Straitjacket Sex Screens: Mapping Asian/American Men in the Movies
Celine Parreñas Shimizu / UCSB

Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa, early Hollywood hunk

Touring my first book, The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women On Screen and Scene for the last two years, a persistent question popped up coast-to-coast: If Asian/ American women are pathologically hypersexual on screen and scene, what do you have to say about Asian/ American men being represented as asexual? There is a lot of pain surrounding this question, but in answering it, we must be careful not to inflict even more harm. Too often, the perception of racial effeminacy and asexuality is met with an assertion of dominant heteronormative sexuality and patriarchy and subsequently, the demonization of both asexuality and queerness. These gender wars marked the birth of Asian American Studies in the Maxine Hong Kingston / Frank Chin debates wherein the Asian American cowboy is valorized as heroic and the female broadcaster of the dirty laundry of racialized gender subjugation is labeled a traitor to the race. However, my response to this old gender binary that persists in this question is to historicize the representation of Asian/ American men in order to dispel the easy and inaccurate assessment of asexuality and effeminacy. Do current Asian/ American male filmmakers and actors see the Asian/American male body as a site of racial wounding, gender grief and sexual problems? And what’s wrong with asexuality and effeminacy?

Asian/ American men in Hollywood moved from having a rapacious and insatiable libido to being yellowface villains; from martial arts action heroes who epitomized gender power to erotic objects of desire; from suffering with the pathology of asexuality to being the asocial and largely absent figures we do or don’t see today. By paying attention to the surprising shifts in these images over time, we can complicate the definition of sex—one that privileges heteronormativity and the exertion of gender power over women—that strongly set the scene for discussions of Asian American male representations. Why fear effeminacy, queerness and asexuality as if the straitjacket of heterosexual patriarchy equals progress anyway? The understanding of Asian/ American sexualities and genders in representation is clouded by the excessive focus on a certain type of normative sexuality. Rather than accept this diagnosis, I am interested in evaluating films by Asian/ American men and the work of Asian/ American male actors to see if access to normative gender and sexual power is what they do or hope to achieve.

In my new book Straitjacket Sex Screens, I cut through the sexual fog in which the current debate has stalled in its attempt to access normative gender and sexual power. The questions that interest me are: What stories are told about Asian/ American men in Hollywood movies? How does one establish oneself as a man when racially cast as unable to compete within the sexual and gender order? Do Asian/ Americans then define their/our own masculinity? How? By attending to the sexual and gender order within screen worlds, I examine the creative ways in which Asian/ American male filmmakers and actors attempt to formulate their masculinities in, through and beyond sexuality.

The best way to start is with the documentary Slanted Screen (2005): does it offer a new take on representations of Asian/American men and how to create viable masculinities through representation? Similar to the widely taught and female-focused documentary Slaying the Dragon (1989) by Asian Women United of California, Jeff Adachi’s Slanted Screen addresses the misrepresentations of Asian American men as gendered and racialized subjects. These films invite viewers to understand the power of representation for the creation and maintenance of stereotypes or the oversimplification of racial and gender identities. Through the use of extensive examples from Hollywood films, they argue that such misrepresentations shape perceptions and thus, affect real lives very painfully. Representations inflict racial wounds, pathologize gender, and construct an abnormal sexuality that’s either brutal, unavailable, or absent. Especially harmful, according to the film, is the curbing of Asian American aspirations, since, as Ethnic Studies media studies tells us, representations validate citizens and subjects whose histories and presences are worth storytelling. These films emphasize the importance of working within and against the industry and using the craft and industry of media well in order to change misconceptions and thus improve Asian American lives. A dynamic contribution, both films attend to the situation of actors and filmmakers who must work within an industry so drenched in whiteness and while the films don’t say it, heterosexuality as well.

