What’s “Wong” and Right: The Gaze in The World of Suzie Wong (1960)

My dearest readers: I am taking a break from the norm of travel posts to discuss something that I hope to also cover moving forward in this blog.

I have had numerous racial incidents occur in the past month than I have had in the year prior. As a result, I wanted to reblog the below blog post which I wrote for a class at the Unviersity of Michigan, which I hope provides insight as to the issues Asian/Asian-American women face in this country and why I have a problem with men telling me they “are into Asian women” and that we look “exotic”.

Thanks for reading.

xx

(area of focus in film: 1 hour:31 minutes:37 seconds – 1 hour:34 minutes:08 seconds)

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” piece was groundbreaking in communication studies academia with its “political use of of psychoanalysis” to reveal the “patriarchal unconscious that represents women in film as objects of a male’s gaze” (Mulvey, p. 1). This idea of the “castrated woman,” whose identity is shaped by her “absence of penis” through the male experience is clearly illustrated in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) where the main character, Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan), a Chinese prostitute, is the object of obsession for protagonist, Robert Lomax (William Holden), an American hoping to make it as a painter in China (Mulvey, p. 6). While the classic Hollywood film supports Mulvey’s original argument in its plot and characterizations, I argue that the film also invites a different kind of gaze with its East v. West dynamic: that of the male orientalist.

Orientalism is “a manner of regularized writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient” (Said, p. 142) which essentially means using Western traditions and colonial dominance as a mindset and framework for understanding Asia and the peoples of Asia. It is a practice that is still in use today and one that has been built throughout history. One essentially identifies Asia as “the other” and that “we” (people of Western culture) are not like “them.” Often times, this leads to extreme exaggeration and exotification of Asian cultures and traditions to appease the European fantasy of the East. The orientalist male gaze is apparent in the clip shown above (1:31:37-1:34:08), in a scene where Robert Lomax surprises Suzie Wong with a white dress and crown-like headpiece that was once worn by a Chinese empress (nevermind for the Hollywood producers that white in Chinese culture is only worn at funerals). As Suzie begins to decline wearing the dress, Robert tells her “put [it] on right away” to make this artistic fantasy he had with her as his muse become reality.  After enough convincing, Suzie agrees. Rain begins to pour outside and dims the sky as Robert smokes his cigarette. He is then beckoned to come inside to find Suzie atop the stairs. The music is Cinderella-esque where the orchestra’s climax occurs as the lights shine on Suzie and Robert looks up to gaze at her from down the stairs. The camera drinks in her beauty from Robert’s downstairs perspective as

she then bows her head submissively and then kneels to the ground without making eye contact. Robert reacts by continuing his gaze for a few seconds and swooping her into his arms into a deep and passionate kiss.

This scene illustrates Mulvey’s point that “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact…to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, p. 11) because the meaning behind Suzie’s dress and her standing upon the stairs is female / passive as she is only simply being seen. When Robert’s male / active gaze is activated, the meaning of the scene is then given to Suzie; her being dressed in this traditional Chinese dress has turned her into an object of desire and a living, breathing version of Robert’s fantasies. Robert’s actions, not Suzie or Suzie’s dress, is the “active one of forwarding the story and making things happen” in the scene (Mulvey, p. 12). She is the raw material, as Mulvey suggests, for the unmediated gaze of desire from Robert.  The orientalist aspect comes into play here because Robert’s fantasy was specifically to dress her in Chinese traditional garb over anything else available at the market; only then did he give the gaze of admiration and desire. Robert wanted the exotic and mystified Western version of what “Chinese culture” was as Suzie, with her almond shaped eyes and jet black hair pinned back by a magnificent and ornate crown, dressed in a silk cheongsam simply “holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire” as she stands atop the stairs, exuding exoticness and mysticism of the foreign  “other” (Mulvey, p. 11).

In another scene (approximately at 1:21:20), Suzie buys an expensive American dress to show Robert what she perceived as American beauty to impress him. He reacts vehemently and physically by telling her she looked like a “cheap European streetwalker” and to “take off that terrible dress” as he tossed her on the bed to rip off the American clothing like a rag doll. When Suzie wore the American garments, she destroyed his dream of the Orient. Not only is Mulvey’s male gaze active throughout the plot and selected scenes for The World of Suzie Wong but evidence of the male orientalist gaze is also active in understanding Suzie Wong’s role in the film. To him, the Chinese girl dressed in expensive American clothing disgusted him with visual and cultural dissonance, revealing his desire for only fantasy – the male orientalist fantasy. Robert wanted to use the male orientalist gaze to look upon what matched his idea of the Orient; Robert wanted to see the traditional version of a beautiful Chinese woman in oriental clothing and jewelry, submissively kneeling once again before the Western man.

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