Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Exploitation or Empowerment?
In my former home of Providence, RI, this recent ad for restaurant Chinese Laundry appeared in the Providence Monthly magazine. One of my first thoughts was why would a Chinese restaurant, presumably staffed and managed by Chinese people, use Western, patriarchal hyper-sexualization of East Asian women to bring in business? Then I looked up its owners, who form the Chow Fun Food Group. They own five restaurants in the city. My presumption of ownership was wrong: Chow Fun's three owners are John Elkhay, Teddy Newcomer, and Nicholas Raber. These names don't sound Asian American, and they're not. Mr. Elkhay claims this ad, like the numerous scandalous photos on the restaurant's walls, is a celebration of the female figure. More like exploitation.
A nude, headless representation of an East Asian woman is quite appropriate in terms of the Chinese Laundry restaurant - it sits on the site of an actual, long-time laundry business owned by Chinese Americans and forced out about six years ago because of urban gentrification and the resulting rent increases. Much like the powerful, white businesses that smothered the laundry, this powerful, white, objectifying and fetishistic image of an Asian woman covers up any remnant of her own voice.
Click here to sign the petition against these racists!
Elkhay has recently proceeded to release a new version of the original add. He obviously just doesn't get it, or is happy with his racist/male chauvinist public image.
But let's get back to my initial thought, that an Asian American was using the mute, sexualized stereotype to promote his/her business. In classical music, perhaps something along these lines is happening. As a white male myself, I can't begin to analyze things with any kind of accuracy; I can only present possibilities. But our visual culture has always congratulated those who embody the day's constructed qualities of physical beauty. Let's take a look at Tina Guo, a 22-year-old cellist who performs Romantic-era concertos and in a metal band.
Is she succumbing to the Western white male fetishization of East Asian women in order to gain acclaim? Is she recasting this fetish and using it as a kind of reverse-exploitation? Is she just free with her body? Or are her band mates exploiting her? They are, like the Chow Fun Food Group, three men. Different waves of feminist theory would have different interpretations; some would accept her empowerment, and others would negate this empowerment because it only functions within the patriarchal discourse from which it originated. Some are advocates of the cyborg as the empowered woman (Donna Harroway), and others support androgyny as the prime method to subvert the socially constructed gender binaries. Here are Guo's words:
"When I play my cello, I am completely pure, naked, and open. I long for the moments when my outer shell no longer matters. I hunger for every genuine tear of sorrow, joy, or understanding shared. When you can hear me for who I am, and see me in a way that doesn't involve looking at me, but rather looking through me, only then can I be satisfied."
It's touching, but hmm...it might be a bit easier to look through her, as opposed to at her, if she tried to look just a little less sexy, and less naked. Her photo on the first page of her site kinda reminds me of Christina Aguilera's 2002 Rolling Stone cover: