Archive for December 10, 2019

Broken Blossoms: Film Analysis, Ellen Schoenfeld

Broken Blossoms is a 1919 film by D.W. Griffith about a Chinese immigrant named Cheng Huan in London and his love story with a young girl named Lucy who is trying to escape her father’s abuse. The film has garnered a lot of controversy since its release 100 years ago.

One of the most extensive writings on Broken Blossoms was done by Gina Marchetti in her book, Romance and the Yellow Peril. Marchetti writes specifically about Broken Blossoms in her chapter, “The Rape Fantasy: The Cheat and Broken Blossoms”. Within it, she analyzes the idea of the “yellow peril” and the way it affects Cheng Huan’s relationship with Lucy. She describes Broken Blossoms as such:

“… the film can be looked at as a catalog of what society considers as sexual crimes excesses, or perversions, including rape, increst, sadism, masochism, pedophilia, necrohpilia, fetishism, voyeurism, and prostitution as well as miscegenation. In fact, given this list of sexual deviations, interracial sexuality, which remains on the level of controlled lust and innocent affection, may be the most innocuous part of the fantasy.” (Marchetti 33-34)

She comments on the sexual undertones, and overtones, within the film. One of the specific ideas that she focuses on is the qualities that Cheng Huan exemplifies. He personifies the “feminine” qualities that Western culture saw as ‘Asian’. She argues that he is feminized in a way that links him with “a passive, carnal, occult, and duplicitous Asia” (Marchetti 35) by way of his behavior and even the way he dresses. This feminization keeps his love for Lucy a “pure and holy thing”, as it is described in the film.

Despite this ‘pure and holy’ love Cheng Huan’s advance on Lucy (which he resists, kissing her sleeve instead of her lips) is still a possession of the white woman, which is a common theme in the idea of Yellow Peril. The thing that redeems him most is Lucy’s father’s more extreme and harmful sexual aggression. This is what allows Cheng Huan to continue to be the ‘hero’, at least to an extent.

Broken Blossoms is an important film to look at when considering the racial relationships between Asia and the West. Marchetti analyzes it as such:

“… Broken Blossoms maintains a fundamental separation between Asia and the West played out dramatically and violently through a doomed romance in which the effeminate Asian man finds a “perverse” potency in his desire for an unobtainable Caucasian woman… Cheng Huan’s emigration from an idyllic China of temple bells, Buddhist statues, and innocent maidens dooms him to the “hell” of Limehouse.” (Marchetti 38)

Cheng Huan is simultaneously a victim and a perpetrator, and ultimately he and his relationship with Lucy reflect the negative stereotypes that D.W. Griffith and the rest of the West believed about the Asian community. Particularly when one considers that this film was meant to be art, and was absorbed as such, it adds perspective to the kinds of media that were being consumed at the time and the messages that they sent.

December 10, 2019 at 9:24 pm Leave a comment

Asian American Experiences of Beauty Standards: Personal Narrative (1/3)

By Emma Li

I stared out the car window at the various signs populating the Shanghai streets. Outside was a Chinese chain store that sold pajamas, primarily to middle-aged-or-older Chinese locals. I squinted at its large advertisements and soon realized something off-putting. All six models were white. I had passed by this store near my house so many times, yet I had never given much thought to these ads. After all, they hardly stood out among the countless visuals I saw in China every day that featured white models, advertising anything from nightclubs to hospitals, from obscure online shops to multinational corporations.

(Image Source: Joy Buy and Ali Express)
The peculiarity of these ads suddenly dawned on me once again. What is the logic behind using all white models to sell pajamas to Chinese people? The models are clearly not representative of the store’s target audience.
I knew why this was the case. The answer became even clearer when I read about the “rent-a-foreigner” industry. White people living in China are paid to pose as accomplished executives, doctors, musicians, and so on, having accomplished nothing of the sort. “Western” elements, from Caucasian imposters to English-sounding product names, are associated with success and superiority. This idea is further reinforced every time an established organization employs these elements. While the government’s Great Firewall blocks almost all major US media companies, from Google to The New York Times, for fear of “western influence,” Western faces continue to influence Chinese consumers.

Screen Shot 2019-12-09 at 4.40.53 PM.png

(Image Source: Vice)

Growing up in China as a Chinese American, I thought that I barely faced any racial discrimination compared to those who were raised in the US. I later realized that was not entirely true. In some ways, racial representation in China feels even more ridiculous than it does in the US. White people make up less than 0.0005% of the people living in China, yet somehow, they are still widely featured across media forms.


(Pictured above, from left to right: my sister, my cousin, and me)

In elementary school, a substitute teacher once asked the class where we’re all from. I hesitantly said China and the US. Some classmates (who were also American-born Chinese) burst out laughing at me. They proclaimed themselves to be only American, not at all Chinese. I felt angry and humiliated, but now I remember that I also daydreamed about having beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes. How can anyone blame children like us for not wanting to be Chinese when goodness and whiteness are so often marketed together as a packaged deal?


(Image Source: Gold Star Teachers)
As I got older, I grew increasingly aware of the logic embedded behind various ads, from posters outside a pajama store to ads on my Instagram feed. While fair representation remains an issue, I’m starting to see companies adapt to peoples’ growing demands for greater equality. For better or worse, marketing and media messages begin shaping people’s worldview from a young age, but young people also have the ability to reshape these messages. I want to see more stories that subvert social injustices rather than reinforce them. I believe in the power of authentic storytelling. Despite living in an era when fact-checking can hardly catch up to the pace of lies, I still believe stories that come from a genuine place will ultimately triumph over fabricated stories and imposters.

Click here to view the next post in this series.

December 10, 2019 at 12:46 am 2 comments


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