Butterflies, Slumdogs, And Tiger Moms: Asian American Women And The Rescue Narrative

By Guest Contributor Sayantani DasGupta

“Can we try it more mysterious, with that mystique from the East?

… Channel a late night sex chat ad

… Maybe go back further into your heritage … A little more ethnic.”

Remember those racist-alicious ads from Michigan senatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra, the ones where the docile, limpid eyed, bike-riding Asian woman thanked “Debbie Spend It Now” for spending so much American money that she singlehandedly ruined the U.S. economy while giving more jobs to China? Well, that Sinophobic Super Bowl ad promptly inspired several spoofs including this one from Funny or Die, and this clever one from Kristina Wong that I found recently on Disgrasian.

In it, Wong plays an actress obviously starring in a “Debbie Spend it Now”-type commercial. The disembodied (presumably white, male) director’s voice is off-camera, insisting that Wong play her role with more ethnic “authenticity.” At one point, he asks her to read the lines like her mother might. When Wong delivers the lines in an American accent, the frustrated director corrects, “But that’s the same as you read it last time, is that how your mother talks?” Wong nods, deadpan. “She was born in San Francisco.” Later, he reminds Wong that she is “in a rice paddy.” To which she exclaims, “Oh, I thought we were in Runyon Canyon.”

Kristina Wong’s spoof speaks to the continued conflation of Asian American and Asian identity. No matter how many years, or generations, we’ve been in this country, we Asian Americans remain ‘contingent citizens’ and ‘perpetual foreigners.’ (You’ve heard the question: “Where are you from? … No, where are you really from?”)

Wong’s spoof also speaks to the sexualized, passive tropes surrounding Asian American womanhood. In a recent talk I gave for Wellesley College’s GenerAsians Magazine, I suggested that three tropes still seem to encapsulate much of how Asian American women continue to be perceived:

Butterflies: This Madame Butterfly/Miss Saigon trope of submissive-Eastern-femininity-waiting-forlornly-for-her-Western-lover-to-return, has a not-so-hidden sexual undercurrent. Don’t be fooled by her shyness; she’s lush, lavish, and sensual beneath the surface! This is what I affectionately call the “Kama Sutra” underwing of the butterfly (and in so doing, bring South and East Asians into the same awesome disgusting trope).

The passive-yet-sexual butterfly is easily seen in all sorts of modern cultural spaces, including Asian and Asian American book covers, as demonstrated by this helpful instruction manual constructed by Sociological Images. My favorite tip is Element #2: “Fans (preferably held so as to partly obscure a woman’s face (or genitals), and if you can get blossoms on the fan, you get bonus points).”

Courtesy Red Light Films, HBO/Cinemax Films

Slumdogs: Funny how these tropes go along animalistic lines, right? Okay, maybe not so funny. Anyway, this second trope is the one modeled on the ever popular fascination with “poverty pornography,” as exemplified by Slumdog Millionaire and other films. Like the butterfly trope, the Slumdog fundamentally undercuts Asian women’s agency. Consider, for instance, the Academy Award winning documentary Born into Brothels, which follows Western photographer Zana Briski as she teaches a photography class to group of children from Kolkata’s red-light district. Although Briski’s project, at one level, was to give these children the tools to represent their own world through their own eyes, the film itself undermines this message by casting Briski as its protagonist–a white heroine who is seemingly the only adult who cares for the children of Sonagachi. The film’s portrayal of the sex worker/mothers as, at best, neglectful and, at worst, horrifically abusive, is highly problematic, as noted in an open letter from a sex worker/ grassroots organizer to an Indian newspaper:

The film is a one-sided portrayal of the life of sex workers in Sonagachi. It shows sex workers as unconcerned about the future of their children….The documentary does not shed light on the valiant efforts of the sex workers to unite in order to change their own lives as well as that of their progeny…We fear the global recognition of such a film, giving a one-sided view of the lives of sex workers in a third world country, may do a lot of harm to the global movement of sex workers for their rights and dignity.

As seen in this year’s Saving Face, a documentary about acid-attacks in Pakistan, the Slumdog trope is favors by the Oscars–which seems to love films which teach “us” about a victimized “them.” So, too, mainstream filmgoers (lest you think the Slumdog trope is only relevant to South Asians, let’s remember the Amy Tan Joy Luck Club syndrome). Just consider The Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel and film about women’s friendship, yes, but also about the practice of foot-binding in historic China. There is a pleasurable voyeurism in learning about “exotic” and oppressive practices, and conflating the two (exotic/Eastern = oppressive), while usually ignoring on-the-ground, local, grassroots activism against such oppression.

