Johns Hopkins University
Recently, a music video called “Asian Girlz” by a talentless band has inflamed Asia America. It is not worth attention. But in this age of viral videos, it's difficult to heed the advice of Nietzsche's Zarathustra to pass by what we cannot love. I likewise am unable to pass by the racism and sexism expressed by the video that are ordinary features of Asian American life. That said, I address the video to criticize its expressions of White patriarchy. I also use it to comment on the politics of aesthetics framing racism and sexism in the Asian American contemporary condition.
In the video, a tattooed “Asian girl” comes home, turns on the lights, and uncovers a bird cage containing the Day Above Ground band, its members miniaturized. They serenade her with stereotypes—to her delight. She smiles to lyrics like “I love your creamy yellow thighs / Ooh your slanted eyes / It's the Year of the Dragon / Ninja pussy I'm stabbin'.” She undresses, dances, carries the cage into the bathroom, and bathes with the band. She leaves the bath, locks up the band, and turns off the lights, leaving the room as the camera zooms in on a “Shrinking Potion.”
The video's belittling of racism and sexism made me angry and disgusted, but not shocked—it screens a catalogue of orientalism that is too familiar. The intensity of my feelings was due not only to what the video depicts, but also to the effects of how the video shapes depictability itself. The video's frame functions as what Jacques Rancière calls a “partition of the sensible,” filtering what is seeable and sayable. In the frame, we see an Asian woman enjoying the fetishism lavished on her. We do not see what Asian women outside the video don't enjoy—all the cat calls, unwanted gropings, and harassment on the street, at work, online, and just about everywhere, really, and all the sexual violence in cahoots with orientalism. Refract all that through what the video wants us to see—enjoyment—and we get an image of Asian women as wanting White patriarchy.
Of course, women's pleasure and play can be political, but the video doesn't connect fun to politics. Instead, it exaggerates the political agency available to Asian women at the cross-section of racism, orientalism, patriarchy, and empire. Responding to accusations of racism, the video's director Michael Steinberg insists that the Asian woman is “fully in control and in power;” she is aware that the men “have been captured by and held prisoner” to an “obsession” that she uses “for her own amusement.” That is rape culture logic. It says that men cannot control desires sparked by seductive women, who could've dressed appropriately or just tried to enjoy being raped if it was happening anyway. That this logic circulates in courtrooms and police precincts highlights the video's continuity with US state patriarchy in the pseudo-agency it gifts women. Contemporary patriarchy depicts white men as diminished and contained in comparison with Asian women's gargantuan agency. It frames racism and sexism as playthings that can be left in the dark at the flip of a switch. It imagines that hardened histories can be upturned by a spot of fun. In short, the video misrepresents White sexist fantasy as Asian women's agency, establishing the former as fact while reducing the latter to having a good time. The orientalist partitioning of the sensible faced by Asian American women today says: White patriarchy is here to stay and you had better learn to like it.
Indeed, the band aims to control the seeable and the sayable. Its members respond to accusations of racism: they have Asian friends and girlfriends, and live in Asian communities (hell, one of the band members is himself Asian!); their video didn't intend to offend but is satire that people don't get; with artistic license, they sought to provoke controversy (wait, I thought they didn't intend to be offensive...); the video doesn't disparage Asian women, but worships them as gorgeous goddesses (wait, I thought the video is supposed to be satire...). The band sounds like liars who trip over their own confused, sorry tales. It offers messy, desperate denials of the possibility that the video could be racist and sexist. That refusal has involved deleting accusations of racism from their Facebook and YouTube pages. In doing so, the band claims that it alone knows what racism and sexism look like. The band has been happy to play police, whose function, according to Rancière, is to close spaces of dissensus: “Move along, there's nothing to see here!” By restraining what is sayable about racism and sexism, the band reifies White patriarchy.
How might Asians address both denials of orientalism and partitions of the sensible that enable those denials to work? I offer a few considerations.
