Casting female stereotypes in the Pacific Rim


By Wilson Tai


Pacific Rim Discourse, UCSC

LTWL 114 – Fall 2001

Professor Rob Wilson



It is only because we have a movement and discourse of Asian Americans, Asian-American studies, and Pacific Rim perspectives, that I can look at how Japanese Animation (better known as “anime” to fans around the world) influences American culture. In general, any popular media influences the people subjected to it. Japanese animation influences American film and television, and in turn, influences society and the people within. Specifically, it has come to my attention that Asian women, who are typically stereotyped as “passive geisha hooker dragon lady butterfly,” (Chin) are being represented in both Japanese and American media as: strong, sexy, and aggressive - the ultimate male fantasy: a lady in the dining room and a whore in the bedroom.

It begins with female representation in Japanese animation as a form of societal representation that crosses the Pacific to America. It then in turn, is consumed by Americans and becomes a hybridized popular culture. The Asian female is portrayed with ideological assumptions in American media such as television and film. Some might see it as a positive thing to have Asian actresses on the big screen, and it is – but in the end, the thinly veiled stereotypes remain. After all is said and done, the female, powerful and sexual, is further mysterious and confusing (but perhaps more intriguing) for the man.

Rarely has there been a regular television show or film with a lead character of Asian heritage. Not only are Asian Americans underrepresented, the little representation that Asians do get are characteristically stereotypical. George Gerbner completed a fairness and diversity in television report in 1998 and found that Asian/Pacific characters are still less than one half of their proportion of the population, with 2.6 percent of the cast in the nineties. In the past, Asians have often been portrayed as cooks (Happy Days), loyal assistants (Green Hornet, Star Trek), or heavily accented landlords (Suddenly Susan). Why does Hollywood restrict its portrayals of Asians to a limited range of clichéd characters? Today Hollywood promotes a couple of mainstream Asian actresses – and they speak accent-free fluent Mandarin and English! Asian actresses have crossed over into more contemporary and significant roles but are still stereotyped in another way.

One particular popular actress is Michelle Yeoh. She is a female warrior that wields a sword in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Turning Chinese moral and history upside down, the characters celebrate the birth of a daughter, not son. Further, for a woman to touch a sword is a dishonor to the sword, but that doesn’t stop the women. The films cinematography and action is stunning, applauded by audiences worldwide, and awarded by the academy, but what is really the appeal of the film for American viewers? Ang Lee’s film was released overseas years before being distributed in the states. The fighting genre is and has been plentiful overseas, so how did this film make it big in Hollywood? Perhaps the film is appreciated as more mainstream with the headlining stars and director, but the theme of sword fighting and love story twist is too generic. What is perhaps overlooked by most viewers is the fact that the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, uncharacteristically, features leading women that fight as well as, and often better, than the men. The female characters receive as much screen time as the male counterparts. They are also young, beautiful, graceful, and feminine.

Another popular actress in film is Lucy Liu; she was the first Asian-American female to host Saturday Night Live. Liu was cast as one of the super trio of ass-kicking girls in the film, Charlie’s Angels. The theme involves three women, detectives with a mysterious boss, using martial arts and sex appeal to fight crime. In a better-known role, Liu is a growling, ill-tempered lawyer, who remains mysterious and sexual to her co-workers, in the television show, Ally McBeal. But then she was cast in a stereotypical role as a dominatrix in the Mel Gibson action film, Payback. Though Asian female representation is limited in media, Lucy Liu manages to get herself into film and television roles. However, her popularity and survival in HollywoodHoHhh   depends on her dominatrix roles - the sexy, cock teasing, and seductive mistress stereotype, is still intact. Who knows if America would welcome older and less seductive Asian females? I would assume they’d receive the same constructed and limited role as older females do in Hollywood – that is, seemingly evil and lacking sexiness. Without sexuality, it’d be hard to argue that Asian females wouldn’t be casted.

At the same time women are powerful and equals to their male co-stars, their power is subject to their ability to remain highly aggressive, domineering, and sexy. Why? In regards to gender roles, the “western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient,” (Orientalism, 3) will exist as long as Asian women remain sexual objects. This idea can be linked to the similar representation of female hero roles in Japanese animation. First, we need to understand what anime is:


While anime has its origins in Japanese wood block printing as well as American animation, it posits technology as a positive force in contemporary society and, therefore, much anime has a futuristic quality. The works in the exhibition focus on slick, sci-fi concepts such as futuristic technology, cyborgs and other humanoid robotics, aliens and fantastic creatures, and post-nuclear apocalyptic landscapes. The exhibition also explores social and economic themes such as gender roles, consumerism, and pop culture. 


