"Let us deconstruct your colonialist patriarchal gaze:" Big Bad Chinese Mama and Mail Order Bride Websites

In US American popular culture, two stereotypes have dominated the representation of Asian women in the 20th century: the Lotus Blossom and the Dragon Lady. Under the first category, we can put all those constructions that position Asian women as ultra-feminine, submissive, and delicate; the second category covers Asian femmes fatales, hypersexual, aggressive, secretive, and dangerous. There have been numerous studies that analyze these representations, showing how they justify both patriarchy and Western colonialism (Tajima; Marchetti; Shim; Johnson). Most of these studies have focused specifically on Hollywood films, citing such mainstream US American movies as Shanghai Express (1932), Sayonara (1957), and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). More recently, films such as Good Morning Vietnam (1987), The Karate Kid Part II (1986), and Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) have dealt with similar themes.

Mail order bride businesses comprise one of the realms in which these stereotypes intersect with cultural practices outside of film. Again, considerable work has been done on these businesses, both in their more traditional form as mail order catalogs and in their newer guise as World Wide Web sites ("‘MOBS’ on the Net"; Lai; Tolentino; Villapando; Halualani). These pieces argue that mail order bride businesses perpetuate the commodification of women’s bodies, reinforce the patriarchal and imperialist gaze, and contribute to the continuing dominance of the West. One writer, drawing from bell hooks, calls for a "critical cyberliteracy" that will allow people in the First World to enact an "oppositional gaze" and to challenge the problematic power relations established in mail order bride sites ("‘MOBS’ on the Net" 65).

The website "Big Bad Chinese Mama" seems to answer this call. A student project developed by an Asian American woman named Kristina Wong at UCLA-Berkeley, Big Bad Chinese Mama (BBCM) is a spoof of mail order bride sites featuring Asian women. Informed by both feminist and postcolonialist thinking, BBCM works to contest and critique the imperialist and patriarchal gaze in the particular context of mail order bride sites. Through pictures and text, it performs a version of Asian American femininity that refutes both the aforementioned stereotypes and Asian women’s position as passive, specular objects. It exploits its online status for subversive ends in several ways: by "hijacking" viewers who might not otherwise see it, by using the Web’s relative interactivity to heighten viewers’ sense of complicity, and by providing links to other sites that share similar concerns.

For those with Internet access, "real" mail order bride sites are very easy to find; most major search engines provide listings of hundreds of links. This is also the first place where BBCM’s subversive potential becomes apparent, as it shows up in those lists. According to Wong’s weblog, visitors to her site often type into search engines such phrases as "asain (sic) mail order brides," "girl fantacy (sic)," and "any horny chinese women." For those expecting conventional mail order bride or pornography sites, coming upon BBCM must be quite a shock, especially when we consider the way in which it positions the viewer.

Conventional mail order bride sites have an invitational feel, exploiting the Web’s interactivity to increase the viewer’s sense of freedom of choice and of access to the women featured on the site. For example, all of the sites that I visited, including Cherry Blossoms, World Class Service, E-Cebu, Exotic Asian Women, and A (sic) Asian Princess, have some sort of a search mechanism that allows the user to find women according to a set of pre-determined criteria, such as height, weight, age, race, and nationality. This not only depersonalizes the women through an abstraction of their "generic ‘feminine’ features" (Halualani 52), but it also assures the viewer that he is in control and that the website (and by extension the women) are there to serve him. These sites thus reinforce the tenet of consumer sovereignty that lies at the heart of capitalism.

Conventional sites constitute the viewer as specifically male and Western, as what Gina Marchetti terms a "White Knight" who will rescue Asian women from the deprived material conditions of their home countries through heterosexual marriage and romance (91). This logic becomes explicit at the World Class Service site, where the viewer is exhorted to "Date Locally, Marry Globally" (with its twist on the slogan "act locally, think globally," this motto equates participating in the mail order bride industry with humanitarian political activism) and is reminded "if it saves just one life . . ." Of course, such paternalism also implies the right to conquer and control both the women and, through a metaphoric fait accompli, Asia itself. This not only shores up hegemonic white, Western masculinity, but also provides a site for the constitution of that masculinity through a nostalgic desire for the Western frontier and the nuclear family with its traditional gender dynamics (Tolentino 72).