Courtesy TVTropes.com

Tiger Mothers: Even though Amy Chua only burst onto the scene in 2011 with her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and infamous Wall Street Journal essay entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” the Tiger Mother trope seems to draw its strength from a combination of two older ones. The first is the hackneyed model-minority myth, as exemplified by that Gawd-awful Time Magazine cover from the 1980’s on “Those Asian American Whiz Kids”–good at math, but noncreative, nonspontaneous automatons (undoubtedly beat into psychological submission by their Tiger Moms). The other is an old racist favorite–the Dragon Lady. Indeed, we can see evidence of the fearsome, cruel dragon lady in the way that Chua was vilified by mainstream and Asian American communities alike. To look for more evidence of the Dragon Lady in modern-day pop culture, look no further than actress Lucy Liu, who was recently described by Joanna Robinson at Pajiba as “too sexy… chilly… like ice water in your veins.” (Luckily, Sylvie Kim at Racialicious was there to put her race-privileging ways right.)

Between all three tropes, the organizing principle is one of Asian Women needing rescue–the Butterfly due to her sexual passivity, the Slumdog from her poverty/’backward’ cultural practices, and the Tiger Mother from her delusional self. (She’s alternately reviled as a Dragon Lady if she rejects this rescue). Now, the White Savior Complex has gotten some public attention as of late, thanks to the KONY 2012 debacle. As seen in the endless rescue narratives of New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, this complex also has distinctly gendered components. David Henry Hwang talked about the gendered underbelly of rescue narratives in his brilliant play, M. Butterfly:

As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East — he’s already confused. The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. …Basically, ‘Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.’ The West thinks of itself as masculine — big guns, big industry, big money — so the East is feminine — weak, delicate, poor…but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom — the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated — because a woman can’t think for herself. …You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.”

Such a narrative is also consistent with scholar Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak’s notion of “white men saving brown women from brown men”–where the “saving” of women (from “the veil”, foot-binding, sex work, acid attacks, child marriage, etc.) actually becomes a justification for colonial aggression of the “white man” over the “brown man,” where the voice of the “brown woman” remains silenced. (to read more about how this trope was operationalized to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–framing them as missions to ‘rescue’ Muslim women from ‘the veil’–see Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”)

While America’s cultural fascination with Jeremy Lin has unmasked an easy racism around Asian American men (for an alternate, more positive spin on Linsanity check out this fascinating ESPN commentary), popular cultural tropes around Asian American women’s lives are certainly also well and thriving, tropes that particularly support a rescue/colonialist mentality of West over East.

Like the Magical Negro trope for African American characters in films, the Butterfly/Slumdog/Tiger  Mother tropes of Asian American womanhood limit the kinds of stories that are told about us but, even more dangerously, the stories we can tell (and get published) about ourselves. No one is saying that stories about Asian/Asian American women’s suffering or victimization should not be told; rather, we should examine how such stories are told, by whom, and for what purpose. Most importantly, we should ask what other stories are being silenced for not fitting into these narrow tropes.

Despite the presence of some fantastic Asian American women in popular culture that challenge the ‘rescue narrative’–voices like that of Margaret Cho, television faces like that of Archie Panjabi, and writing like that of Keshini Kashyap–what we need is more voices, more faces, and more writing to counteract what writer Chimamanda Adichie has so articulately called “the danger of the singular story.” From Kolkata to Kansas, from rice paddies to Runyon Canyon, Asian and Asian American women’s lives are complex, heterogeneous, contradictory, and vibrant. And our visual, print, and other cultural stories should reflect these realities.

  • mandy wu

    For the negatives from Asian American against Chua, the way I see it is because Chua is the one does the trope.  The portrayal of the woman in the book is dragon ladies/tiger mothers.  And in the interviews she is butterflies (she has a white savior husband doesn’t help).  We just don’t like to see an Asian American herself are raving about this images that so many of us are struggling to dispose.

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  • Anonymous

    I can see “Precious” and “Girls” can be viewed as being similar (both being narrow portrayals of  minority American sub-cultures), but the connection ultimately falls apart. Girls is widely lauded as being smart, nuanced, and a deep representation of women in modernity. But it often forgets that the lives it portrays are a very small sub-sect of New York. Anyone who actually lives in New York will quickly find the show alienating being that the whole cast is upper middle class, white, hipster, and only associates with other upper middle class white hipster people. Once you remove the facade of it’s pseudo-intellectual dialog, you quickly realize how bare and simplistic the show is, much like it’s comparison to Precious. Girls lacks the self awareness of Sex and the City and the self deprecation of Portlandia which, in the end makes a rather insulting portryal of New York City life and the whole idea of struggle.

    Precious realizes it’s an exception. Girls thinks of it self as exceptional.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Great post and good mention about the tropes. And thanks for the SocImages link, it was interesting to see how lazy some book publishers are with reusing the same tired images associated with the East over and over again for their book covers. 

