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White men under attack: Reverse “yellow fever” from “just an (Asian) girl in the world”

White men under attack: Reverse “yellow fever” from “just an (Asian) girl in the world”

Tamara K. Nopper

June 7, 2010

One of my guilty pleasures is the show Law & Order.  I say guilty pleasure because its premise—a cop show—is nothing short of repulsive as are the requisite story lines, characters, and narratives regarding the state and criminality.

While I can deconstruct the racial, gender, sexual, and class politics of every Law & Order show I have ever watched, a particular one stands out to me because its main suspect was, like me, an Asian American woman.  The episode, “Just a girl in the world” (season 20, episode 2), featured the character Emma Kim, an Asian American journalist who reports being attacked by a cab driver.  It is later revealed that Kim reported a false claim in order to throw off detectives from their investigation into the murder of Daisy Chao, an Asian American Crime Scene Unit investigator whose dead body (discovered by her white fiancé) is shown in the opening scenes.

Kim is caught as the murderer after seducing Cyrus Lupo, the white detective (Anthony Anderson plays the black detective, Kevin Bernard, in the biracial cop duo).  Lupo, whose hand Kim clutches as she makes a false identification of a man in a line up, takes Kim home as she has stressed how shaken up she is by her experience.  Upon revisiting Kim’s place, Lupo discovers a key piece of evidence—red lingerie, no less—hidden in Kim’s closet, which links her to Chao’s murder.  The discovery causes Lupo to become visibly distraught as Kim, naked, eagerly waits for him to return from the bathroom to her bed.

Many viewers were probably both riveted by and accustomed to the sexual/racial combination of an Asian American woman and a white man.  Data does show that, out of people of color, Asian Americans have the highest outmarriage rates, particularly with whites and in the last decade, there are more commercial advertisements featuring white men and Asian American women together.  While outmarriage is indeed a sociological phenomenon and shaped by racial and sexual politics, I think too many people are obsessed with this pairing to the point that non-Asian friends have been shocked to learn from me that for the most part, Asian Americans overwhelmingly marry other Asians.  Some people are concerned with Asian American and white pairing for ethical reasons, including potential self-hatred among Asians, the adoption of troubling tropes to describe Asian desire towards other Asians (for example, a gay Asian male scholar once pointed out to me that a common argument made by Asian women that they don’t want to be with Asian men because it would be like being with their “brothers,” i.e., incestuous, is a discourse that seems particularly used by Asians to avoid same-race (hetero) relationships), the valorization of the white race over other groups, particularly Blacks, and the political economy of desire, sex, partner-choice, and marriage (hetero and same-sex) informed by a global racial order and capitalism in which Asian women are valuable commodities to men of all races, including Asians.  Thus, it can be politically ethical to interrogate Asian/white pairings rather than naturalize them as many whites (and unfortunately Asians) do.  Nevertheless, some of the fixation on white men and Asian women pairings make me question the motives behind  some queries.   For example, many straight Asian men are angered by Asian women dating outside of the race, but don’t question their own standards in terms of what type of Asian woman they want to get with (which all too often seem to be the same type that white men seek out).  Nor do enough Asian men challenge the way in which Asian beauty and body standards too often coincide with those imposed and reinforced by the white world, standards that all too often determine which Asian women’s interracial relationships they are concerned with.  And I’ve had a few “progressive” men of color I know spot a white male/Asian woman pair and ask me why Asian American women will (purportedly) only get with white men or make sure I know that white men “like me.”  While interracial relationships and desire are sociological topics, some of my conversation partners will go on and on about white men and Asian women.  Notwithstanding their heterosexism (for example, they seem to be oblivious to the many Asian male/white female pairings or Asian/white same-sex couples I see), I have sometimes wondered if they were simply concerned with themselves having sex with Asian women.  This thought has occurred to me when some of my questioners stare at me intently for what seem like long periods of time as if they are waiting for me to disprove their thesis by giving them a blow job right there and then.  Sometimes I’m simply trying to have a coffee with folks, not explain “the ways of Asian women” to them.

Whatever the case, what made this Law & Order episode particularly disturbing was not so much that Kim’s character appeared to only date white men, but that she was viewed as targeting white men for devious reasons, whether to get her bills paid or to avoid capture by the police.  Also disturbing was that Kim’s targeting of white men was depicted as a reverse form of “yellow fever,” a popular term used by Asian Americans to describe non-Asian men who purposefully seek out Asian women for sexual pleasure due to our perceived sexual submissiveness and perverse determination to pleasure men (in gay communities, the term “rice queen” is employed to describe white men who seek out Asian men to be bottoms or their sexual houseboy).  When making her false claim that she was attacked by the cab driver, Kim tells Bernard and Lupo that she suspected the cabbie had “yellow fever.”  Bernard and Lupo look at her perplexed and listen intently as she defines the term and then proceeds to accuse the cab driver, a Latino, of sexual assault.  Convinced by her report, Bernard and Lupo track the driver down, thus wasting their time looking in the wrong direction.  Kim’s deviousness then, serves to build superficial community among men of different races as all are, despite Kim’s targeting of white men, negatively affected by her deception.

