The term “gender” has multiple meanings and intellectual usages. Gender generally refers to the socially constructed nature of sex roles. The concept of gender challenges biologically essentialist understandings of maleness and femaleness, asserting instead that normative understandings of masculinity and femininity are socially defined ideas projected onto biological differences. Because women’s studies scholars have had a vested interest in challenging naturalized and hierarchical differences between men and women, gender is sometimes used interchangeably with the category of woman. That is, studies of gender are at times primarily focused on women. However, scholars have also used gender to argue for the need to understand how masculinity and femininity are relationally defined as well as how gender hierarchies serve as a constitutive basis for power and underlie other forms of social inequalities (Scott 1986). Furthermore, the interpretation of gender as a form of performativity argues that there are no stable categories of sex differences (Butler 1990). Instead, gender is enacted through repeated and oftentimes unconscious patterns of behaviors or gender scripts that create a fiction of a cohesive and preexisting identity of manhood or womanhood. In addition, scholars of gender note that physiological differences do not necessarily divide neatly into two sexes, as some individuals are intersexed. Similarly, some societies recognize more than two genders, and some individuals are transgendered, i.e., they identify with a gender that is not normatively associated with their physical sex. Also, scholars of gender and sexuality have conceptually delineated these categories. Individuals who transgress gender norms are frequently perceived as transgressing sexual norms in their desires, behaviors, and identifications. However, gender and sexuality do not necessarily align in expected ways with one another.
Asian American studies scholars have utilized these multiple conceptions of gender to offer an intersectional analysis of Asian American racialization. As Sylvia Yanagisako (1995) has argued, the early scholarship in and teaching of Asian American studies tended to foreground immigrant, working-class, male subjects without an awareness of how this focus produced a masculinist Asian American nationalism. The gender wars between the writers Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston that emerged in the mid-1970s could be understood as an attempt by Asian American men to assert their working-class and racialized experiences as the central basis for Asian American identity. Chin did so by critiquing Asian American women as feminist sellouts who cater to the Orientalist fantasies of white audiences. Asian American scholars have responded by producing creative and scholarly work that demonstrates how race, gender, sexuality, and class are mutually constitutive categories of difference and hierarchy. These intersectional formations shape the lives of Asian American women and men in the realms of economics, law, kinship, and sexuality, as well as cultural representations.
A race- and gender-stratified economy differentially positions men and women of Asian ancestry both in the U.S. and globally (Y. Espiritu 2008; Glenn 1988; Glenn 2004; Parreñas 2001). During the first wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Asian laborers, an overwhelmingly male population, were deemed “cheap labor” by their American employers not only due to their racial otherness. Asian male laborers were less expensive partly because the costs of social reproduction were born by their female partners and extended-family members in Asia (Okihiro 1994). The small numbers of Asian women who migrated to the U.S. during the first wave and the larger numbers in subsequent waves of migration contributed in terms of their productive, reproductive, and sexual labor to maintain the overall Asian American community (Cheng Hirata 1979).
The American labor force during the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century continues to be stratified in terms of race, gender, and immigration/citizenship status. On the one hand, Asian American men and women have greater access to the primary economy (i.e., stable jobs with benefits and higher pay and prestige) and even gain entry to the U.S. because of their professional skills, financial assets, and educational background (Choy 2003). On the other hand, the racial and gender glass ceiling continues to exist. Asian Americans also are heavily concentrated in the service industry and the secondary economy (M. Kang 2010). Asian American men and women with limited English skills and uncertain immigration or citizenship status are particularly vulnerable to economic exploitation, sometimes by their own family members and co-ethnics (Zhao 2010).
In these settings, gender matters as Asian American women are perceived to be particularly suited to certain forms of manufacturing or care work. In some cases, their economic exploitation allows for the financial survival of a business or company in an ultra competitive and increasingly globalized economy. In addition, domestic care, paid or unpaid, continues to be regarded as female work. The reproductive work that some Asian American women perform for pay, such as domestic, childcare, elderly care, and health care work, allows other individuals (men as well as women, Asian as well as non-Asian American) to be relieved of their family responsibilities and to enter the paid work force (Boris and Parreñas 2010). Even when Asian women migrate as the primary breadwinners and are separated from their children and partners in Asia, these female-led split households elicit gendered recriminations and feelings of guilt as women are charged with “abandoning” their mothering responsibilities in order to financially sustain their families (Parreñas 2001; Parreñas 2005).
