2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
The Hypersexuality of Race
reviewed by Catherine Clepper
The Hypersexuality of Race by Celine Parreñas Shimuzu (Duke University Press, 2007), 340 pages, $23.95.
Roles for Asian/American actresses are frequently divided across a sexualized racial binary: Do you want to be a “dragon lady” or “lotus blossom”? Complicating this trope, Celine Parreñas Shimuzu’s The Hypersexuality of Race aims to demonstrate how the dragon/lotus dialectic has been repeated and altered by the creative labors of various Asian/American performers. In her analysis of a wide array of performances depicting Asian/American female sexuality, Shimuzu urges a shift in the way feminist and Asian/American scholars have treated eroticized images of Asian/American women in film/video/theatrical productions.
Prioritizing her own experiences as a Filipina/American filmmaker and feminist, Shimuzu begins The Hypersexuality of Race with an anecdote of misrecognition:
“I am seventeen and riding the bus home at night. At first in whispers, the man across from me insists that we have met in Manila, then more brazenly in Angeles or Olongapo, where he presumed that I had shot ping-pong balls from my vagina … Foremost [amongst the ensuing scuffle] was my response, ‘That was not me!’”(1).
Shimuzu’s frank retelling of the encounter emphasizes what she refers to throughout her book as the “bind of representation” faced by women of color; that is, she understands the potential that popular images of Asian/Americans will be taken as a “fact” or “truth” concerning real Asian/American bodies.
While Shimuzu is remiss to negate her bus incident as trivial or unrelated to her study of the sexuality Asian body, her writing quickly turns a corner:
“I love sexy Asian women gyrating in bikinis on stage in Miss Saigon (1989), prancing across ornate Oriental sets in The Thief of Baghdad (1924), and singing about forsaken love in the melodrama Madame Butterfly (1904)”(1).
Shimuzu’s confession that as an Asian/American viewer she loves ostensibly “bad” texts corroborates a legacy of standpoint readership popularized by scholars like Stuart Hall and Gayatri Spivak (among others). Shimuzu insists upon the evaluation of her own pleasure as a viewer within a political analysis of gendered Asian/American representation. Complicated questions arise regarding the critical nature of such pleasure:
Shimuzu attacks the dilemma of hypersexuality by reframing the Asian female as “a bottom” (16), i.e. the recipient of desires surrounding the female Asian body. In her excellent chapter on Asian/American femme fatales, Shimuzu traces a lineage of hypersexual representation through three generations of Asian/American actresses working in Hollywood, Anna May Wong, Nancy Kwan, and Lucy Liu. Wong, a Chinese/American silent film actress, demonstrates a version of hypersexuality always in deference to whiteness:
“Wong’s racial visibility works against the white woman’s domestic or tameable gender and sexuality”(65).
For example, sexuality in Anna May Wong’s roles is marked by perversion and racial visibility as secured through cartoon-like gestures in her most emblematic or star-making roles in The Thief of Baghdad and Shanghai Express (1932) in which she plays a conniving “slave girl” and murderous prostitute, respectively. Similarly, Nancy Kwan’s characters — a “Wan Chai girl” in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and a lounge singer in Flower Drum Song (1961) — must work to undo or disprove the sexual assumptions thrust upon them by would-be suitors. For Lucy Liu, particularly in her iconic Ally McBeal role, her emotional frigidity accentuates her physical bravado and penchant for sexual hijinks.
Though each Hollywood actress — Wong, Kwan, and Liu — embodies a generational restyling of Orientalist erotics, Shimuzu’s analysis of Asian/American femme fatales precludes a reading of the actresses as complicit within their own objectification. Reading off-screen interviews and biographies in fan culture magazines, Shimuzu works to recode Asian Hollywood actresses as authorial figures, as women who undermine the racial stability their characters are meant to exhibit and instead become representative figures of sexual anarchy. Interviews punctuate the chapter, allowing Wong, Kwan, and Liu to speak in their own words. Subtly reflecting an awareness of her own stardom as bound within racial hypersexuality, Shimuzu quotes Anna May Wong:
"After The Thief of Baghdad, the press began to call me ‘celestial maiden.’ They call me ‘sloe-eyed.’ They call me ‘exotic’ … They say I’ve never cut my hair, never worn wool underwear, never eaten lobster, never owned a radio. They say I have the longest nails in Hollywood." (89)
Gesturing at the ludicrousness of Hollywood’s P.R. machinery, Wong draws attention to popular assumptions about her persona while undermining the content of such rumors through repeated use of the third-person.
