Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Secrets of East Asian Women Part 2: Cuteness

Stereotype: "Asian girls are cute."   

This Korean girl is doing her best aegyo face on a talk show.
I'm sure that some of you may be familiar with this stereotype and maybe even heard someone say it out loud! I've heard this one from members of both genders, from both East Asians and non-East Asians alike. I would argue that it may be more benign than some of the other stereotypes I will examine in this multipart article, but I argue that it is a gross generalization. Let's dissect!

Where does it come from?

If I had to guess where this generalization came from, I feel I could easily pinpoint a few places -- namely pop music, anime, movies (particularly romcoms) and television dramas. See, a lot of what Westerners see of East Asian culture depends heavily on what they're into, but most likely it probably comes from one of those aforementioned sources. I shall explain these in more detail.

These are the members of the Japanese electro-pop girl group Perfume. It certainly seems that this photo was taken with cuteness in mind. Most of their videos are pretty cute too. I have to admit, I actually do like their music!
Pop Music

In East Asian music industries, there are myriad bands, groups, soloists, etc., etc. but none are more prolific and seemingly exportable than pop music, naturally. A lot of what constitutes pop music in East Asia is manufactured boy and girl groups. You know the story. A talent/record company scouts a few talented or at least good-looking young people and throws them into a group together to entertain other young people and make tonnes of money before they get too old and are forced to either become legitimate artists or pursue employment elsewhere. Well, yes, this is the driving force of East Asian commercial music, and as such it's what most Westerners see or at least hear about when East Asian media or music is discussed in our news, magazines or blogs. What does this have to do with cuteness? Well, the female exponents of these groups come primarily in two flavours, sexy/sassy or cute. Can you guess which is more popular? Hard to say really, but the point is that a lot of the images we get in the Americas of Asian pop culture come from pop music. Thus we associate these images of cute singers with everyday East Asian folks, kind of the way everyday East Asian folks associate A-list Hollywood actors with everyday North American folks . . . Hmmm . . . could it be that we're not so different after all? . . . Next medium!

These two female characters are from an old anime, To Heart, that I used to watch in high school, back when I was a super-nerd. Notice how they are drawn with big, childlike eyes to make them look cuter? These two characters also have really high voices as well. Even if you don't find this sort of thing cute, they were certainly designed to be.

Anime, anime, anime . . . oh, how I love you and hate you all at the same time. You have such tremendous creativity, delightful concepts and amazing variety, yet you can also be so gosh darn derivative, and I can't help but feel you are responsible for so much of the cultural misconceptions that East Asian women have to deal with on a near daily basis. This section is more relevant to Japanese women specifically, as anime is primarily a Japanese medium, but it can and often is extended to East Asian women generally by those who remain unenlightened. How does this happen? Women in anime, especially characters who act as love interests, are routinely portrayed as ultimately dependent, clumsy and childlike, even if at first portrayed as being assertive and headstrong. Often a tough, assertive, headstrong woman may appear as a supporting character, but only rarely as a love interest. Why does this happen? There are many reasons, but there are three that stick out.

The first is that much anime, especially modern anime, is by and large written by awkward, nerdy males for awkward, nerdy males. Let's call them otaku. Yes, this is a generalization and there are numerous exceptions, but bear with me. Ask anyone in Japan about male otaku and one of the characteristics you'll likely hear repeated is "They are afraid of real women." See where I'm going with this? The real Japanese women I've met and tutored have been complicated independent thinkers with goals and prospects, many of which do not rely solely on getting married to a man. Women in anime? Not so much.  (Note: I don't hate otaku -- I used to be one, after all.)

Long story short, a lot of female characters in anime geared towards males are given cute, childlike characteristics to make them less intimidating and more dependent than real Japanese women actually are. The male protagonists often portrayed in these anime? They range from badass heroes to . . . you guessed it . . . awkward, nerdy males who have never had a girlfriend because of their awkward nerdiness! This is done so that watching anime gives these male otaku -- the majority of the fan base for this kind of stuff -- a feeling of escaping into a world where, instead of being marginalized by popular society as antisocial misfits who lack the confidence to ask out a real woman, characters with similar traits as the viewer become independent and sexually appealing men. These men are charged with caring for an innocent, childlike, frail female companion with a voice that would make a chipmunk blush, whose only purpose in life is to find more effective ways of expressing her love to her formerly socially unacceptable boyfriend. Ah, the male otaku's romantic paradise!

The second and third reason that women and girls are so gosh darn cute in anime is because (a) anime is a visual medium and, like most visual media, it portrays things in an exaggerated and melodramatic way, e.g., characteristics perceived as feminine become super-exaggerated. And (b) cute things just seem to be really damn popular in East Asian cultures. Visit an East Asian supermarket and go to the snack food aisle -- you'll see what I mean.    

So how does this help North Americans get the wrong idea about Asian women? The stages are as follows:

1. Believe it or not, a lot of North American non-ethnically East Asian males and females watch this sort of anime.

2. Anime is from Japan.

3. Japan is in East Asia.

4. Many non-ethnically East Asian people in North America who are not familiar with East Asian cultures have a nasty habit of grouping these cultures together with little regard for their major differences.

5. Some of the more delusional viewers of this stuff get the erroneous idea that these animated female characters represent the reality of women in Japan and, by extension, East Asia.

6. Watchers of such anime tell peers that East Asian women are supposed to be "like, totally feminine and cute and stuff!" and voila! You have a stereotype!

