetypes written and conducted by Western male authors, actors often do not have control over the roles they are offered and the way they are represented.       

However, for the record, I did have to think about stepping forward. Things are never not changing in media and we’ve already come a long way from where we were. More and more Asian women have been growing and defying the images they have been given. There is a strong push towards greater diversity to represent all types of women and men.

Shows like Fresh off the Boat depict an Asian-American family as more than their typical stereotypes, with their own unique issues that they face. Mindy Kaling kills it as the not only the main character but also showrunner on her show The Mindy Project. More and more Asians and Asian-Americans are having their stories told in the media. Indian Actor and comedian Aziz Anzari uses an entire episode in his Netflix Original series Master of None to not only fire back at Hollywood for its diversity problem but also to destroying the stereotype that Asian actors have to put on a funny accent or be socially awkward. 

But more can be done. We need more stories, more realities, more truths about Asia and the different countries that it encompasses. I’ve always been a firm believer in seeing that there is a problem, then we can take steps to fix it. Let’s challenge racist and sexist images and stereotypes in normal conversation.

Maybe one day, if I ever take part in the Privilege Walk again, I’ll be able to take a step forward without hesitation.

Maddie Ronquillo

Maddie is a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago with degrees in Psychology and Advertising/Public Relations. She works as the marketing assistant for the Catharsis Productions Marketing Department.