Romeo Must Die poster

Jet Li in Romeo Must Die

Slanted Screen begins with what now seems like an incredulous event: the existence of an immensely popular Asian/ American male matinee idol, Sessue Hayakawa, the early Hollywood star who enjoyed his status as a fashionable party maven, a film director, and producer with his own production company. In early Hollywood, an Asian/ American man was one of the most highly paid and recognizable stars. He eventually starred in over 90 films and, as Slanted Screen mentions, even with white female leads. The contemporary working actors interviewed in the film relate to Hayakawa’s legacy. Unlike Hayakawa, who “overpowered” white women, Asian American actors, even those who demonstrate masculine gender prowess (such as Jet Li, in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s 2000 film Romeo Must Die), experience illegibility as sex symbols according to the film. In Slanted Screen, the actor Jason Scott Lee describes the pain he expresses in his face when performing the role of Bruce Lee viewing Mickey Rooney’s derogatory yellowface character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Here, representation wounds even powerful icons of the screen so that we understand even more why Bruce Lee is lauded by so many actors interviewed in the documentary. In Slanted Screen, to see Bruce Lee is to “hold your head high” and to access a powerful and fearsome masculinity within the gender order. Within the logic of this film, Bruce Lee compensates for effeminacy offered in Hollywood such as in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Reflections In A Golden Eye (1957) or even the oversimplified evil yellowface men listed in the film, whose characteristics include “Satanic” qualities, “preternatural preference for white women,” “Oriental mind tricks” and other devious desires for world domination. Ultimately, Slanted Screen argues the problem with racial representation is gendered, that is racial wounding is masculine wounding—or the racism we see on screen is emasculation.

However, the film concludes with not so much a gendered solution for a gendered problem. The power of the media to racialize groups negatively is most privileged in the solutions offered by Slanted Screen. Kids are sensitive to media, a childhood expert testifies. Not seeing diversity on screen communicates a certain lack of social worth according to the film. It argues for the need for role models to instill one’s value in society, to alleviate racial self-hate and to unleash the imagination so Asian Americans may aspire for roles other than the limited ones we see. To continually engage the media in whatever form whether to work with stereotypes or refuse them, the best strategy is yet to be identified. The film demands for new heroes as well as attending to excellent filmmaking and performance so as to make the general public accustomed to seeing Asian Americans on screen and off. The future should be open for various representations of Asian Americans.

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

While Slanted Screen offers an open-ended inquiry at its conclusion: What are the strategies to overcome the harms of stereotypes?, what actually needs to be addressed is the gendered problem identification: What do we want to gain through representation beyond the lack of access to gender normalcy? Simultaneously, what can representation do for us in forging viable genders where racial identity is not gender and sexual abnormalcy? I hope that in the last hundred years, Asian American male engagements and entanglements with Hollywood films go beyond a critique of the lack of access to patriarchy and heteronormativity to richer dramas of masculinity, sexuality and race. Diagnoses of effeminacy and asexuality subscribe to limited ideas of gender and sexuality and disserve our understanding of Asian American masculinities and manhoods. Our critical interventions need to better capture the gender of race for Asian Americans on screen, specifically, their wrestling with the ethics of masculinity, engaging questions about friendship, romance, violence, and other dilemmas of love, sex, and race through the power of the moving image. 

Image Credits:
1. Sessue Hayakawa, early Hollywood hunk.
2. Jet Li in Romeo Must Die.
3. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Please feel free to comment.

On Hypersexual Filipina Video Ho: Demanding Powerful, Painful, Pleasurable and Political Critique
Celine Parreñas Shimizu / UCSB

Who are you calling bebot?

