"Yellow fever" is one of the grossest terms in the world. I feel embarrassed every time it is uttered because basically everything that's wrong with it as a concept is contained in the name itself: it's racist, it relies on painfully antiquated views of sexuality (men are so helpless before their desire that it's like a sickness has seized control of them!), it's dehumanizing to Asian women. Despite all of this, it's a concept in dire need of exploration and demystifying, which is exactly what filmmaker Debbie Lum is doing in her new five-part web series They're All So Beautiful.
Each installment poses a different question about the phenomenon to a series of self-professed "yellow fever" infectees (what is the proper term for that?), as well as to a series of academics, Asian women, and Asian men. Most of those who claim to have "yellow fever" profess to by bewildered by their attraction to Asian women:
It's hard to explain. It's just like, why do some people like blue more than green?
I'll walk down the street and I'll see 10 different asian women, and I'll think they're all attractive. Most people that would hear this would think, you know, that something's wrong with me, or I really have a dysfunction.
It sounds silly, but I feel like an angel was dropped in front of me. It's just like, 'Wow.'
Framing "yellow fever" as somehow irrational and uncontrollable — something that occurs on an emotional or unconscious level — camouflages its deeply troubling racial, gendered, and social implications. Those interviewed claim to have a deep and abiding admiration for "Asian culture" (because, you know, Asian Culture is just one big, simple, singular unit that you can best appreciate via leering at Asian women), praising how "different" and "exotic" it is, all the while engaging in exotification, objectification, and blatant stereotyping:
The way the body's shaped, the color of the skin… it's just different.
I think there's a lot of history and a lot of beauty behind the culture itself, and also there's an exotic look and feel to an Asian woman as opposed to a White woman or a Latin woman.
This epitomizes the orientalist belief that the "West" and "East" are fundamentally dissimilar, with all Eastern societies sharing a fundamentally similar exotic essence. And what does that essence consist of, pray tell? Is there some deep-rooted ontological way that Asian women differ from all other women, o panel of experts on "Asian Culture"?
I'm looking for a petite, gracious woman. Typically, traditionally, that happens to be an Asian woman.
As far as personality goes, I think you'll find at an Asian woman, in general, is more caring and thoughtful to her partner, more loyal and trusting.
This is not to say that all men who are attracted to Asian women feel this way — obviously, there are countless beautiful, healthy, mutually respectful, and fulfilling relationships between Asian women and non-Asian men that have nothing to do with racial stereotypes or expectations.
Furthermore, there's nothing inherently wrong with having romantic or sexual preferences, nor is anyone automatically at fault for harboring specific fantasies that fit into cultural stereotypes — i.e., "the bad boy," "the girl next door," "the sensitive artist," etc. However, when your fantasy reflects and perpetuates harmful racial and gendered perceptions, then you need to examine your desire itself because it's complicit in the dissemination of orientalist tropes. Furthermore, as Sheridan Prasso, author of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, argues, "yellow fever" often crosses the border between fantasy and expectation of behavior. By admiring the perceived docility of Asian women, what these men are truly doing is expecting docility. Again, it's not uncommon in romantic relationships to have unrealistic expectations of your object of desire — however, if these expectations enforce an ideology of difference that posits the "West" as more authoritative and powerful, they're hugely problematic.