Reclaiming sexualized Asian women through Art

Addressing the hyper-sexualization of Asian Women in media, multidisciplinary artist May Maylisa Cat introduces her exhibit that glitches oppressive notions of Asian femininity to create space for Asian agency.

Representation of sexualized Asian women in the media

In the wake of the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shooting, I realized how Asian women are most often represented on screen through their death and collective trauma. 

This is why we call for representation. Because when diverse representation on screen falls short in Hollywood, the only time Asian women are collectively seen is through news that covers their assault. 

Images of harmful Asian representation of sexualized asian women in media featuring scenes from Madame Butterfly, Austin Powers and more.
From left: Madame Butterfly, Austin Powers, and The World of Suzie Wong
photo credit: cbcnews

But after seeing white terrorist Robert Aaron Long claim “his shooting spree was not racially motivated but done to eliminate a ‘temptation,’” I decided to dive deeper to examine desire, fear, and even the fear of desire concerning sexualized Asian women in the media. 

Enter, the inspiration for Karmic II. 

Karmic II: Questioning sexualized Asian women in media

Karmic II is an exhibit inspired by the horrors of 2020 and 2021. Specifically, this project examines many media influences that incite hate towards the Asian community and our intake of them. 

Seeing the news filled with excuses for the gunman’s “bad day” and his desire for Asian women had me question: “Who has the societal power to monsterize or sexualize?”

This comes as a sequel to my first project in 2019 inspired by Southeast Asian horror movies and the ’90s TV drama of the ghost Phi Krasue. Connecting to my culture through this genre, I investigated what creates “a monster” as well at its function.

May Maylisa Cat stares at a screen showcasing one part of her exhibit,  Karmic II.
Photo Credit: Celina Flores Photo

For instance, ghosts embody the unspoken anxiety of the time of their creation. As I came to pay attention to how these become monsterized and discarded, I immediately saw how this linked with how the Asian community is treated during the pandemic.

The scapegoating of these groups often function as social control to secure those in power and keep those without power in line. Similarly, we see how immigrants, refugees, people of color, and the LGBQTIA community are often monsterized in our society and subsequently cast out. 

As it becomes apparent that these horror movie tropes eerily draw similarities from real life, we must now dismantle the normalized narrative of the forgotten victim by showing up for Asian women when they are alive. Sooner, rather than later. 

Collective Creative Scraps

Despite the common misconception that artists throw themselves into their art with a fully-fledged idea of the outcome, the artistic process is usually one of discovery.

As a nomadic artist who has been visiting artist residencies for the past two years, I notice that the project grows in each city and facility I visit. This process is invaluable and often factors into the meaning of the exhibit.  

This exhibition also took a lot of journeying, risk taking, and enduring triggers before reaching its final form. 

My initial intuition was to source Asian Spa ads for collages for the exhibition. The intention was to link the word “spa” to the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shooting, the location associated with the stigmas of sex work and sexual exploitation. 

A hand places stones on a woman's back in a spa.
Photo credit: Max Pixel

However, I changed my mind after seeing how these ads often center a white woman in a white towel with hot stones on her back, aided by a hand of color. Although they point to the systematic erasure of Asian women and their labor, it did not address the core issue I wanted to interrogate, the hypersexualization and manufacturing of fetishistic desire towards sexualized Asian women’s bodies. 

At this point I decided to take a step further and source materials from adult vintage magazines featuring sexualized Asian women from the late 90s and the early 2000s. The decision turned out to be perfect because the dated magazines well documented the blatant racism that has come to be denied in the post racial era. 

Even amidst stumbling upon the right source material, it was triggering to be face-to-face with such an offensive artifact, realizing this is how most older generations view me and many asian women. 

An adult vintage magazine featuring images of sexualized Asian women has pieces cut from the cover, obscuring parts of the image.
Photo Credit: Celina Flores Photo

This process of discovering the magazines is significant because it speaks to the crucial effort of perceiving beyond surface level appearances and marketed images, a central message I convey in Karmic II. 

Gender-based violence and sexualization that Asian women face has become so embedded in our culture that it has become virtually invisible and so deep rooted in our psyche. 

Only upon looking deeper can we see the anti-Asian sentiments have always been there, streamlined, mass produced, and categorically stored in the memory of entire generations even as the post-racial society denies its presence. 

Read More: The dehumanization of Asian Women: Why we can no longer be silent 

The Hoax of a Post-Racial Society

People who argue that we live in a post-racial society claim that since we had Barack Obama as the first Black president, racism can hardly exist. This common belief emerged just before the 2016 United States election where accusations of racism were met with “I don’t see color” and obvious discrimination was covered up with a “coexist” bumper sticker. 

A popular comedy sketch from the 2000 Millennium was Miss Swan from MADtv– the bowl cut-sporting, moumou wearing Asian woman character whose punchline is “He look-a like-a man.” Criticisms about the racist caricature were made as early as 2001 but were continuously dismissed.

This downplaying of racist media is reminiscent of mine and many millennials’ childhood, which consisted of bullying and harassment. Remember the “ching-a-ling-a-ling” and “me love you long time” tauntings.

A panel from the comic American Born Chinese that shows racist stereotypes in southeast Asian representation.
photo credit: PBS news hour

Our downplayed harassment also reveals the hypervisibility via sexualization and the Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome which paradoxically goes along with an invisibility imposed by the bamboo ceiling that overlooks Asian women as experts or leaders that can give directives or spearhead innovation. 

