Quick trivia question: from which part of Asia did the fortune cookie originate?Answer: A Japanese tea house in...San Francisco. Another question: Do you actually know an Asian person whose eyes look like this?
Neither do I.
What do fortune cookies and cat eyes –– and take-out boxes, and Madame Butterfly, and these two girls, pictured below –– all have in common? They are all “Asian” –– at least to the Western imagination. Sociologist Edward Said calls this “Orientalism”: the exoticizing, generalizing, and sometimes romanticizing of the less civilized “other.”
Okay, here is my confession: I am one of the girls pictured here. I have been doing sales and marketing for a Singaporean beer company that invariably borrows a little (or a lot) from aforementioned orientalist ideas of Asian-ness –– which I understand, and more or less accepted (to say nothing of whether I actually condone this marketing strategy); the objective here is to sell beer, not to fight racial stereotypes. That is, until I found myself at a party at The Wooly, downtown, on the last day of Chinese New Year, clad in an "Oriental" beer girl costume: red Chinese qipao style dress, gold leggings, heels, heavy cateye makeup, complete with a wig that resembled the lovechild of an afro wig, a crimper/flat iron, and Bladerunner (which might have been kind of a cool look, had my mind not been racing with every racial/feminist/sociological critique I'd ever learned in my four years of college). There I was, for the next three hours –– despite my protests that “I swear I am just as authentically Asian without the extra Chinese-ifying,” –– a walking Asian fetish; or, as our editor, Anna Akbari, puts it more elegantly: “Geisha-fied.”
We have all, at one point or another, seen the costumed person as not really a person, but a spectacle, whether it be our childhood days of posing with Ariel in Disneyland, or perhaps after we'd grown up enough to understand the appeal(?) of the waitresses at Hooters. Philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin discusses the concept of the carnivalesque (which is also mentioned in our Halloween article), wherein, upon the opening of the carnival (the false coronation of the “carnival king” –– in this case, the entry of my coworker and I clad in our costumes), all bets of codes of conduct and social barriers are off. It is, in a sense, sanctioned chaos.
Which was my experience precisely. Allow me to illustrate for you: a man you have never met in your life saunters cavalierly into a bar on a Saturday night, wedges himself between you and one of your girlfriends and inquires whether he can “get an Asian kiss on each cheek,” or better yet, “can you force feed [him], because [his] buddy is gonna take a picture.” When is that acceptable again? When you look like somebody's fetish, apparently.
Why is it that a costume showing no bust, no thighs, or is otherwise not provocatively revealing can feel so sexualized? According to sociologist Jean Baudrillard, the body is the ultimate object of fetish and/or consumption, and within our society, "everything offered for consumption has a sexual coefficient." In other words, it does not take overt sexuality to conjure notions of the erotic; rather, sexuality as a commodity is so ubiquitously entrenched in our society, even the most innocent of objects or occupations, like milk, perfume, strawberries, Olympics logos, schoolgirls, secretaries –– everything. Therefore, it doesn't exactly take a cultural expert to pick up on the possibilities of what the aforementioned Orientalizing beer girl costume might harken back to.
Yet, perhaps most troubling for me throughout the stint was the fact that not only was I very consciously disgusted with the implications of what I was doing, but the fact that there was this little gnawing consciousness of the attention I was getting. You know what I am talking about –– we've all had this characteristically New York experience of power walking past the street corner guy who thinks it is fully within his rights to leer at you on your morning coffee run. His attention is what you actively despise, but there is nonetheless the little 0.01% of you that takes it in as a tiny little ego boost, before your greater conscience mortifyingly silences it. John Berger explains the notion of “the male gaze” –– that “men act, and women appear.” From a young age, women are socialized to “consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman... The surveyor of woman in herself is male; the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object––and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” No matter how consciously opposed to any kind of objectifying of women a one can be, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a woman socialized in the West who did not embody this characteristic at least a teensy, tiny bit.
While my night at The Wooly can be much more succinctly encapsulated by the word “humiliating,” it does point to a larger issue. A quest for political correctness aside, we need to question our own representation and think about the implications of what we do to ourselves aesthetically and the treatment we accept in return. In other words, we need to be active, aware participants, both at the Wooly and in everyday life. A costume isn’t just a costume. It creates and perpetuates reality.