from the pages of July/August 1995


Race & Gender

The Co-optation of Asian American Feminism

By Sonia Shah


In recent years, mass media outlets have described the current state of gender relations as "post-feminist." In this post-feminist era, they say, feminist goals have become largely irrelevant and sexism as a social and political problem has been, for the most part, solved. Via the co-optation, commercialization, and ultimately, the subversion of feminist goals, mainstream commentators have successfully re-defined gender relations as something other than they are -- without widespread disbelief.

Given the facts that patriarchy -- the cultural and institutional systems that privilege men over women -- still exists, and feminist activists around the country are still working to subvert patriarchy, the hailing of a "post-feminist" society is premature at best. Experience and studies show that women are poorer than men, earn less money than men, are beaten and raped by men, are harassed by men, and are demeaned and devalued by society.

Of course, there have been changes in gender power relations in recent years. But given that men still overwhelmingly control society, these power shifts between men and women, while hopeful, have hardly been significant enough to warrant the pronouncement of patriarchy’s demise.

What the "post-feminist" era refers to is not a revolution in actual gender power relations, but rather a revolution in the representation of gender power relations. In the world created by advertising, fashion, news media, and the entertainment industry -- with notable exceptions -- women’s power is either equal to men’s, or if unequal, unequal in a way that is acceptable (annoying at worst) to women. In this media-created world, it’s easy for single women to raise children and hold down high powered jobs; working class battered women are funny and own big houses; women of color are rich and fashionable.

The interests of media-makers necessitate this distorted, idealized imagery. These portrayals build on the issues feminists have raised: that women should be able to fulfill work and family expectations without marriage, that battered women should be empowered and supported by society; that women of color are not all maids and mammies. Yet at the same time, they gloss over the fact that these goals are massively obstructed and must be fought for. In this way, media-makers appeal to women with a feminist sensibility without provoking the rage and agitatin of feminist critiques.

This portrayal makes women consumers (of fashion, media, and entertainment) feel the way the advertisers -- who pay for the production of these artifacts -- want them to feel. Because manufacturers need to convince people to buy things they don’t necessarily need, they need to placate, seduce, and flatter. They must appeal to feminized women in a way that makes them want to participate in -- not change -- consumer society. Thus the feminist sensibility of women’s independence and control and feminist-driven issues are presented by the mainstream, while the crux of feminist struggle -- that patriarchal society must be subverted -- is portrayed as unnecessary. We’re shop at the mall. So, while feminist activism to subvert patriarchy continues under siege, the media portray the battle as already won.

Given this media environment, many women have concluded that patriarchy is dead and feminism is irrelevant. By calling themselves "post-feminist," they receive media attention and commercial success. These women, with their male allies, further delegitimize feminist work.



Asimilar trajectory lies in wait for Asian American feminism. But it’s worse. Although Asian American feminists have been organizing and supporting Asian women in the face of white and Asian patriarchy for decades, the work of defining an Asian American feminist agenda has barely begun. While opinions obviously differ, Western feminism has defined many agendas, including one of radically transforming society along non-patriarchal, non-hierarchical lines. Asian feminists also advocate the subversion of imperialism and racism, but the work of envisioning a non-patriarchal, non-imperialist, non-racist society has just begun. The commercial market catering to Asian American women may be well established before a political community of Asian American feminists is in place.

According to the U.S. Census, Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic group in the country. Dramatizing this heightened visibility on the national stage was the LA riots, in which the major players, at least superficially, were not black and white but rather black and Asian. The stereotypical characterizations of Asian Americans, that they have strong families, make lots of money, and value education, support popular conservative theories, which will ensure their persistence despite evidence to the contrary. Also, these stereotypes highlight exactly those sectors of the community industry could most lucratively exploit.

Secondly, much Asian American activism is easily diverted to meet the needs of greater commercialization. One of the most valuable assets to industry is an in-depth description of its target audience. In attempting to break out of the confines of black/white racial distinctions, Asian American activists and scholars have meticulously described the cultural, linguistic, political, social, and religious diversity of our community, as well as our cultural similarities. Ironically, these profiles, created for the political goal of solidarity in the community and to protect diversity, serve commercial interests equally well.