The Grammy-winning, multi-platinum-selling, global hip-hop phenomenon The Black Eyed Peas debuted their latest album at number one early this summer. (( Accessed July 1, 2009 )) As I listen to the album’s first single, “Boom Boom Pow,” I recall the Filipina/o American feminist controversy launched on the internet three years ago regarding the Black Eyed Peas’ song “Bebot” or “Filipina Hottie” and its two music videos: Generation 1 and Generation 2. In an open letter, feminist Filipina/o Americans across the U.S. and the Philippines condemned the hypersexuality and objectification of Filipina women in the “Bebot” videos. They wrote: “[A]s Filipina/o and Filipina/o American artists, academics, and community activists, we are utterly dismayed by the portrayal of hypersexualized Filipina ‘hoochie-mama’ dancers” in Generation 2, the contemporary version of the video, and the problematic representation of Filipina women as sexual objects for Filipino men in the historic portrayal of early Filipina/o America in Generation 1. (( Accessed July 1, 2009.)) In effect, the open letter argued that the visibility and celebration of Filipina/o culture in popular representation happens at the expense of women who are presented as objects for male consumption and whose bodies are the terrain on which national and ethnic pride are established.

I re-visit this controversy to assess how feminism, nationalism and popular music and representation interact today. I suggest we dig deeper by asking questions about both sexuality and representation that complicate the primarily gendered critique of the “Bebot” videos: Does the sight of brown female skin evoke its many colonial deployments in ways that obscure the political intervention that different representational forms, structures and grammar can offer? In this particular case, is sex always already demeaning and negative for marginalized women?

What Stuart Hall called “the burden of representation” for artists of color rears its head anew in the form of feminist critique. Political, harmonious and stylish, the Filipino/African American singer/dancer Apl De Ap, founding member of The Black Eyed Peas, uses music, dance and fashion to articulate, in the most recognizable and noticeable form today, the Filipino American diaspora in transnational popular culture. Because sightings of Filipino American popular representations continue to be rare, the artists of color committed to presenting such images are met with a lot of adulation and expectation. How does this feminist critique converge with visual, sonic and sexual analysis?

The open letter inserts to the burden of representation critique the pain of representation for spectators in primarily gendered terms. Reminding us of the power of popular culture to shape lives, these critics prioritize a victim position for the women in the lens of mainstream interpretation. That is, the letter belittles the feminist, sexual and visual power of the bebot herself. What we need to watch out for (in the video and the critique) is how hypersexuality is too easily condemned in ways that also over simplify the power of sexuality in representation. A closer reading of the video reveals the power in the Filipina American women’s performance and shows how through the body and representation, these women assert desire, express enjoyment and claim sexual power.

Let’s first define hypersexuality as excessive sexuality that is too often attributed as natural to Asian American women in representation and across history. However, I argue that for those with limited representations, like women of color, hypersexuality and its depiction are too easy to condemn and dismiss. If we can get beyond the condemnation of certain representations of sexuality, something more productive and surprising may emerge from the screen. A closer look at the Filipina American women’s performances as hoochie mamas in Generation 2 of “Bebot” yields more complex results. We cannot ignore that even “hoochie mamas” are complex figures in the video. The women are not simply objects for men but also desiring, productive and commanding subjects.


The video for the Black Eyed Peas’ “Bebot”

Upon close reading, we can see that there are at least three to four kinds of women in the video. First, there is the desiring subject with the sexy dance moves who looks and looks back at Apl. When Apl sings “magandang dalaga…” (beautiful single lady) or “I am moved with pleasure at your beauty that’s unbeatable in the whole world,” she looks at him with a powerful expression of sexual desire and confidence.

The video also features vigorous, aggressive dancers who move thuggishly in a way that is typically gendered as masculine, fully dressed and battling on the dance floor, as a very bebot (hot) Filipina American DJ spins records. The DJ, as Sunaina Maira shows in her work on second-generation Indian American dance cultures, controls the room and holds the most cultural capital in the club.

Little sister, negotiating private and public space

Finally, there is the figure of the little sister, who leaves the house demure and chaste, and then transforms into a scantily-clad, available and fun-loving woman on the dance floor. This complex character warrants more particular discussion.

