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The Dragon Lady, the Lotus Blossom, and the Robot: Archetypes of Asian Women in Western Media

“When we don’t see ourselves on television, in the newspaper, or in other media, it’s as though we don’t exist.”

This idea that media, especially film and television, teach us how to think is not unique to Dinah Eng or the few teenagers surveyed. In a novel by author and activist bell hooks titled “Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies”, she explains that “cinema assumes a pedagogical role” in many people’s lives. She writes that even if the filmmaker does not intend to teach the audience anything, “that does not mean that lessons are not learned.” Since the media we consume becomes a teacher in its own right, issues of representation have weight beyond the buzzword it has become. 

As conversations, both nationally and globally, increasingly focus on racial justice and minority oppression, representation in the media has become a hot topic. While we often hear calls for more on-screen representation, it is also important to dissect misrepresentation. Representation itself is not enough. The accuracy of representation is the goal we must strive for and with that comes a necessary critique of the “representation” we already have.

In light of recent blockbusters like “Shang Chi”, “Parasite”, and “Crazy Rich Asians”, conversations around representation have focused more on portrayals of Asians in film and television. The success of these films with majority-Asian casts prove that not only is there demand for Asian representation, but there is money to be made. Before we can aim to increase Asian visibility on screen, we must think critically about the history of Asian representation in Western media. 

Whether it’s offensive, exaggerated stereotypes like the role of Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffanys”, or white-washing of Asian characters like Scarlett Johasson in “Ghost in the Shell”, the topic of Asian representation is not a singular conversation. However, this article will focus on the archetypes of specifically Asian women in American movies and TV — a conversation with clear patterns and yet very little public attention. 

1. The Dragon Lady 

The Dragon Lady, a term coined by comic book author Milton Caniff, is the strong, ruthless killer, drawing on Orientalist views of the East as barbaric. Think samurai swords, martial arts, dragon imagery, and bodycon qipaos or kimonos (even when not explicitly Chinese or Japanese). As Shoba Rajgopal explains in her article “‘The Daughter of Fu Manchu,’” the dragon lady “seduces and then destroys.” Rajgopal’s article details one of the possible origins of this trope. She describes how Asian women in the early 1900s were not allowed to play a lead role opposite a white man in a time when female roles were limited to being the love interest. As a result, the roles left for Asian women were often that of the villain which continues today as we see the Dragon Lady archetype manifest in villainous roles in action movies or violent video games. 

Characters fitting into this archetype of the Dragon Lady are usually hypersexualized and lack emotional depth. Roles like Princess Ling Moy in “Daughter of the Dragon” (the namesake of this trope),  O-Ren Ishii in “Kill Bill Vol. 1”, and Ling in the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” are a few that come to mind. 

2. The China Doll 

The trope of the China Doll, also known as the “Geisha” or “Lotus Blossom,” portrays the Asian woman as fragile, submissive, and quiet. Though seemingly opposite from the Dragon Lady, the China Doll archetype also has its roots in Orientalism. Early Western exoticization and fetishization of Asian women serves as the backdrop of this stereotype, in which Asian women are subservient and eager to please usually white men.

In an interview with NPR, sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen discusses the context of this sexualized, Lotus Blossom stereotype. Wang Yuen explains that many US soldiers were customers in the sex trade while serving in the multiple wars America fought in Asia. Soliders, thus, began associating being in Asia, and Asian women, with prostitution. However, this association was already a bias in American culture. Robert G. Lee’s book, “Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture”, presents the history of American newspapers sensationalizing the association between Asian women and the sex trade as Chinese and Japanese women were forcibly brought to the United States in the late 1800s and sold as prostitutes.

Kim from the musical “Miss Saigon”, Chiyo in “Memoirs of a Geisha”, and Mantis in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, are all Asian female characters who are easily taken advantage of or submissive to the white man. This has also become a common depiction of Asian women in anime and manga, with sexualized images of the “Schoolgirl” — a popular stereotype perpetuated in porn as well. 

3. The Robot 

As technology advances and the world of Sci-Fi evolves with it, the pattern of Asian women being cast as robots or robots having stereotypically Asian features has become more prevalent. This archetype, which some scholars refer to as “Techno-orientalism”, occurs when Asian women are associated with service and “caring for other peoples’ emotion-based needs.” This continues the theme of Asian women being portrayed as being bodies void of emotion. 

Robots are, in their most symbolic form, inhuman, and as such the casting or equation of Asian women as robots supports this “otherness” of Asian women as emotionless. Movies and shows that include this are in “Ex Machina”, “Cloud Atlas”, or “Alita” in which the Asian woman is dehumanized and is viewed solely for her body, her service, and maybe her intelligence, rather than her feelings, her complexity, or her humanity. She becomes a figure without the capacity for emotional depth. 

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In all three archetypes, Asian women are presented as sexualized bodies removed from emotion. If we recall hook’s comment on the pedagogical role of film, this representation serves to affirm a larger Western tendency to fetishize and exoticize Asian women. It teaches us, Asian and non-Asian alike, that Asian women are cold and emotionally detached, the Dragon Lady, submissive and quiet, the China Doll, and there to serve others, the Robot. 

So before rushing to simply add on-screen representation for Asians, filmmakers must question whether their portrayals continue a pattern of potentially harmful stereotypes. As an Asian woman, I want to see Asian women with emotional depth, not as side characters but in leading roles. I want images of Asian women made by other Asian women, not manifestations of Western, Orientalist definitions of who the Asian woman should be. It’s well passed due.

Isa Iiams

American '24

Isa (she/her) is in her second year at American University as an International Relations major and Legal Studies minor. Her passions include reading, traveling, and reality television. She hopes to advocate for social justice issues through her writing.
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