This creates an environment especially threatening to Asian American women. In a racist, sexist society, Asian American women are considered more acceptable and less threatening to the mainstream than Asian men. This is one reason Asian American women are and will be particularly targeted by commercialization. Another reason is that historically women rather than men are the chief consumers and decision makers about consumption in American families, which provides an incentive for industry to market to women particularly. So far, almost all evidence indicates that Asian American women are indeed at the forefront of the commercialization of the Asian American community. In the last five years, there’s been an explosion in products geared to and about Asian American women. At least a dozen new Asian American women novelists have been published by big commercial publishers. In contrast there’s been relatively few Asian American male writers catapulted to mass market commercial success. There’s been a handful of mass market commercial movies about Asian American women. In contrast, as yet no American Hollywood-based movie has starred an Asian American male character in anything but the most stereotypical fashion. The first network television sit-com to portray an Asian American family stars an Asian American woman, not a man.

The commercial re-defining can be seen occurring around two facets of Asian American feminism: Asian American women’s identity and Asian American women’s biculturalism.



Asian American identity, as conceptualized by Asian American feminists, is a radical stance of re-inventing and restructuring both American and Asian cultures. It means more than being just Asian and more than being just American; it means understanding and bridging both cultures in a way that undermines the patriarchy and racism of both cultures. This process necessitates contesting white racism that demeans and devalues Asianness as well as Asian patriarchy that demeans and devalues women. Thus the transcendence of Asian American feminist identity is a process fraught with pain, loss, and struggle against racism and sexism, both from within the Asian community and from the mainstream white community. There is no easy path.

The commercial world has used the bicultural identity touted by Asian American feminists to create their images of Asian American women. Yet they do so in a way that subverts its underlying political meaning. In the images created by commercial media, the bicultural woman’s condition is not one that runs head up against white supremacy and patriarchy. It’s.funny. It’s tragic. It’s an edge. In this way, the essential insight of the Asian American feminism -- that it necessitates struggle against American racism and Asian sexism -- becomes irrelevant, while the generic sensibility of biculturalism remains superficially intact.

The Korean American woman character at the center of the TV sit-com "All American Girl," for example, humorously insults a British professor by telling him to "go learn the language." Her xenophobia is supposed to show how American she is, that she can level the insult most commonly thrown at people like her and her family to others. In this instance, xenophobia is characterized as something that is not particularly harmful to Asian Americans, so her comment is funny rather than pathological. In another episode, she is left alone in her bedroom with a white boyfriend, whom she ultimately rejects because she agrees with her parents’ unspoken disapproval of him. Her repression of her sexuality is supposed to show how Asian she is, that she can police her own sexuality even when her parents aren’t there doing it for her. In this instance, sexual repression is not only implicitly leveled against the Asian family, but it is characterized as something that doesn’t oppress Asian American women, which is why her action is heroic rather than tragic.

In the movie version of The Joy Luck Club, Asian American female identity is portrayed as conflicted because of patriarchal relations between Asian American women, and their Asian American husbands and their Asian mothers -- not because of American racism. The transcendence of Asian American identity comes not through struggle and subversion of patriarchy and racism, but through, at least partly, its acceptance. The women all cry and whine about their mothers, but in the end, they settle down happily with their husbands. Another book of Asian American stories is promoted as describing the "range of Asian American experience" in characters that "make love, worry about the future, endure hardships. They audition for jobs as anchormen." Here, as elsewhere, Asian American identity translates into a commercial edge. Obviously many more Asian Americans work in factories than audition for jobs as anchormen.


Co-opting Biculturalism

One of the most critical insights Asian American feminists have gained from experiencing biculturalism has been the way Western imperialism works hand in hand with Asian patriarchies. Asian feminists and others have organized around international trafficking in Asian sex workers, in which Asian patriarchal elites and Western elites work together to dehumanize Asian women. The global reality that Asian American feminists and others have named, of an imperialist West eager to capitalize on the post-colonial wreckage of Asian countries, has never been more true than today.

Media-makers have recognized, however dimly, the global consciousness of Asian Americans raised by Asian feminists and others. But instead of portraying the reality of accelerated, unregulated, international exploitation, they have presented romantic images of zany, hybrid worlds littered with detritus from both East and West -- the manufactured image of the new "multicultural chic."

