Jessica Hagedorn, author of “Asian Women in Film: No Joy, No Luck,” discusses the stereotypical portrayals of Asian women in film. By analyzing several films, she offers four main depictions of the characters: the submissive girl, the “eager-for-sex” nymph, the tragic victim, or the evil “dragon lady.” The women are seen being victimized in various ways, whether sexually, emotionally, physically and because of their gender, also professionally. Their intelligence is underestimated and their sexuality exploited for the pleasures of American men.
This is obvious because these are the people creating the films, white American filmmakers displaying their fantasies through stereotypes. While there are multiple examples that might effectively highlight Hagedorn’s assessments as well as reinforce the notion that white American men, who are the purveyors of what we consume in American cinema, continue to represent Asian women as at the mercy of or at the feet of (romantically, especially) American men. When joined with Hagedorn’s assessment that many women in Asian film fall into the category of “whore” or prostitute in cinematic representation, we are forced to evaluate our understanding of many recent films, one of which is the 2005 blockbuster, Memoirs of a Geisha—the epitome of some of the most prevalent Asian female stereotypes Hagedorn explores.
Memoirs of a Geisha is certainly not the first Hollywood film to emphasis Asian women’s roles as being tied to sexual servitude and female victimization. In her assessment of the film, The World of Suzie Wong (1960) Hagedorn notes that the main character, Suzie “and all the other prostitutes in this movie are cure, giggling, dancing sex machines with hearts of gold” (360). In fact, this “geisha” portrayal of Asian women in film is one of the most recognizable and most-used stereotypes, especially when a particular film has a setting based in a native Asian culture. Whether its American soldiers depicted in a Vietnam-era film with shy, appealing, demure mannerisms (Apocalypse Now  among others) so common in this Hollywood version of Eastern prostitutes, or in Memoirs of a Geisha itself, the presence of this stereotype is consistently found in films across the span of cinematic history.
In her commentary of film and her personal perceptions as an Asian woman, Hagedorn states that while in the Philippines there was not the geisha tradition as in Japan, demure beauty was “overtreasured” and “daughters are protected virgins or primed as potential beauty queens. And many of us have brought into the image of the white man as our handsome savior: G.I. Joe” (365). This value and cultural emphasis on beauty is part of the reason American viewers are able to fully accept, romanticize, and idealize the life of this “hooker with a heart of gold” trope without recognizing the serious problem of stereotype-based problems this film presents.
In the film in question, the lovely, sensitive and of course, exotically beautiful main character enters reluctantly into a semi-glamorous lifestyle as a geisha. This new lifestyle that the legally-underage maiden enters into is laden with enough difficulties (being stolen from and subjected to harsh treatment) to make it not seem as though it is glorifying prostitution too much while all the while using enough soft-focus on the camera’s lens to keep the viewer’s eyes misty with adoration. Even though there are these elements of hardship presented as the main character quests for her freedom (only to offer it up for a man) there is little doubt that the stereotype of the beautiful and exotic geisha/prostitute is being propagated to its fullest extent. By the end of the film, despite any of the negative associations with a life of prostitution the viewer has been presented with, what is left is a story that is, at its very heart, a fairy-tale romance akin to the story of Cinderella, minus the sex. This film perpetuates the idea that Asian women are in need of a male savior and more importantly, that they are naturally suited to entertain men in ways that are sexually explicit and implicit. Even more importantly—this is presented in the end as something entirely romantic; every woman’s secret dream, every man’s wildest fantasy–and reality’s farthest truth. This is a reality that only exists in the Western visual conceptualization, which is a process that Hagedorn defines as the “colonization of imagination” (366). This colonization is the engine that propels Hollywood forward, creating Asian women into “objects of desire or derision; we exist to provide sex, color, texture, in what is essentially a man’s world” (366). Given the cultural power of film as a medium, this is a painful state for Asian women to be in, and one that box office records do to offer promise to correct.
Some scholars posit the idea the geisha is seen as more than an international sex symbol, but more incorrectly, as a symbol of Asian femininity in general. “Since the mid-nineteenth century, there has been an enduring relationship between Western imaginings and the Japanese woman. Dressed in a kimono and made up as a geisha, she has often been used in illustrations and cartoons as an archetypal gendered symbol of her country, often to the exclusion of all other symbols” (Morris, 2002). While Hagedorn cites many other incorrect (not to mention potentially damaging) stereotypes of Asian women in film, this seems to be one of the most historically consistent stereotypes of these women that predates those of the “street fighter” or ninja that one more recently associates with films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, (2002) and related kung-fu or martial arts-based films. The Westernized image of Asian women, in this case Japanese women, as weak, demure, and in need of a savior (preferably one that is tall, handsome, and in military gear) is complicated with the addition of sexual servitude, but for many viewers, this only enhances the titillation element of the film. The meek females who are the sexual mercy of the highest bidder are compelling enough to generate best-seller and box office record-setting numbers, which indicates that this is not only a plausible stereotype, but an exciting one as well.
There can be little doubt that the prevalence of the Asian woman as a perpetual geisha; a weak, beautiful creature in need of a savior is appealing to Western viewers. With the stunning success of both the novel and film versions of Memoirs of a Geisha, one can realistically expect that Hagedorn’s criticisms will fall upon deaf ears in the mainstream context as we seem to cherish this version of Asian femininity far too much as a culture. “The world is crazy for geisha, a symbol of the Japanese mind, which has something in common with the Noh mask and the Japanese style of painting—‘Geisha chic’ and ‘Geisha Galm’ are our identity” (Narumi 314). We have melded together an incomplete, incorrect, limited, and even damaging understanding of Asian women through Hollywood films. Since success in American cinema is often tied to what is “hot” at the time, we can expect to continue seeing traces of this kind of representation of Asian women as it is clearly something that speaks to the romantic sensibilities of many viewers in the West. However, with this in mind, it is hoped that future filmgoers will begin to notice a disturbing trend of limitation in terms of gender representations and be able to critique what might otherwise seem to be harmless romance.
Hagedorn offers some stunning insights into how prevalent these stereotypes are in American film by highlighting seemingly endless numbers of examples for the particular stereotypes she sees as occurring most frequently. Through this process, her reader is unable to read such a critique without having seen at least one or two of the films and recognizing how prevalent these stereotypes are. However, by the mere act of identifying such inadequate, narrow portrayals of any gender of ethnic group, we can begin to overlook (and even criticize them ourselves) as they appear with stunning frequency. In a film such as Memoirs of a Geisha, one would be hard-pressed to be swept away by the romance after reading Hagedorn’s assessments and see this as another incredibly limiting and even damaging film in terms of adequate, representative versions of Asian femininity.
Morris, Narrelle. “Innocence to Deviance: The Fetishisation of Japanese Women .” Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context Issue 7March 2002 7 Dec 2008.
Narumi, Hiroshi. “Fashion orientalism and the limits of counter culture.” Journal of Postcolonial Studies 3(2000): 311.