Thursday, April 03, 2008

New York Times Exoticizes Asian Women of Color Sexuality

I honestly don't know how common it is for a black woman like me to have a sister who is Japanese. It doesn't seem to be very common here, at least. I wish I could interact with more women of color who aren't Asian but have an Asian family member. I'd love to hear how that experience has shaped their views on race and ethnicity. One thing I've noticed is how, the sexuality of women of color is always exoticized and I, in my experience, women who are Asian experience it uniquely and very acutely in this society.

On March 30th, the New York Times online posted an article called "Students of Virginity" about abstinence clubs at Harvard University. In it, the writer contrasts Janie Fredell, the leader of the True Love Revolution abstinence group, with Lena Chen, a student with a blog that she uses to discuss her experiences at Harvard. Chen's blog is provocatively titled "Sex and the Ivy: A Bleeding Heart Nympho's Guide to Harvard Life".

I have a real problem with the way that Randall Patterson wrote this article. First of all, do we need yet another commentary on the virtuosity of some white woman? I mean, I think it's wonderful that Janie Fredell is living her life according to the principles that make sense to her. I wish the same for myself and my daughter and every other woman and man on Earth. What I don't like is the very judgmental nature of her organization. Sexuality is a very personal thing. I don't think it's anyone's business to try and force their views (about it) on others. If I want to know what you think of my sex life, I'll ask, okay?

My biggest issue with this article is how Fredell is cast as this intellectual and intelligent woman with very nuanced views. Patterson explores how Fredell bases her abstinence stance on a combination of religious, philosophical, and feminist ideas. And how is Chen described?
PERHAPS NO ONE at Harvard represents the hookup culture better than Lena Chen, a student sex blogger...

Can it get any more one-dimensional that this depiction? Patterson doesn't just stop there, unfortunately. He goes on to say,
Chen’s viewpoint, as she explained it to me, was not complicated. “For me, being a strong woman means not being ashamed that I like to have sex,” she said. And “to say that I have to care about every person I have sex with is an unreasonable expectation. It feels good! It feels good!”

The story Fredell told me was rather more involved. I caught her at a very interesting moment, she said. In making life decisions, she said she always tried to answer the question, How can I be happy in the future? and two internships had lately revealed that she might not be happy as a lawyer. Fredell was now considering a career in psychology, perhaps specializing in early childhood development. The hours were better, she thought, and would leave more time for the work she also wanted to do — that of a wife and mother.

What about Chen's plans for the future? I mean, generally speaking, women don't go to Harvard just to find hot guys to have sex with. If Patterson is going to compare Fredell and Chen, why wouldn't he also ask her those questions? If you still don't think that Patterson was trying to depict Chen negatively, listen to how he describes the lunches that he had with each of the two women.
Chen was a small Asian woman in a miniskirt and stilettos who ate every crumb of everything, including a ginger cake with cream-cheese frosting and raspberry compote. Fredell, when the dessert menu came, paused at the prospect of a “chocolate explosion,” said, “I may as well — I mean, carpe diem, right?” And then reconsidered — she really wasn’t that hungry.

Notice there was no mention of Fredell's race, but, for some reason, Patterson thought that Chen's being a "small Asian woman" was relevant to the story. And what relevance in how much they ate? There is none...unless you're trying to portray Chen as reckless, greedy and foreign as opposed to the dainty but thoroughly modern madonna Fredell.

This article is a complete train wreck. It must be seen to be believed. You should also check out what Chen has to say about it here on her blog:

A Look Back And A Look Forward


Anonymous said...

That is a lovely picture at the top of your blog.

Exoticness never bothered me. I totally avoid books, movies and advertising like that and I act tough so no one messes with me.

BLESSD1 said...

Articles like this would be surprising if they weren't so damn frequent. It's akin to how in some movies, a white person, incorruptable and pure, goes into the shambles of the broken ghettos and saves the children with their sterling, virginal example. Excellent post, Bint.

Daisy Deadhead said...

I've read several critical feminist pieces about the Times article, and wouldn't you know, yours is the first to catch the racial angle? (I didn't read it, so all my knowledge is second-hand.)

We have so much work to do, sighhh.

Anonymous said...

Uh, each girl has cast herself that way - not Patterson.

Fredell has cast herself as the pure virgin - while Lena Chen has chosen the self-exoticized slut.

I mean please - "Sex and the Ivy: A Bleeding Heart Nympho's Guide to Harvard Life." You think Patterson titled and wrote her blog for her???

Look, one craves respect, the other attention. So be it. Who the hell are you to judge? Please give each of these women the autonomy to make that choice. It's a free country and they deserve that right.

I don't need others speaking for me, and certainly not you. Self-righteous scapegoaters such as yourself only make the rest of us look ridiculous to the outside world. Just because I'm some "dainty Chinadoll" doesn't mean I need to be rescued by some jungle Amazon. Because I am not a victim. I am fully-empowered (perhaps a foreign concept to you though). Get that through your thick head.

And please stop...

I know you may just be trying to help - but you're not.


bint alshamsa said...


Do you know something about these two women that the rest of us don't? According to Chen, Patterson did not even get his facts straight so how is what he wrote an accurate portrayal of how these two women have cast themselves?

Your question (i.e. Who the hell are you to judge?) is rather ironic given the fact that you yourself are judging them when you claim that "one craves respect, the other attention". With that statement, you are attempting to deny these women the choice you say they have: to define themselves.

As far as I know, we've never spoken before, so I'm not sure why you'd think I'd even WANT to speak for you. If you see yourself as a "dainty Chinadoll", then that's your decision. However, the "jungle Amazon" line is simply pathetic. Your writing leads me to believe that you are intelligent enough not to need to resort to such simple-minded language.

On this blog, I do not refer to women as sluts, "Chinadolls", or "jungle Amazons" unless they specifically ask to be called this, so if you're going to comment here, I'd appreciate it if you followed the same policy.

Anonymous said...

Geez Louise!

Breez said...

It's amazing how incredibly easy it is for one woman to call another a slut, or a bitch, or a ho. (Exception: when I use the terms, I'm spot on. However, that's only because in alternate periods of my life, I've been a slut, a bitch, and a ho. What? Entergy was due - don't judge me. KIDDING...a little)

Cyberthugging is sooooooo '98, and it causes one to lose sight of the bigger issue. That issue being the hypersexualization of women of color. One of my favorite images is one my good friend had on his blog a while back. It was of an Asian woman wearing a t-shirt that said "I will NOT love you long time."

It's very discouraging that when men are asked why they prefer (insert race here) women (other than white), the reference almost ALWAYS becomes sexual. Asian women are still associated with happy endings, latinas are still associated with their hot blooded sexuality, black women are still seen as the quivering sexual savage (and by the way, did she really say jungle Amazon?).

But I tell you one thing, you bet' not NEVA say nuffin' 'ginst white folks. The slave mentality is NOT relegated to black people, that's for damn sure.

Anonymous said...

Hey, ChristinaCiao...I don't appreciate you linking to my blog like it's yours when I have no idea who the hell you are. That's slightly dishonest, don't you think?

Especially if you're going to post some ign'ant aggressive bullshit on someone else's blog.

To Bint: I appreciate your thoughts. As a Harvard student who has seen this debate too many times, I missed a lot of the nuances that you picked up. Lena Chen has a pretty bad rap around these parts, but it's definitely true that the portrayals of the two are disturbingly biased. Thanks for writing, and sorry that someone sullying my name is being aggro =)