BBCM shares the assumption of a white, male Western viewer, at least explicitly, but its address to that viewer is confrontational rather than invitational. When viewers enter BBCM, they are greeted with pictures of a smiling, coyly demure woman in what appears to be authentic Asian dress. However, each of the pictures is "deformed" in some way: one woman appears with two heads, another has six eyes, and so forth. These pictures are a send-up of photos on conventional mail order bride sites, such as one on the first page of A (sic) Asian Princess, which presents an Asian woman in purportedly traditional cultural dress, peeking from behind a large fan, a seductive smile on her face. Such photos, especially in the context of mail order bride sites, promise to satisfy the viewer’s supposed desire for a traditional, submissive Asian wife and for an authenticity that may seem to be missing from US American, mass-mediated culture. In contrast, the pictures on BBCM put patriarchal and colonialist desires on trial, refusing conventional beauty standards and denying transparent access to the "real" women. BBCM’s strategy calls attention to the website and the pictures as media, as particular social and cultural constructions, not as windows to the real. It also creates a certain distance between the viewer and the women in the pictures (as do the other images on BBCM, which I will analyze in more depth below). This is not the distance of privilege, which protects the viewer from scrutiny even as it allows him to scrutinize and objectify the women as other than himself (Doane 172; Berger 54). Rather, it is distance in the sense of a denial of access, of ownership, and of control. Such distance may be especially significant for Asian American women, who by virtue of their race and gender have less power to mark off and maintain the boundary between public and private.

Aside from these pictures, the text on the opening page of BBCM positions the viewer in a particularly uncomfortable way. For example, the site declares "you are the 35, 854 pervert to come to our site." Far from sanctioning and normalizing the patriarchal and imperialist gaze, as conventional mail order bride sites do through invocations of romance and rescue, BBCM denounces that gaze and labels it as deviant. Rather than securing hegemonic definitions of white, Western masculinity, the confrontational address of BBCM destabilizes both that identity and the privilege that accrues to it.

The site’s pictures of white men being scorned, humiliated, and physically attacked by Asian American women visualize this confrontation in an especially visceral way. The pictures do not allow white men to remain unmarked and unseen, as they are on conventional sites. Feminist theorists have characterized the male spectator as a disembodied, omniscient, and omnipotent gaze, which facilitates his ability to control and possess the feminine other (Armstrong 239). It is precisely the ability of the white male body to erase itself that allows white masculinity to stand as the universal, generic person. And it is this universal status that guarantees white male privilege. In contrast to such invisibility, BBCM shows white masculinity as corporeal, as rooted in a particular bodily location. Moreover, the white male bodies on BBCM are emasculated. They are not in control, they do not display physical mastery over "nonwhite" women, and they most certainly are not being served by those women. In the words of bell hooks, "suddenly it is the white male’s capacity to gaze, define, and know that is called into question" (129). Just as hegemonic white masculinity is under attack in these pictures, so BBCM assaults the viewer.

The action of clicking through the website may seem to restore some of the viewer’s control and agency, and conventional mail order bride sites do operate under the sign of free consumer choice. The confrontational tone of BBCM, in contrast, creates a sense of complicity. By participating in the activity of navigating the site, viewers become representatives of the white male gaze, regardless of what their racial and gender identities may be in the offline world.

With every additional click of the mouse button, viewers are challenged by both text and images, and, even if the site seems to presuppose a white male viewer on some level, it also indicts everyone who visits through the use of the second-person "you" and through photos that frankly and bluntly stare the viewer down. On another level, BBCM’s confrontational tone and its use of feminist and postcolonial thinking to parody mail order bride sites suggest that it also envisions its audience, at least in part, as feminist women.

The heart of BBCM is the "harem of angst," a collection of Asian American "brides" that mocks the photo galleries found on conventional mail order bride sites. These galleries facilitate the commodification of women and of Asia itself: men can possess the image of a woman as a material substitute for her body and as a way to indulge in the exotic spice of Asian culture. The construction of brides as commodities is reinforced by other parts of conventional sites, such as sections labeled "how to order" (www.filipina.com), "cost & price info," and "holding baskets" (www.cherry-blossoms.com). Patrons of these sites can reassure themselves that they are displaying liberal colorblindness and tolerance by looking for romance with a "nonwhite" woman, all the while ignoring the messy implications of commodification and of hegemonic power relations. As bell hooks notes, "when race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominant races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relationships with the Other" (23).

