On feminisation and fetishisation

Image Description: Jin Ha as Song Liling

The fetishisation of Asian women is well-documented. Just one example, of many, is an article written by Jessie Tu for the Sydney Morning Herald. She describes the fetish of men who expect her to be ‘submissive, docile, compliant, accommodating, sweet in the kitchen, tiger in the bedroom’. Similarly, a study conducted by Bitna Kim, a Korean-American researcher, found that even though non-Asian males often perceived Asian women as intelligent, educated, successful, family-oriented, and beautiful, ‘almost all of these interviewees started with a sentence that negates Asian women as submissive’.

But it’s not just women. The gay community has a serious case of Asian fetish. One guy told me, in response to a picture of my outfit – one that was not even remotely suggestive – that he was ‘so into fem Asians’ and that I was begging to be bent over his desk. I don’t exactly expect decent behaviour from men on dating apps, but we had been speaking for a little while by that point. Frankly, I wasn’t even surprised – it was by no means the first time I’d been sexualised because of my race, and I know it won’t be the last. I am also told by those who fetishise trans-women – problematic in itself – that I would be a suitable substitute.

I often find myself under pressure to fulfil a particular fantasy because that’s what’s expected of me and because anything else would be a failure to deliver.

The feminisation of Asian people, and of men, in particular, is not new; it is a primary tenet of orientalism. Hippocrates was a Greek writing in the 4th and 5th centuries BC, and his work Airs, Waters, Places is probably the earliest text which describes the inhabitants of Asia as soft (ascribing this to the influence of the climate and the monarchy). In more recent times, the gendering and emasculation of Asian men has been promoted by the global domination and conquest which have characterised European nations for the past few centuries. Anne Mcclintock’s Imperial Leather explores this notion in the context of British imperialism and argues that, in order to understand colonialism and postcolonialism, we must recognise that race, gender, and class are not distinct, but come into existence in conflicting ways.

One example of this is David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly. In conversation with a French diplomat who believed for nearly twenty years that Song Liling, the protagonist, was a woman, Song utters the iconic line: ‘I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.’ The diplomat thinks his belief is based on the fact that Song dresses as a woman in order to perform as a Chinese opera singer, but the point of the line is that ‘[p]recisely because Asian men are feminized in Western minds, the Western mind is unable to see anything other than a female when gazing at the male “Oriental” body.’

Perhaps the latest manifestation of Asian feminisation is the kkonminam, the Korean ‘flower boy’ pop idol. I’m sure we all know what the stereotypical male k-pop star looks like: he has soft and child-like attributes, he is well-groomed, and he wears make-up. Although k-pop idols disrupt conventional gender representation, they are still very masculine in my opinion, and represent a male ideal in Korean popular culture. Not so in the West. Here it’s only men like Ryan Renolds, Chris Hemsworth, and Zac Efron who are touted as ‘manly’. As Chong-suk Han, Associate Professor of Sociology at ‎Middlebury College, writes, ‘white masculinity, practised in its hegemonic form… is largely based on homophobic, racist, and sexist notions regarding those who do not fit the model and maintains itself specifically by defining others as being feminine, constructed to be the opposite of masculine, or having failed at achieving the masculine norm’. It is only in recent years, with stars such as Harry Styles and Timothee Chalamet, that a different form of masculinity has been trending, and even then there is much speculation as to a connection between their perceived femininity and their sexuality.

Rationally, I know that I am a person who exists beyond the expression of his gender, his sexual identity, and others’ perception of these. And yet, over the past two years, I’ve found myself pandering to a predominantly white male gaze, to a notion of myself as effeminate, sexually promiscuous, and submissive. As much as it pains me to write this, I often find myself under pressure to fulfil a particular fantasy because that’s what’s expected of me and because anything else would be a failure to deliver. I’ve learned that other people can detect this self-dehumanisation, and that sometimes they don’t respect the non-consent of a non-human.

Being feminine doesn’t make you less of a man and – say it with me – being a gay Asian feminine man doesn’t either.

It’s hard to convey the extent to which this idea pervades my life, in part because I myself am not fully aware of it: I question everything from my mannerisms to my choice of clothing to my sex life. I suppose the closest comparison I could make is to someone who buys an iPhone and then realises that they didn’t actually want it, and it was just the advert they’ve been seeing non-stop for the last month, except that for me it’s the realisation that I might not actually enjoy engaging in this sexual act with this sexual partner and that this is the culmination of twenty years of internalised expectations. It’s the age-old question of nature versus nurture but rooted in others’ presuppositions of my race and sexuality.

Let me make one last thing clear: being gay doesn’t make you less of a man. Being Asian doesn’t make you less of a man. Being feminine doesn’t make you less of a man and – say it with me – being a gay Asian feminine man doesn’t either. It seems to me that we have over time adopted the position that we will accept a feminine man and even celebrate him (progress, it must be said), but with the silent caveat that he has somehow surrendered part of his male identity; it’s time to recognise the colonial roots of this narrative and to realise that it’s false.

Image credit: Matthew Murphy, via David Henry Hwang’s website.