First, our responses should beware the amplification of our anger into violent resentment. Zarathustra warned of the dangers attending ressentiment, and we who suffer the sting of abjection would do well to draw out its poison from our hearts. I hear ressentiment in the slut-shaming of Levy Tran, the video's “Asian girl.” I hear ressentiment in calls from some Asian men for a video that disparages white women to see how “they”—presumably, white men—like it. Ressentiment-fueled responses hazard adopting White patriarchal violence as our own, and our ground for antiracism cannot be sexism.
Second, we must consider how to hold people accountable for the racism and sexism that runs through them. Ressentiment shapes a punitive stance towards those we blame for offending or damaging us. I worry that ressentiment works through a partition of the sensible that refocuses our struggles against orientalism on orientalists as targets responsible for long-standing histories. But White patriarchy operates subtly, shaping us well before we become aware of, let alone can work against, the process. It is easy to forget the class privileges of education, contingencies of upbringing, and circles of sociality that have long cultivated our capacity to sniff out racism and sexism. White patriarchy is so visible to our trained eyes that we get frustrated if others don't readily “see the light,” making ressentiment-driven responses appealing as quick fixes.
But some who invoke racism and sexism may come to acknowledge rather than deny, listen rather than speak, learn rather than refuse. With them, we might develop what William Connolly has called “relations of agonistic respect.” Rather than vilifying them as sovereign and hence blameworthy, we might engage them as part of capitalist and orientalist histories that no one has authored. In this way, we distinguish between holding people accountable and holding power accountable. The latter reshapes the former by resisting the temptation to be punitive. We cultivate some patience, knowing that individuals don't change overnight, while putting hard pressure upon them to check their orientalism.
But what about those who, like the band, persist in their denials? Nietzsche warned against staring into the abyss for too long, lest its darkness seep into our hearts. Perhaps a little passing by is needed after all. So I think, finally, that our politics should not be only or foremost a “response.” Instead, we might affirm the vicissitudes of history and power that have made us complex meshes of violence, othering, and silencing, but also of expressivity, belonging, and thriving. This aesthetics of the self refashions the pieces of our broken, beautiful identities into something tragically joyful that can be paraded publicly and proudly. We march by those who continue to deny their orientalism.
Asian American affirmation can become a politics of aesthetics that repartitions White patriarchal sensibilities. I see an affirmative politics of aesthetics practiced by Asian Americans who have spent their energy on their own art or in promoting Asian American talent. Acknowledging that direct criticism may secure the attention desired by the band, Terry Park and Sean Miura have curated and circulated a YouTube playlist and Spotify channel of Asian Pacific American women musicians. This politics of aesthetics aspires to retune our eyes and ears to what is laudable rather than reprehensible, curbing the dangers of ressentiment and repartitioning the Euro- and Asian American sensible. It upsets the conditions of seeability and sayability that support White patriarchal policing of what counts as racism and sexism. It does not show that Asian Americans, like an afterthought of White American liberalism, can also be talented artists; rather, it wants to reframe the conditions of what counts as “talent” and “art.” It spotlights Asian women artists, not Asian girlz.
Many people may find these sentiments to be soft, apolitical, or just plain naïve. By asking us Asian Americans to be cautious and self-critical, I may be accused of splintering the minoritized to the benefit of White patriarchy. I am not against a hard-edged political response shaped in part by anger, demand, and calls for accountability. Still, I follow Zarathustra's desire for a hate that springs from love (agonistic respect) rather than from the swamp (ressentiment). Of course, relations of agonistic respect are untenable with persistent deniers of racism and sexism, and Nietzsche warns that changing others happens rarely and soils us often. So I end with a call for a multi-faceted politics that calls out orientalism whenever and wherever it appears, that derails White patriarchal efforts to control what counts as racism and sexism, that militantly holds accountable the most egregious denials, and that patiently and agonistically engages those who come to listen and learn, passes by the trolls who do not, and, above all, affirms ourselves through and through—through music, or performance, or writing, or any aesthetic that expresses our persistent, resilient, lovely lives.
My thanks to Jenny Hoang and Terry Park & his Facebook friends for help in fine-tuning these thoughts and words.