The pictures and texts on conventional sites reproduce, rely upon, and help constitute the stereotype of Asian women as ultra-feminine, subservient Lotus Blossoms. There are two levels of textuality that play on this stereotype: the "neutral" third-person voice that purportedly belongs to the site’s owner (this voice’s claim to neutrality is, of course, predicated on white male privilege) and the more subjective voices of the women themselves. The former declares, for instance, that the women are "beautiful," have "old-fashioned values," and put "husband and family first" (www.e-cebu.com), descriptions which are reinforced by many of the biographies that accompany the women’s pictures. Although the biographies do offer a limited forum for the women to speak their desires, they are mediated not only by the site’s format, which ensures that all the biographies conform to a homogeneous template, but also by larger social and culture forces that influence what desires are appropriate for the women to voice. The textual rhetoric of these conventional websites invokes a nostalgic desire for the traditional, patriarchal nuclear family, in which women defer to their husband’s authority and know their proper place. Associated with a "primitive" Third World culture, Asian women are often seen as appealing alternatives to their US American "liberated" counterparts. Such comparisons not only make Asian women secondary to white women and conflate whiteness with American identity, they also serve to discipline and contain all women.

As I noted earlier, the text of BBCM names these desires in such a way as to highlight their "perverse" role in oppression and domination. Unlike the conventional sites, the creator of BBCM does not remain safely anonymous/invisible/unmarked or position herself as objective and detached. She provides a photo of herself eating Cheetos, her mouth open, her face scrunched up. The text underneath this picture, written from a first-person perspective, appropriates the language of the Lotus Blossom, using terms like "genteel demeanor" and "demure." Wrenched from their usual context and juxtaposed to the picture, these words become ironic and sarcastic. BBCM also has biographies that accompany the photos of the "brides" in the "harem." These bios borrow their format from the conventional sites, but these voices are angry, confrontational, and playful, not deferential or properly feminine. For example, one woman organizes her bio according to nationality ("Axis power World War 2 flashback nightmare half-breed"), occupation ("like you care"), speaks ("yes, I do. Have a problem with that?"), and so forth. None of the bios provide statistics on the women’s height, weight, or age, which can be seen as rejecting the reduction of the female body to a few, idealized characteristics. In an even more radical gesture of refusal, one bio offers no text at all.

The images on BBCM and on conventional sites provide viewers with a particular vision through which they can understand and concretize these textual descriptions. Most of the photos on conventional sites are medium close-ups or close-ups, with the subjects in the center of the frame. In mainstream US American visual culture, this type of camera distance often signals emotional intimacy between the viewer and the subject, while the symmetrical framing assures viewers that everything is normal, stable, and well-ordered. Proximity to the woman’s face on conventional sites holds the promise of greater sexual intimacy, which will be fulfilled upon purchase, and the centered framing does nothing to disturb the viewer’s sense of comfort while gazing at the image. The women’s smiles and posture are reminiscent of a typical glamour shot, with most of the subjects evoking the Western female beauty ideal drawn from white women. All of these elements taken together facilitate scrutiny and surveillance. Even though these photos can appear to maintain a certain level of "decency" by focusing on faces and not on more overtly sexualized/eroticized body parts, the incompleteness of the women’s bodies also suggests the infamous feminine lack (Tolentino 66). To deal with the threatening aspect of this lack, the photos engage in both strategies outlined by Laura Mulvey’s influential work on the male gaze: voyeurism, which entails an endless investigation of the woman via her image, and fetishism, which turns the image itself into a reassuring phallic substitute (753). The homogeneity of these photos also perpetuates the notion of a generic Asian woman, in which the brides-to-be are seen as interchangeable commodities devoid of historical, cultural, and national specificity.

The photos on BBCM upset the Lotus Blossom stereotype by performing Asian American femininity in an oppositional way. Many of the pictures in the "harem of angst" share camera distance and framing with the images on conventional sites, but the effect is radically different. Unlike conventional sites, there is humor on BBCM, but it is a cutting, edgy, discomfiting humor. Two men are included in the "harem of angst:" one photo presents a young man reclining in bed, his face blocked out by a Botanrice candy box, and several others depict a man in drag, surrounded by stuffed animals and lacy curtains, a cigarette dangling from his lips. These photos begin to chip away at the presumption of heterosexuality found on conventional sites, and they mix the visual codes of masculinity and femininity, thus blurring lines which conventional sites strive to demarcate as clearly and strictly as possible. They also offer a critique of the way in which Asian men are often feminized and eroticized in the white Western imaginary, a strategy that facilitates Western feelings of superiority and justifies dominance of Asian women by "real" (white) men.

