For many, Tila Tequila is the epitome of sexuality. Just ask one of her hundred million friends — male and female — on her MySpace page. Known for her full-page spreads in Maxim and Penthouse and her MTV reality show A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, the self-proclaimed “bisexual freak” became the ideal fantasy for both men and women.
Throughout film and television history, Asian women have been typecast into certain roles — the overly feminine China Doll, the servile Geisha Girl, the dominatrix Lucy Liu and the most contemporary example, Tila Tequila. But how do these racial stereotypes of the oversexualized minority form in the first place?
“A lot of it has to do with the way that dominant Western values have spread across the world, so it goes back historically to colonization and Western imperialism,” said Susan Knabe, women’s studies and media, information and technoculture professor, who teaches a course on sexuality in the media.
“You can’t really talk about the way in which Asian women are exoticized and eroticized in the Western imagination without going through the idea of Orientalism and the way in which Orientalism played a role in securing the dominant Western psyche, particularly in the late 18th and all through the 19th century.”
Knabe addressed the stereotypes associated with Asian women, which have been recycled and perpetuated in Western society and manifested in contemporary forms such as Tila Tequila.
“I think it’s interesting because there’s a couple of things going on there. One is ... not only a hypersexualization, but there’s also the demure and submissive Asian woman as well. [There] is also the idea that somehow they have a different type of sexuality, that there’s a kind of otherness about their sexual presentation that makes them exotic and makes them desirable because men can have something that isn’t normal or isn’t everyday,” Knabe said.
Christine Mangosing, former art director and vice-president of the Board of Directors at Toronto’s Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture, has dealt with the topic of the exoticization of Asian women in her personal work.
“[My work] deals with the idea of growing up in a Western world as an Asian and not really understanding why I was different and just thinking, ‘Well I’m surrounded by white culture so I guess white culture is the thing to be or to want to be,’ like Barbie dolls and fairytales ... that was the mentality I had as a child,” Mangosing said.
“Growing up and not being a child anymore, I realized that this sexualized idea was being projected onto me and ... [I was] struggling to deal with that.”
As a performer and playwright for Carlos Bulosan Theatre, a Filipino community-based theatre company in Toronto, Mangosing’s poetry and performances reflect upon race and sexuality, which is a very sensitive topic for people, she added.
“[I] realized that every race has this idea attached to it of what the woman’s sexuality is like and specifically for Asians ... there’s this dichotomy where you’re submissive but hypersexual.”
Mangosing recalled an occasion in which a man approached her sister and told her, “You’re so urban yet jungle.”
“You feel like they’re this white explorer going into the jungle and capturing an indigenous woman. Not only is it a sexualization, it’s also this authority, colonizer/conquest sort of thing and I think that’s what bothers me the most about it. It’s like you feel like you’ve conquered your submissive Asian woman,” Mangosing said.
Celine P. Shimizu, professor of film and video in Asian American studies at the University of California, believed that Asian American/Canadian women are so hailed by sexuality that part of their racialization — how they become defined as a race — is secured through sexual difference.
“I think when you grow up as an Asian women, it’s hard not to encounter that sexual naming by someone else,” she added.
In her book, The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, Shimizu explores representations of Asian sexuality in cinema and pornography. Her book attempts to “get us out of the rut of thinking that sex is bad especially at the site of race.”
Currently teaching a popular culture course on Tila Tequila, Shimizu formulated a different approach in regards to the racial hailing of Asian women as hypersexual.
“People are really afraid of Tila Tequila ... but I think we have to refuse the more superficial assessment of how scary she is and say, ‘Well what’s going on here, what is the intervention she’s making?’ The important thing to decide is not to assume that we already know who she is, not to assume that she’s just fulfilling a stereotype ... I think we could find out a more complicated story about race and sexuality.”
But how do you maintain your sexuality as a woman and still be far-removed from the hypersexual, Tila Tequila stereotype? Despite the inherent stereotypes of Asian women, Shimizu believes race-positive sexuality is attainable.
“Race-positive sexuality is both an acknowledgment of the subjugating power of sexuality and racialization. But at the same time it’s also an acknowledgment that sexual pleasure is possible for racialized subjects,” Shimizu said.
“I think that in the 80s, when people really first started tackling this problem of the Asian woman as the hypersexualized being, the established way of looking at it is that it’s all about the objectification of Asian women by white men and I think that’s really simplistic.
“It’s really related to the school of stereotypes, like any sexual image of Asian women is always already a negative image. That’s really frightening to me because that means that Asian women have to be deprived of engaging what sexuality truly means for them within the history of race and sexuality.”
Shimizu believed that Tila Tequila is a testimony to how sexuality is so contentious in our society.
“I think a very easy way to diagnose [Tila Tequila] is to say, ‘Oh, she’s reaffirming more than ever that Asian women are the gateway to new forms of pleasure, new forms of perversity.’ But at the same time what’s interesting about it is that she’s also being disciplined as a bisexual woman. So you could see that Tila Tequila is both the site of perversity but also the site of punishment.”
Shimizu explained that “site of perversity” is Tila Tequila’s house — the place where both men and women compete for her love. This expands the idea of “normal” in which everyone is supposed to sleep together on the same bed.
However, instead of being allowed to challenge her idea of what is considered acceptable sexuality, Tila Tequila becomes “the site of punishment” given that she remains disciplined — she has to choose to become a heterosexual woman or a lesbian woman but nowhere in between.
Though there will always be visible images of oversexualized women, Shimizu said the only resolution is to question what is happening before us and find the tools to respond to it.
“You cannot but avoid the risk of reinscribing these stereotypes. But I would rather confront that risk if it means that we are blowing open that definition of sexuality beyond bad — that we present a more complete picture of how we do experience our sexuality.”