Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dragon Seed

Another Pearl S. Buck novel made into a movie. Dear Lord. 

The story begins with Ling Tan (Walter Huston), the patriarch of his family consisting of his devoted and snarky wife (Aline MacMahon), his three sons Lao Ta, Lao Er, and Lao San (Robert BiceTurhan Bey, and Hurd Hatfield, respectively) and the wives of two of his sons, Jade (Katharine Hepburn) and Orchid Frances Rafferty). Lao Ta and Orchid have two children together, a baby girl and a toddler boy. Lao Er and Jade have no children because they don't know they're in love yet (and I haven't even gotten to the real plot yet). Ling Tan and his wife (credited as "Ling Tan's wife") try very hard to keep the "old ways" going in the house, while Jade, who is a sort of pseudo-femme fatale, tries to tell them about the new ways of the world. The movie takes place during the Second Sino-Japanese War (which, honestly, I know very little about). "Evil dwarfs" from Japan invade the village near Ling Tan's farm after invading other parts of China and bombing the land, and soon take over, raping all the women and killing all the sons and eating all the food and being evildoers. The whole family joins a resistance group and begins killing Japanese soldiers and burying them under their floors. Even Jade joins in, poisoning some food and knocking out an entire regiment of Japanese soldiers. Eventually the Japanese are too evil to hang around, so all of Ling Tan's family (or what is left of them) up and leave for the mountains. The End.
There really is no plot to this movie. I mean, there is... But the first 30-45 minutes is just Jade and Lao Er getting to know each other and planting rice and reading books together. The next hour and a half consists of alternate shots of the Japanese being evil and Ling Tan's family taking revenge. That's all there is to it. 

The similarities between this movie and The Good Earth are uncanny. Both have subservient yet strong women who are not particularly beautiful but make good wives and bear sons. Both have supportive husbands who are also not particularly beautiful and love the fact that they have sons. Both movies have a stock character who is lazy and fat and a kissass. Both movies (and novels too, I guess) glorify the hardworking Chinese peasant while dismissing the upper class and royalty. Both stage large scenes of full-scale riots complete with fire and shouting and running and the works. I was a little freaked out by all the similarities, to be honest. 
Now this is scary. I've seen some pretty horrific yellowface but it's mostly been on males. This takes the cake for Female Yellowface. Look at those eyes. That's just... gross. 
I have nothing against the character of Jade. Jade is strong-willed and independent - it's great! She's no Lotus Blossom or China Doll - nor is she a Dragon Lady. Of course, she has qualities of a Dragon Lady (poisoning soldiers, being smart) but she lacks the sex appeal that the stereotypical young Dragon Lady has. However, I dislike the way Katharine Hepburn portrayed her. There are two interpretations of her portrayal. One is that Hepburn played herself in yellowface. Vocally, this is very true. It sounds just like Katharine Hepburn being Katharine Hepburn. The other is that she took Luise Rainer's interpretation of O-Lan and made her more of an outspoken feminist but kept the same physical qualities. Both O-Lan and Jade employ coy tilts of the head to express their love for their homely husbands and seem to be meek and hesitant with their movements. 
The purpose of this film was to glorify and build sympathy to the Chinese and to make Americans hate the Japanese. It's quite easy to sympathize with the Chinese characters of the film - they are hardworking, loving, and peaceful, sacrificing themselves for their children and fighting back against the "Evil Dwarfs" that are the Japanese. They are also all portrayed by white people - not actual Asians. And the cameo of Benson Fong doesn't count - he plays a militant hater of the Japanese who takes his anger out on Ling Tan's merchant brother-in-law. However, the Chinese children in this movie are actually played by Asian children. And they are pretty darn cute - just their wide eyes and chubby cheeks elicit prolonged "Aaaawwww"s from the audience, I guarantee you. This makes it even easier for the American audience to sympathize and end up caring about the Chinese. Remember, this film was released during 1944, towards the end of WWII. China was, at the time, our ally, and Japan was America's enemy. The film then shows the Japanese as cunning, sly, evil men with large teeth and an insatiable appetite for women and wine - they're all Japanese Fu Manchus! A group of them attack, rape, and kill Orchid after she is caught by them trying to hide her children. Another group of them kill Ling Tan's mother in his courtyard. They steal all of Ling Tan's hard-earned crops and starve out the rest of the village. And on top of that, all of the Japanese soldiers were played by Asians. In this way, the Chinese take on the more sympathetic role, not just because of the fact that they have "good" qualities but because they were played by white people - and therefore, a bit more trustworthy. However, getting the Asians to play the bad guys was making the fear of the Japanese even more real and tangible - one didn't have to imagine that these were Asians/Japanese, because they were. It was a horribly clever idea to do this, and it probably resulted in American audiences hating the Japanese even more. Granted, the Japanese did do some pretty awful things while occupying China, but... come on! This is a little much!
There's a scene where Katharine Hepburn is bathing her cute Asian baby and she sings a little song in a pentatonic key and it's about cherry blossoms and the river that flows... something strange and pseudo-Oriental like that. Reminded me of Suzie Wong's cloud song -only this time, the song was being sung in English. However, that did not detract from the messed-up-ed-ness of the song. Why is it so difficult to listen to these types of songs? Probably because they were composed by white people who have no idea of what a traditional Chinese song sounds like. These types of songs also seem to crop up more often in these old films from the "Golden" Age of Hollywood as opposed to now, with the exception of Jackie Chan's Chinese lullaby in The Spy Next Door.
Then there's the plethora of accents going on. Not one of them can be classified as "Oriental." Lao Er has a British accent, one character has a Russian accent (what?!), Ling Tan speaks with a standard American accent, and the Japanese just sound... like they're from Britain. It's weird. Very weird. 
There's also the issue of sexism in this movie. Most of the characters freely joke and toss around the ideas about beating women up and saying that their place is in the kitchen and nowhere else. The first scene with Katharine Hepburn in it shows her at a lecture in the village presented by some university students that are showing how evil the Japanese are. Lao Er shows up looking for Jade and sees her stand up and say to the students that she will help fight them. She says, "Yes! I will come!" And Lao Er shouts, "You come home! I'm hungry!" And everybody laughs. I'm not sure what the intent of this scene is supposed to be. Are we supposed to hate the Chinese for being sexist and keeping women subservient and in the home sphere? Or are we supposed to laugh as well, because a wife's duty to her husband includes making him dinner? Does the fact that their characters are Chinese change the sexism embedded in that exchange? I have no idea. 
Overall, this movie was exactly the same as The Good Earth - just more anti-Japanese, more specific about the time period it was set in, and more of a propaganda film. There was still gratuitous yellowface and fetishizing the humble Chinese. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Amy Chua Reconsidered

