The XX Factor

Oh Hey, Guess What, You’re a Fetish Object

The latest issue of Marie Claire has an article by Ying Chu on the supposed phenomenon of “Asian trophy wives.” The basic premise of the piece is that several recent instances of young, beautiful Asian women getting involved with older, rich white dudes-e.g., Wendi Deng and Rupert Murdoch, Ziyi Zhang and financier Vivi Nevo, violinist Jennifer Chun and George Soros-constitute some kind of culturally relevant trend. And that trend is icky, but icky in a totally different way than the normal ickiness you feel when an old guy shacks up with a much younger, hotter lady.

Now, I’m not about to pretend that race doesn’t play a role in sexual attraction. And I won’t pretend that the white man / Asian woman pairing-not unlike the black man / white woman pairing-doesn’t carry some heavy cultural baggage. But this particular attempt at sociological analysis does nothing to move the discussion forward.

First, there’s the baseless psychoanalysis. Take this, for example:

Were these tycoons consciously courting Asian babes? Do any of them qualify for the unnerving “yellow fever” or “rice king” moniker? It’s unsavory to think so. But after two or three failed attempts at domestic bliss with women of like background and age, these heavy hitters sought out something different. Something they had likely fetishized.

Why is it “likely”? How could Chu possibly know this? (She doesn’t quote any of the men directly.) Later, she suggests that these women might be marrying older white guys as some kind of “renegade” act against their straight-laced upbringing. Well gee, that’s nice and infantilizing. Even if you don’t want to believe that there’s genuine love in these relationships-a possibility Chu mentions briefly, but doesn’t seem to give much credence to-isn’t it possible that these women were attracted to-oh, I don’t know-money, power, glamour, security, adventure, or any of the other perfectly grown-up things these particular relationships might provide?

Lumping all of these couples together and then reducing their individual complexities to the point where it’s purely a racial calculation isn’t helpful or illuminating. I mean, take Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, the couple that the piece leads off with. Does anyone out there really think the most problematic, uncomfortable part of that relationship is the racial difference?

Other bloggers, like LaToya Peterson over at Jezebel , have pointed out that the article casually reinforces as many stereotypes as it seems to want to dispel. (“Overachieving Asian good girls,” “emotionally repressed Asian dads,” and the continent-wide mandate to revere one’s elders are all presented as fact-within a single paragraph!) Jessica Wakeman at the Frisky calls Chu out for objectifying the women as much as their partners allegedly do. To wit: “Asians (in addition to African orphans) are hot commodities right about now-status symbols as prized as a private Gulfstream jet or a museum wing bearing your name (neither of which goes so well with a frumpy, aging first wife).”

Finally-and this is my beef with most un-nuanced discussions of “the Asian fetish”-the article doesn’t put much faith in the Asian women’s agency. Chu herself notes that most of the women she’s talking about are accomplished, educated professionals. Why, then, would she want to even suggest that they’re comparable to “concubines” and “mail-order brides”? Chu brings up globalization as a reason why Asian women are such “hot commodities” now, but it doesn’t seem to occur to her that globalization has also created more opportunities for foreign-born women to gain power, money, education-and entrée into upper social echelons on their own steam, with or without a “silver-haired Western suit.”

The kicker really finishes it off. “Asian women dating white men may never really know if it’s a fetish thing,” Chu writes. Um, if you don’t know if your partner is only with you because of a “fetish,” you’ve got other problems to worry about. Does Chu really think her Asian sisters are that dumb?

Would Marie Claire have possibly run this piece if weren’t written by an Asian woman? (Chu was born in Shanghai.) Or, for another thought experiment, try to imagine an article just like this, except about black women or Latina women. I can’t see it.

I’m glad Marie Claire wanted to run a think-piece about race-I just wish it hadn’t been this one.

Photograph by Getty Images.