From Madame Crysantheme to Mail-Order Brides: Submissive Asian Women

The mail-order bride industry has expanded within the past few decades, with the development of the internet, allowing for women from developing countries and men from developed countries to communicate with one another. A majority of women in the mail-order bride industry come from developing countries in Asia such as the Philippines. These women often marry for a better life in the United States, but, given the new environment she finds herself in, the immigrant wife may be economically and psychologically dependent on her spouse. This could place her at an increased risk for domestic violence.[1] In the case of domestic violence, the wife may have a hard time leaving her husband because they often have to remain married in order to maintain their legal immigration status. As a result, husbands use the threat of deportation as a weapon in abuse of their wives.

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Image tweaked by nickleus of an original advertisement for mail-order brides.

Turned off by the liberation movement of American women and influenced by the negative stereotypes of American women as aggressive and selfish, men try to seek a submissive Asian woman, who they believe will be more family-centered, undemanding, untouched by the women’s liberation, and have a mystical air to her.[2] The stereotype of the submissive Asian women has been prevalent in the media and everyday life. In her act “Mostly Sexy Stuff,” Amy Schumer states that she can’t compete with an Asian chick because they are cover their mouths modestly when they laugh, know men hate when women speak, and have the smallest vaginas.[3]

Cristen Conger from Stuff Mom Never Told You explains that this stereotype of Asian women represents a “highly complex geo-political history spanning almost 200 years.”[4] This stereotype can be tied to Orientalism, which is the “persistent exoticizing and feminization of images of the East in order to masculinize and project the power of the West.”[5] This is evidenced by colonialism, the act of the West projecting power onto the East through the Opium Wars in the 1800s, and portrayals through media such as Madame Crysantheme and Madama Butterfly, in which a white man goes on a sojourn and takes a temporary Asian wife who is portrayed to have a diminutive doll-like sex appeal. Through these portrayals, we see the exercise of masculinity and power by the white man, which represents the West, on the feminine, submissive Asian women, which represents the East. The geopolitical image of the hyper-masculine West is further perpetuated by wars in the 1900s such as World War 2, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, in which the powerful West swoops in to save the femi­­nized (and weaker) East from communism.

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Poster for the opera, Madama Butterfly.
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Book cover of Madame Chrysantheme.

We see a similar phenomenon happening in the mail-order bride industry. As bell hooks states, “They [white males] claim the body of the colored Other instrumentally, as unexplored terrain, a symbolic frontier that will be fertile ground for their reconstruction of the masculine norm.”[6] ­­After failed experiences with women from the United States, men attempt to reconstruct their masculinity by seeking Asian partners from poor, developing countries who want to seek a better life in the United States. In linking Asian women with the feminized image of Asia, the stereotype of submissive Asian women is perpetuated. As a result, the men see themselves as not only saving these helpless women by providing them with opportunities in the United States but also reclaiming their masculinity through the acquisition of a submissive Asian women.

miss-saigon-production-photos-broadway-2017-11-alistair-brammer-and-eva-noblezada-in-a-scene-from-miss-saigon. Photo by Matthew Murphy_HR
Picture from the play, Miss Saigon (which has a story similar to Madame Chrysantheme & Madama Butterfly).

Last but not least, some illustrations by Juliana Wang (who also illustrated the feature photo):

asian-fetishism


[1] Michelle Anderson, “A License To Abuse: The Impact of Conditional Status on Female Immigrants,” No Status Quo, last modified August 29, 2001, http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/anderson/brides/pg1.html.

[2] Lisa Belkin, “The Mail-Order Bride Business,” The New York Times, last modified May 11, 1986, http://www.nytimes.com/1986/05/11/magazine/the-mail-order-bride-business.html?pagewanted=all.

[3] Patricia Park, “The Madame Butterfly Effect Tracing The History Of A Fetish,” bitchmedia, last modified July 30, 2014, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/the-madame-butterfly-effect-asian-fetish-history-pop-culture.

[4] Cristen Conger, “The Awful Origins of the Fetishized ‘Submissive Asian Woman’ Stereotype,” everyday feminism, last modified January 13, 2016, http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/01/submissive-china-dolls/.

[5] Cristen Conger, “The Awful Origins of the Fetishized ‘Submissive Asian Woman’ Stereotype,” everyday feminism, last modified January 13, 2016, http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/01/submissive-china-dolls/.

[6] bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 24.

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2 thoughts on “From Madame Crysantheme to Mail-Order Brides: Submissive Asian Women

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  1. I’m so bummed that I didn’t read your post before I wrote & posted mine! I was inspired by an NPR Podcast about Miss Saigon, which, as you mention, through its connections with Madame Butterfly strongly reinforces countless stereotypes about Asian women. I mean, the entire premise of the story is that Kim, 17-year-old virgin (a detail they are VERY excited to repeat again and again for the audience, because it would be unacceptable for someone to fall in love with someone who is Asian AND has had sex before) falls in love with Chris, an American soldier, and sacrifices herself so that their child can go to America to find his father (who now has an American wife). Yuck.

    I found it especially insightful in your post when you say that “through these portrayals, we see the exercise of masculinity and power by the white man, which represents the West, on the feminine, submissive Asian women, which represents the East,” which is a breakdown of exactly what Miss Saigon is doing. Chris, as this American soldier in Vietnam, represents America in all his bravery and sense of duty. Kim, on the other hand, represents Vietnam (in the musical, she is even referred to as the “REAL Miss Saigon”) in her blind devotion to the white man (and self-sacrifice for her half-white son), submissiveness, and helplessness. Because this musical takes place during the Vietnam war, it seems almost propaganda-esque–you mention this justification for U.S. invasion of countries, and here is a perfect example. The Vietnam in Miss Saigon is full of either sexually deviant prostitutes, helpless and docile young virgins, and “morally bankrupt” Asian men–so war was the least the U.S. could do to save the Kims of Vietnam… through the spread of democracy… right? So Miss Saigon would lead us to believe.

    https://beautyandrace2017.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/miss-saigon-or-missed-opportunity/

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  2. You mentioned Amy Schumer’s act “Mostly Sexy Stuff,” in which she “states that she can’t compete with an Asian chick because they are cover their mouths modestly when they laugh, know men hate when women speak, and have the smallest vaginas.”

    This statement perpetrates two historical stereotypes of Asian women — both submissiveness and a sexuality that supposedly reifies this submissiveness. While black female genitalia (buttocks, labia, in the case of the Hottentot Venus) have been hypersexualized and gawked at by white male spectators, Asian female genitalia is sexualized in stereotypical terms that emphasize the woman’s supposed “small” or “submissive” features: the “tight, sideways vagina” that was once the subject of male fantasy. This rumor originated as racist humor amongst gentlemen visiting Chinese prostitutes in California brothels in the mid-1800s. The rumor was part of the larger societal fetishizing of Asian women, and continued through the Korean War.

    Like you said in your post, both Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon portray Asian women and white American men in times of war and further the “geopolitical image of the hyper-masculine West”, drawing parallels between the portrayed interracial relationships and the West coming in to “save” (but ultimately abandon) the East. Is all really fair in love and war?

    “6 Crazy Things People Used To Believe About Vaginas”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/10/vagina-myths_n_6135820.html

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