Tag Archives: sexuality

On Feminine, Desexualized Asian Men: Beyond Emasculation, Toward Reappropriation

Asian men are represented in one of two ways: either as the wimpy egghead or the kung fu master/ninja/samurai. “He is sometimes dangerous, sometimes friendly, but almost always characterized by a desexualized Zen asceticism,” says Richard Fung, artist and post-colonial theorist.

Soft-spoken and shy, the nerdy Asian coworker or classmate may be hardworking and successful, but he rarely exudes sexuality. Today, when everything between French fries and surveillance database boast a vigorous bigger-is-better gusto, every Asian guy who has ever suffered a “small penis” joke knows the unsettling feeling of being emasculated by a culture in which the words “beautiful”, “handsome”, and “sexy” wear a white face.

This article discusses the ways Asian men are stripped of their masculinity and have their sexuality feminized, and postulates that East Asian popular music culture (i.e., Korean pop music) may be a harbinger for reappropriating the “feminine” aesthetic.

Shin TaeHo/Teo

Shin TaeHo/Teo

Due to the Western conception of “the Orient” in the 19th-century as foreign and exotic, a land and people to be observed and colonized, East Asian culture has been represented as alluring, passive, and feminine.Just as the exploration of the American West constructed an egocentric and masculine cultural identity for the frontier, so too did the penetration of new Asian markets for enticing and unfamiliar goods such as tea, silk, and porcelain.

For Asian people, the result of gendered projections onto their cultural identity has been the fetishization of Asian women and the desexualization of Asian men. Asian men seeking employment in the United States in the 19th-century were relegated to launderers, tailors, cleaners, and cooks: “women’s work.” U.S. laws prohibiting Asians from marrying whites persisted through the 1960s until the repeal of all anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 with Loving v. Virginia. While Asian women, allied with second-wave feminism, have begun dialogue about the oppressiveness of “yellow fever” in the eroticized “geisha girl” and “China doll” tropes, Asian men have remained notably silent.

Mainstream narratives of Asian men as viable and attractive romantic partners often rely on gendered stereotypes and “Otherization”. In a Newsweek article “Why Asian guys are on a roll” by Esther Pan, Asian men are described as “something different,” and a “smart, genuine, respectful” alternative to the “all-American guy.”If the Asian man is “different” and therefore opposite to the “all-American” guy, his gendered traits are also opposite to the normal, “masculine” image of the white male.

Shortly after, The Seattle Times published David Nakamura’s satirical piece, “They’re hot they’re sexy… they’re Asian men”, in which the author revealed longstanding stereotypes confronting Asian-American men. They were described by white women as “the best-kept secret around,” having a “slender physique,” “beautiful eyes,” and a “combination of ‘old-fashioned’ values and New Age insights that many women desire.” If wanted at all, Asian men are desired for traditionally feminine traits or their exotic, perceived New Age-spiritual identity. Romantically labeled as “different”, Asian-American men are set outside the ideals of the “normal”, “all-American” concept of masculinity.

The Asian male feminization have some peculiar social effects. Asian guys tend to either date “alternative types”, e.g., nerds, hipsters, or Asian girls, facing barriers in mainstream attraction (upon discovering that the pop star Lorde had an Asian boyfriend, the internet had a racist meltdown).


A collection of twits: “Lorde and her boyfriend make me uncomfortable” (via Jezebel)

In the gay community, gay Asian males are expected to be submissive, and are “desirable only for a select subgroup of men who favor ‘femmes’ over ‘real’ men”. Eurocentric standards of attraction and the invisibility of Asian men in gay publications reduce the self-confidence of gay Asians and determine the overwhelming preference of white sexual partners. In the world of drag queens, Asian men are perceived as possessing a “natural advantage” over their white competitors due their ability to “pass” as real women and be more “authentically” feminine. Yet, given the historical and cultural context outlined above, are Asian-American men more successful because of their “delicate features,” or because the white judges and conditioned audience cannot see them as anything but feminized?

A lack of positive and mainstream representation in television and movies of Asian men lies at the heart of the problem. While academics write about the emasculation of Asian-American men, the publicity of the issue is as prevalent as Asian representatives in Hollywood (that is, little). Perhaps the most notable individual who has spoken out about Asian male stereotypes is Yul Kwon – (who?) – the winner of Survivor: Fiji.


Yul Kwon, admired for what’s inside his head as much as what’s underneath his shirt: Kwon was a strategic player in a season intentionally split along ethnicities by the show’s producers.