Dance and dress are negotiations with power, expressions of style and resistance, and a testament to the complexity of Filipina/o American gendered experiences. The video asserts this by showing how the little sister negotiates the private and public space of the home and the club respectively. We see how the little sister, under the gaze of her immigrant mother, deals with the gendered and racial demands placed on second-generation youth, similar to the young women in Maira’s description of desi youth. The t-shirt and jeans-clad little sister has to leave the house with a backpack, presumably filled with the skimpy clothes she ends up wearing in the conclusion of the video, while her older bother, Apl, can leave in what he wears throughout most of the video. He does not have to hide in negotiating with gendered cultural pressures like she does. The little sister’s transformation from demure and modest to full-blown club kid is an act of self-authorship that indicates being caught in this bind. It’s a contradiction that Filipina American women live under and that the video dramatizes well.

As such, this video presents a more complex form of sexuality for Filipina American women who might be seen as “hoochies” and shows how they can use representation in a powerful way. This is just the beginning. If we read closely and carefully, we can see there’s a lot more we can deduce from the work. The critics’ condemnation of sex and representation as singular and totalizing dismisses the complexity of the women who gaze, move and powerfully establish their presence in and beyond the video.

The women’s sexual and representational labor warrants acknowledgment and attention. We need to interrogate the ways in which women use the power of media culture to represent themselves and confront the gendered, sexed and racial names imposed on them. I provide close readings of the grammar of race and sexuality, and its performance and representation, in order to insert these women’s visual and bodily voices into the conversation. Their powerful, political and pleasurable representations—visual and sonic—command equally robust and energetic critique. What about the joy, pain, anger and sadness in the music? How does the harmony of voices comment on the power of sexuality, the hybridity of race and the structures of gender in Filipina/o American encounters? I am burning / bursting to know more beyond the equation of victimization by sex in representation.

Image Credits:
All images supplied by the author.

Please feel free to comment.

The Making of My Mothering Movie: Birthright

Shimizu, from her upcoming film Birthright

Becoming a mother shocked my sense of self as a social being. Having given birth to two children before tenure, six years later I still crave sleep. Before the birth of my first son, I did not expect the daily minute-by-minute joy and beauty, the painful attachment, the difficulty of returning to work, and the powerful desire to stay home. Devote myself completely to childrearing? Guilt—a slow ever-present, torturous companion to my new life—accompanied this consideration. I finish my book, get tenure, teach and mentor, contribute to faculty governance, travel and through every sleepless night, work as if it was my last contribution to the world. In the mirror, the bags under my eyes shout the astounding need to sleep. After the birth of my second child and the difficult recovery that required six weeks of bed rest, I never asked for medical leave. The pressures to produce work and the pressures to care for myself and my family conflict, creating what Gail Weiss calls the conundrum of the mother-intellectual who can’t be “and” or “both,” but only “neither” and “nor.” ((Weiss, Gail. Refiguring the Ordinary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c2008. pp 199-201.))

I started reading up on mothering—to find a language, learn from others, and create a work—to name the experience and disseminate new knowledge so as to help capture not only my own concerns but to expose others. I learned that the pressure I experience is what Sharon Hays calls the conflicted “ideology of intensive mothering,” and that most women feel it, regardless of their economic situation, their culture or ethnicity, and even whether they work or not. ((Hays, Sharon. The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven, [Conn.]: Yale University Press, c1996. p 173.)) It’s that simultaneous pull women feel: that the proper care work responsibilities belong to them. Can one be a good mother and a good worker? Is that an impossible dream that requires not only family but funding, community, fair and humane laws and gender equality?

Birthright examines mothering across social categories

The result of this quest: Birthright: Mothering across Difference. Through interviews with approximately 50 mothers in the Santa Barbara area, my experimental ethnographic film offers a multi-class and multi-racial account of mothering. Santa Barbara epitomizes the stratified society of the United States, where the extremely rich and extremely poor live side-by-side in the “new economy.” In the context of this disparity, how is mothering experienced?

