The Hollywood musical film, Flower Drum Song, stars two female characters in stereotypical “Orientalized” Asian American roles–the exotic “Dragon Lady” in the form of Linda Low, and the “Submissive Butterfly” as Mei Li. These two characters display “ideal” qualities of their respective roles. Linda is hyper-sexualized, devious, and dominating, whereas Mei Li appears delicate, genuine, and submissive. This dichotomy reinforces the notion of the West as a subject and the East as the object. The consistent juxtaposition of these two characters throughout the film force the audience to think that westernized Asian American women are more desirable than traditional Asian women.
Linda Low utilizes the power of sexual touch through body language in terms of conveying authority in pursuit of Wang Ta. This further emphasizes how women in American culture use sexualized characteristics to achieve their goals. The car scene where Linda Low leans closer to Wang Ta and lights his cigarette shows that Linda Low is “good at being her gender”. The sincerity of her face as she moves closer to serve a cigarette has a subtle sexual connotation, which further reinforces how hegemonic gender supports a system of patriarchy. The stereotypical, hyper-sexualized Linda Low knows how to utilize her assets as a subject to manipulate her object, which in this case, would be a man who is willing to “go steady” with her. This shows that in American culture, sex is the most effective way to get what you want.
Mei Li’s first encounter with Wang Ta is almost the complete opposite compared to Linda Lows’ interaction with him because of her “Orientalized” traits. When the two first meet in the garden, Wang Ta switches roles from an object to a subject as Mei Li takes on the submissive role. This promotes orientalism through United States based on discourses. Clearly, Wang Ta sees Mei Li simply as a means to carry out his father’s wish to marry a traditional Asian woman and not as the exotic Asian American female (like Linda). Meanwhile, Mei Li falls madly in love for Wang Ta, which shows how she is easily dominated and submissive to men. These aspects of Mei Li match the image of traditional Asian Americans publicized by the media and influenced by the dominant racial group, or hegemony. This leads to the assumption that Mei Li lacks the sexiness that western culture possesses. This is thought to be the case because traditional Asian women do not necessarily fit into the category of “sexy” and have the appeal of Westernized women. With this influence and impact on their culture, they are given the perspective that they are inadequate and this ultimately leads to Mei Li’s transformation.
This feeling of inadequacy is projected onto Mei Li, consequently initiating her metamorphosis. The western dominant culture is further strengthened during Mei Li’s descent down the stairs in her Americanized attire. Mei Li’s exposure to American culture leads to her getting noticed and being identified as a sexual subject. The attention and lust supplied her the confidence to initiate a conversation and even joke with Wang Ta. This is also the first time Mei Li had actually physically looked down at Wang Ta, as if it were a metaphorical meaning of how having sexual power gives her more authority over him. Transformations like this suggest that the mixing of American culture is dominant over the Chinese culture. In addition, this transformation allows Mei Li to fit into the dominant discourses, which makes her more appealing.
Recognizing these two contrasting characters show how Asian American women are operating within a world where they have to fight for intersectionality or else they would only be portrayed as an irrelevant object. The experience of being an Asian American female cannot be understood in terms of being Asian, and of being female, considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other.