So there was this American guy, Jake, who sat with Gareth and me at lunch last Saturday and was telling us how much he wanted to go to Malaysia because it’s apparently a great place to meet women, and claimed that the country is chockfull of hot-bodied beauties. He also didn’t waste time to explain that the reasons behind his quest was down to his general lack of luck with women and self-confessed socially-inept ways. And so like the many sad, lonely white men with money to squander, he’d like to try his luck with Asian women because they, y’know, love white men, are ultra-feminine and so willing to please, and all that BS.
Now, this was unflattering and offensive on extreme levels to both my boyfriend and myself. First, while being the target audience for this kind of orientalist fantasy talk, Jake had sensed that he was in the company of a fellow Asian fetishist. Secondly, there was a sense that I can help him accomplish his quest, or rather conquest, by offering tips on picking up women from my remote corner of the world.
He chose the wrong woman to discuss his fantasies with.
Men like Jake perpetuate racism, sexism, and colonialism under a more subtle guise in that it’s not about denigrating Otherness, but rather desiring and yearning for it. Today, foreign bodies (places, women, food) are not the scary and mysterious things of the past anymore. Instead they are to be embraced. They make you hip, worldly, in touch with distant cultures of peoples you may never meet in your lifetime (Yirgacheffe coffee, anyone?). So on the face of it, fascination with the exotic Other doesn’t look like racism and the colonial conquest of yore.
So what makes an otherwise well-travelled, highly-intelligent Harvard-Oxford-educated man like Jake essentialise Malaysian women, and most ‘Asian’ women, as beautiful and ever-compliant? The answer is likely to lie in how we see our world and how we ‘consume’ it. In her essay ‘Eating the Other’, bell hooks articulates the way we are fed with media images in advertising, mainstream film-making, and general consumerist culture that fuel our imagination with the allure of the ‘Spicy’, ‘Demure’, and ‘Uninhibited’ Otherness. These images do nothing but reify the racial and capitalist power that are in favour of very specific groups:
When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other.
Gareth asked me last night that surely where Jake comes from there are plenty ethnic-Asian women around to de-mystify his idea of ‘oriental beauty’. My thoughts about this are that women from distant, foreign lands are perceived to be and treated like untouched, uncharted territory. The last frontiers of MANkind, so to speak. I say ‘untouched’ in the way Madonna had once sang about, in that they haven’t been corrupted by feminism and modern, progressive attitudes about love and romance. Cross-cultural virgins.
Incidentally, another well-travelled man called Christopher Columbus once wrote home during his travels in search of India saying that the ancient explorers were wrong about the earth being round. Instead, he postulated, that it was shaped like a woman’s breast, and that, as you might’ve guessed, was his to conquer.
So, the feminisation of land as sites for masculine conquest is as old as the hills. In Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather, there is a passage in the first chapter, aptly entitled ‘Porno Tropics’, that encapsulates the Western fascination with unknown peoples and cultures that remain unchanged, and mostly unchallenged for centuries to this day:
For centuries, the uncertain continents – Africa, the Americas, Asia – were figured in European lore as libidinously eroticized. Travelers’ tales abounded with visions of the monstrous sexuality of far-off lands, where, as legend had it, men sported gigantic penises and women consorted with apes, feminized men’s breasts flowed with milk and militarized women lopped theirs off. Renaissance travellers found an eager and lascivious audience for their spicy tales, so that, long before the era of high Victorian imperialism, Africa and the Americas had become what can be called a porno-tropics for the European imagination – a fantastic magic lantern of the mind onto which Europe projected its forbidden sexual desires and fears.