In lieu of mainstream role models, Asians have taken to the democratic platform of YouTube, and KevJumba, Timothy DeLaGhetto, and Wong Fu Productions have made videos on thecommon theme of girls, interracial relationships, and self-image, in order to challenge stereotypes and encourage individuals to have pride in themselves and their identity. With their massive following, these individuals are vital oases to many Asian-Americans in the desert of popular culture’s stereotypical Asian representations.

However, there are changes on the (Eastern) horizon: in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, male beauty norms have undergone a transformation from the tough machismo of soldiers and gangsters to the effeminate beauty icons of Korean pop stars, or kkonminam (kkot = flower; minam = handsome man). Before asking if such a change could happen in the U.S., one first asks: Why? What could cause the disruption of masculinity, a strong foundation to these patriarchal cultures?

The answer: K-pop.

Since the late 1990s, Korean pop music has extended its reach throughout Asian and into the West, trumpeting a stylish, sleek aesthetic that combines cool R&B dance moves and catchy hooks. It’s taking over the world, breaking national boundaries and prejudices.


The South Korean boy-band 2PM: coiffed and made-up for a shoot.

Some commentators associate the rise of kkonminam to the surge of popularity in Korea of the female-oriented yaoi comic genre, which originates in Japan. (The male characters in yaoi are usually drawn as androgynous and engage in homoerotic or homoromantic relationships; while targeted to young women, it is read by both males and females.) Others attribute the growth of male beauty to the changing role of men in society: in both the United States (remember how “metrosexual” entered the vocabulary?) and Asia, the popularity of the violent and brutish representations of masculinity is fading.

While these factors underlie the smooth faces and plucked eyebrows of the new, feminine Asian man, it’s still lady’s choice. If young women, the primary consumers of these forms of media, find slim and stylish men desirable, then these men, with their pretty faces, are the prototypes to a new standard of attractiveness.

The danger of K-pop looks and the kkonminam aesthetic is that, if universalized, they have the potential to reduce young men into commodified or fetishized bodies. On the other hand, efflorescent gender presentation and fashion allow individuals to embrace and rewrite their experience as desexualized or feminine men.

Studying the use of unconventional, feminine dress codes in Taiwanese men, Shiau and Chen write that “the employment of feminine aesthetics and strategies has enabled us to refute silently imposed ideological assignments and cultural expectations to reproduce the conventional masculine order in the post-capitalist Taiwanese society.” These “new Taiwanese men,” wearing Calvin Klein suits and Armani shoes, enjoy the experience of being “gazed at and wanted” like male models: clean and crisp, sexual and submissive.


In a postmodern, transnational economy, commodities and culture alike become global – “Gangnam Style” proved that much. If Taiwanese men utilize Western fashion to connote a new sexuality, can Asian-American men leverage K-pop as a cross-cultural catalyst to reappropriate their ascribed femininity?

Potentially. The warm reception of Korean icons into American culture creates a space for “alternative” masculinities to become independent of their necessary opposition to the “all-American” masculinity. For Asian-American men, to see familiar body types and facial features in famous entertainment personalities is affirming. If K-pop continues to receive popular acclaim, Asian-Americans may be seen as more attractive and sexualized.

However, it is certainly not the sole answer to the variegated problem of racialized sexuality. Many individuals under the umbrella term “Asian-Americans” do not identify with the music and celebrities so heavily associated with Korean features and tastes. Others see K-pop as a foreign spectacle, and still wish to belong to the traditional, “all-American” masculinity. Moreover, the lifestyle and displayed wealth of these pop stars (the excessive grandiosity in K-pop videos can be unsettling) adds the dimension of class barriers into the already complex intersection of ethnicity, sexuality, and nationality.

Emerging from historical legal barriers to interracial relationships and emasculating media narratives, Asian-American men in the 21st-century are coming to an awareness and protest of their devalued masculinity. Like tectonic plates, the morphing landscapes of YouTube, social gender roles, and international popular culture consumption send quakes under the feet of Asian-American identity, fissuring past tradition. Navigating and negotiating sexual identity, collectively and individually, Asian-American men must understand and discuss, as Judith Butler put it, the hegemonic social conventions and ideologies scripting our most personal acts. With that awareness, the road toward self-creation and identification opens wider, freer.

Originally published at The Wang Post.