As these media influences translated into real life repercussions, casual racist punchlines in the media such as “Kung Flu,” “Chinese Virus,” now similarly contribute to the anti-asian xenophobia and the surge in racially-motivated hate crimes. 

Read More: How audiences can demand journalistic integrity to fight anti-Asian racism

Intentionally Glitching Media Images of sexualized Asian women

Therefore, it was important  that I dismantle harmful media tropes and trouble the cis/heteronormative lens of white masculinity. To do this, I employed glitch and deconstruction in the collages, drawing on Glitch Feminism

When thinking of glitch, we usually see digital or analog errors with unpredictable patterns that are both futuristic and retro on a computer or TV screen. Symbolically, a glitch destroys the perfect, unflawed image set up for human attention. 

For me, “glitching” the white-created media about Asian women was a way to reclaim power  by using my own voice to retell the story while simultaneously turning the white-centered norm bizarre. 

Back in the makerspace art studio, as triggering as it was for me to use a laser cutter on these magazines, it was liberating to mutilate the “Karate” fonts and racist headlines such as “Suki Fuki” and “Conquer Nania’s Mongolese Muff for some Wild Balling.” 

Cutting them out was to “glitch” them in analog, denying the messaging that framed Asian women as commodities and sexual fantasies from taking shape.

Pieces of a magazine have been carved out with a laser cutter and placed in a clear case.
Photo Credit: Celina Flores Photo

Some of the cut out paper pieces are placed in a clear case, separated from the hostile context of sensuality and White Sexual Imperialism,  a phenomenon coined by Sunny Woan which explains the history of commodifying, fetishizing, and caricaturing Asian women according to white male fantasies, to simply be just flesh. 

Existing as individuals and their bodies outside of the violent fetishizing frame. 

Recentering the Asian Artist

There are many artists whom the system of white supremacy considers a “clog.” They are the intentional error — the glitch — in the central system. 

During art school, artists of color making work about their culture were seen as “cultural workers” instead of “real artists,” and their work deemed “cultural artifacts” rather than “art.” 

At the same time, I noticed that white artists making work about other people’s culture, pain, and oppression gained tremendous capital and accolades for altruism. 

The appropriation of art, food, fashion, and labor continues on today, reinforcing the idea that the white lens and white mediocrity is the ultimate authority. When white artists can “piggy back” off of artists of color who were once shunned during the post-racial era, important voices are being sidelined again. 

May Maylisa Cat, the Artist of Karmic II, stands in front of a yellow wall and looks off to the side.
Photo Credit: Celina Flores Photo

As an Asian artist, when you have patriarchal confines, an exclusionary art system, and sexually and racially motivated discrimination stacked against you, subversion is the only way to get your message out.

Speaking through subversive tactics

As we see from the protests in Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar, artists use performance art and other subversive artistic tactics to spread information and awareness when these regimes actively suppress voices and expressions of dissent. 

With my multimedia background, the way I introduce concepts and raise awareness is by employing clashing references such as cultural histories, timelines, internet phenomenons, and mediums to create one big collage depicting a fictional, absurd universe.

A photo of May Maylisa Cat's exhibit centering a piece that employs horror conventions and glitch with audio and video projections to critique online monetization and capitalism.
Photo Credit: Celina Flores Photo

With this in mind, I refocused to reference culturally specific materials from my background. 

In the face of so many discouraged from pursuing an artistic career because it is not the most lucrative, I remember that art has the tremendous power to shift cultural perspectives. 

Artists have the power to innovate solutions, make meanings of a difficult situation, conceptualize the future, and most importantly, provide new ways of looking at the world. 

Yet, it takes tremendous labor to be in a system not created for us. We must support local Asian artists more than ever in a time like this, when massive cultural shifts are crucially necessary to imagine a liveable future. 

Read more: Quarantine Qapsule: Archiving the Asian Canadian Experience

Making Space in the Media for People of Color 

Ever since Kamala Harris’s rebuttal during the Vice Presidential Debate to Mike Pence, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking” went viral, many comments and think pieces pointed out how much men interrupt, infantilize, and take up space over women and specifically women of color.  

Reflecting on the gender-based violence that led to the 2021 Georgia Shooting, we have to see in which way we are talking over Asian women, Asian trans women, and Asian sex workers. 

For those of us who have been taught to “fall in line” and not be “the nail that sticks out,” we now see why passivity or silence is no longer a choice if we want change. And so supporting and funding artists who do critical, engaging, and subversive works is one way to help with this change.

Many hands of different races are placed in a line on a wooden table.
Photo credit: Clay Banks on Unsplash

We must examine internalized standards that demonize nonconformists and expression of dissent, and why sexism leads society to be more punitive towards feminine dissidents. 

Let’s glitch this notion that Asian women exist to perform femininity or cater “niceness” and rather see that they are their own person with agency, power, and expression.

The goal is to show up for Asian women when they are alive, before they become the ghosts in the horror films, cast out and silenced.  

Through this exhibition, I hope the viewers see the reality during these unprecedented times as complex, multifaceted, open-ended, and beautiful —  with so many things in our society to glitch.


Karmic II is currently on view at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, WA from July 30 through September 10.

More from May Maylisa Cat can be found on her website or instagram @maymaylisacatz.

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