Yellow Fever: The Problem with the Sexual Fetishization and Exotification of Eastern Asian Women

Author’s Note:

This article delves into the topic of the sexual fetishization and exotification of specifically Eastern Asian (countries such as Japan, China, North and South Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia) women as requested by a friend of mine.

In choosing to speak with a focus on women I, by no means, have the intention to exclude men or transgender persons from this conversation. Additionally, in focusing on people from Eastern Asian countries I do not intend to erase the struggles that fetishization and exotification pose for many groups from Southern, Northern, Central, Western, or South East Asia nor those of any other racial backgrounds that are also affected by this widespread issue.

This multilayered and complex issue can become confusing as it intersects with other issues of discrimination such as sexism and racism. Consequently, I have decided to break this article down into smaller, more easily digestible segments rather than format it like an academic essay, as I had initially intended, to aid readers in understanding and grasping this concept and it’s problematic nature.

While you may have heard of the concept of an “Asian fetish” or informally known as “yellow fever” (a pun on the disease that afflicted many white men around the time of the colonialization of Asia) you might not have ever understood what this exactly means or the problems that it poses for most, if not all, women of Asian descent.

You might even find yourself, as a non-Asian person who is interested in or passionate about Asian cultures, worried that you might be guilty of having one. While a person with an Asian fetish might also have the same interests in pursuing or learning about Asian cultures such as the language, the food, its traditions, and befriending its people, I want to emphasize that the terms “Asian fetish” and “exotification” are predominantly used to describe a romantic or sexual attraction that is almost exclusively directed toward Asian people. In addition, the mere fact that you are here to learn more about this subject is a high indication that you probably don’t.

To begin, let’s start by defining some of the vocabulary.

An Asian fetish is most commonly ascribed to Caucasian, or white-skinned, cisgender males who have the tendency to serial date or pursue almost exclusively Asian women. Today, however, this term can refer to any non-Asian person who preferentially dates or has a sexual preference for Asian women.

Exoticization, as defined by many online dictionaries, is the act of romanticizing elements or something or someone that is foreign to oneself. Moreover, people who exoticize have the tendency to glamorize and portray this thing or person as unusual.

Exotification describes the process in which exoticization is taken a step further where it is applied to people. It describes the occurrence where a group is treated as inherently different, alluring, and strange based on the stereotypes attributed to them as a result of their appearance and how they fall outside of the cultural norm (in this case, and many cases, the norm being where white people and white culture are placed at the center).

This occurrence is not exclusive to race as its second most frequent occurrence is with people with disabilities.

The concept of exotification becomes further complicated when directed at or applied to women of color because, by linking sexism and racism together, it causes people to objectify and glamorize these women based on their sex/gender identity and race.

The phenomenon of Asian fetishization tends to happen when people make broad sweeping generalizations about Asian women based on racial assumptions, media portrayals of certain images of these women, and other societal attitudes towards females of this racial background. These generalizations are usually reinforced by only a handful of real-life experiences (if these notions are confirmed at all that is).

For example, most men who admit to having “yellow fever” have claimed that the stereotypes — such as docility, obedience, submission, smaller vaginas, and heightened sensuality or eroticism — they have associated with Asian women play a major role even though none of these have been scientifically, psychologically, or medically proven.

One reason behind the perseverance of these generalized views of Asian women can be traced to, currently inaccurate, historical representations of these women that date back to the imperialism and colonization of Asia by Westerners. These views are constantly promoted through the glamorized portrayals of Asian women that are found in much of our film and media today. As a result, these images are kept as the standard for these groups of people and are perpetually used as a basis for racial assumptions.

One of the larger issues with Asian fetishization and exotification is its reliance on sweeping generalizations which — like all generalizations — are dangerous as they tend to be false or inaccurate and are inherently not outlier aware.

