The Great Asian American Import: Devon Aoki as embodiment of Indo-chic culture and “Hollywood’s Asian Problem”
“No. I’m really kind of a California girl. I know I look like I’m straight off the boat from Japan, or China or any of those Asian countries. People always ask, ‘What are you, Asian?’ It was very cool to learn Japanese.” – Devon Aoki, 2006
It is not a coincidence that Devon Aoki rose to fame as a top model. Despite her short stature, (she’s 5’6”) there are two reasons for her massive success–
- Her pedigree – an heiress to the Benihana fortune, and
- That face – part Blythe doll, all striking features
What interests me about Devon Aoki is her film roles contribute to the tropes of eroticized, submissive Asian women. This all is compounded by her modeling portfolio – her tiny, slightly downturned mouth never smiles, reminiscent of Hello Kitty. (There are articles on how the latter’s who’s lack of vocal hole is seen as devise by feminists, and arguably adds to the representation of Asian American women as submissive).
In her early film career, Devon’s characters all take on a Lolita-esque element; in part due to the overt sexualization and the lack of actual spoken lines. In her minor roles in 2Fast2Furious and Sin City, she is mainly referred to through male voiceover while the camera pans over her. In D.E.B.S., which she has major supporting role, I think had all of four or five lines. In all of these films, she is represents a sexualized trop he of Asian American women. Let’s review.
Suki, The Fast & The Furious (2003)
In a short promotional clip for the film, the film’s director speaks to the remarkableness of Devon’s casting in the role as believable as a street racer despite being a chick. Devon, of course, has an acting agent in California who thought she would be perfect for the role. This is more than likely a nuanced reference to the street creed that Devon provides to real ethnic demography of California’s street racing scene, the Asian American “rice boys” transfixed with import culture. The Alien reading unfortunately was written before 2Fast2Furious, arguably a white-washed ode to the “corporate pan-Asiaism structures [of] the import scene around Japanese aesthetics and capital.” Therein lies Devon’s aesthetic representationalism and importance: “The attraction to Japanese cars as at the new medium for customization is tied to an identification with the clean lines of traditional Japaense aesthetics, as well as with Japan’s global role as a technological powerhouse. Japanese cares are spare, with sleek curves and efficient lines. They are not meant for the baroque stylings predominant in lowrider culture.”*
Just as Devon’s youth is noted by producers of the film as important for creating an authenticism to the exciting, underground culture she is supposed to represent, her hybrid beauty lends an alluring erotic appeal that is at once familiar to the American masses because of it’s oriental uniqueness. She is a tool for the “cultural economy of distance,”**customizing Americans used to the technophobic muscle car culture to the buzzing street racing culture in Tokyo: the film industry knew this was where the real money was to be made, and Devon was the pivotal if tentative introduction of this culture to mainstream America.
Dominique, D.E.B.S. (2004)
French connection: Asian women as objets d’artes sexuelles
I don’t really think this is the time or space to go into the complicated relationship of French colonization and the association of Asian women as erotic sex objects. In the recently discredited autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, Somaly Mam details her gritty story as a child sex worker who eventually goes on to rescue girls with similar stories after a French customer becomes enamored and marries her, saving her from her life of sin. After the initial romantic whirlwind, Somaly speaks of a lonely life in Paris, shunned by her new French family until she provides her mother-in-law grandchildren. Eventually, her marked social mobility as a Khmer de France works in her favor when dealing with law enforcement and politicians in Cambodia, but it is that initial ennui with her French life that is supposedly embodied by Dominique. A reformed nymphomaniac disinterested in the spoils of European life, sauf que les chances to entrap more men with her sensual beauty.
Miho, Sin City (2005)
I do not have the film school chutzpah to discuss the many ways that Quentin Tarentino uses ethnic symbolism for the sake of pseudo art house film that is borderline-to-very offensive, depending on if you buy into his status as a demigod. But deadly little Miho” is a dark angel with no speaking lines; literally pointing her response at one point. Devon is replaced in the film’s sequel, Sin City 2, by her millennial counterpart, Jamie Chung, who would be the subject of a part two of this post’s theme.
None of this discredits her sartorial career. But it is also not a coincidence that her portfolio consists of portraitures with starkly contrasted background, sometimes in oriental garb. It would be disingenuous to not remark that this is in large part due to her beauty, which rightfully takes center stage in her photos. It is important to note, in the quote at the beginning of this post, that Devon openly acknowledges the interviewer’s implicit allusion to her nativity, assuming she already speaks Japanese. Devon Aoki is the bridge that identifies the immigrant as a figure that challenges the global economies from the standpoint of the locality.”*** It is evident in her high-fashion campaigns, in which she literally looks like an Alien while rocking re-purposed traditional garb. (Pictured left) Her barefaced portraitures are confrontations in overwhelmingly natural beauty, but it is attributed to her ethnic otherness, rather than the California cool that she personally ascribes to.