"When I see an Asian woman it's just like, wow—she's beautiful. It's just like an angel was dropped right in front of me."
"There's an exotic look and feel to an Asian woman, compared to a white woman or a Latin woman."
"I'm looking for a petite, gracious woman. Traditionally that happens to be an Asian woman."
In the new five-part web series They're All So Beautiful, filmmaker Debbie Lum interviews dozens of people about "yellow fever"'— the specific obsession many Western men have with Asian culture.
Most of the interviews are with academics who study race and Asian-American men and women but, yes, several of the most revealing interviews of the series are with creepy-ass white dudes who talk about the beauty of Asian women in a way that makes those women sound like they are synthetic dolls you can order from a catalog. Lum's engaging documentary series makes it clear that there are a ton of men "afflicted with the fever."
In one notable segment, Sheridan Prasso, the author of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, talks about a bit of online research she did around the subject. Of all the fetish porn sites out there (leather, feet, redheads, hamburgers), Prasso found that Asian women fetishes exceed—by far—any other fetishes.
The reason for this is that an Asian fetish is about more than just an attraction to the way Asian people look, which Prasso makes clear is not a big deal. "Everybody has something that turns them on," she says. "What is wrong with that is when it crosses a line into expectations of behavior." That's the rub: "Yellow Fever" is about much more than sexual desire. It's problematic when people project onto Asian people a whole lot of assumptions because of the way they look.
Of course, the societal expectation that you'll act a certain way because of your race is true for all people. Dr. Benjamin Tong, professor and psychotherapist at California Institute of Integral Studies, lays it out like this in the series: "In the white community, Latina women are [seen as] hot, difficult to control, exotic but fiery. Asian women are more controllable. They live to please. Black women— wow, they're too powerful. Watch out for 'super mama.' In everyday language you do still hear these things."
Aaaaaah. I hate it but I know it's true. I do hear these things. AND I DON'T LIKE IT.
So what to do about it? They're All So Beautiful is a great starting point for exploring and recognizing the issues around race, expectations, and sexuality.
Through the interviews, we find that the stereotypes projected on Asian women have to do with submission, lack of strength, and an eagerness to serve white men. Lum's documentary tackles these tough questions in an unobtrusive way. In an interview with Psychology Today, Lum explains that passion drove her to start the project: "This is just so wrong and it shouldn't exist." But the videos have no voice-over narration telling us what to think and her voice lacks judgment, snark, or aggression as she questions interviewees. Indeed, the videos are organized around quiet questions typed in white on a black background. The questions are simple and straightforward like, "What is yellow fever?" and "Can women have yellow fever?"
Perhaps because of this balanced approach, Lum was able to get some pretty fucked up answers out of her subjects. It seems that some of the men she interviewed assumed she was not an investigative filmmaker, but just another quiet Asian woman with no opinion. Well played. Her project will likely open the eyes of a number of populations, including quite possibly the population of men who "are just more attracted to Asian women"—and get them to dig deeper and ask themselves what they are really attracted to (SPOILER: power).
Lum's five part series, which can be found on her website, is a lead-up to her award-winning documentary Seeking Asian Female, which will air on Independent Lens on May 6 and is currently available on DVD and online. She also contributed a piece to the recent "Tribes" episode of This American Life.
Photo: Filmmaker Lum and two of her newly hitched documentary subjects.