An example of Japanese Geishas adorned in cultural kimonos, head-dresses, and makeup

An example of this outlier blindness and the inaccuracy of generalizations can be found in the stereotype that views Asian women as possessing a heightened sense of sensuality or eroticism. This stereotype is historically related to the image of a “Geisha” which is rooted in sexist views that women, specifically Asian women, exist solely for the pleasure and entertainment of men. In ancient Japanese culture, a geisha’s duties were usually carried out through the means of conversation, dance, song, and sometimes sex. Her Japanese specific origin comes to show how harmful and outlier blind generalizations are, as this stereotype is erroneously applied to all Asian women, not just those hailing from Japan. One of the main reasons for this is that most times, people of non-Asian descent struggle to differentiate one Asian ethnicity from another.

A second example of this problem can be seen in the well-known stereotype that Asian women are docile, passive, quiet, or subservient. These false generalizations also have roots from the Japanese geishas who were meant to be sexually suggestive but remain silent while seducing a man. This idea of silence and passiveness allow many westerners to continue to view Asian women, as easily controllable and once again, as a historically rooted stereotype, does not capture the true appearance of modern Asian women.

A third example, which describes Asian women as being or resembling “china dolls,” meaning they are dainty and beautiful, while also carrying the implication that they should have white skin is also worth looking into. For one, it, like the two previous examples, is outlier blind as it excludes Asian women who don’t fit the body description of this porcelain figure. Secondly, it is based on a very idealized image of the “perfect Asian woman” that is tied to centuries of deep-seated cultural beauty standards that valued lighter-skinned people as the lack of pigment in their skin indicated their origin as being from a social class that didn’t require them to work in the fields. Additionally, due to its ties to cultural beauty standards which tend to be promoted in both American and Asian media, it causes many other problems as it places toxic expectations and pressures onto these women to be small, cute, skinny, and light-skinned.

Aside from the problematic nature of sweeping generalization, the primary issue with the fetishization of women for their race is the objectification and devaluation that occurs as a result.

Rather than view a woman based on her personality, which is influenced by so many other things aside from race (this is not to say that race has no influence on personality, as it very much does when tied to ethnicity/cultural upbringing), an individual will base all of their expectations as to who she is and how she’ll act on her racial background. For example, an individual with an Asian fetish might expect a woman of Asian descent to be submissive in bed based on the generalizations that they have associated with women of this racial background. While there is no analogy that I could possibly use to relate an assumption like this to a person who does not suffer directly under systems of racial privilege and power the same way that many marginalized groups are, the expectation that an Asian person will act or be a certain way based solely on the fact that they are Asian is almost the same as believing that the size of a person’s hands directly affects their performance as a lover or sexual partner.

Storytime

Progress comes from when we get to know one another as individuals, not just the sums of our stereotypes. — Dora Zhao

The times that I’ve been fetishized and exotified have usually led to a direct drop in self-esteem as the objectification and devaluation that occur reduce me to nothing more than my race causing me to feel less and less like an individual person.

Additionally, these stereotypes often tell me that the only reason a person may be interested in me, either as a friend or a potential partner, might be solely on this idea that they have of me, rather than the person that I actually am.

For example, a person who has met a handful of Asian people who have confirmed their assumption that all Asians like manga, a genre of Japanese comics, might assume that I, as a Chinese person, would share the same interest. A harmless question, I agree. However, where the problem enters the conversation is if this person were to ask me why, as an Asian person, I don’t like manga rather than simply ask me whether or not as a person, in general, I am partial to Japanese comics. These are two completely different questions as the former places an undue emphasis on my racial background as an influential factor for dictating my preferences in literary works and further creates this assumption based idea of who I am.

Personally, when it comes to making friends or seeking potential partners, I almost immediately look for instances of serial dating and serial friendships with Asian persons. This is because, for me, having multi-racial friends or lovers indicates that, while benign racial preference could play a role, you are, for the most part, attracted to personality and not race.