— — —

Works Cited

Fung, Richard. “Looking For My Penis,” (1991). In Bad Object-choices (Eds). How Do I Look? Queer Film & Video, pp. 145-168. Seattle: Bay Press. http://www.richardfung.ca/index.php?/articles/looking-for-my-penis-1991/

Han, Chong-suk. “Being An Oriental, I Could Never Be Completely A Man: Gay Asian Men and the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Class,” (2006). Race, Gender, and Class: Volume 13, No 3-4. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41675174

Maliangkay, Roald. “The effeminacy of male beauty in Korea,” (2010). The Newsletter, No. 5. http://www.iias.nl/sites/default/files/IIAS_NL55_0607.pdf

Park, Michael. “Asian American Masculinity Eclipsed: A Legal and Historical Perspective of Emasculation Through U.S. Immigration Practices.” The Modern American 8, no. 1 (2013). http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1164&context=tma

Pasztory, Esther. “Paradigm Shifts in the Western View of Exotic Arts.” http://www.columbia.edu/cu/arthistory/courses/Multiple-Modernities/essay.html

Shiau and Chen. “When Sissy Boys Become Mainstream: Narrating Asian Feminized Masculinities in the Global Age” (2009). International Journal of Social Inquiry, Vol. 2, pp. 55-74. http://www.socialinquiry.org/articles/mak-esas-4.pdf

Gender, Performativity, and Long Hair


David Chiang, model

(Hair) Growth

In how many ways can a man grow in one year? I wish to be a mutant of growth; body and soul seeping in all different directions like tendrils of smoke. Unexpected developments in familiar places, reaching outward and spiraling inward. A second puberty: anxious and awkward, though without self-loathing. Confidence in self-consciousness, which if you strip away the denotation of insecurity, just means self-aware.

Speaking with a long-haired outreach worker earlier this year (written about in The Fun House), I made the conscious decision to let my hair free for a year. Thousands of strands rooted at my head — timelines marking growth and memory.

Why? For one, I’ve never done it before, and the thing about doing new things is that you learn new things. For another, my twenties are going to be the most practical (i.e. socially acceptable) time to grow my hair out. Lastly, because it seems like every male man, dwarf, elf, or wizard (hobbits have hockey hair) in the Lord of the Rings movies have long hair. And their braids and ponytail rings are just awesome.

On Gender, and a postmodern aside

Though this experiment is simple, what does it mean? Treatment of the body and its hair brings up firstly questions of gender and performativity, so let’s begin there. What is gender?

To quote Butler, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” Gender is formed by performative acts such as in mannerisms and stylizations, rather than by an internal or biological fact. One understands gender through socially constructed codes and signifiers — there is no reality of gender underneath.

Though writing from a very different philosophical position, Camus writes that even if there exists a Truth behind the actions of another person, we cannot know it. In The Myth of Sisyphus, he says that we do not know anything about an actor’s personality by watching him act. However, if we make a list of 100 characters the actor has been, it is true that we learn a little more about him upon hearing the 100th name. Thus, “a man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses.”

We are all actors to the extent that we all perform. When in contact with others, we consciously change our habits and behaviors to manage impressions and avoid embarrassment. Using the lens of theater and dramaturgy, Erving Goffman wrote about the sociology of face-to-face interaction in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Each individual can choose their costumes and their props, in addition to the way they choose to present themselves to others. I haven’t read the book, but the Wikipedia article is great. The point is that there’s a substantial portion of social life which is regulated by appearances, and those appearances carry social meaning.

I’ve been having fun screwing with gender norms by wearing skirts. I am cismale, and straight. Mostly. And while men of all sorts (gladiators, monks, Irish dancers) have worn skirts for thousands of years, this culture has designated skirts as a clothing for women. My dip into transvestism probably has something to do with both gender and fashion. So too is the decision to grow out head hair. “Long hair is feminine,” says heteronormativity. We’ll rebut this soon, but my initial reaction is, “Excellent – this should be fun.”

Regarding the ‘meaning of gender,’ I find interesting the tension between gender roles as a social constructs, and the individual’s agency to perform the signs that determine their own gender. Think again to clothing. In modern terms, the clothes that we wear are signs that refer to an underlying meaning, most obvious that of socioeconomic status. There is a social meaning between signifier and signified. So too are certain gendered roles that one ‘puts on,’ expressing through action some type of truth about identity.

But if we think in post-modern terms, then the images and signifiers that one wears have no referents, and the way that one chooses to dress is an act of self-identification and self-production on the level of signifier to signifier. There is no unified or stable truth, and ambiguity reigns. At this point, to say I am male is empty of meaning. To quote Camus again, “Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’ This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers.” So what is the postmodern identity? I’m afraid I can’t answer that question at this time, though it’s a question on my mind.

