Deconstructing the Visual: The Diasporic Hybridity of Asian and Eurasian Female Images

Deconstructing the Visual: The Diasporic Hybridity of Asian and Eurasian Female Images

Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Australian National University
Issue 8, October 2002
45 paragraphs
ISSN 1440 9151

Julie Matthews, Associate Professor and Director of Research Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia


Being long accustomed to the absence of images resembling myself in magazines and on TV, I find the few images I do encounter quite fascinating. Commenting on the absence of media images and representations of Asian women, Catherine Padmore notes that pale-skinned, wide-eyed Eurasian features are more likely to appear than Asian faces. As she arguesof the three hundred images appearing on the cover of the Australian publication Cleo since its inception in 1972, ‘under ten did not fit the Caucasian stereotype of wide-eyes, pale skin, and (surprisingly often) blonde hair’. My analysis of Asian and Eurasian female images is interested in the small but growing number of stylish young Eurasian and Asian fashion models appearing in Australian magazines and catalogues and Asian-female images associated with finance. The latter category links Asian women to commerce, computing and technology in a globally interconnected world. Interestingly, these images rarely feature Eurasian women.

The presence of Eurasian images in fashion representations and their absence from finance representations draw attention to the historical origins, cultural trajectories and ambivalence of meaning associated with ‘raced’ and sexed representations. Although the inclusion of Asian and Eurasian women may be intended to offset their previous absence and secure a wider multicultural appeal, they inadvertently replay processes of racialisation and sexualization. This is because they incite desires for, and identifications with, White/Western/Anglo identities authorised by essentialist and quasi-biological discourses of racialisation and sexualization.

The situation is further complicated by the diasporic hybridity of Asian and Eurasian female images. Distinguishing fashion from finance images highlights the ways these are worked out through various forms of colonialism, patriarchy, orientalism and commodification. Fashion representations commodify traditional stereotypes of Asian women and hyper-feminise Asian and Eurasian women. They model desirable ideals of youthful sexualised femininity and offer a rebuke to those who fail to meet these standards in a White/Western/Anglo-dominated global market. Finance representations take their cue from contemporary social and economic conditions where Asian ‘Tiger’ economies have come to stand for development potential and high-tech economic success under global capitalism. In these images Eurasian women are absent because Asian women more effectively represent the desirable ideals of commerce and information technology and ‘gently’ rebuke those who fail to succeed under these terms and conditions.

This paper is organised into two sections. The first section analyses Asian and Eurasian images and the latter section uses insights from this analysis to challenge current cultural studies understandings of hybridity and diaspora. This paper is not intended to provide a comprehensive semiotic analysis of media representations. Rather, it undertakes a deconstructive analysis of various images I have recently encountered. Deconstruction challenges the apparent and obvious ‘facts’ of a representation or image. It acknowledges that representations and readings are an effect of standpoint, belief and value, and support multiple and often contradictory understandings. A deconstructive analysis of visual representations highlights the interaction of images with one another as well as accentuating associations that operate beyond the text and beyond the intentions of image producers. The deconstruction of visual representations undertaken here focuses on shared and dissimilar trajectories of mobility and hybridity and the fissures and breaks in authoritative and universalising explanations and theories. Visual images work a terrain of identity and identification that defy the demarcation of primary structural or systemic forms of subordination and clear-cut lines of resistance desired by Floya Anthias. They thereby enable us to trace the contours of new forms of subjugation and struggle.

The second section of this paper explores conventional cultural studies’ understandings of diaspora and hybridity though a gender analysis which highlights the interconnected significance of economic, political, historical and contemporary conditions. My analysis of Asian and Eurasian images highlights ambivalent processes of collaboration and contestation that are an effect of diasporic hybridity and the commodification of ‘racialised’ and sexualised images. This focus illuminates how representations, intended to offset the absence of minority women in the media and thus achieve inclusion or wider multicultural appeal, may have unintended effects. New representations may be politically generative and challenge established orders but they may also incite desires for, and identifications with, White/Western/Anglo identities authorised by essentialist and quasi-biological discourses—they risk inadvertently replaying traditional processes of racialisation and sexualisation.

I use the term ‘Eurasian’ to refer to images evoking Anglo, European and Asian ‘racial’ and cultural iconography. Unlike the term ‘Asian’, which has ‘racial’ and cultural connotations, the term ‘Eurasian’ is mainly used as a ‘racial’ category to denote people of mixed European and Asian descent. I extend the category here to encompass ‘racial’ and cultural connotations including: a) those of identifiably ‘mixed race’ heritage; b) the transposition of ‘Asian’ signs and symbols into predominantly Anglo-European settings; and c) the transposition of ‘Anglo-European’ signs and symbols into ‘Asian’ settings. A focus on Eurasian and Asian female images in these terms illuminates the diasporic hybridity of visual forms. I argue that diaspora theory need not contain itself to accounts of dislocation, relocation and disembodied longings for exilic roots, but may facilitate new understandings of the role of images, signs and symbols in the achievement of collaboration and contestation…

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