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Engaging 'Mystique' challenges Asian stereotypes

The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient
By Sheridan Prasso
Public Affairs, 437pp, $27.95

Anyone who has seen singer Gwen Stefani lately has noticed the gaggle of giggling Asian women silently shadowing her at various red carpet appearances and performances.

They're supposed to represent Harajuku girls from Tokyo's fashion-forward shopping district of the same name where they personify radical, hip insouciance. Yet Stefani, who once sang of her own frustrations at being undermined because of her gender in ''Just a Girl" and should know better, has reduced them to mute props, Oriental dolls who exist only for her own glorification.

Neither Stefani nor her Harajuku girls are mentioned in Sheridan Prasso's ''The Asian Mystique," but the undoing of such stubborn images of Asians as submissive are the foundation of this dogged book. A former senior news editor and Asia editor for Business Week, Prasso contends that Western misconceptions about Asia ''affect everything from international relations to business negotiations to cross-cultural relationships." Asian men have been branded as ''vulnerable and emasculated," when they aren't considered sneaky and inscrutable. Women, meanwhile, are either passive and sexually obtainable geishas, or cruel, domineering Dragon Ladies.

While Western culture has allowed other races to balance out similar patronization with more positive representations, Prasso argues, ''We have not yet begun such scrutiny on behalf of Asians."

After a compelling historical view, Prasso is at her most obligatory in detailing Hollywood images of Asians. She recalls the tribulations of Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho, who was told by network executives to act ''more Asian" on her short-lived sitcom ''All-American Girl," though Prasso mistakenly calls the series ''American Girl." She also cites TV's much-praised, long-running ''M*A*S*H," which, though set during the Korean War, never had a recurring Asian character until its final season.

More intriguing are Prasso's conversations with contemporary Asian women, including Mineko Iwasaki, who inspired Arthur Golden's wildly popular bestseller ''Memoirs of a Geisha." Iwasaki later sued Golden for misrepresentation, received a settlement, and also wrote a rebuttal book, ''Geisha, A Life." Occasionally, Prasso gets in the way of telling other people's stories, such as when she mentions how Iwasaki ''comments on my fine manners as a foreigner" for her proper use of chopsticks. It's presented as an example of how she won Iwasaki's trust, but plays as if Prasso is eager to prove she's not as culturally insensitive as the rest of us crass Westerners. Later, she has her photo taken while done up as a geisha ''to try to experience what a geisha must endure," but it seems less a moment of insight than a chance for Prasso to play dress up.

Fortunately, she shows more restraint in visits to Bangkok's notorious girlie bars, lambasting the Western men who frequent such places in hopes of finding sexually compliant Asian women. Certainly, Prasso could devote an entire book to damaging perceptions of Asian women, but she argues that Asian men, characterized as weak, have endured an even worse time, with more serious repercussions. Still, her arguments are sometimes shaky. While it's true, as Prasso contends, that US officials have underestimated the military might of Asian leaders and nations, it's a troubling tendency among American military leaders to underestimate every opponent -- witness the ongoing bloody insurgency in Iraq.

Still, whatever its flaws, this is a persuasive, timely book. Unwavering and pointed, Prasso makes clear the destructive nature of stereotypes about Asia and the social, cultural, and political ramifications of allowing them to fester unchallenged.

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