The infinite femininity of the desired exotic vs. the totality of gender roles and assimilation’s containment
“In cinematic representations of romance there is always a mystery and unpredictability in the narrative… [it] exploits the fact that we cannot fully know the other as subjects apart from us despite our wish to know and be close to the other” – Straight Jacket Masculinities
Wang Ta: Are you serious about a career?
Lisa Low: No, not particularly. I want to be a success as a girl. t’s nice to have outside accomplishments, like, singing, cooking, or first aid, but the main thing is for a woman to be successful in her gender.
Wang Ta: But don’t you think it’s important to do one thing really well?
Lisa Low: Well sure, that’s what I mean.
Linda Low and her performance of “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is a portrayal of a modern American girl in her totality. Her response to Wang Ta’s second question (above) that being a girl is doing one thing really well is provocative because its meaning is open ended–an affirmative response confirming the ability to obtain an unclear ideal. Eventually, we find out that Linda Low’s definition is of success is extremely narrow: being married. As explained in Orientals, “Linda Low is sexy but not dangerous… her desires are transparent, understandable, and (for the middle-class male wage earner), readily satisfied.”
“The possibility of the unexpected always arises, and if we anticipate the other…he or she becomes a totality rather than an an infinity.” – Straight Jacket Masculinities
The rejection of Linda Low is tied to Wang Ta’s realization of her totality. Ironically, it happens when he is confronted with her performance.Linda Low is an idealized fantasy, which is an attraction to an undefined and subjective ideal. The choreography’s suggestive use of Chinese fans visually confirm her personification of the desired exotic.
Constraints to sexuality–her tunnel-vision determination to become a wife–were framed and defined by the socio-political environment at the time. The successful domestication of Asian American women assured Cold War-era Americans that the red scare and foreigners could be tamed through assimilation. “Linda Low’s all-american sexuality is revealed to be only an expression of her (satiable) desire for durable consumer goods.”
Carrie Bradshaw’s reappropriation of Linda Low’s ethnic assimilation: whitewashing a whitewashed promotion of consumption
Enter Carrie Bradshaw – another phenomenon constructed around an idealized femininity, whose endlessly fashionable and unobtainable wardrobe was at odds with her career as a columnist.
Their renditions of “I Enjoy Being A Girl” represent infinity: their wholly embracement of gender roles something to celebrate. Orientals also points out that Linda Low was introduced around the same time as the Barbie doll; the pinnacle of desire domesticated to assuage a broad audience.
Bradshaw and Low’s outfits are representations of their coquettish appeal: both of their mirrored visions wearing tea-length dresses, short enough to catch the eye, long enough to avoid judgment. Their campiness is a tribute to Barbie’s unrelenting femininity: Linda with a big oversize bow in her hair, SJP in her suffocatingly pink boudoir.
Both are blank slates from which men can define with their own imaginations. Despite a subsequent spin-off centered around an adolescent Carrie, in the series, her background—past, family, and origins—is not highlighted. In Flower Drum Song, we see Linda Low lie about having a brother pressure her into the role of a traditional Chinese female. The truth of where she comes from is never revealed. She lives alone in an apartment with a big closet (that three-way mirror though), and a drop-top convertible. The Bay Area, Oriental edition answer to Malibu Barbie.
Unlike Barbie, perpetually infinite in “exemplify[ing] the unattainable and highly radicalized ideal of beauty,” Linda Low and Carrie Bradshaw share a fatal flaw: their inability to overcome their emotionality.
As an unknown ideal, they are able thrive on sexual freedom. Carrie as a sex column writer, Linda Low as the provocative main act on a night club stage. The latter’s willingness to “rock and roll” with Wang Ta’s younger brother indicates that she relates more to a younger generation than the conservative man she desires. Carrie behaves similarly with Mr. Big, referring to their age difference affectionately and complaining about his inability to commit to her.
The totality of their combined feminine fragility and sexual power is their downfall. How many times does Carrie take back Mr. Big, marrying him even after he leaves her at the alter? Similarly, Linda Low learns twice that her boyfriend has promised to marry another woman, despite his promises, but takes him back every time.
Their desire to be loved is seen as an acceptable reason to be spurned. As much as they enjoy their femininity, subservience to the whims of patriarchy is the inevitable reality of being a girl.
Flower Drum Song, Dir. Henry Koster (1961) Robert G. Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Temple, 1999)
Celine Parrenas-Shimizu, “The Marvelous Plenty of Asian American Men: Independent Film as a Technology of Ethics,” in Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies (Stanford, 2012)