The Lotus Blossom
The “Lotus Blossom” is delicate, attractive, corporeal, abstract, and a full and empty signifier that goes many names including “Celestial Lady”, “Geisha Girl”, “Butterfly”, and “China Doll”. This image of the Asian woman simultaneously signifies sexual difference and racial otherness; the trope of submissiveness not only constitutes a quiet and frail woman, but also takes the form of prostitution as the women remain at the whim of the white men, existing only for their pleasure. This caricature must be saved by the Western man, someone who can take care of her fragile, child-like self. Above all, she is quiet and good, making her the perfect wife. This trope has roots that date back to 1830s–1850s when the Carne Brothers, and later P. T. Barnum, imported a young Chinese woman named Afong Moy. Moy toured major U.S. cities as a living museum tableau and was known as the “Chinese Lady”; she offered an optical pleasure that centered on her material, synthetic affinities. The appeal of May did not derive from her naked flesh but from her decorative sameness to the silk, damask, mahogany, and ceramics she was presented with.1 This created a fascination with otherness and shaped Asian women to be a simple object of the white man’s desire. The trope was further perpetuated during the Yellow Peril and pre-1965, when Asian women were imported as prostitutes to serve Asian and White males. Subsequent historical markers such as the War Brides Act of 1945 fueled this desire for Asian women and painted them as ideal, domesticated wives. As seen through Anna May Wong, Hollywood utilized the trope due to its existence as a complex and creative embodiment of societal ideal and beliefs. Through various films we can see the various ways in which the Lotus Blossom is depicted and how this depiction may be altered to fit the societal values and political conflicts of the time.
Sayonara contextualizes the U.S. relationship with Japan post-WWII and stands as a promotion of the United States as the “protector of the postwar global order” 2 Anglo-American men of the film are portrayed as protecting the Japanese women from cultures that have been influenced by treacherous governments in the past and may likely revert to such states again. Sayonara supports America’s paternalistic attitude toward Japan, paralleling the love and domination of the passive Asian women with American dominance over a post-war Japan and Asian nations that were succumbing to communist influence. The film presents Gruver as the savior of Hana Ogi, rescuing her from her culture that circumstantially permits women to live independently of men. Gruver reverts Hana-Ogi to her ‘true’ nature as a woman who desires children and an American domestic life. It is through Gruver’s influence that Hana-Ogi’s femininity is able to flourish and restore her qualities as an ideal wife. This mirrors the United States’ belief that their influence over Japan would allow Japanese society to flourish and create an ideal, democratic political partner out of the nation. Sayonara, therefore, is an ultimate rationalization of the white male power and perpetuates the “Lotus Blossom” trope of Asian-American women to do so.3
The World of Suzie Wong (1960)
The World of Suzie Wong (1960) can be understood in the context of the post-WWII influx of Asian women as brides to American soldiers returning from war. The War Brides Act of 1945 expedited the admission of alien spouses and alien minor children of citizen members of the United States armed forces to the united states5, and resulted in the immigration of nearly 6,000 Chinese, 45,000 Japanese, and thousands of Filipino women. These women became integrated into the U.S. conception of the American family. These women were to be ethnically assimilated and domesticated while simultaneously exotic and sexually available. In The World of Suzie Wong Suzie is an illiterate, orphaned prostitute who falls hopelessly in love with a Caucasian man whom hires her to model for him. Her love interest, Robert, initially refuses to return her feelings and instead pitying her before falling in love. The appeal of the Asian woman and her ‘Orientalness’ is evident in Robert’s preferences of Suzie’s appearance. He finds Suzie undesirable in Western clothing and most desirable in traditional Chinese attire. Her appeal is also secured with an exemplification of anti-feminism in an era when the Civil Rights Movement involved women’s rights activism and was seen as threatening to the white, male agenda. For example, one scene portrays Suzie rushing downstairs to show off bruises she collected from a beating supposedly given by Robert during a jealous rage. Suzie’s submissiveness is also extremely evident throughout the film. One scene in particular shows Suzie then kneeling on top of the stairs in grand Chinese attire with Robert standing before her in awe. She then instructs him on how to kiss her properly despite her large headdress stating, ‘‘You tilt your head,’’ to which he responds, ‘‘Clever, these Chinese.’’ Here, Suzie is the disciplined Asian woman, existing for the man as entirely good, entirely exotic. By the end of the film, Suzie effectively returns to the premodern construct of a woman, erasing her status as prostitute, thereby becoming eligible to be Robert’s wife. As such, the scene deals with perceptions of the fetish and the exotic among two individuals. 6 Robert acts as Suzie’s white knight, saving her from the dirty world she resides in, who, despite the incredible hardship of being an illiterate prostitute with an illegitimate son, maintains her beauty, innocence, and virtue.7
Year of the Dragon (1985)