Later, Lupo falls for Kim and “struggles” with his interest in a victim in a case he is investigating, especially as he learns that she is purportedly suffering from a health issue.  The subtext is that Lupo is also dealing with whether he has “yellow fever,” an ethical struggle meant to affirm his humanity, not Kim’s.  It is only after Kim admonishes Lupo for treating her as a vulnerable victim—thus absolving him from whatever anxieties he might have had regarding his hidden racialized lust (depicted as his “getting too close to the victim”)—does the detective become more visibly comfortable with his sexual interest in Kim.

As if this was not concerning enough, I watched with disgust as the story line developed to reveal that Kim not only murdered Chao (over a white man no less), she had manipulated other white men with a similar story line she fed Lupo.  Through the course of the investigation, Kim transforms from an Asian American woman with sexual agency vigilant about men’s “yellow fever” to a “maneater” or “gold-digger” who plays up her purported health issues to win over unsuspecting white men.  These white men are of course depicted as colorblind men who simply want to love Kim across the color line but who end up ensnared in an Asian American woman’s racial fixation with white men.  Thus, not only are these men, like Lupo, absolved of having “yellow fever,” they are the victims of Kim’s anti-white racism.

It gets worse.  During the courtroom scene, Kim is interrogated by Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter, also a white man, about her deceptive activities.  I watched in horror as Kim challenges Cutter’s depiction of her as a maneater by literally touching her vagina on the stand and saying to the assistant D.A. that he knows he “wants this.”   As she grabs her crotch, Kim’s face contorts a la porn scenes of women having painful pleasure and her voice changes into one of defiant sexuality.  In response to this spectacle, Cutter is stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes frozen in perplexed amazement at Kim’s testimony.

Being an Asian American woman (and man) in the world means having to be subject to questions about our genitalia, sexuality, our presumed perverse proclivity to want to please men, and to have our partner and sexual choices scrutinized at length.  This is an intrusive and annoying experience, one that is constantly negotiated, even at a relatively young age.  At a high school dance, a boy told me that his uncle had been in “the war” and that he told him that Asian women are good in bed.  I remember when I was working at a pizza shop during college how my co-worker, a boy in high school, felt comfortable telling me that he heard Asian women give “good blow jobs.”  He did this of course without solicitation, as race and fellatio would hardly be my subject of choice as we stood waiting, dressed in our uniforms and visors, to sell greasy pizza slices to shoppers at the mall.  Also during college, a classmate hanging out in the dorm with me and my roommate told me (again unsolicited), as he watched television nonchalantly, that he had heard Asian women have shallow vaginas and wanted to know if that was the case with mine. When I questioned why he would feel comfortable asking me this, he acted surprised and continued to repeat what he had heard as if repetition would make the query less offensive.  And of course I’ve had to constantly encounter the phrase “Me love you long time,” first introduced in the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket and immortalized by the rap group 2 Live Crew.

As a professor who teaches courses on Asian American history, I have to deal with (presumably straight) male students who get too excited about discussing the gender and sexual dynamics of anti-Asian racism.  For example, in one class, when we were discussing the stereotypes regarding Asian women’s sexuality, one white male said that the reason why Asian women are looked at in the way we are is because of the Kama Sutra and its sexual positions.  In other classes, in which we read material about Chinese women prostitutes during the 19th century, I have encountered many (again presumably straight) non-Asian men who are smiling widely and making eye contact with each other even as we are reading about brutal physical violence against (as well as resistance from) Chinese prostitutes.  And I’ve literally had white men in the room cheer when I have said we are going to be looking at the topic of prostitution in Asian immigrant communities.  Needless to say, many of the same students grow really quiet and get red in the face when we discuss how the concept “yellow fever” is employed by some to describe the racial and sexual gaze towards Asian women  that informs some of their classroom behavior.

While these experiences in and outside of the classroom are repulsive, angering, and traumatic, what made the Law & Order episode particularly disturbing is that it introduced the issue of “yellow fever” only to suggest that the claim is a false indictment.  This has several implications.  First, it reinforces the idea that women are too quick to falsely accuse men of sexual violence.  While there are instances of women who make false claims, one of the underlying themes of the episode was to intimate that men, as a class of people, are actually vulnerable to women’s false accusations.  In this sense, women’s false accusations are treated as an “ism” similar to racism or sexism.  And in the case of the Law & Order episode, men are depicted as victimized by women who use false claims of vulnerability (health issues, being attacked by another man) and also give them permission to be caretakers—as opposed to simply demanding women “know their place.”  Basically, men are depicted as victims once they forego any macho tendency to control the situation and instead, make decisions based on compassion, emotional sincerity, and reciprocity.  The white men victimized by Kim were uncomfortable with treating her too paternally until she suggested that they were being patriarchal for not considering what she wanted—which is for them to give her what she wanted.  Being encouraged to have emotions or be accountable to women was depicted as a form of entrapment, indicating the anti-feminism embedded in the storyline.

