The Geisha Girl as a Trope in Western Media

Geishas have been a part of Japanese culture, as they fulfilled many different roles including performers, courtesans, artisans, entertainers, etc. Historically, being a geisha was considered a profession of high-status requiring thorough and extensive stages of training. Known for their particular style of makeup and traditional attire, geishas have been acknowledged as forms of art themselves. However, the image of geishas has been controversial and paralleled to that of prostitutes. The undermining of the profession is traced back to World War II, when American GIs were stationed in Japan during the Allied occupation, during which local women would work as prostitutes and dress up as geishas. As Sheridan Prasso has written in her book “The Asian Mystique,” Americans have “an incorrect impression of the real geisha world … geisha means ‘arts person’ trained in music and dance, not in the art of sexual pleasure.” Among the vast amount of Western-formulated stereotypes projected towards East Asians and especially Japanese people, a notable example is the “Geisha Girl,” typically portraying white-painted faces resembling porcelain dolls and exaggerated slanted eyes with bold red lips. Stemming from exotification and “othering” Japanese women, this trope has appeared in various forms of media throughout decades.

Movie Poster for “Madame Butterfly,” 1932

The following poster for “Madame Butterfly,” was one of the first portrayals of an East Asian character in Hollywood. It is apparent that a yellow-faced woman is caressed by a white man. The woman is in the attire of a geisha, and is not directly facing the white man. Her position portrays submissiveness and a certain coyness. Contrary to usual portrayals of geishas, the one in this poster is painted yellow, perhaps to further visually juxtapose her and the white man while compromising. This contributes to further alienation of the geisha character. It is important to note that the character is played by a white woman and not an actress of Japanese descent, showing how the lack of Japanese people in America ultimately leads to “yellow face” and perpetuating of the usual “subservient and gentle Asian woman” stereotype.

Anti-Japanese Propaganda spread in Fortune magazine, September 1942

This spread from Fortune magazine in 1942 displays all the caricatures commonly prevalent in Anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II. The doll-faced Geisha is among these figures, and is the only female figure in the midst of all the male characters shown. She is not necessarily glorified or beautified in this case, as she is portrayed with two large front teeth and thus associated with all the other figures with large teeth and small eyes. In a time where the “Yellow Peril” phenomena was very much spread amongst Americans due to the animosity towards Japan in World War II, propaganda such as this would deliberately and blatantly show Japanese figures in this hyperbolic manner. The spread itself even states this dynamic by proclaiming “All the Japanese may not always look like this, but exaggeration is at all times a weapon in the caricaturists’s hands. Covarrubias [the artist] knows the Japanese, and thus sees the face of the enemy as he turns—the toothy soldier, capitalist, and commercial man, the tight-lipped officers, the fanatical priest, the doll-like geisha, the submissive peasant and his wife, who breed the soldiers who fill up the army that really runs Japan and the God Emperor.” It is intriguing how the writer of this spread is self-aware, but still justifies the usage of these images to fuel anti-Japanese sentiment for the war. Hence, in this context, the geisha is used as an archetype to represent Japan in a negative and vilifying way.

Lingerie Advertisment for “Geisha” collection by Marlies Dekkers, 2017

The following advertisement from lingerie company Marlies Dekkers is from 2017. A white model is shown adorned with lingerie inspired –or appropriating — from Geisha attire, with traditional patterns, a large black wig, and the large “obi” (a sash used on kimonos typically tied as a decorative piece in the back). The piece showcased is one of multiple pieces in the entire “Geisha” collection by the lingerie company. A Japanese blue umbrella is in the back to further emphasize the “Oriental” aesthetic.  Additionally, the wig itself has sticks coming out, possibly alluding to chopsticks. The product itself inherently leads to the sexualization of the model, with other pictures from the same collection display more emphasis on revealed skin in an objectifying manner. Hence, the costume-like “Geisha-inspired” lingerie is relayed as something intended to seduce and presented in a hypersexualized context. The portrayal of geishas as a “concept” or costume for products like these lends to the same misconceptions that Westerners hold of paralleling geishas to sexual objects. An aspect I find ironic about this collection is how it is under the heading “#Feminine/Feminist,” proclaiming that the lingerie company promotes sexuality as a means of power while also devaluing Japanese culture and compromising on cultural accuracy to merely fulfill the “Oriental” aesthetic this designer aims to achieve. The text underneath “geisha” states “the art of seduction,” almost in a way that makes the reader think geisha means the art of seduction.

All of the following examples are offensive and discomforting when viewed with a lens of today’s society, especially in which cultural awareness, political correctness, and deconstruction of historically-held views are prioritized presently. Nevertheless, it is essential to note that the first two examples represent how normalized these perceptions were during the time. The very recent example of the advertisement,  however, shows the persistence of these ideas and how the misrepresentation of geishas is a microcosm of the general fetishization of East Asians despite globalization and more exposure to East Asian cultures.


Works Cited

Sunny Woan, White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence, 14 Wash. & Lee J. Civ. Rts. & Soc. Just. 275 (2008)

The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, by Sheridan Prasso, PublicAffairs, 2006.

“Women’s Kimono Obi Belt.” Japanese Kimono Yukata Market Sakura,