Year of the Dragon is influenced by the influx of Asian immigrants post-Vietnam war and the idea of a Chinatown debauchery that had existed since the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong in 1949. The character of Ariane must be saved by her white love interest after being gang raped by three young Chinese American men, who represent these very dangers of Chinese debauchery. Ariane is a young, attractive Chinese American journalist who captures the eye of Stanley White. Despite being a professional woman, her lacks autonomous significance outside of driving the plot of her white, male protagonist. In the beginning, Ariane appears to be a strong and self-respecting character, but Stanley ultimately dominates her as their relationship progresses with verbal and physical abuse to which she succumbs and reverts to being the “Lotus Blossom” who disregards the racial slurs and personal attacks. White’s dominance over the Asian woman as a representation of foreign and feminist threat is legitimated throughout the movie with events such as an attack on a Chinatown restaurant and the assault of Arian in her apartment that force Tracy to depend on Stanley for protection. The film strips Ariane of her independence, domesticates her, places her under male control, and forces her to side with Stanley against the Chinese community in which she resides. This film effectively represents not only the continued sexualized notion of Asian women created by the Vietnam war, but the idea that Asian immigrants must do away with their culture and submit to American ways in exchange for safety and refuge.8
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Full Metal Jacket can be easily understood as a manifestation of the United States’ global military presence, particularly in the context of the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, and even before during the Korean War, numerous U.S. military bases were established that subsequently gave rise to a large, commercialized sex industry surrounding such bases. These groups of sex industry workers were known as “camp towns,” and created an uneven power dynamic between American soldiers and Asian sex workers. Such a power dynamic shifted into popular media and conception of Asian women where they were associated with unlimited sexual access. The scene to the right is from Full Metal Jacket and is a particularly striking example of the perception of Asian women. Here, a Vietnamese sex worker solicits soldiers with the infamous lines “Me so horny” and “Me love you long time.” This scene not only reflects the reality of sex work during the Vietnam War, but its tone also demonstrates colonial relationships and the notion of the hypersexualized Asian woman who merely exists comfort and entertain American troops.10 This movie represents how the military presence in Asia has resulted in not only an occupation of land, but an occupation of Asian women’s bodies.11
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Memoirs of a Geisha is a representation how the “Lotus Blossom” trope has persisted into modern-day due to the perpetuation of the trope in popular media. The film casters to Western audiences who expect Asian women to be timid, submissive, and domesticated. It aligns with the existing stereotypes and portrays the geisha as dependent on the protection of their geisha house and male patrons. Due to the dependence, they also become victims because they can never find freedom. As if to exemplify this perpetuation of the stereotype, film critic Roger Ebert reviews the film by stating, “I suspect that the more you know about Japan and movies, the less you will enjoy Memoirs of a Geisha. Much of what I know about Japan I learned from Japanese movies, and on that basis, I know this is not a movie about actual geishas but depends on the romanticism of female subjection. The heroines here look so very beautiful, and their world is so visually enchanting as they lived trapped in sexual slavery.” Ebert follows this statement by saying, “…the last thing the audience for Memoirs of a Geisha wants to see is a more truthful film with less gorgeous women and shabbier production values.” Instead, the audience wanted to see “beauty, sex, tradition and exoticism all choreographed into a dance of strategy and desire.”12 The overall success of the film signifies how the idea of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Lotus Blossom’ how become engrained into the West from the long history of Asian discrimination and poor political relations with various Asian nations.
Below is a collection of photos to give more visual context on how the Lotus Blossom has been depicted throughout Hollywood history.
- Feng, Peter X. Screening Asian Americans. Rutgers University Press, 2002. https://www.fulcrum.org/epubs/cz30pt087?locale=en#/6/2[xhtml00000001]!/4/4/1:0.
- Lee, Robert G. 1999: Orientals. Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Romance and the Yellow Peril Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction by Gina Marchetti
- Logan, Joshua, director. Sayonara. Warner Bros., 1957. 2 hr., 27 min.
- “War Brides Acts (1945 & 1946).” Immigration History, September 2, 2019. https://immigrationhistory.org/item/war-brides-acts-1945-1947/.
- Shimizu Celine Parreñas. The Hypersexuality of Race Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
- Quine, Richard, director. The World of Suzie Wong. Paramount Pictures, 1960. 2 hr., 6 min.
- Screening Asian Americans – The Desiring of Asian Female Bodies: Interracial Romance and Cinematic Subjection
- Cimino, Michael, director. Year of the Dragon. MGM/UA Entertainment Company, 1985. 2 hr., 14 min.
- Rao, Sonia. “Asian Women Say Hollywood Has Failed Them for Decades. They’re Ready for Meaningful Change.” The Washington Post. WP Company, March 28, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2021/03/26/asian-women-hollywood-portrayals/.
- Kubrick, Stanley, director. Full Metal Jacket. Warner Bros., 1987. 1 hr., 56 min.
- Marshall, Rob, director. Memoirs of a Geisha. Sony Pictures, 2005. 2 hr., 25 min.