Assistant Professor in Social Development Studies - Renison University College

Category: Vol 2 No 1

Chinese Representation in popular North American Films

By Jessie Hui

This paper discusses common tropes and depictions of Chinese people and Chinese culture in mainstream Western film. Drawing on examples of homogenizing (East, South East) Asian identities, appropriation of Chinese cultural symbols or practices, Yellow-face as a common practice for playing Asian characters, and both the hyper-masculinization and emasculation of Chinese men, this paper argues that while there is a slow shift in Hollywood to address these issues, the context of anti-Chinese racism is prevalent in the mainstream film industry.

Keywords: yellow-face, Chinese representation in film, typecasting, miscasting, cultural appropriation

This narrative essay will discuss the misrepresentation of Chinese people in North American popular culture and analyze examples in film to look at the ways in which these misrepresentations can significantly impact one’s existing schemas. Presently, the term “Asian” is often used as a blanket term that includes many subgroups in Asia. This could include people from Malaysia, Iran, India, Korea, and many more countries but, people in North America generally assume “Asian” refers to Chinese people. By assuming that the usage of “Asian” in North American popular culture refers to Chinese people, other groups in Asia are overlooked and misrepresented. Representation of Chinese people in popular culture can highlight the barriers and struggles they face in Western countries. For example, characteristics of femininity have been seen to misrepresent the concept of being a “woman” as it limits their options of expression. By restricting one’s options, an individual’s development is limited, and therefore oppressed (New 2001). The same concept can be applied to what North American society considers “Asian”, since an individual’s options for expression are limited by the misrepresentations in popular culture, other expressions of being “Asian” are erased.

Chinese representation in North American popular culture has garnered increased attention through films like Crazy Rich Asians (which focused on Singaporean and Chinese cultures), where East Asian people have seen a rise of more accurate representations in popular film. However, this essay aims to explore depictions of Chinese people that have been normalized in Western popular culture: (1) the blurring of distinct Asian identities into one homogenous and easily replaceable Other; (2) the appropriation of Chinese stories retold through the narrative lens of Western media; (3) the portrayal of Chinese men as either hyper-masculine or through an emasculated lens to fit the perception of an undesirable Other; (4) casting white actors to play Asian characters.

Popular opinion is heavily influenced by cultural representations in the media that depict people’s race or ethnicity inaccurately (Amin-Khan 2012). We can understand these representations as constructing what psychologists call “schemas.” Schemas are our mental representations that give us frameworks that set our preconceptions to understand future experiences. These schemas can be altered by past experiences, beliefs, and knowledge. Schemas can bias our perceptions of reality and future experiences because we try to make them consistent with what we already know (Shiraev & Levy 2016). To create our schemas, the differences in other theories are highlighted and our mental representations accept ideas that align with our own to further our internal concept (Zhu 2014).

How does misrepresentation affect Chinese people in North America and their own self-perception of their culture and identity? While Chinese culture is prevalent in many media contexts, there seems to be a confusion when it comes to differentiating different “Asian” cultures in the media. A common mistake is confusing Japanese culture with Chinese culture in pieces that are written by American authors. East Asian cultures seem to blend together and this shows a large misunderstanding that is constructed with these inaccurate representations. Such misrepresentations foster misunderstanding among the general public where the audience is exposed to inaccurate information that could contribute to their existing schema of what they think to be true of Chinese culture or any Asian culture (Chen 2009).

In Crazy Rich Asians, actress Sonoya Mizuno plays a Chinese character, Araminta Lee. Sonoya is of half Japanese and half British descent which creates an inaccurate representation of the film’s character that is misleading to the audience (Yamato 2018). The normalized culture that a Japanese person can act as a Chinese person, vice versa, or casting a person from another Asian culture entirely further blurs the lines between distinct Asian identities and makes them easily replaceable Others.