Second, the discussion of “yellow fever” at the beginning of the episode suggests that it is Kim, as an Asian American, who is too race and gender conscious and not the white men she has manipulated.  As such, claims regarding “yellow fever” are treated as figments of Asian Americans’ racial and sexual imagination.  In a post-civil rights era in which victims of racism have to demonstrate that we experience discrimination—using an overly scientific measurement that requires a narrow (read white) operationalization of racism—this dismissal of “yellow fever” is meant to indict claims of racism.   The white men, then, who Kim accuses of “yellow fever” are actually the victims of reverse racism.  Kim, as a stand-in for a devious Asian American sexuality (as opposed to Daisy Chao, the “good” Asian American policewoman murdered by her cunning Asian sister), is basically “playing the race card” (as well as the “gender card”) by talking about “yellow fever” so as to conceal her duplicitous targeting of white men.  Although it is mainly white men who are largely responsible for transforming Asian women’s (perceived) sexuality into a global commodity, the white men in the episode are the objects of Kim’s racism and sexism and not the other way around.  That Kim takes these white men to be rich or with resources also plays on the current perception common among whites that calling them “privileged” is a form of (anti-white) racism akin to the negative imagery associated with African Americans.  Thus, Kim is not only engaging in reverse “yellow fever,” she is engaging in anti-white reverse “yellow fever.”

Third, Kim’s false claim of “yellow fever” serves to invalidate the important work of feminists of color, particularly Black women, who have valiantly worked to educate the public about the particular ways that women of color are racistly and sexistly viewed, for different reasons and to different degrees, as perpetrators of sexual innuendo and fantasy as opposed to victims and survivors.  Thus, Kim serves as a stand-in for all women of color who are being unveiled for asserting the presumably false claim that unlike white women, our sexuality is racialized as possessing degrees of deviance purportedly encoded in our blood, culture, or nationality.

In this sense, Kim was not only Asian American, she served as the “Black” character on the show.  While not ontologically Black, she was depicted as making false claims against whites, raising the issue of racism to cover up her own deviance, and imposing her racial and sexual proclivities, as well as her (refuted) critical analysis, on to white men when presumably, they were simply trying to treat her as “just a girl in the world.”

As many have pointed out, claims of reverse racism have been used to discount the continuation of white supremacy in the post-civil rights era.  And, as many women (and I am including white women here) have discussed, negative imagery of us making false claims has been used to dismiss concerns with sexual harassment and sexual violence.  In the case of Asian American women, the idea that we are quick to impose our presumed deviant sexuality onto white communities (and thus making whites vulnerable) has been a feature of anti-Asian racism since the first waves of Asian immigration to the United States, which started in the mid-1800s.  In the post-Cold War era, perceptions of Asian women’s sexuality are also related to military excursions in Asia and the perception, popularized in war films and tales of sexual adventure from pathetic military veterans, that we are all some type of prostitute, whether hidden in massage parlors and brothels or “brought home” from somewhere.  I am not politically opposed to sex work but I take issue with the fact that it’s criminalized and treated as an inherent feature of people of color’s, and in this case, Asian American women’s, sexual “character,” as opposed to it being a form of labor (i.e., “work”).

While the image of Asian women as prostitutes (whether hidden or domesticated) has become a staple feature of American popular culture and racial fantasy, the Law & Order episode treated this image of Asian women as foreign to white men.  As “just a girl in the world,” Kim’s character was not a victim of racism and sexism but instead the perpetrator of it against white men.  Consistent with discourses of reverse racism—and reverse sexism—it was Kim who was forcing the white men to see her as Asian and as a prostitute of sorts when they simply wanted to love and care for her.  Kim’s depiction (of herself) as the object of “yellow fever” was not only an act of deception, it was unintelligible to the white men she accused of wanting her.  Subsequently, Executive Assistant D.A. Cutter could look on in horrified bewilderment as Kim grabbed her crotch on the stand while proclaiming that men “want this,” even though her sexualized affect and body language comprise a staple depiction of Asian women in popular culture and conversational folklore since the Vietnam War.

  1. June 10, 2010 at 3:02 am | #1

    I always find it interesting when brown women (I use this to describe women of color, as they all look like various shades of brown to me) are depicted in the way you described in this entry. All of false claims to misdirect from crimes I have ever read about in newspapers came from white women accusing black men, and the fact that the character is condemned for playing the stereotypes (both specific to Asian women, and women in general) created by a patriarchal society is ridiculously hilarious (albeit in a sad way) to me. Great entry. I might reblog this.

  2. Chrysalis
    August 30, 2011 at 4:52 am | #2

    Another interesting essay! I might just have to start hanging around here. I think you’re seeing the mirror-image of racism against non-Asians that takes place in Asia. It’s basically the same thing in China, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, India: if you are not Asian, and if you don’t look pure-blooded in the precise local ethnicity and aren’t fluent in the local dialect, you are discriminated against and ruthlessly.

    So, therefore, what you observe here is basically human nature. It’s not something especially bad about White people.

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