Thus, they appeal to a "global consciousness" -- raised by Asian feminists and others to illuminate and condemn Western patriarchal imperialism -- but whitewash the underlying reality in order to be comforting and flattering. By freely borrowing from Asian cultures, these media makers re-interpret the essentially unequal, and now, less regulated relationship between the First and Third Worlds as, somehow, equal. One example of this is the fashion phenomenon of "multicultural chic," which involves wearing kurtas with T-shirts, and hennaed hands with combat boots, as embodied in designer Jean Paul Galtier’s new collection in Vogue and on MTV. Or the pseudo-spiritual phenomenon of yuppie yoga, Buddhism, and Krishna-worship, as embodied in director Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, starring Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha. These manufactured images conjure up a multicultural "global village" appealing to Asian Americans, delegitimizing Asian feminist campaigns to subvert global exploitation.


Effects on Asian Americans

The process of commodification undermines the relevance of activist-defined issues. At the same time, it provides powerful incentives for Asian Americans to commodify themselves.As Asian American issues and images are defanged and shrink-wrapped to be sold as commodities, the financial and social incentive for Asian Americans to project images appealing to advertisers, producers, publishers, and politicians will inevitably grow. It will not be in their interest to admit diversity and adversity in the Asian American community. It will be easier and more profitable to strike a marketable pose rather than try to work together for larger goals.

A Magazine, which purports to be "inside Asian America," openly asks Asian Americans to prepackage themselves for industry. A questionnaire asks readers questions like "What brand of beer do you usually drink?" A group of Asian American entrepreneurs have started a successful business selling T-shirts and baseball caps decorated with faux "Asian" messages and images white Americans associate with Asianness. "Have an Asian Day!" reads one such product; the entrepreneurs were proud to note that Madonna was spotted wearing the shirt. Others have started selling calendars printed with photos of mostly naked Asian men.

Given a popular movie like Little Buddha, and the outlaw fashion of Gaultier, and the intellectual chic of the Internet, it is culturally powerful to, for example, personally know a yogi, own a kurta, or have an e-mail address in Burma. Here again it is culturally powerful for Asian Americans to selectively package aspects of Asianness.

The aspects of Asianness and the Asian American community that Asian Americans choose to exploit for financial or social gain are not necessarily false aspects. However, in order to be exploitable, the aspects chosen are less likely to include those that provoke the desire for change. Certain aspects will never be marketable, given the forces of the market. So even when Asian Americans participate in commodification, they can do so only in a constrained, stunted way. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the desire to exploit the forces of commercialization will motivate Asian Americans to be selective and revisionist. While superficially they may be lauded as promoting the Asian American experience, ultimately they are limiting its parameters.


Possible Diversions

The commercial images of Asian American identity and East/West multiculturalism directly confront Asian American realities and Asian American feminist goals. To counter commercial subversion, Asian American feminists need to create their own images and media. But more than that, Asian American feminists need to articulate a vision of an anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-imperialist society, in all of its detail. Only a fully articulated vision will be able to decisively denounce commercialized images, both from within and outside the community, as the transfigured, whitewashed, and partial images they are.

On a practical level, Asian American feminists must be able to exclude the profit motive from the production of images and media about Asian women. Doing this would mean not only making sure that Asian Americans are able to create their own images, but that they are able to effectively distribute and earn income from these images from non-profit-seeking producers. For that, Asian American women need their own or politically allied producers, studios, publishers, and directors.

Asian American feminists can also work to weaken the commercial viability of profit-driven images and products. This does not mean agitating to change the nature of the images, but negating their popularity by not consuming them and making it unpopular for others to consume them. Asian American feminists must also be able to create theoretical work around revisioning society along non-patriarchal and non-imperialistic lines. Asian American Studies departments have been a resource here. But if these scholars and thinkers must compete with other scholars for publishing contracts from profit-driven publishers to succeed in these departments, then their ability to challenge institutional power structures will be diminished. Feminists from outside the publish-or-perish academy must take up their pens, at the same time that students and faculty within the academy must transform their departments to reward good thinking, not quantity, publishing.


Sonia Shah is an editor/publisher in the South End Press collective and a board member of Sojourner: A Woman’s Forum.