Anime is the term used outside Japan to refer to Japanese animation but in Japan, anime is the term for all animation. Anime is based on the style and content of manga, which are Japanese graphic comic books. Anime is versatile in its ability to construct social gender roles and contemporary values in the face of an unknown future - it is a reflection of society and culture. As anime is imported across the Pacific into America, the foreign images and ideas make their way into American society as well. In animation, female protagonists are also young, hyper sexual, and aggressive. They are often matched to hapless male character leads. It wasn’t too long ago when anime featured females as weak and submissive to males, but animation in the past decade has shifted to the super-female ideology. As M. Butterfly’s, Hwang, tried to break through not only Gallimard's fantasies about Chinese culture and feminine subservience, but also the viewer’s preconceived ideas about the Orient, anime attempts to flip gender roles and expectations. Why? Is it due to the artist, the market, or the society? Japanese animation master, Hayao Miyazaki, draws comparisons to Walt Disney, and is a pioneer in anime. Perhaps the most prevalent theme that is consistent through his films is the capability of young women to function as heroes without being stereotyped the other way. Miyazaki has always given strong roles to women, both emotionally and in terms of action and adventure, yet his female characters are given room to be as “feminine’’ as they want to be. Miyazaki isn’t the only animation master to promote the “super-female” idealogy in anime. As Eri Izawa points out in her idea of “The Initially Unequal Relationship: Super Women Who Bring the Male Up.”


A recent style of anime introduces the "Super Woman" notion, though it could be said the earliest "super woman" was Oscar, of Rose of Versailles, from 1974. Main character heroines such as Mikami (Ghost Sweeper Mikami), Gally (Gunnm) and Natsuki (Natsuki Crisis) are of this type, stronger and smarter than everyone else around them, including their love interests. And, unlike some other anime, they are not ashamed to be better, and they fight hard to stay sharp and competent. The male doesn't strive to change/lower the woman, but instead strives to raise himself to her level. (It doesn't help that sometimes the male is slightly unstable in some way --- usually a tad dense, a bit lacking in self-discipline, a bit unreliable, or sometimes overly sex-crazed). The trend is for the heroine to remain independent and aloof until the male character gets enough of a "grip" to improve himself until he is worthy of her. The end result of this type seems to be a more equal partnership --- though it's notable that, at the very end of the series, Gally loses her powers and Mikami may be far surpassed by her apprentice.


Make no mistake, these animated super women are powerful and equals but they still reveal panties and up-skirt shots. They are beefed up in their masculine mecha robot suits and fight evil with prowess and confidence, as exemplified in the popular anime series, Bubblegum Crisis, but after unarming themselves, they return to the sexy and beautiful school girls who stereotypically dream of romance, staying at home, playing with dolls, and doing the laundry. The idea is that women, no matter how physically powerful or independent they are, are actually looking for someone whom they can depend on and who will protect them. Does this dual-identity of women exist in Asian values and cultures? It does seem to satisfy the, “lady in the dining room and a whore in the bedroom” chauvinistic fantasy, but that’s what it is – a fantasy.

The binary isn’t limited to just Asian females; you see the binary in all types of media. On one hand you see the barely legal pop-diva Britney Spears performing a seductive and revealing sex-romp dance in her latest MTV video, “I’m a Slave for You.” On the other hand, you see her on huge billboards and nationwide magazine ads as the proposed idol of millions of teenage girls (as the successful commercialized Pepsi girl). Look closely, and you’ll see the exposed hot pink thong riding up her thigh. Britney Spears, not surprisingly, happens to be a fantasy of many men, worldwide.

According to Cynthia Enloe, “there exists an American sexual gaze towards the exotic, malleable third-world female - specifically, the colonial gaze displaced upon the female "other" as hyper-sexualized, embodying female masochism, and a one-dimensional willingness to seduce and please.  The propagation of sex tourism, and the prevalence of the military in ‘Oriental’ prostitution is a case in point, and gives credence to the underlying lingering paradigm of the exotic female lacking the purity intrinsic to the imperial Christian female.” Influences abound; stereotypes are a product of prevailing myths propagated by various medias, films, and television. The stereotyping of Asian women often is towards the extreme of the docile, subservient sexual object, or dragon lady. Despite the general under representation of Asian Americans, Asian female roles have at least received more exposure due to the sexually charged stereotypes whereas Asian male roles are more confined due to the lack of sexuality. Whatever way you take it, it is important to remember while stereotypes can negatively label and affect a group, in real life, you still have to define yourself individually.





Chin, Justin. Mongrel: Essays, Diatribes, and Pranks. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.


Chun, Kimberly. “Princess Mononoke” Comes to Life. 28 October 1999. <>.


Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1990.


Gerbner, George. The 1998 Screen Actors Guild Report: Casting the American Scene. 1998 December. <>.


Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. Stanford, 1988.


Izawa, Eri. Gender and Gender Relations in Manga and Anime. 29 November 2001.



My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation. 28 November 2001. <>.


Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.


Schodt, Frederik L. Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1997.




Wilson Tai, Copyright ã 2001