Instead of performing the stereotypical delicacy and servility attributed to Asian women, the women of BBCM make faces and snarl at the camera, and they are physically active, with several adopting poses of physical aggression and anger. One woman presents her back to the viewer, her middle finger extended behind her head, while another provides only an outline of a "china doll." These photos engage in a rejection of feminine glamour and of the implicitly white, Western female beauty ideal. Although their physical aggression and confrontational attitudes may fit into the Dragon Lady trope, the Lotus Blossom’s equally racist and sexist counterpart, their bodies are not overtly eroticized, nor are they attractive in a conventional sense. This disavowal of exotic glamour critiques the equation of women with objectified spectacle, but the site also uses that equation, insofar as the women are presented to be looked at. As John Berger argues, the women on BBCM are aware of themselves being watched; they are both "the surveyor and the surveyed" (11). That awareness, however, does not necessarily further their oppression. In the context of BBCM, it fosters a creative response to surveillance, a response not through invisibility, but through a different kind of visibility.

The galleries on conventional sites often have an amateurish look, appearing to be snapshots like one would take in one’s family and private life and thus increasing the viewer’s sense of access to the "real" women. On BBCM, the same quality gives the photos a rougher, less polished appearance, which works against the glamour and glossiness of the professional, air-brushed photos so prevalent in mass-mediated culture. This visual aspect relates to BBCM’s insistence on the body as material, aggressive, violent, and decidedly not docile. Far from being controlled and carefully poised/posed, the Asian American female bodies on BBCM threaten to erupt in violence and anger, bodily passions deemed unacceptable for Lotus Blossoms. These bodies are also relentlessly material and excessive, engaging in all of those taboo bodily functions that are considered gross and unladylike. For example, in a section entitled "Memoirs of an Anti-Geisha" (a play on the popular book by Arthur Golden), Wong reminds viewers that she has "crater zits that break out through my ‘silky skin’ before and after and during my period, "a little pot belly," and "hangnails and calluses and blisters and baggage." The fetish for small feet on Chinese women comes under attack, as Wong presents several photos of herself, bare feet extended toward the camera, thrusting toward the viewer and looming large in the frame.

BBCM also raises questions about transnational and racial identity. Conventional sites are invested in clearly separating Asian ethnicity from the United States, which is imagined as all white. This separation aids the slippage between Asian women and Asia itself and its concomitant fantasy of Western colonialism, now understood as a necessary, beneficial part of the global economy. As Roland Tolentino argues, "the feminized national space awaits rescue with the penetration of foreign capital, loans, aid, and investment as an objective path to modernization and, consequently, the alleviation of poverty" (70). BBCM, in contrast, disturbs the conflation of racial and national identities, by presenting Asian American women and suggesting that they too are affected by racist stereotypes.

At the same time, BBCM’s very existence on the Web is a product of First World privilege, including access to technology and to cultural resources like a college education, as well as cultural and technical know-how. As one scholar notes, "can there be any possibility for an oppositional gaze in cyberspace for those who don’t even own a computer, let alone a modem or access to the WWW?" ("‘MOBS on the Net" 65). This is an important and vexing question, suggesting that BBCM is best understood as a commentary on how cultural representations affect Asian American women who are not involved in the mail order bride industry per se. While this is certainly a valid approach, it has the unfortunate, troubling consequence of perpetuating the silence and erasure of Asian women who are mail order brides themselves. Thus, BBCM may be more effective at challenging racist and sexist stereotypes than at disrupting the mail order bride business itself.

On the one hand, BBCM represents an attempt to empower Asian American women who have systematically been marginalized and denied, insofar as it critiques the patriarchal and imperialist gaze that is responsible for that marginalization. In the process, BBCM asks all viewers to "look differently" (hooks 130). By offering images of Asian American women that are not widely available in other media venues, it would seem to provide new points of identification for Asian American women. However, the sarcastic, cutting humor that accompanies those images may make such identification difficult. Because BBCM is designed as a parody of mail order bride sites, it is in some sense bound by the parameters of those sites. As a result, it does not offer alternative representations of Asian American female desire or sexual pleasure beyond the "pleasure of interrogation" that hooks links to the oppositional gaze (126). BBCM points to the promises and pitfalls not only of resistant appropriation, but also of the Web. As the multiplication of conventional mail order bride sites suggests, the Web can facilitate the commodification of female bodies and Asian cultures, and, although the Web can provide opportunities for critical sites like BBCM, those opportunities are neither free nor equal.

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