Race, gender, and sexuality shape the law as well as the workforce. Policies regarding immigration, naturalization, land ownership, taxation, and miscegenation combined to exclude, marginalize, and segregate Asian Americans from the U.S. polity (S. Chan 1991; Erika Lee 2004; Ngai 2004a; Salyer 1995; Takaki 1989). Anti-immigrant sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to target Asian male laborers for exclusion and expulsion, but eventually almost all Asian immigrants, regardless of class, were designated aliens ineligible for citizenship. Filipinos were “nationals” rather than “aliens” due to American colonization of the Philippines, but they, too, were not full-fledged citizens.
In addition to these racialized exclusions, Asian American women faced additional legal challenges. Their sexuality or perceived sexuality became the basis for immigration exclusion or admission (S. Chan 1994; Gardner 2009; J. Gee 2003; Peffer 1999; Yung 1995). Also, following the principle of femme covert, Asian immigrants and even American-born Asian women were defined by their relationship to their husbands or fathers. The class and citizenship status of Asian American men largely defined the legal identities of Asian American women.
The gender makeup of the Asian American community has been transformed in the post–World War II period, particularly after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. Asian women are entering in equal and even greater numbers due to laws that privilege family reunification and certain categories of labor migration, as well as adoption and refugee migration.
However, gender and sexuality scholars point out that the principle of family reunification is defined via heteronormative understandings of kinship (Luibheid 2002; Luibheid and Cantu 2005). Heteronormativity assumes the naturalness of a gender binary as well as the belief that male-female marital and sexual unions are the normative units of kinship and should form the basis of social organization. As an indication of the heteronormative basis of immigration law, Asian women who enter through their marital relationship to American men continue to be legally dependent on their male partners for their immigration and citizenship status. These women consequently are vulnerable in cases of domestic violence, because state authority reinforces male power within the family.
In the era of neoliberalism and post-9/11, Asian American men and women face racialized as well as gendered suspicions about their eligibility for immigration entry and national belonging. Asian men, particularly South Asian, West Asian, and Muslim men, become likely terrorism suspects (Puar 2007). Asian women, in contrast, are perceived as likely welfare and immigration cheats through their capacity to give birth to anchor babies (L. Park 2011).
In addition to analyzing the gendered dimensions of the economy and the law, Asian American studies scholars also offer a critique of kinship and sexuality. A recurrent historical narrative of Asian America presents its transformation from an immigrant “bachelor” society to an American-centered family society (Nee and Nee 1986). This teleological conception of historical progress celebrates heternormative co-ethnic family formations. This narrative responds to what Jennifer Ting (1995) and Karen Leong (2000) describe as a perception of deviant heterosexuality among Asian Americans. Due to immigration exclusion as well as antimiscegenation laws, Asian American communities were disproportionately male and sustained an extensive and exploitative economy of prostitution. This lack of nuclear families among Asian Americans, along with their perceived gender deviance due to their dress, living arrangements, and occupations, contributed to their racialization and marginalization. As Nayan Shah (2001) points out, Asian Americans seeking civic inclusion to the U.S. polity understood that non-heteronormativity reinforced their racial exclusion. Consequently, the campaign for Asian American civil rights included the assertion of gender and sexual normativity.
Asian American historians have responded in various ways to the concerns about heterosexual deviancy. Evelyn Nakano Glenn (1983) and Madeline Hsu (2000) point to the existence of “split households” or transnational families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with male producers in the U.S. and female reproducers in Asia. Nayan Shah extends this analysis to posit that Asian American men and women during the late 19th and early 20th centuries practiced a form of “queer domesticity.” Male workers and female prostitutes sometimes shared housing with each other as well as with boarders, acquaintances, and occasionally children, not always born within wedlock. In other words, they resided in households that challenged the normative concept of an American family. In addition, the members of the predominantly male immigrant community at times formed erotic and sexual relationships with one another and with men of other racial backgrounds, a form of “stranger intimacy” (Shah 2012). Rather than regarding the disproportionate gender ratio as a form of racialized oppression, it is possible to understand the predominantly male homosocial environment of the U.S. West as an arena of sexual possibility and experimentation.
Women within Asian American communities also engaged in gender and romantic transgression. The heteronormative narrative from bachelor to family society equates the presence of Asian women with the formation of heterosexual families and the naturalness of intraracial sexuality and procreation. Margaret Chung’s life illustrates instead how an Asian American woman could transgress gender and sexual expectations in her professional as well as her personal life. During the early 20th century, Chung became a physician, a male-dominated occupation. She also adopted a male nickname, “Mike,” and partially cross-dressed; she was known as a woman, but she dressed like a man, wearing dark suits, rimmed glasses, and slicked-back hair. Chung chose not to marry and secretly engaged in erotic relationships with women, particularly white ethnic women. In addition, she adopted nearly a thousand offspring, mostly white American military personnel and politicians, during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. Their family symbolized China-U.S. unity. Over the course of her life, Chung experimented with her gender presentation and roles, adopting more glamorous and highly feminine attire as she publicly became known as a mother of an interracial, adopted family (J. Wu 2005).