While the book begins with an essay on the New York and London stagings of Miss Saigon and the chapter on Wong, Kwan, and Liu, The Hypersexuality of Race concerns itself for the most part with explicitly sexual depictions of Asian/America women. Three of the book’s chapters deal with pornography. In “Racial Treat or Racial Threat?” Shimuzu examines the role Asian/American women played in the grammar of early stag films. Conducting primary research at the Kinsey institute, Shimuzu contrasts her own observations with other canonical stag studies, particularly the relevant chapters found in Linda William’s Hardcore (1989). While Williams argued for the preeminence of the “meat shot” (i.e. genital display) in early stag, Shimuzu’s research reveals a different visual climax in those films featuring Asian/American women. As Williams and others have noted, interracial stag films employed a visual syntax of skin color contrast in their meat shots, a trend especially apparent in films featuring black and white actors. Unlike the pornography of black/white sex, Asian/white sex offered a limited tonal contrast that to failed to adequately register difference, particularly in black-and-white film stock.
"Asian-white sex necessitated a close-up of the [Asian] female face so as to include her hair and features against [the white male’s] hair and features… Omitting the meat shot, the Asian face stands in for genitals." (117)
Later chapters on Asian/American female presence in contemporary pornography emphasize conflictingly hypersexual elements of Asian/American sex workers. Shimuzu’s writing reveals critical as well as personal confusion about how to address Southeast Asian prostitutes as authors or subjects of their own exploitation. In particular, “Little Brown Fucking Machines…” explores the intersections of global sex tourism and gonzo (verité style) pornographic film. Shimuzu examines in detail two documentary projects, Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991) and Jean Marc Roc’s 101 Asian Debutants: Volume 1 (1995). The directors of both films seek out, have sex with, and then film female Asian sex workers. Shimuzu complicates a shallow (and she would argue conservative) reading of these films: one that would prioritize directorial intent over the often deviant performances of the Asian women themselves. Shimuzu’s approach is a refreshing one as she attempts to undermine a rhetoric of colonialism and sadism that characterizes the conversation regarding Asian sex trade, perhaps at the expense of sex workers' experiential knowledge. That said, Shimuzu occasionally struggles to maintain sex-positivity in the face of a political economy in which male Western directors profit from the labors of underpaid Asian bar girls.
Specifically in the case of The Good Woman of Bangkok — modeled after Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechuan — Shimizu demonstrates O’Rourke’s resistance to turning the camera upon himself, despite the film’s direct acknowledgement of O’Rourke as a client of Thai sex worker Aoi, the film’s titular “good woman.” Shimuzu’s analysis attributes O’Rourke’s ultimate failure to remain out of view as the result of unruly bar girls repeatedly pointing out the filmmaker as a disturbing presence in their occupational habitus. Still, as the narrative content of The Good Woman of Bangkok makes abundantly clear, the admission that Western, male, moneyed patrons animate the Southeast Asian sex trade does little to foster a sense of honest (i.e. non-performative) dialogue between sex workers and their clients. And this disruption is exemplified by O’Rourke’s own failure to engage in such a conversation with Aoi.
The final chapters of The Hypersexuality of Race prove Shimuzu’s most charismatic and optimistic outlook. Cataloguing the films and/or achievements of today’s working Asian feminist filmmakers, Shimuzu seems at home lauding the work of Helen Lee, Mina Shum, Grace Lee, and Machiko Saito. According to Shimuzu, each of these women is working to insert greater subjectivity and/or interiority for Asian/American actresses and Asian/American viewers. Oddly enough, while her synopses reveal increasingly intricate plots of desire and denial among Asian/American characters, a brief glance at The Hypersexuality of Race’s filmography reveals an a redundancy in casting. Canadian actress Sandra Oh appears in over half of the films Shimuzu details, hinting that perhaps the interpretive labor of Asian/American actresses remains stratified.
If there is a general flaw in The Hypersexuality of Race, it may be that Shimuzu seems so intent on presenting a model of hypersexuality that is perverse in a radical-political sense, that she then can be dismissive of the ways hypersexual images are produced. That is, she does not analyze how demand, supply, and fiscal support render a film like Flower Drum Song or 101 Asian Debutants possible. I chose to read these omissions as presumptive: Shimuzu perhaps assumes historical, industrial, and/or academic familiarities her readers may not possess. A pinch more contextual knowledge would greatly benefit Shimuzu’s reader. For instance, a brief introduction of pre-existing Asian/American feminist writings could clarify where Shimuzu locates her own book’s intervention(s). I would have particularly been interested to learn why and from where Shimuzu adapted her use the slash of Asian/American — in lieu of Asian-American or Asian American — or how she defines the term. How does her use of Asian/American intersect with the book’s overall examination of sexuality and gender? Shimuzu’s articulation of Asian/American feminism leaves much to the reader’s imagination.
Where The Hypersexuality of Race succeeds most is in its attempts to complicate and compound the depictions of Asian/American women on screen with the experiences of Asian/American viewers. And while Shimuzu troubles the dragon lady/lotus blossom binary that she begins the book by introducing, her work in general does far more: She questions the role of sex and ethnicity in visual culture. She inserts a narrative of sex-positivity in a conversation overwhelmed with allegations of mindless exploitation. The Hypersexuality of Race is a welcome addition to Asian/American and media studies, enabling future scholars to build on the author's germinal research and analysis.
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