On the weekend of Valentine’s Day, East Asian dance group Triple 8 put on their annual show Fortune. A key image in their advertising campaign depicted a white male, surrounded by seven Asian women. At the far left was an Asian male, his face out of focus and washed out by heavy backlighting.
When I first saw this photo, I struggled to discern exactly why it made me feel uncomfortable. I noted the gender and racial imbalance, but it wasn’t until a non-Asian friend commented, “Of course the white guy is in the middle,” that I linked my discomfort to yellow fever, a term referring to the fetishization of Asians because of perceived cultural values or stereotypes. In the real world and, even more overwhelmingly, in the media, the most common Asian/non-Asian interracial relationship takes the form of Asian female/white male.
To clarify, I don’t think an attraction to Asian women is problematic in itself. I think people are physically attracted to what they are physically attracted to, and condemning someone for being particularly attracted to members of a certain race is as unproductive to deterring actual racism. But yellow fever denotes more than pure attraction to Asian women, since such attraction is often packaged with less innocuous qualifiers: “I like Asian girls because they’re exotic,” “I like Asian girls because they’re docile.” Beyond fetishizing Asian women as tame, submissive creatures, yellow fever emasculates the Asian male – a perspective that Christie Jiang spectacularly captures through the eyes of her eleven-year-old brother in her article “Sorry Bro, You’re Not Cool.”
The Fortune promo certainly conforms to all of the “right” stereotypes: the prominent role of the white male, the seven Asian women surrounding him, the literally sidelined Asian male. They all fall in line with how yellow fever objectifies Asian women as accessories to white men, and portrays the Asian male as someone who is, if not explicitly emasculated, nondescript and undeserving of attention.
Of course, context is important. I spoke to Juliana Wu, the photographer, about the logistics of the shoot. Jake, the white male, and David, the Asian male, were the only two boys who could make it to the shoot. Aesthetic considerations also limited the ways in which the models could be arranged: Jake was not only tall, but the only male dressed in formalwear, so he was placed in the middle of the shot to ensure symmetry by height and gender. David was wearing casual pants, which explains why he isn’t as prominently featured. According to Jenn Cho, a Triple 8 dancer, “We all, in retrospect, think maybe that this wasn’t the best picture to choose, but it wasn’t pointed [to offend] in any way.”
I suspected as much when I first saw the photo. No East Asian dance group would ever base a photo shoot on the concept of yellow fever. I wasn’t conflicted about the photo because I knew its subtext was unintentional; after all, lack of intent doesn’t necessarily excuse the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. Rather, my uncertainty reflected my very mixed feelings toward yellow fever. In her 2014 article “Why I Like Yellow Fever,”Lena Sun describes how yellow fever can counterintuitively feel empowering to Asian women, a sentiment I can personally identify with. Unlike the model minority stereotype, which portrays Asian Americans as “boring academic robots,” yellow fever gives me and women who look like me an air of excitement and desirability.
Moreover, on this campus, where “Asian” is an omnipresent qualifier for certain groups – how often have you heard references to “Asian engineers,” heavily accented “Asian preceptors,” and of course, Yik Yak’s favorite “Asian tourists?” – being seen with a non-Asian male allows me to remove myself as a target of the tendency to cluster Asians into groups of misfits instead of seeing the individual. I can set myself apart from the foreignness the word “Asian” invokes: its implications that Asians self-segregate or can’t speak perfect English or, literally, are foreigners. Like an immigrant in a green card marriage, I can exclaim: Look! I belong here; I’m assimilating. I can enjoy this personal victory even as yellow fever marks me “exotic.”
So, while I dislike the stereotypes associated with yellow fever on an ideological level, I can’t say that I don’t enjoy them in an emotional way. And this might explain why Triple 8 felt comfortable enough to publish this photo – as well as a more general flippancy toward the stereotypes surrounding yellow fever in Asian-American media. “Yellow Fever,” a hugely popular 2006 short film by YouTube actor-producer-director team Wong Fu Productions, follows the story of an Asian-American college student as he seeks to answer the question, “Why are all the white guys taking all our Asian girls?” When I first saw “Yellow Fever” – which was also, incidentally, one of the first times I saw an Asian-American actor onscreen – I found it cheeky, funny, and relatable.
At the same time, “Yellow Fever” represents “our” Asian girls as objects that can be “taken.” By the end of the video, Phil realizes that “yellow fever” exists only because “the majority of Asian guys have very small… confidence” (you can guess what that strategic pause implied). These are issues Cindy Gao discusses more thoroughly in her analysis of racism in the work of Asian American YouTube stars. For the most part, I decisively agree with Gao – but, it took me nine years to take issue with “Yellow Fever”; likewise, it has taken me weeks to consolidate my uneasy reaction to the Fortunepromo.
As an Asian-American woman to whom yellow fever is simultaneously objectifying and gratifying, it’s hard to feel immediate outrage at its depictions and real-life manifestations. To many, it might be difficult feel any sense of outrage at all. The most common reaction I heard when I raised my concerns about the photo to my friends, Asian and otherwise, was, “Yeah, I get you… But it’s not like it’s a big deal.”
While the length of this article might suggest otherwise, I honestly agree. I don’t think the Fortune promo or “Yellow Fever” (or this article, for that matter) should provoke any vehement offense in anybody. Indeed, most of my encounters with yellow fever have been subtle images or passing moments, rather than bold proclamations about the merits of dating quiet Asian girls. They’ve also been largely internal. Yellow fever doesn’t offend me so much as it forces me to confront tensions between my sexuality and my ethnicity, in moments that are commonplace but loaded: when I’m ostensibly complimented as “cute” or “sweet,” when I spend a night out at Colonial, when I think about who I’m attracted to and why – and when I see a poster for an East Asian dance group depicting a white guy surrounded by Asian girls.