A conversation with Lillian about racial fetishization
Words & Photography by Ashley Miller
A conversation with Lillian (@thefleshlightchronicles) about her Instagram, stereotypes surrounding Asian women, the difference between fetishization and preference.
Can you tell me a bit about why you started your Instagram and what it's become?
I kind of started the page as a joke, because I would get all of these really nasty messages on Tinder, and I was like “Haha, wouldn’t it just be really funny if I just pasted all of these things on my face?” As it started to get more popular though, I realized that I could use this platform to talk about issues I care about, that I have lived experiences with. So gradually it turned more into a space that I purposely curated – a safe space for women of color to get validation and community from our shared racial traumas.
So, what’s the difference between fetishization and preference?
Let’s talk about preference first–I think a lot of men will dress their fetishization as preference, like “Oh, you know, I just prefer Asian women for X, Y and Z reasons.” And it seems really innocuous at first, right? Because you relate that to preference for blonde hair, preference for tall women, or short women… But it’s really not the same, because there’s that dynamic of power that is lacking in true preference. It’s the same kind of logic that defines racism versus prejudice – you know, like power + prejudice = racism. I think you could say that fetishization = sexual prejudice + power, and I really want to hone in on that aspect of power and what that means.
"I guess you could say that fetishization =
sexual prejudice + power."
As dominant figures in our society, White men have the power to dictate the narrative of how our lives go – what our worth is in society. And so when they fetishize us, it’s to enact their own fantasies of power over us, because they know they can. As WOC we lack the same bodily mobility that these White men have, both physically and narratively. And with fetishization, you also have to think about the impact of it, which is why it’s such an issue, because of how destructive it is. It affects the mental health of WOC. If you look at the suicide and depression rates for young, Asian women, they are much higher than for men or White people in that same age range – in teenagers, depression rates are highest for Asian American women than any other group. And a lot of people want to attribute these statistics to cultural factors. But in my opinion, there’s also that element of having been relegated to powerlessness by certain oppressive structures that we experience in our society, which fetishization contributes to – compounded with racism, sexism, and generational trauma. Because what it means is that your worth is basically just your sexuality, and not just as a woman, because it’s far more complex than just objectification – there’s also that element of race, in which you are “other” – and you are worth nothing, you are just a body – but an othered body, and that’s what I think fetishization is.
Yeah, and I think about how Asian women are often either viewed as docile, or submissive, on one hand – and then overly sexualized on the other. Where do you think that comes from?
In society, Asian women are stereotyped as passive, but also, on the flip side, as hypersexual beings who exist to satisfy your every desire. And if you think about where that comes from, it didn’t always exist. A fetish isn’t just a natural thing that we’re all born with. It’s learned, and a lot of it has to do with the history of our dealings with Asia – how it spikes during times of war, like WWII with Japan, and the conquest of China during the Opium Wars, and Vietnam in the ‘60s. Today that dynamic of conquest and control is replicated on a smaller scale upon the bodies of women of color. And obviously I’m not trying to say that every time a man fetishizes an Asian woman he’s like, thinking about that Vietnam War movie he watched – but I guess what I’m saying is that it has informed a lot of pop culture indirectly through the ages, and that continued legacy that we see in media and movies is what contributes a lot to the stereotype that Asian women are just so desirable and so hypersexualized, but also so demure and infantilized, all at once – which doesn’t make any sense if you think about it.
"Today that dynamic of conquest and control is replicated on a smaller scale upon the bodies of women of color."
Absolutely. Can you talk to me about food and consumption and what that relationship is like?
There’s a definite linkage when it comes to food, sex, and race. Because when you think about food and White people’s obsession with Asian food, it’s a very surface-level thing. It’s easy and enjoyable for White people to just go to a restaurant and order Asian food – no commitment whatsoever, and no deeper thought. And it’s the same sort of thing with fetishization; you can just go wherever and just easily order something and consume it, and it’s a very shallow “appreciation” of what we are, which isn’t even appreciation, it’s just mindless consumption.
And I think a lot about the process of gentrification, in which White people will take over neighborhoods that have historically been for POC, and take their ideas and their food and open restaurants that serve “ethnic food” to other White people. And with fetishization it’s kind of the same thing, where White men will sort of take over your property, which is your body, and they will rebuild it into a very White space, and you will feel evacuated of your own cultural identity and heritage and be left only with a cheap appropriation of it.
Yeah. And I know we’ve talked about this before, but, how there’s people on this campus—or people in general—who are known to hook up with a lot of Asian women, but then only date and have relationships with, like, White people.
Yes, such a dynamic.
And it just relates to this whole idea of seeing POC bodies in terms of consumption rather than actual appreciation.
Right, definitely – fetishization exists in so many forms, you know. And what you said definitely is one of them.
How do you think you try to fight against those stereotypes – or is it playing into them when you try to fight against them actively, rather than like, living for yourself?
Yeah, that is such a good question – something that I think about constantly. Because on one hand there are a multitude of ways you can go about this. One, reclaiming that identity of being sexual – reclaiming your own sexuality by being bold with it and asserting yourself that way. And then there’s also the route of not doing that, and choosing to not put your body in that position it’s usually relegated to, and claiming agency over the decision to not do it.
So I totally understand the hesitation of, ‘which one do I choose?’ And in my opinion, I think both are very valid – whatever will help you personally claim your own personal power back, whatever makes you feel comfortable. It’s really an individual, internal thing – but yeah, as you said before, it’s really difficult. Because with my account, I definitely lean towards the first one, which is reclaiming sexuality by being open with my own. And I’m not saying that everyone has to do this, but something that I think about also is how… I manipulate my body into a consumable Instagram format so other people can learn, and then also for the irony and the gags. But at the end of the day, I do realize that people are still consuming my body, my face, as a sexual object, even if there are layers and nuance to that. So, I don’t know, I have to think more deeply about what that perpetuates.
"I manipulate my body into a consumable
Instagram format so other people can learn,
and then also for the irony and the gags."
Taking that into account, how would you hope your page to grow and change with you?
I want my page to expand beyond myself. I want more narratives from different WOC, not just East Asian women. And I want to bring in more WOC photographers– I think we should all get a platform to share our art and our work. So that’s kind of the direction I want to take this, and to also explore other modes of reclaiming.