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thank you for the comment and read! I know – although they call it “how to manufacture Chinese or Japanese” book covers, it’s really pretty applicable universally. The South Asian equivalent being probably headless sari clad women or elephants or tigers… a reductionist and comically uniform vision of what the “East” means!

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

     Thanks Medusa – much appreciated! Agree!

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

     Thanks for the comment Patrick! I’m afraid I don’t know the exact history of when the Dragon Lady trope first appeared (I figured films of the 1950′s and 60′s) but will definitely look it up, the Madame Butterfly I imagine from the Puccini Opera, Madama Butterfly. But you’re right, the sociocultural history of these tropes is fascinating.
    And the Ngo based waitress training program, yea, I’m not sure what to say about that one.  (!)

  • Leialeia90

    I remember watching  born into brothels in my senior film studies class watching it and thinking it was good but  repulsed by the conditions the people lived in. Now that i’m older i see how patronizing and white savior that doc was, man i was oblivious.

    I felt bad for J Lin from jump cause i know folks like to hype a person beyond belief until the ride is done, and then said hypers get mad at the  very person they hyped. And now its been weeks (as far as i know since im a bulls fan) since the knicks have won back 2 back like they had when the hype started, i bet the blame and racism kicked since then, where’s Lin now?

    And the tiger mom backlash that occurred when that jumped off….the media (as usual) goes ape shat…. i remember thinking they’ll be all over ole girl.

    p.s
    is there anyway that you guys (arturo or who ever updates the site) can bring your archives back for the most recent years and months like you had had it? because (and sorry i’m asking it here) its tedious going through pages and if you’re trying to get back or to a specific post and its in a specific month.  i ask because i miss days or months of posts sometimes and its hard going back.

    sorry for posting this here i dont know where your contact info is.

  • C W


    Indeed, we can see evidence of the fearsome, cruel dragon lady in the way that Chua was vilified by mainstream and Asian American communities alike.”

    Huh? Much of the negative coverage went over the exotification and “model minority” myth and criticized her self-promotion. “Dragon lady”? Really? If anything, perhaps she internalized that in her interviews, but I didn’t see a ton of it being thrown on her.

    Brooks is a douche generally, but hardly representative of all media response.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Regardless of whether you agree with her or not, I think that the reactionary furor around Amy Chua CAN be understood as racialized and gendered. In fact, I think that WSJ article (which she supposedly did not choose the title for) was far more inflammatory than the actual memoir – which, to me, seemed more self-indulgent and privileged than anything else. But the public outcry and pilloring of her as a bad/abusive mother was so excessive, at least from where I stood, that it seemed necessary to understand her as a symbolic, new dragon lady and also understand reactions to her in the context of U.S. fears about China’s growing economic power. (“Well, THEY bring up their children like THAT, what do you expect?”) I’m not defending Amy Chua, but rather trying to understand the, from my POV, disproportionate outrage to her article and book as a racial/gendered phenomenon.

  • C W


    Indeed, we can see evidence of the fearsome, cruel dragon lady in the way that Chua was vilified by mainstream and Asian American communities alike.”

    Huh? Much of the negative coverage went over the exotification and “model minority” myth and criticized her self-promotion. “Dragon lady”? Really? If anything, perhaps she internalized that in her interviews, but I didn’t see a ton of it being thrown on her.

    Brooks is a douche generally, but hardly representative of all media response.

  • C W


    Indeed, we can see evidence of the fearsome, cruel dragon lady in the way that Chua was vilified by mainstream and Asian American communities alike.”

    Huh? Much of the negative coverage went over the exotification and “model minority” myth and criticized her self-promotion. “Dragon lady”? Really? If anything, perhaps she internalized that in her interviews, but I didn’t see a ton of it being thrown on her.

    Brooks is a douche generally, but hardly representative of all media response.

  • Anonymous

     Just fixed the link and it seems to work fine on our end. Thanks for the heads-up, and feel free to give it another shot!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Ingram/100001718160306 Patrick Ingram

      Thanks, working fine now.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks Art! The link is too hilarious (and awful) wouldn’t want Patrick to miss it!

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks Art! The link is too hilarious (and awful) wouldn’t want Patrick to miss it!

  • http://yijihae.com/ Jihae

    YES.  THANK YOU for this. (The last two paragraphs in particular strike a nerve for me since I recently wrote on, and got into an argument over, a very similar issue about unremarked heterogeneity within Asian-American communities, albeit around class rather than gender):  http://wp.me/p20t9q-uH)

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks so much for your thoughtful read and the link, Jihae!

      • http://yijihae.com/ Jihae

         Thank you again for yours, Sayantani! :)

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks so much for your thoughtful read and the link, Jihae!

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks so much for your thoughtful read and the link, Jihae!