My detestation of being called ‘cute’ began in my teens. Teenagers, younger than me, called me cute. People I worked with in my first job called me cute. University students my age told me I was cute. I was growing into adulthood but perceived as child-like by many, a contradiction I found irritating, belittling and confusing. Worse still, when I would act like a normal adult by doing something like… expressing an opinion for example, it was so strange how I could feel the annoyance viscerally radiating from people. It was difficult to understand how opinions of me could oscillate between being a meek, cute thing, as well as an opinionated loudmouth.
I realise now that the two are connected.
Recently, actor McCaulay Culkin and his wife Brenda Song welcomed their first baby into their lives. Shortly after, comments Culkin had made on a podcast about the ethnicity of his wife and their future offspring resurfaced. “I’m going to have tiny little Asian babies… it’s going to be adorable – a bunch of Sean Lennon’s running around the house, that’s what I’m looking for,” he said, referring to the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
“I think that puppies and babies and tiny flowers are cute. Things that we own, look after, or keep as ornaments – not adults with their own agency, identity and personhood.”
The comments irk me in a number of ways. As a person of Chinese and British descent, ever since I can remember; I have endured endless white people dissecting my European and Asian features, as well as bearing the brunt of questions and comments about Asian babies that are so off-topic they are laughable. Is it normal to tell someone you want Asian babies the first time you are introduced to them? No. Stay away from my eggs! These comments, although well-meaning, have caused me to reflect on how this perception has followed East and South-East Asian (ESEA) children into adulthood, and what the impact of that might be.
My aversion to the term ‘cute’ is often seen as misguided – “but cute is a compliment! Cute things are nice!” – but I think that puppies and babies and tiny flowers are cute. Things that we own, look after, or keep as ornaments – not adults with their own agency, identity and personhood. I feel that when white people describe ESEA women as cute, it’s because we are living up to the ESEA woman that exists in the collective Western imagination; one that’s influenced by historic and current media depictions, which in turn relate to colonial notions of the Orient and the desire to conquer.
“The ESEA characters I saw existed only in relation to or in contrast with white people, never the default, either as a punchline for the more ‘normal’ main characters, an accessory or a love interest.”
I was a teenager in the noughties, and all of the music, TV, films and books I encountered around this time were pretty scarce in their representations of ESEA people. Gwen Stefani was followed around by her Japanese and Japanese-American ‘Harajuku girls’, who danced as back-up, and wordlessly followed her around at red carpet events like accessories. Cho Chang appeared in the Harry Potter franchise as a sub-character who became a love interest to both Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory (and, let’s be honest, not much more).
In Mean Girls, we had the nerdy Asians and the cool Asians, who were just a punchline to a joke about these students sleeping with the PE teacher, and in Pitch Perfect we had a silent but spooky ESEA character who reacted to the events of the movie largely just by blinking. 00’s media gave us a mainstream, bad-ass, dynamic ESEA actor in Charlie’s Angels’ Lucy Liu, but I struggle to identify positive ESEA representation beyond her from this time.
These depictions portrayed a spectrum of passive and sometimes childlike people. They were ‘cute’. The ESEA characters I saw existed only in relation to or in contrast with white people, never the default, either as a punchline for the more ‘normal’ main characters, an accessory or a love interest. They fed into the trope of the ‘Lotus Blossom’, as delicate but exotic, submissive and grateful for the Western interference in their lives. I felt like white people aligned me with these women, and it felt disempowering.
“The ‘cute’ stereotype is entrenched in every fiber of our lives. How do we persuade people we are competent, that we have good ideas, that we deserve to be taken seriously?”
The infantilisation of ESEA women casts us as delicate, childlike and passive, but it does not afford us protection. It works to dehumanise us. I fear it makes violence against us seem easy to commit and inconsequential. Violence against ESEA people is on the rise, and a gender breakdown of reported violent crimes against ESEA people in the US shows that women are far more likely to sustain racist attacks than men. ESEA people in the UK face structural discrimination but the government maintains that the UK is devoid of racism.
This stereotype is entrenched in every fiber of our lives. How do we persuade people we are competent, that we have good ideas, that we deserve to be taken seriously? Romantically, how do we find relationships where we are not just expected to fulfil the ESEA woman ideal that exists in our partner’s imagination? Socially, how does cuteness allow for intelligent, articulate and outspoken ESEA children and women? What happens when we are aligned with the imaginary ESEA woman and what happens when we are held in contrast to her?
“The issue was never with cuteness or myself, but how Western society created an imaginary ESEA woman, and then used her as a yardstick to measure the rest of us against.”
Now, storytelling around ESEA people is changing. Predictably, mainstream representation favours the fairer and wealthier ESEA people (hello ‘Crazy Rich Asians’! Hello ‘Bling Empire’!), but I am grateful that I now have access to completely non-cute ESEA women to admire, and I hope young ESEA people do too. My historic unease with cuteness amplifies my love for the talent and innovation of these women; I revel in the depth of Awkwafina’s voice and her comedic timing, in Zing Tsjeng’s wardrobe and her ‘Empires of Dirt’ Vice docuseries, in Rina Sawayama’s queer pop love songs and her futuristic videos.
Now, as an adult, I love being Asian. It might seem contradictory, but I do like things like make-up and skincare and crop tops and little shorts… basically, I like to look ‘cute’. The issue was never with cuteness or myself, but how Western society created an imaginary ESEA woman, and then used her as a yardstick to measure the rest of us against. I didn’t like fitting into either camp, but I realise now that I exist in a space separate to that of the Western imagination, because I don’t have to believe in the imaginary ESEA woman even if others do.
Joanna Sing is a primary school teacher based in South East London. She enjoys talking and writing about education, ethnicity, gender and popular culture. @joanna_sing
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