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From Miss Saigon to Miss America: Policing Asian Bodies

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September 20, 2013

“Women, particularly APA women who already experience cultural pressures when deciding to start a family, may experience social pressures to produce certain kinds of children, which could lead to less control over their reproductive decisions and experiences.” – National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF)

After this week’s controversies around Miss America Nina Davaluri and CBS celebrity Julie Chen, it should be clear that the Asian “model minority” myth should be far from the truth. Davaluri faced a great deal of backlash and racial slurs after her victory and Chen came clean about plastic surgery on her eyes to look “less Asian.” Asian-American women are often stereotyped to be submissive, passive, and docile.  But these racist attacks go much further than pop culture and our media.

A long history of Miss Saigon, Madame Butterfly, and Memoirs of a Geisha portray an orientalist view of fragile and helpless Asian women needing a white savior to rescue them and fulfill their lives. However, these portrayals in media have real-life racist effects. Asian women still have their “saviors” policing their bodies, they’re just now called policy-makers. In the reproductive justice movement, the Asian community seems to be left behind.

Recently, the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) community is the target for lawmakers in Arizona restricting abortion access. Arizona’s HB 2443, bans sex and race selective abortions, which is a racist slap in the face to the APIDA community.

From a long tradition of China’s one child policy and India’s societal pressure preferring boys to carry on the family lineage, these cultural stereotypes have carried over into our domestic borders. The APIDA population in the United States is severely less pressured by population control and this heavy scrutiny of APIDA bodies is, in reality, just another way to limit abortions.

Arizona lawmakers cloak language of the bill to promote civil rights and equality for women, but the undertones are charged with anti-immigrant sentiments. The Asian community is stereotyped as the “other” or is always “foreign” — not really a part of the United States. These racist assumptions eventually justify these anti-choice sex selection bans. Thankfully, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have filed suit with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to challenge Arizona’s discriminatory law.

Between Nina Davaluri’s victory and Julie Chen’s revelation, these current events merely highlight a long tradition of attacks on APIDA women. Miriam Yeung, NAPAWF’s Executive Director notes that laws like this “turn Asian American women into suspects and encourages invasive scrutiny of our motives that other women would not be subjected to.” These supposedly docile, passive, and submissive APIDA women are taking charge, and sure as hell taking names. From Miss Saigon, to Miss America: we have a new wave of APIDA individuals shattering these stereotypes and no longer needing “help” from their saviors.

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