Scholars interested in studying more contemporary Asian American GLBTQ issues, individuals, and communities also offer complicated analyses of gender. Individuals who identify with nonnormative sexual identities or who are invested in challenging heteronormativity sometimes also adopt transgressive gender roles. And, at times, they also perform hyperfeminine or hypermasculine scripts. These studies also examine how GLBTQ individuals and social networks simultaneously claim Asian/American identity and foster alternative understandings of kinship, lineage, community, and diaspora (Eng and Hom 1998; Gopinath 2005; Leong 1996; Manalansan 2003).
In addition to uncovering these queer formations of Asian America, scholars also have paid increasing attention to interracial and adoptive families. Asian American women have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage, particularly with white men. These romantic pairings increased in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, which led to an increased American military presence in Asia and a proliferation of Hollywood cultural representations of Asian women (Marchetti 1993). Asian and Asian American women in interracial relationships helped to challenge and overturn antimiscegenation laws (Pascoe 2009). However, these interracial marriages were not purely symbols of a color blind America. Instead, scholars note how racialized, gendered, and classed understandings of Asian womanhood and white manhood channel sexual desire and marital partner choice toward particular types of bodies (Koshy 2004). As Ji-Yeon Yuh (2002) points out, Korean women during the U.S. occupation in South Korea may be looking for “Prince Charmings” among white American military personnel, but their partners may be seeking Asian “lotus blossoms.”
The rise of Asian transnational adoption during and after the Cold War also reveals gender and racial hierarchies. Christina Klein (2003) argues that transnational adoption represented a domesticated version of American imperial ambitions in Asia. Adoption allowed (predominantly white) American families to embrace Asia. However, there were clear power differentials (among nations and within families) between those giving humanitarian aid and those receiving assistance. The hierarchy between white parents and Asian children also has a gender dimension. More Asian girls compared to boys are adopted by American families. These girls are viewed in the U.S. as unwanted in Asia, due to the presumed patriarchal and antifemale values of these Asian countries. In contrast, Asian girls are desired in American society for their presumed docility and adaptability.
Similar cultural, generational and gender dynamics also exist within same-race, co-ethnic families. One of the persistent tropes in Asian American literature focuses on intergenerational conflict, particularly between immigrant parents and their American-born children. Tensions regarding gender roles are a primary way in which these intergenerational and cross-cultural dynamics are represented and experienced. While immigrant parents are commonly depicted as seeking to reinstate gender norms from their home countries, their American-born children assert their desires to adopt the gender roles of their peers. The cultural war between the generations is often problematically caricatured and understood as an Orientalist binary between the gender conformity and hierarchy of Asian society versus the gender freedoms of American society.
The racialized and gendered dynamics of the economy, law, and family are profoundly shaped by cultural representations. These “controling images” or dominant representations of Asian Americans tend to accentuate nonnormative gender roles. Asian American men and women have been depicted as hypersexual as well as asexual (Y. Espiritu 2008; Robert Lee 1999; Okihiro 1994). During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Asians men were characterized as sexual predators and economic competitors, i.e., yellow peril who were alien to and also threatened the United States. Throughout most of the 20th century, Asian and Asian American women were portrayed as prostitutes, geishas, and porn stars, alternately excluded and desired for their exotic sexual deviancy (Shimizu 2007). Since the mid-1960s, Asian Americans are frequently depicted as model minorities. This image celebrates Asian American heteronormative families for their stability, work ethic, and ability to transmit cultural capital. At the same time, this model minority image reinforces emasculating perceptions of Asian American men and docile images of Asian American women. The more recent furor over Tiger Moms revives a cultural anxiety among many Americans regarding Asian economic and resource competition. Not surprisingly, this racialized discourse, which emerges in an era of intense globalization, is expressed through a gendered debate. Asian American mothers are perceived as excessively focused on discipline and achievement, an excess that marks them as cultural and gender deviants, i.e., as not proper American mothers.
Applying a gender lens to Asian American racialization has generated complex and intersectional analyses of social oppression and social power. Early scholars have tended to focus on Asian American women’s experiences and representations, although there is increasing attention to masculinity as well as sexuality. In addition to focusing on gendered and sexualized groups, identities, and constructs, the scholarship also reveals how gender hierarchies are embedded in the economy, the state, the family and in cultural representations. In contrast to earlier debates that pitted gender against race, Asian American studies scholars are increasingly invested in understanding how gender, race, sexuality, class, and other forms of social difference and hierarchy are mutually inflected and intertwined.