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Fighting Back Against Fetishization and Asian Stereotypes

By , 18, Contributor Originally Published: May 18, 2022 Revised: May 18, 2022

On March 16, 2021, a mass shooting occurred across three spas and massage parlors in Atlanta. Of the eight victims, six were East Asian women. The shooter told authorities that he had a sex addiction and that his shooting spree was an attempt to eliminate his “temptations.”

This event unfortunately shed light on a harsh reality for many AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) girls and women. From oblivious microaggressions—a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority), according to Merriam-Webster—to blatant stereotyping, many AAPI women unfortunately face racism on a daily basis, some of it sexual.

This AAPI Heritage Month, I decided to speak with some AAPI teens about this worrisome pattern.

Unfortunately Not New

As in the case with the Atlanta shooter, the classification of East and Southeast Asian women as sexual objects is unfortunately not new. Throughout history, they have often been presented as either docile, submissive wives (frequently to white husbands) or scantily clad and sexualized characters in films and video games. Their culture has been reduced to “sexy” Halloween costumes. The Atlanta shootings were likely another instance of this fetishization—objectifying or sexualizing someone based on an aspect of their identity like race—with Asian women once again being reduced to objects of sexual desire.

To AAPI girls and teens, this can be harmful in more ways than one. As with any kind of stereotyping, a sense of otherness is created, further establishing AAPI individuals as perpetual foreigners. This sense of otherness can lead to bullying, fetishization and general exclusion from peers, causing mental strain.

“Hearing racist comments, directly and indirectly, is genuinely disgusting,” says Lauren, 18, of Houston. “I have to distinguish between guys that like me for me or those who only like me because they’re fetishizing my race.”

Stereotyped as Submissive Dolls

Negative stereotypes also feed into harmful portrayals of AAPI women in popular culture and media. “She barely has any speaking roles, she’s treated almost like a child for her ignorance of social customs, her powers are to soothe and tranquilize others and even her voice is quiet and high-pitched,” says Alysa, 18, of Cupertino, CA, describing a female Asian character from a popular movie franchise. “All these play into negative stereotypes of Asian women, who are seen as submissive, doll-like figures that don’t have any real speaking or leading roles in comparison to fellow characters.”

These stereotypes that culminated in the senseless violence of the Atlanta spa shootings threaten to cause even more harm to the AAPI community. It’s important that we raise awareness and visibility of this issue.

Hope for the Future

In the months following the shootings, Asian American activism and community efforts aimed to bring heightened awareness to these issues in the U.S., often under the hashtag of #StopAsianHate. Rallies and vigils were held across the country, increasing solidarity and awareness. Organizations sprang up in Asian communities across the U.S. in order to support East Asian businesses and individuals.

Beginning with Illinois and New Jersey, legislation began surfacing to require the teaching of Asian American history in public schools, in what can be seen as a hopeful movement away from the ignorance and lack of education that so often breeds harmful stereotypes. “I’m hoping that Asian voices continue to make an impact in media, art, politics, education and more,” says Alysa. “So that we never feel like we need to prove that we deserve what we do.”

During this AAPI Awareness month and every month, it’s important to consider the intersections between identities that sometimes go unnoticed—race, gender, sexual orientation and more—in our perceptions of others. This month, we remember the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings and the victims of anti-Asian violence across the U.S., but also hold hope for the future.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

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