Asian Women tropes

From the start of immigration up until now, there have been a various mass media of cliche tropes expressed across multiple mediums for Asian women. The portrayal of Asian Women in the past has made them out to be shy, submissive, and distressed, serving to a male dominant. In recent movies within the past few decades, Asian women have generally become more sexualized as well, but there have also been efforts to inspire women to be independent and strong in other storyboards and mediums. The depiction of Asian women in the media has shifted immensely since the start of immigration and is a step more towards accurate identification within this community. Through these three mediums of movie posters, advertisements and drawings, there are great distinctions able to be made on how roles of Asian women have been played out.



“The Good Earth” by Sidney Franklin, 1937. Movie poster

The movie The Good Earth, directed by Sidney Franklin, is a story of an Asian farmer named Wang alongside his wife O-lan. O-lan’s character is your typical Asian stereotype of the 1940s: terribly timid, hardworking, and nothing but loyal to her husband and his wishes. She is willing to go to great lengths to help Wang. In the movie, regardless of O-Lan being very close to going into labor with her son and needing to take care of herself, she went out into the fields to help Wang rescue the crops from hail during season. Throughout this story, O-lan remains entirely faithful and selfless to Wang until the day that she dies. O-Lan remains to support Wang when he becomes rich and finds himself a second wife. In the movie poster displayed above, it is made evident with strong implications about the woman’s role is more submissive to the male dominant by the way that he is holding her and her expression on her face. She looks like a damsel in distress needing to be saved and helped, and in doing so, she has a responsibility to serve her male counterpart. The metaphor of Wang holding up his wife shows that the trope for this particular media is that Asian women are weakened by their natural roles of not being a strong man, therefore they must be carried in responsibility and they cannot stand on their own.


Example 2:

Shimura Tatsumi, traditional japanese geisha art Images of Gueixa, 1907, drawing


Aside from being characterized as shy, dependent, and serving, there have also been tropes sexualizing Asian women in the media. According to Merriam-Webster, a geisha is defined asa Japanese girl or woman who is trained to provide entertaining and lighthearted company especially for a man or a group of men…She must be adept at singing, dancing, and playing the samisen (a three-stringed musical instrument), in addition to being skilled at making conversation.The portrayal of geishas, even though they are supposed to be different and less sexualized than prostitutes, there is no doubt that drawings such as the one listed above still makes Asian women more erotic and sensual in the eyes of a viewer. While the drawing of the woman is beautiful and other women who view this drawing will probably not complain about how this drawing makes asian women seem distressed and in need of a male counterpart, there are still implications that sensual women need a male counterpart to attend to, otherwise where would they be on their own? In the drawing, there are many elements adding to the entirety of the theme of eroticism. The use of cherry blossoms on the bottom right and the fan makes the female stand out more in the photo and implies that she is soft, sweet and elegant like a flower. The use of darks and lights to create shadows and highlight around areas such as her cheekbones and chest make the subject more and more “appealing”, which gives the trope that if you make a women look good enough for the man then she is doing her job.

Example 3:

“Mulan”, Tony Bancroft, 1998, advertisement poster


Asian women, although they have been more so portrayed as submissive and heavily sexualized, have also been portrayed to be more independent and warrior-like. In this final poster medium, a very well known Disney classic, Mulan, there is a strong implication that she is as strong as the male warrior, if not stronger. Fa Mulan protects her father from going to fight in combat against the Huns by pretending to be a man in war and escapes to go train and fight to save her family and China from harm. While in the movie, women are made out to be housemaids, to stay at home wives to cook and clean, even including geishas in cartoon, Mulan makes radical change for asian women and their roles in China to stand up for themselves and to fight for what they love, regardless She goes through the same training and the same battles as the men. She uses her wit and strategies to help her fellow warriors save their country and to maximize the army that they have against the huns. This poster simply illustrates the woman as being the main star of the show, and not only that, she is beautiful as she is strong without needing anyone else beside her to validate those qualities that she has always had within herself. The gaze in her eyes shows that she is serious and ready for anything that comes her way, in comparison to The Good Earth movie poster where O-Lan’s gaze is much more scared and distressed.



There is a big noticeable difference in not only the way that these women are gazing to the viewers, but their roles that was set out for them by these artists. While tropes may be ever changing, and stereotypes  may also slightly change, there are still plentiful ways to display those expressions in media form, and these examples show just that.


Work Cited:

Traditional Japanese Geisha Art






Discussion — One Response

  • Otitodirichukwu Ihebuzor 04/03/2019 on 5:21 PM

    What an interesting piece. I think this is a subject that can be greatly expanded upon, as there are numerous, often, harmful tropes that East Asian women are subject to within media. Due to the lack of knowledge and experience, as well as the lack of Asian women being allowed into creative spaces, these stereotypes continue to be perpetuated. In recent times, these stereotypes have a new furnish, but often they still contain the same, harmful root.

    Due to my (unusually high) consumption of media, I have come upon several of these tropes as well as some more. I would like to discuss these tropes and how the have evolved and continue to appear in the modern-day.

    For instance, the Dragon Lady stereotype, which is a sort of East Asian “femme fatale”. Often dressed in a dragon-adorned or red qipao or form-fitting kimono with bright red lips and a sensual gaze, this stereotype combines the ‘geisha’ with the warrior. While initially probably meant to break the mold as the anti-thesis to the submissive, homely Asian female stereotype, this ‘Dragon Lady’ still serves as a harmful trope as it perpetuates the exoticism and fetishism of the East Asian woman. After some research, I ended up finding that many of Anna May Wong’s prolific characters fall into this trope. This is not a slight against her, as at the time, those were the only roles that Hollywood would have pushed her into.

    There’s also the Asian Hair Streak: This was an interesting trope that I never would have noticed if it had not been pointed out to me. On several social media sites, media consumers have noticed that a visual shorthand for the “non-stereotypical” Asian girl is to have colored hair or some sort of hair streak. By non-stereotypical here, I mean docile and small. Several sources have explained why this trope is problematic: Rather than breaking the mold, this trope reinforces a stereotype by implying that the ‘typical Asian girl’ is docile/pliant/etc, unlike our MC whose colored hair shows she’s ‘different’ and ‘unique’.

    Lastly, I will point out the Dumb Asian Girl: While this trope does have some male representatives, it is more often than not represented by Asian women. This trope is pretty much the “Dumb Blonde” except Asian. However, with this trope and it’s characters often being used as punchlines, it’s hard to dissociate as a attempt at subverting the “smart and meek Asian girl” trope. This isn’t helped by the fact that these characters are not only dumb, but usually vain and promiscuous, which directly opposes the usual stereotype.

    Overall, I think this is a very important discussion to have, and I’m glad to have read your thoughts on it. While I do not have the same experience with stereotypes in media, as a black person of African descent, I do have experience with stereotypes in media in general, so it’s always interesting to see how different perspectives intersect and divulge.

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