I recently made a trip into Los Angeles’ historical Little Tokyo district after being overcome with a craving for some authentic mochi. I was delighted to be back in Little Tokyo, a place which for me was imbued with value and memories. It has great historical relevance for my Japanese American family, who felt welcomed there upon their move to California in the early 20th century, and I personally have many fond memories of skipping through its busy streets in my childhood — honey cake snacks in hand and an easy smile on my face.
Returning for the first time since the recent rise in hate-crimes against Asian Americans, I worried that the Little Tokyo square would be desolate, that the wishing tree would be barren of notes, that the storefronts would be dark and dusty. Luckily, the district was bustling with life. Seeing elderly Asian couples walking through the square with grocery bags, young groups of friends chattering in a mix of Japanese and English and couples walking hand in hand with musubi sent a wave of relief over me.
However, I also encountered something that I had not been expecting on my Little Tokyo trip: groups of non-Asian people walking through the streets wearing what they apparently perceived to be “Asian” clothing. Now, I’m not talking about wearing a kimono, which would be overt cultural appropriation. No, what these people were wearing was a reductive caricature of Asian culture. I saw groups of people bearing knee-high socks, jackets with nonsensical Japanese letters and phrases on them and high bun hairstyles littered with chopsticks.
While these things might sound insignificant to the typical onlooker, I can guarantee that almost every Asian person reading that sentence has sighed and rolled their eyes, because we have all experienced a moment where someone presumes that all of Asian culture can be boiled down to a chopstick-in-hair aesthetic.
This moment perfectly encapsulated how pop culture’s vicious trend cycle regularly fetishizes Asian women. In the few seconds that these people walked by me, I saw a variety of Asian trends and styles mismatched together with no care; the knee high socks were clearly a product of the extremely problematic Japanese schoolgirl aesthetic, the jackets with random Japanese phrases came from the recent American obsession with Asian streetwear and the bun hairstyle was almost certainly from the kawaii aesthetic that was popularized in the U.S. in the last decade.
“Asian-fishing,” or when a non-Asian person alters their appearance to seem more Asian, has taken a dark turn in this century. Rather than overtly presenting itself as racism, “Asian-fishing” hides under the premise of being a “cute,” “aesthetic” trend. But make no mistake — it has the same consequences of demeaning our culture and people. And many of us see either overt Asian-fishing or an unjust co-opting of Asian trends within our everyday lives, without even realizing it.
What is most dangerous about the way that people like this express an “Asian” aesthetic is that it often involves an acknowledgement that the world sees Asian women as domestic, cute, little and, ultimately, rather helpless.
What is most dangerous about the way that people like this express an “Asian” aesthetic is that it often involves an acknowledgement that the world sees Asian women as domestic, cute, little and, ultimately, rather helpless. Yet after this acknowledgement occurs, no steps are made to correct that assumption and empower us. Asian women are condemned to this fate, sometimes fatally so.
After the Atlanta spa shootings killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, the world turned its eyes on the Asian American community. While some individuals were quick to claim that this was a sexually-motivated act rather than a hate crime, we must question why the perpetrator’s desire to rid his world of sexual temptation had to be expressed as an attack on Asian women. We know that the man who fatally shot these women had been clinically treated for a sex addiction, and was acting out against Asian women because, to him, Asian women are sex incarnate. Our very existence has been sexualized, without our choice.
Thousands of voices rose up to condemn Asian American hate crimes, as well as the sexualization and fetishization of Asian women that led to this shooting. I saw countless infographics, articles and guides to “dismantling” this fetish. Although they called out the problematic stereotypes throughout history, such as the “Lotus Blossom,” and the “Dragon Lady,” I found very little discussion about how these fetishizing aesthetics have developed in the modern era.
It is no secret that beauty standards around the world rely upon the premise of making women look young — for example, the relentless pursuit of removing all hair from our bodies is deeply rooted in our desires to appear youthful —and that itself is a product of living in a society that prioritizes the opinions of men over the comfort of women … It is a truly vicious, endless issue. Studies from dating app companies have found that, while a woman’s age correlates with the age of the men she finds most attractive, men will always find a young woman in her twenties to be their standard for beauty, no matter their own age.
We have sexualized the very notion of youth.
One of the largest examples of this is the “schoolgirl aesthetic,” which is largely associated with Asian women. You’ve likely seen it in movies and TV shows such as “Kill Bill,””Sailor Moon,” “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “D.E.B.S.” and countless others. My personal thesis for why this horrific fixation is so heavily associated with Asian culture is because Asian women are often regaled for looking extremely young in comparison to other women their age.
Since the “schoolgirl aesthetic” hinges upon looking young, of course Asian women are going to receive more attention than we have ever wanted. The perverted nature of men’s attraction leans itself towards our supposedly natural, youthful appearance. Horrifically, this aesthetic has been co-opted by the pornography industry, which regularly profits from forcing Asian actresses to demean themselves reenacting “schoolgirl” fantasies. This feeds into men’s perspective on Asian women as the most desirable in comparison to those of any other race — an undesired subset of the male gaze that lends itself into an ongoing cycle of dehumanizing fetishization.
Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that many onlookers see Asian women getting (unwanted) attention and crave the spotlight. In turn, they weaponize the fetishization of our race by mimicking our appearance through Asian-fishing aesthetics, makeup and mannerisms that reinforce the notion that the Asian woman is submissive, docile and innocent.
This is deeply evident within recent trends in makeup, such as the fox eye makeup look that was popularized in the last year. Although seemingly innocent, the fox eye trend involves elongating the appearance of one’s eyes, which ends up mimicking the long, thin almond eye shape that many Asian people naturally have. This is oftentimes paired with a pose of the model purposefully pulling their eyes back — a pose that many Asian Americans will remember being mocked with throughout their youth for having “slanted” and “small” eyes.
Minority groups across the globe will be familiar with this phenomenon: society’s trend cycle snatches up once-shameful aspects of our lives and repackages them as an “aesthetic” for white audiences. For example: acrylic nails, cultural foods (such as bento boxes and kimchi), African American Vernacular English being rebranded as Generation Z slang and Kendall Jenner’s recent tequila venture, just to name a few.
Something less spoken about is the recent “gamer girl” aesthetic, popularized by TikTok, which, similarly to the fox-eye trend, involves elongating one’s eyes amongst a variety of other makeup touches. The look is often paired with drawing on excessive faux eyelashes, adding a dash of blush, contouring to create a button nose and drawing on a full pouty upper lip. All of these together serve to do one thing: create an infantilized and overtly Asian aesthetic.
These “gamer girls” take to Twitch and actively stream in this Asian-fishing makeup, often dressing in infantile clothing and acting in a submissive demeanor that reinforces the concept of Asian women as subservient, childish and dainty. They are actively profiting off of co-opting a dangerous, racist aesthetic — and getting away with it. They know that there will be no consequences for their actions because their way has been paved by people like Belle Delphine non-Asian “influencers” who are beloved for their appropriation of Asian culture.
Profiting from the fetishization and dehumanization of Asian people is nothing new. Many members of the millennial and Gen Z generations were likely exposed to Gwen Stefani’s sickening relationship with her Asian backup dancers from a young age. Stefani hired four Japanese dancers — Jennifer Kita, Rino Nakasone, Mayuko Kitayama and Maya Chino — in 2004 and contractually obligated them to act, dress and speak in a culturally insensitive manner. Stefani required them to perform in the ways that she deemed to be “Asian,” rather than allowing them to express their true cultural norms.
On top of that, their appearances were contingent on them dressing in a Harajuku aesthetic and speaking Japanese. These two behaviors not only alienated them throughout their time in Stefani’s crew, but also promoted the idea that all Asian women are confined to a specific Western stereotype of an Asian woman. This confining stereotype is often a perky, innocent woman who betrays her foreign identity through dressing in a strange manner and only speaking her native language.
While Stefani denies that this was at all problematic, she also openly refused to call the women by their real names. Instead, she referred to them by their stage names — “Love, Angel, Music and Baby” — a gross form of fetishization that reduces someone’s entire identity down to an elegant little word (and these words just so happened to be “adorable” little words that further infantilized these women). This openly racist charade earned Stefani millions of dollars, while her Japanese dancers earned a small portion of the cut. They sacrificed their own sense of self and cultural identity for Stefani’s sake — and for what? At the end of the day, it was not the people she cared about, but rather reinforcing and profiting off of her own perception of Asian culture.
They do not want Asian people around; instead, they want our food, our clothing, our trends and our aesthetics. But not us. Never us.
Stefani illustrates something interesting about the Western world’s infatuation with Asian cultures: those who claim to be active supporters of Asian culture and people are also sometimes the ones to reinforce and perpetuate fetishizing stereotypes. Stefani is eager to claim that she is one of the biggest lovers of Japanese culture alive — something shared by “weeaboos” and K-pop “stans.” Similarly to Stefani, these rabid fans will go to lengths to compare every Asian woman they see to various anime characters and K-pop singers, without taking into account the dangers of reducing a woman’s identity to that of their favorite star. These stans will often go further than making an individual uncomfortable by commenting on their appearance. They become fierce defenders of a culture they have no experience with, asserting their opinions on the histories of various Asian countries and civilizations over the voices of actual Asian people.
These trends in media ultimately indicate that people find the products of our culture more worthwhile than us. They do not want Asian people around; instead, they want our food, our clothing, our trends and our aesthetics. But not us. Never us.
The way that non-Asian people consume our culture has always been parasitic, but observing how people interact with Asian aesthetics and trends over the internet makes it clearer than ever that this Westernized co-opting of our culture clearly has real consequences. People like the Atlanta shooter see the infantilized Asian woman as a sex symbol, something further reinforced by pop culture, which demeans Asian women as subservient and cute. Appropriating these trends without realizing how they contribute to Asian womens’ lives is irresponsible and can be dangerous for our mental and physical safety.
Asian Americans have reached a reckoning point. It is time to create waves in the public sphere and challenge peoples’ perception of what it means to look, act and be Asian.
Syd Haupt cannot express how exhausting it was when people mentioned that she looked like an anime character in her high school uniform.