What I find is that within the incongruent economies and racial divisions in Santa Barbara, communities and friendships form across the dynamics of race, class, gender, and sexuality. All of the interviews involve the critical act of talking in ways that challenge the private/public divide in order to address the ways in which women of various communities face challenges and negotiate neoliberalism today. I discover that neoliberalism, with its resulting stratified labor market and policy of privatization, leads us to form different types of alliances and forces us to revisit the racialized, gendered, classed, and sexualized experiences of mothering. We see a wealthy woman speak immediately after a poor woman and we hear a diversity of racial and ethnic experiences—and in opening their lives to each other and to us, connections are made.

A working class woman tells me she feels no guilt with working, knowing her kids will be proud of her for attempting to juggle it all. From a wealthy woman, I learned about feeling the “pressure of not working” and that they are “not quite cutting it because they are not juggling it all,” even as they meet the idealized version of who should care for kids. One woman, a former VP of a bank, assessed that women are lying when they say they have it all: “as workers, we must suppress so much of ourselves, as stay-at-home women we must suppress so much of ourselves.” ((Birthright: Mothering Across Difference. Dir. Celine P. Shimizu. DVD. Progressive Films, 2009.)) A poor woman celebrates her ability to endure and get through another day.

Mothering is a site where women are disciplined and identities are formed. It offers the opportunity for forging new friendships as well as for subjugating others who don’t fall under normal categories of good motherhood. In it, we can witness the pressures women face to mother in a certain way. We also see the incredible challenge of work and life issues that women wrestle with painfully. Mothering is a tremendous challenge to one’s identity in a capitalist, neoliberal society where the self and the individual are privileged. The film shows how mothers live in difference and mother differently, while also sharing certain commitments. In this way, I seek to illuminate the challenges all mothers share without eliminating their differences. I conclude with the powerful way women forge alliances and connections as they become mothers. These new bonds help them survive the everyday demands that consume women’s lives as well as fuel them with incomparable joy.

As we live in the moment where mothering is celebrated and idealized in popular culture, my film intervenes with a more complete story of the joy and pain of becoming a mother. I look at a variety of specific groups of women who organize under shared interests: organic lifestyles, queer families, multicultural/national families, Spanish-speakers, or Family Literacy. By collaborating with three local non-profit organizations devoted to supporting mothers, I wanted to capture the ways in which communities are formed as well as fortified when encountering difference during the intense years of early childrearing.

From our intense hope that we are making the right choices, the questions we need to ask are not only what are women doing to mother well, but what is society doing? How do we cope with institutional mechanisms that attempt to address the needs of women but often privilege men? What are institutions doing to help with birthing and child-rearing, and to help different women get through these important times in life?

Birthright, premiering at the Reelheart Film Festival in Toronto

A year and a half of reading and pre-production, half a year of shooting, and a year and a half of post-production—nearly four years of intellectual pregnancy, and finally the film is born. It premieres at the Reelheart Film Festival in Toronto, Canada on June 24, 2009 and is available for distribution from for institutions and individuals. Recently, one of the women in the film told me she’s pregnant again. For her, I feel a surge of happiness, fear and hope. I am reminded of the life and death involved in giving birth, what my informant calls the true meaning of beauty and the sublime: the power of bringing oneself to the edge of existence and the commingling of terrible pain and happiness.

Today, my children are less dependent on me. They ask me to go away and do my own work as they build Lego cities. I realize that I myself am finished with birthing and a tremendous sadness fills me. I realize not only my own mortality but the incredible generosity required in mothering work, for which I have limits. Mothering makes me more aware than ever of how media has the power to express these experiences and shed new light on communities that people think they already know. I hope playgrounds and stroller brigades become more recognized in our society as sites and events where women struggle to make sense of our lives, the losses and the gains, and our hopes that we are choosing and doing right for and beyond ourselves.

Image Credits: All images provided by the author.

Please feel free to comment.