Recognizing that within me there are competing and complementing aspects of both femininity and masculinity, I seek to find out how each of them express themselves. Recognize that like a table of contents and the word ‘natural’, these categorizations and labels are both useful and misleading.

feminine : masculine ::

baking dessert : baking bread

unicycling : running

dancing with hips : dancing with legs

washing dishes : walking Scamper

“Long Hair is Feminine”


Matsuda Shoda, actor

Let’s go back and add color and complexity to that statement, “Long hair is feminine.”

I read an essay titled “The Significance of Male Hair: Its Presence and Removal,” in which author Raj Singh inverts the dominant understanding of the femininity of long hair as it pertains to men. Some sharp prongs of his argument:

( 1 ) Demonstrated in its extreme in military regimes and prisons, and in its everydayness in employment expectations, the social expectation of men to cut their hair is a “token of submission” and reminder that “you are not a free person and cannot do as you please with your own body.”

( 2 ) Forcing or coercing men to cut their hair is emasculating. On the level of appearance, shaving has the effect of making a person look younger, “mimic[ing] the surface quality of the pre-pubertal face,” which may have the effect of changing the shaved man’s self-perception to that of a child. On the symbolic level, removing cranial hair has a clear meaning: castration.

( 3 ) To the extent that men are perceived as dominant, willful, and aggressive by nature (hence dysfunctional as a potential employee), the clipping of hair demonstrates “the best of both genders in that…he communicates to the employer that he intends to be as docile and obedient as would a female be presumed to be.”

Another interesting thing that Singh analyzes are the linguistic biases that we have against cranial hair, which reveal certain assumptions about our modes of thinking. The very phrase “clean shaven” creates the oppositional “dirty bearded,” and if one is “clean cut,” then the implication is clear that one who does not shave is unclean. Another interesting one is the phrase “grow a beard”:

Do we say that a man can make an affirmative decision to “grow a beard,” much as the expert, dedicated horticulturist can grow petunias in the desert? Or do we say that male facial hair growth is the default category and acknowledge that men can only become and remain bare faced when they “scrape off their faces with a piece of steel” on a daily basis?

Singh concludes by placing cranial shaving on a similar level of cultural rituals such as breast enhancement, liposuction, and genital mutilation. He argues that men who let their hair free are “relatively masterful of their own lives and valued as such,” recapturing their manhood and their personal autonomy.

I wasn’t expecting this argument. To be honest, I see pictures of men with long hair looking like women, and relish that prospect for myself*. But I am fond of these associations, and the tension between a feminine, physical appearance and masculine, symbolic demonstration is one that I’m pleased with.

I’m at two months without a cut. I’d normally be getting a haircut in a week or two, which means that I’m about to enter the awkward stage. I’ll look silly, but I see then I see the pony-tailed men at retail stores and the gym, and look forward to each day of growth.


This is gorgeous. Chiang again.

— — —

*Not of small import is the Asian racial identity of these models as well as myself. The discussion of intersectionality as pertains to sex and race deserves note. In the essay Looking For My Penis (1991), artist and postcolonial theorist Richard Fung investigates dominant (white) cultural representations of Asian sexuality. In these representations, while Asian women are fetishized

Asian men, however—at least since Sessue Hayakawa, who made a Hollywood career in the 1920s of representing the Asian man as sexual threat —have been consigned to one of two categories: the egghead/wimp, or—in what may be analogous to the lotus blossom-dragon lady dichotomy—the kung fu master/ninja/samurai. He is sometimes dangerous, sometimes friendly, but almost always characterized by a desexualized Zen asceticism. So whereas, as Fanon tells us, ‘the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis,’ the Asian man is defined by a striking absence down there.

All Asian men who have ever been the victim of a small-penis joke should immediately understand how culture has made its mark upon their sexuality. I conjecture that a substantial portion of sexual frustration and anxiety in Asian-American males today can be attributed to these dominant understandings.

Further Reading

“Are Subcultures Conformist or Libertine?” An essay about postmodernism, hipsters, and appearance. http://katrucia.tumblr.com/post/2053437322/are-subcultures-conformist-or-libertine

“Jean Baudrillard” An encyclopedia article about Baudrillard’s understanding of dress and fashion, and how their meanings have changed as pre-modern, modern, and postmodern societies have developed. http://angelasancartier.net/jean-baudrillard 


Asian Guys with Long Hair. http://aznguyswithlonghair.tumblr.com/

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1990.

Fung, Richard. Looking For My Penis. 1991. http://www.richardfung.ca/index.php?/articles/looking-for-my-penis-1991/

Singh, Raj. The significance of male hair: its presence and removal. 1997. http://www.choisser.com/longhair/rajsingh.html