The animated Disney film, Mulan, is a great popular example of cultural appropriation that set precedent of how Chinese values were shown from its release in 1998. The film inappropriately depicts traditional Chinese symbols for comedic effect. For example, one of the characters is a lizard-sized dragon named Mushu, whose name is the same as an ethnically Chinese dish. It would be equally illogical to have a cowboy named “Cornbread” in a Western movie. Ethnic aspects of the film were altered to portray a Western “dominant” culture with feminist values. Many male characters in the film were shown as cruel and suggested a heavily patriarchal society. To appeal to a Western audience, aspects of the ‘Other’ were highlighted to make Chinese culture more exotic and different than Western culture. The film, which was adapted from the original Ballad of Mulan poem which focused on loyalty, feminism, and filial piety – a concept in which elders are respected and supported by their children or younger generations, is warped and distorted in Disney’s adaptation. Mulan focused on individuality which is a widely Western concept, it highlights that the female characters are exotic rather than recognizing that they were strong females, and portrays Chinese society as backwards by emphasizing patriarchy in the altered male roles (Yin 2011). Since this film was marketed as a children’s movie, it could have had a large impact in contributing to many schemas of Chinese people. By altering the story’s focus to Mulan’s individuality and drive to gain freedom from her family, it reinforces that Chinese families put constraints on their children and are a restrictive culture. These changes distort Chinese stories and they are culturally appropriated to fit the marketing needs of Western media by highlighting Western values.

Chinese men in Hollywood movies are often portrayed as either hyper-masculine or through an emasculated lens to further the concept of Otherness. Bruce Lee is a well-known actor that became the icon of Chinese masculinity that would be attractive to white female protagonists. In other popular films such as Sixteen Candles with Long Duk Dong’s portrayal of an “Asian” student, he is at times portrayed in an emasculated manner or as aggressive to fit the perception of an undesirable ‘Other’. The portrayal of Chinese people as someone to ridicule or as dangerous further builds the image of white men being superior in many ways. Other Chinese representations of ‘cool’ kung fu masters include Jackie Chan in the Rush Hour series and Jet Li in many other action films in the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Although these male leads were characterized as being heroes, there are still many stereotypes and racist ‘jokes’ that are in the films. In Rush Hour, Jackie Chan plays a police officer seen as a protagonist yet he is referred to as the “Chung King cop” because he is Chinese. This undermines the legitimacy of his character as a police officer and emasculates his abilities in comparison to other non-Chinese officers in the movie. The subtle ‘jokes’ that reinforce Chinese stereotypes throughout the movie enforce white supremacy (Eng 1998). In a way, the portrayal of these Chinese men and their masculinity contradict each other since on one hand they are this cool, fighting hero but on the other hand, they are still reduced to ‘jokes’ with stereotypes (Zhu 2013).

Hollywood films have a history of casting actors that are not Asian to play “Asian” roles, described as Yellowface, by which white actors have makeup applied to mimic “Asian” features such as yellow skin and smaller eyes. A well-known historical example in film is the Dr. Fu Manchu movie series that began in 1923 and ended in 1969 featuring white male actors in Yellowface to play Fu Manchu. Although examples of Yellowface being acceptable in media are fading, it still took nearly a century for this minor shift to occur (Norio 2013). Ghost in the Shell was released in 2017 with Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in the film’s recreation of a Japanese anime. The major cast members in the anime are Japanese, yet the producers chose to cast Scarlett Johansson due to her popularity in North America and the fact that it would have presumably marketed well. There was controversy during the planning of the film where people questioned why a white actress was cast for a Japanese role. In an attempt to fix the issue, Paramount and Dreamworks production had suggested that they could alter Scarlett’s appearance using digital effects to look more Asian. This “solution” seems to be even more of a step backwards and the idea was ultimately scrapped. The movie was eventually released and contributed to the ongoing racist portrayal of Asian characters in media (Berman 2017).

In 2016, Matt Damon was the male lead in The Great Wall where he played a European character instead of the film having a lead Chinese actor and character. Other supporting male roles were played by well-known Chinese actors that could have played the male lead. But yet again, in order to appeal to the Western market, it seems a white male protagonist was still needed. Many felt this casting decision took away many opportunities for Chinese actors in the film industry and did not allow for accurate representation. Disney’s decision to have Liu Yifei, a Chinese-American actress, play Mulan in their upcoming live-action remake of Mulan can be interpreted as an attempt to correct the previous whitewashing of characters in popular culture that has become extremely controversial. The news that a Chinese actress was cast into a Chinese role led to plenty of positive feedback from viewers in 2017. However, this small victory sparks the question of why people should be relieved in the first place to see someone of the same race cast to play a character consistent with the actor’s race. We should not need to celebrate accurate portrayals of race today (White 2017).