After all that venting about Amy Chua's crazy article "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," I read her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Yes, I read it. I read it and I enjoyed it, laughing at the tongue-in-cheek-ness of some of the book and frowning at the bits that still struck me as... questionable. 

The article that preceded the release of the book wasn't written by her - it was compiled by some unknown editor at the Wall Street Journal. The article was deliberately cut-and-pasted into the article that we're all familiar with and, honestly, detest. Chua didn't even choose the snarky, arrogant title of the article (Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior). However, it's very interesting to see that in the above interview, Chua states that "[She doesn't] think Chinese mothers are superior" when the caption on the cover of her memoir states "This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones." Just that sentence alone is enough to make one wonder - but wait, there's more! The cover caption continues with "But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old." Doesn't Chua now sound... less arrogant? It's much better! Chua accepts her defeat! 
This book isn't a parenting manual - it's a memoir that just so happens to be written by a mother who is Chinese. She's definitely not as crazy dictator as the article made her sound (thank goodness) and she comes across as a strict, but not unloving mother. Chua definitely still sounds like an uppity, holier-than-thou person, but she still retains enough humility that perhaps she was a bit too extreme with her parenting, and she does express some regret in her past decisions. It's a journey.

There are still things, however, that I disagree with. Like when she says that playing drums will lead to drugs. Uh, no. There's a part in the book where Chua talks about her parents and their stories, and she describes her grandmother as a (you'll get a kick out of this) a Dragon Lady. When I first read that, I was a wee bit shocked. I'd always been under the impression that the term "Dragon Lady" was kinda derogatory, belonging in the same category as the "Lotus Flower" or "Fu Manchu" stereotype. But here's Chua, using it to describe her own grandmother! I may be reading a little too much into it, and Chua's grandma may have been born in the year of the Dragon, but who knows? All I know is that she's applying cultural stereotypes to her own grandmother, and showing that it's okay to embrace and essentially perpetuate these stereotypes! Then there's this idea of training and pushing her daughters to just get the A. Get the A and everything will be fine. Get a B and you'll work your butt off until you get that A. GET THE A! I'm a little biased, having gone to schools that value learning for the sake of learning as opposed to learning to get the grade. Maybe that's why the emphasis on "getting the A" was so infuriating and confusing to me. Either way, it's still bothersome - how on earth are her children going to learn from their mistakes if they never make mistakes? 

She does, however, keep on categorizing herself as the "Chinese Mother" and makes it seem like there is only one kind of "Chinese Mother," which only furthers the stereotype surrounding an ethnicity-based parenting style. And, as we all know, stereotypes can be unfairly applied to anyone who seems to fit the bill - in this case, be Chinese. Only once in the book does she acknowledge that there are many different types of parenting, Chinese or otherwise. Unfortunately, she states it only once, in one smarmy paragraph in the very first chapter of the book. Chua highlights the diversity of Western parents and leaves them under the umbrella label of "Western parents" but categorizes the ├╝ber-strict parenting style as Chinese, even going as far as to categorize an anecdotal white mother as a Chinese mother. So... basically... you are a Chinese mother (regardless of ethnic background) if you are as strict as Chua is. Not an Asian mother. A Chinese mother. To be a "Western" mother is to be somewhat free in your label, while it seems like there is one way and no other way to be a Chinese mother... Right? What's up with that? 

Chua still says that in order to be Chinese (or a Chinese mother, for that matter), one must raise one's children exactly as she did. I still have a problem with this. It's like saying that I'm not Chinese or my mom isn't Chinese because I wasn't forced to play violin or piano or get A's in every single class except gym and drama. It's just a wee bit, you know, wrong. 

In the end though, Chua has every right to raise her children as she wishes, and it's not really our place to make a pariah out of her for doing so. What's really annoying is the fact that she labels this the "Chinese" way. Of course, she hides behind this idea of "the immigrant thing." Well... Chua's not an immigrant. Her parents were. So... was adopting their strict parenting style necessary? Was it because she just didn't know any other way of raising children, and she couldn't be bothered to read up on some child psychology? It seems she did it because she was worried about future generations of children and she wanted filial piety. It's odd. 
Fun Fact: Chua's book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) is currently being sold in China under the title "US Mom." 
Long story short: Amy Chua isn't as bad as the article made her out to be.