This screening process is made easy for me due to my status as an Asian American where, because of my looser ties or connections to my racial background as a Chinese person, it is much easier to see when someone is fetishizing me. In other words, when a person projects sweeping generalizations onto me, it is more easily identifiable as these tend to apply even less to my personality as a consequence of my inherent “American-ness.” At the same time, however, this resulting obviousness in cases of fetishization makes the times that I am objectified twice as tragic because my American-ness renders me a disappointment to those who meet and expect me to live up to the stereotypes associated with my race.

If a person has an Asian fetish, does this make him/her/them appreciative of diversity or does this make this individual a racist?

While this remains the most divisive question that splits “Asian fetish” arguers and “Cultural appreciation” arguers, the central element worth analyzing is this phenomenon’s connection to systemic racism and its role in perpetuating and fueling harmful race-based stereotypes and generalizations.

For example, the man who fetishized Asian women by posting objectifying images of them on his Instagram (see Catching a Predator: Exploring the Paradoxically Unassuming Nature of Emotional Predators) argued that it was not his intention to do so, rather, he was merely interested in sharing these images as works of art for others to enjoy. While one could pick sides arguing his actions as either the fetishization and exotification of these women or as a demonstration of his appreciation for these women’s beauty and culture, the significance lies in examining how his actions––regardless of whether they were intentional or unintentional––fuel the stereotype that Asian women are submissive and “easy to get.” In other words, since two these issues are inseparably linked, it is futile to argue what an individual’s intentions are, regardless of whether they are inherently innocent or malevolent, as the action itself continues to perpetuate harmful stereotypes that negatively affect people of color.

Those who choose to recognize an Asian fetish as nothing more than a benign preference or a demonstration of one’s appreciation for diversity, ignore the fact that race-based generalizations and assumptions play a key in the formation of these preferences. By marking actions such as these as “just a preference” without taking a step back and examining or questioning how these came to exist, these individuals belittle and ignore the systemic racism in which all of these stereotypes are rooted.

Due to the interconnectedness of racial fetishization and the systems of privilege and power that continue to oppress people and women of color, it would be unwise and damaging to simply accept these behaviors or attitudes as benign partialities as these allow racist views to prevail in all levels of society.

One might continue and ask why then it is okay to be attracted to women with blonde hair versus brown hair and not have it be labeled as a “blonde fetish.” This question makes sense when viewing it from the definition of racial fetishization and exotification. However, the key difference between a preference for a physical feature versus a racial background is that, even if blonde hair can be linked to the occurrence of light skin, this feature does not carry the same racially oppressive stigmas or stereotypes that racial-ethnic backgrounds do.

Furthermore, the possession of blonde hair does not directly lead to the same objectification and devaluation of the person as a result. Features like blonde hair are not exclusive to one specific ethnic group (seeing as people can possess this feature through a variety of reasons: dying their hair, being born with a recessive gene etc). As a result, even though stereotypes directed towards those with blonde versus brunette hair do exist, these stereotypes are not rooted in racial discrimination and oppression and do not negatively affect these persons to the same degree that people of color are impacted.

So does this mean that we can’t appreciate or be attracted to something that is different from ourselves? Am I postulating that an individual cannot have multiple friends or partners of the same ethnic origin? Of course not. It simply means that not questioning why terms such as “yellow fever” or “Asian fetish” even have a place in our society’s vocabulary is problematic. Failing to recognize the harmful effects of these behaviors on marginalized groups only leads to the perpetuation and longevity of systems of racial discrimination which place these individuals at a disadvantage in many societies.

As you can tell from the extensive nature of this article, this is a complicated and messy topic. And as with many race-rooted issues, it is difficult to differentiate harmless cultural appreciation from more harmful behaviors.

Therefore, I encourage you to enter more discussions surrounding these types of issues. As an ally, you can look into how these problems affect those that you know and those that you don’t. By listening to others’ stories, you can learn how you can play a role in lessening the detrimental effects on those who are directly affected.

Deep-seated problems like these won’t disappear overnight but being aware of them is the first step toward alleviating the world of racial inequality.

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