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How Western media has sexually exploited racialized women

By Alyssa Bravo

Posted on August 6, 2021
This article contains mentional violence, misos of sexugyny, and racism
Womens faces

Following the March 2021 shooting in Atlanta that claimed the lives of six Asian women, it was questioned whether or not the shooter’s actions were racially-motivated. However, the revelation that he was a self-identifying sex addict sparked a conservation about how women of colour are often hyper-sexualized in Western culture and are consequently more susceptible to sexual violence than white women.

For decades, Western media has exploited the hypersexualized portrayal of Black, Indigenous, and other women of colour in ways that have perpetuated inescapable and dangerous stereotypes.

Problematic depictions in pop culture

It is no secret that Hollywood has had a tendency to misrepresent people of colour. Films, television, and all types of media in this industry cater to one particular viewer: the white, heterosexual male.

In Hollywood, Black, Indigenous, and other women of colour have been depicted in ways to emphasize their “exotic beauty” and sexuality. Certain caricatures have become closely associated with women of colour, such as the prostitute or the stripper, the homewrecker, the unfit mother, and the war bride.

Black women are commonly portrayed as angry, sassy, overly sexual and sometimes violent. This is also prevalent in hip-hop and rap culture, where Black women are typically portrayed as sexual objects.

An example of this can be seen in the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton, where the few Black women who did receive screen time were dressed provocatively and presented as mere accessories for their male counterparts.

When Black women are given more screen time, they are usually the confidante to the white protagonist, while their sexual promiscuity is used for laughs. In a 2019 study by the Geena Davis Institute in Media, it was found that Black women television characters are more likely to engage in strictly sexual relationships rather than romantic ones.

American fashion model Tyra Banks famously once said, “Black women have always been these vixens, these animalistic, erotic women. Why can’t we just be the sexy American girl next door?”

In a similar fashion, Latina women in the media are portrayed as extremely sexually-driven, temperamental, and shown to speak with overly-exaggerated accents. They are also often presented as clueless and oblivious to Westernized social cues. They dress provocatively as a way to lure men in.

This portrayal of Latina women is seen in television sitcoms such as Modern Family and Desperate Housewives with the characters of Gloria and Gabrielle, respectively. These characters are loud, bombastic, and their sexualities are emphasized.

“The problem with the ‘spicy Latina’ stereotype is that it generalizes Latina identity and doesn’t allow for much room to form an individual and authentic self,” said Katherine Garcia in her article “Where the ‘Spicy Latina’ Stereotype Came From – And Why It’s Still Racist Today.”

In Hollywood, Asian women are typically depicted as violent, “Dragon ladies” who actively seek out sex from men. When they are not portrayed this way, Asian women are presented as servile, submissive, and unclean—made to be seduced and taught how to be “civilized” by the white man.

“The polar way we understand gender as virginal equals good or hypersexual equals bad is particularly a prison for Asian women, because representations in between are hardly in the movies or are hardly around,” Celine Parreñas Shimizu told Vox.

Indigenous women also fall victim to this stereotype in film. When they are not openly violent or “savage,” they are submissive and made to romanticize the idea of colonization by being paired off with a white man.

For example, in the Broadway musical Miss Saigon and the 1995 Disney animated film Pocahontas, the lead women of colour falls in love with white men and show a willingness to sacrifice her family, customs, and life for him.

Indigenous women and the stereotypes that follow them are still present to this day, with their attire and culture being fetishized by Western consumers. This can be seen every Halloween, with hypersexualized variations of the “Indian squaw” costume as well as fringe and headdresses worn to American events such as Coachella.

In her 2017 study, Sophie Croisy said that stereotypical representations of Indigenous women enforced by non-Indigenous people can perpetuate their devaluing and disintegration in society.

The history of these stereotypes

This objectification of racialized women in Western media can be tied to the lengthy history of enslavement and colonization.

An example of a historical stereotype is the Jezebel, which depicts Black women (particularly light-skinned Black women) as seductresses with “an insatiable appetite for sex,” according to the the Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

The stereotype served as a rationalization for sexual relationships between white male slave-owners and Black female slaves. Black slave women were considered property, and thus they couldn’t “legally” be raped by their slave-owner.

Indigenous women who resisted colonial practices were labelled as “squaws”. According to a report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Indigenous women characterized as “squaws” were dirty, lewd, and sexually deviant. This sexual deviance, thus, was used to justify sex and sexual violence forced upon them by colonizers.

European and American colonization of Asian countries resulted in the sexually submissive “lotus blossom” stereotype. For example, the presence of American military in countries such as China, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam led to contact between American soldiers and Asian women. Some soldiers married young Asian women who worked as service or sex workers and brought them to the United States, while others merely saw Asian women as exotic prostitutes.

Real-life repercussions

These stereotypes have been instrumental in the high rates of sexual assault, sex-trafficking, and violence against women of colour in Canada and in the United States.

  • A 2020 report found that for every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 Black women do not
  • According to Statistics Canada, six in 10 Indigenous women have experienced sexual assault. In the same report, it was revealed that 47 per cent of Latina women have experienced intimate partner violence
  • In a 2011 survey, it was found that 56 per cent of Filipina women and 64 per cent of Indian and Pakistani had experienced sexual violence
  • In a 2008 report, it was found that Asian and Indigenous women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by men of different ethnicities

Although offensive depictions of Black, Indigenous, and other women of colour are becoming more recognized as problematic, there are still many real-life consequences that must be rectified. The onus is on each and every one of us to continue to ‘lift our voices’ and hold media organizations accountable to ensure that the depiction of women of colour and women of ethnic diversities are represented in light of the diverse attributes, talents, and character traits that women possess.

If you are experiencing or are at risk of sexual violence, do not be afraid to reach out and get help by telling someone you trust, calling emergency services, going to your nearest sexual assault centre, or contacting an assaulted women’s helpline.

Ontario Assaulted Women’s Helpline

Greater Toronto Area

Mobile (Fido, Rogers, Bell, and Telus networks)
#SAFE (#7233)

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