Believe me, this is something that actually happens. When I was in high school, I was a believer of this myth. Oh, how I've learned. The crazy thing is that up into university I continue to talk to and overhear men and woman alike, of all sorts of different ethnicities, both enforcing and disputing this myth as it pertains to anime. So, yeah, it is actually a thing. Okay, so enough about anime . . . which I don't totally hate, by the way!

Movies and Television Dramas

"Vicky" Zhao Wei in the role that made her famous in the well-known 1998 drama Princess Returning Pearl, a name that probably makes WAY more sense in Chinese. Zhao Wei became famous for having big eyes and looking really cute! Awww. She has since proven herself to be a talented and well-rounded actress . . . and I'm in love with her . . . sigh* 
East Asian movies and television dramas are similar to anime in the way they portray women, only to a much lesser extent. Naturally the fact that real actors are portraying the characters means that the features and mannerisms of female characters tend to be less overdone. But still, in a lot of mainstream East Asian films, desirable East Asian women are often portrayed as being cute and "feminine," often more so than their Western counterparts. When non-East Asians watch these movies and see these characters, again they take them at face value, gaining the expectation that this is how East Asian woman act in real life! -- failing, of course, to realize that even in their own countries, films portray a largely exaggerated view of life. It doesn't help that East Asian films, especially in the mainstream, often tend to be more melodramatic than their Hollywood counterparts. East Asian romcoms (romantic comedies) especially tend to be the worst offenders, portraying idealized romantic archetypes such as the beautiful and cute "feminine" woman and the handsome and sensitive yet "masculine" man. The thing is, though, that these archetypes are also present in American romcoms, so this really should come as no surprise! In my experience it's often East Asian kung fu or action films and romcoms that get the most exposure outside of East Asia. Which of course leads to stereotypes. Don't get me wrong, I like me some East Asian romcoms -- I am, after all, a romantic at heart -- but you must also realize that they do not portray perfect representations of the reality of East Asian females.

The Truth!

Retired female MMA fighter and former champion Megumi Fuji working the mat with a training partner, applying a triangle choke. She's fought in 27 professional fights and has won 25 of them, 19 by submission and 1 by TKO, and 15 of her victories never left the first round. Isn't she adorable?! 
There are actually two truths present here: the truth as it exists for East Asian women and the truth as it exists for women born elsewhere with East Asian backgrounds. The important thing to realize, which I have talked about before on this blog, is that Asian Americans, for example, are totally culturally different from East Asian people. Where you grow up, the people you grow up with and the ideas that are instilled in you as you mature are key elements in what defines your culture. So if you think Sharon Liu, born in Windsor, Ontario, who sits beside you in your philosophy tutorial, can fulfill your fantasy of being your "sweet and pure pearl of the East," then you are sorely mistaken. This is of course not to say that if you happen to meet a girl from East Asia, she can fulfill your misguided fantasy either.

Now it is true that cuteness, or acting cute, is a phenomenon in East Asia that tends to stand out more in its pop culture than in other countries. In Korea they call it aegyo, in Japan kawai-i (there's a name in Chinese for it too but I don't know what it is), and it comprises a kind of exaggerated cuteness that pop stars, actors and TV personalities use from time to time. It is also supposedly popular among bar hostesses in these countries, whose job it is to sit with and entertain men as they drink at hostess bars (their job does not include sex and there are male exponents called hosts who act much the same way with female customers). They do this to seem more appealing and youthful to their customers, many of whom are middle-aged or even older -- it's kind of like a fantasy for them. The thing is, though, that it is not exclusive to females and is also not considered normal behavior for people in East Asia. In fact I've been told straight up that if a person acts like that in real life, his or her peers will find it unbearably annoying and/or weird. So, yes, sorry if I ruined anyone's fantasies, but ya'll need to know the truth!

Take it from ol' Alex. I've dated women from both sides of the Pacific, and the only thing I've learned is that once you get past the language barrier it's all pretty darn similar. East Asian women are about as cute as anyone else, and the idea that they are somehow "cuter" than people from other cultures or ethnicities just ain't a fact. It may well be an opinion that you or someone you know has, but a fact it is not. The thing is, if you like or even love someone, they will probably be cute to you regardless. Language barriers can play a big role too in one's perception of cuteness. Some people instinctively treat ESL students like children because their limited English ability makes them sound childlike and cute! However, that student might be working towards an electrical engineering degree back home in Taiwan, so you never really know.

With my last girlfriend from Korea, for example, I used to think it was adorable when she would get her countable and uncountable nouns mixed up, saying, "We should buy some ice creams [meaning ice cream bars] 'cause it's a hot day!" "How cute!" I would say, giggling like a schoolgirl. Likewise she thought it was precious whenever I screwed up my Korean, like when I wanted to say the word now (jigeum) but accidentally said a little (jogeum). "Ha ha! So cute!" she would say. Know when she wasn't cute? When she would talk about budgeting our money or when she was pissed off or depressed . . . you know, like everyone else. The point I'm trying to get across here is that anyone can be cute -- men, women, East Asians, Americans, adults, children -- it don't matter.

In my next post, The Secrets of East Asian Women, Part 3: Submissiveness          


  1. I never thought there would be somebody who watched 황제의딸! from like... Canada. (princess returning pearl, I am assuming it's literal translation or english title?)

    That bring back my memories when I was a child. I asked my auntie to record it when i couldn't see it on time...

    I don't mean to be streotyped by saying that by the way.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I think it's a literal translation. Actually I've only seen a bit of the drama myself but Canada has many Chinese communities and there are many Chinese Drama's available (though mostly not subtitled accept online). Don't worry about being stereotyped, it's not the drama itself that stereotypes but certain peoples reactions to the portrayal.