Along with the shift of an increase in accurate portrayals of race, Hollywood is hit with the film Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 that changed the lens of “Asian” people in popular culture. This film has a predominantly Chinese and South Asian cast and is celebrated by many as a large step forward in breaking stereotypes of Chinese people by having accurate representations of “Asian” people as most of the characters in the story are Chinese. Although the ingrained ideals of emasculated or hyper-masculine Chinese men still exist, as seen in a study done in 2014, women found “Asian” men to be less attractive than the average man. However, by casting a Malaysian-British as the lead male in a romantic role, the stereotypes of “Asian” men being undesirable and uninteresting could eventually be negated and seen as equally attractive compared to white males. The depictions of characters in film is only a sliver of reality, if it carries any truth at all, but is often believed by those outside of the depicted cultural group especially if they do not have real life examples to counter those depictions (Chiu 2018). With increasingly accurate depictions of cultures in mainstream popular culture, individuals of the portrayed race could feel less pressured and stereotyped by the inaccurate depictions.

In light of casting actors of the correct race to play lead roles, Simu Liu received a lot of hate when he was recently cast to play Shang-Chi in Marvel’s upcoming movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Yet again, the effects of a history of emasculating and hyper-masculating Asian men are seen as many people deemed he was ‘too ugly’ to play the role of Marvel’s first “Asian” superhero. These criticisms bring forth the connotations of attractiveness that our society has built. The measures of attractiveness that many of the criticisms are suggesting are influenced by Eurocentric and Western beauty standards. Simu Liu has publicly spoken against these criticisms and has expressed that he will not allow other’s views to define who he is (Yam 2019). This empowering drive that he has shown can help drive Chinese people in North America to disregard the misrepresentations in popular culture and create their own accurate narrative.

Our society is heavily influenced by our histories which often carry concepts that people don’t necessarily agree with but they are hesitant to change their existing schemas. With the slow changes seen throughout the years, further activism to raise attention to the homogenization of Asian identities is needed for different groups to be recognized. Work still needs to be done to put a stop to cultural stereotyping, appropriation, and whitewashing in Western popular culture through further education to correct existing and future schemas.

Jessie Hui (she/her) has completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo. She will be pursuing a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Waterloo.


Amin-Khan, T. (2012). New Orientalism, Securitisation and the Western Media’s Incendiary Racism. Third World Quarterly, 33(9), 1595–1610.

Berman, E. (2017). Ghost in the Shell 2017 Controversy: A Comprehensive Guide. Time. Retrieved at:

Chen, M. (2009). Seeking accurate cultural representation: Mahjong, World War II, and ethic Chinese in multicultural youth literature. Multicultural Education, 16(3): 2.

Chiu, A. (2018). ‘Asian, ew gross’: How the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ movie could help change stereotypes about Asian men. The Washington Post. Retrieved at:

Eng, M. (1998). ‘Rush Hour’ Angers Some Asian Americans. The Washington Post. Retrieved at:

New, C. (2001). Oppressed and Oppressors? The Systematic Mistreatment of Men. Sociology, 35(3), 729–748.

Norio Masuchika, G. (2013). “Yellowface” in movies: a survey of American academic collections. Collection Building, 32(1), 31–36.

Shiraev, E., & Levy, D. A. (2016). Cross-cultural psychology: Critical thinking and contemporary applications (6th ed.). New York: Routledge.

White, C. (2017). Necessary for Hollywood to improve representation of minorities in industry. UWIRE Text.

Yam, K. (2019). Simu Liu Responds To Critics Who Claim He’s ‘Too Ugly’ To Play Shang-Chi. Huffpost. Retrieved at:

Yamato, J. (2018). ‘Crazy Rich Asians’: Sonoya Mizuno left the ballerina life for a shot at Hollywood stardom. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved at:

Yin, J. (2011). Popular culture and public imaginary: Disney vs. chinese stories of mulan. Javnost – the Public, 18(1), 53-74.

Zhu, Z. (2013). Romancing ‘kung fu master’ – from ‘yellow peril’ to ‘yellow prowess’. Asian Journal of Communication, 23(4), 403-419.

Zhu, Z. (2014). Making the “Invisible” a “Visible problem” — the representation of chinese illegal immigrants in U.S. newspapers. Journal of Chinese Overseas, 10(1), 61-90.

Capitalism’s Push for Consumerism: The Ninety Percent

By Meriem Mahrez

Acrylic Paint on Illustration Board

Keywords: Capitalism, Consumerism, Materiality, Power, Society, Class, Exploitation

The Ninety Percent is inspired by a thorough analysis of crucial political theories of capitalism and consumerism, as well as political and social movements which these ideologies inspired. These theories question the capitalist system that various nations across the globe follow. My work intends to expose the capitalist society’s idolization of materiality, and how labels and brands are used as tools to both distract and control the minds of the masses. Through figurative representation, my work explores the way in which capitalism has successfully marginalized and distracted societies around the world through its push for consumerism. Understanding the truth of capitalism requires us to unlearn what society has drilled into us since we were children. Furthermore, this piece touches on the dysfunctional and exploitative nature of capitalism.

My painting illustrates a group of people who embody the vast majority of society. They stand in an organized formation with their arms stretched out with empty bowls, begging to be fed. As I was painting, my mother watched over my shoulder and asked who these figures were, and I told her they were us. This work serves as a true reflection of our current social system. The dark tone of the work represents the darkness the working class lives is, as they obey to a capitalist system without hesitation. For such a system to successfully function, it requires people to be organized into economic classes and for populations to be exploited. With all the economic and physical exhaustion this system brings to people, it also implies a way for society to cope with their issues and fill their voids through materialism. We live in a vicious cycle of exploitation. Where it is nearly impossible to grow out of the economic class one was born into. The similarity in the facial expressions of the figures illustrates the similarity in our struggle. The higher entity of this piece is not physically illustrated yet it is the most significant part of the piece, while everything happening in the piece is dependent on it. The ultimate purpose of this work is to visually remind people to create moments where they are active, and progressively work against how we are trained to think and act.

My work is heavily influenced by the imagery used by Adbusters, an anti-consumerist magazine which uses provocative and ironic imagery. They often create fake advertisements to challenge corporate businesses. By using humor, they keep the youth engaged and educated, while the magazine intends to remind the public to question what systems they financially support. They claim that artists and advertisers are responsible for what society sees. Adbusters made the original call to Occupy Wall Street, which spurred a protest movement that took up the New York Financial district to demand economic equality and spread globally (Graeber 2012).

In an article from News Roots, an online news page, Elizabeth Laville explains that overconsumption is a major taboo in today’s societies. Dimitris Begioglou is a clinical psychologist who claims consumerism is a dangerous addiction, where a consumer will confuse simple pleasures for the illusion of omnipotence (Zonakis 2018). The articles states, “The addiction to overconsumption has the same magnitude as that experienced by a drug user, a gambler or an alcoholic. A person, before the impulsive act of consumption, feels a tremendous euphoria, which, once the act is completed, will give place to relaxation and, later, to guilt and depression, until we start to seek euphoria through consumption again. This is the vicious circle of addiction” (Zonakis 2018).

It is important to note how advertisements distort the minds of children. The constant narrative of material objects bringing fulfillment and happiness is one that is detrimental to the formation of a child’s thought processes. This epidemic has caused people to push for policy change. In 2016, for instance, France took action and banned advertisements during children television programs. (Zonakis 2018). Prior to this, in 2014 a city in France took action and banned advertising billboards, and in 2000 Sweden banned television advertisements from public and private channels (Zonakis 2018).

Karl Marx’s Das Kapital explains the contradictions of capitalist societies and its mode of production, it also outlines the potential to overcome it. Marx describes the source capitalism is from class struggles. And so, that antagonism between classes began before industrial capitalism but was transformed into the current struggle through the dispossession of the means of production from the labouring classes. Marx explains that capitalism’s antagonism is divided into two main classes; the bourgeoisie (capitalist) and the proletarian (worker). He analyzed this worker-capitalist relationship and how the exploitation of the worker is the most essential aspect of capitalist systems. Since workers do not own the means of production, they must sell their labor, which alienates them from their work. As a result, human beings become no more than machines. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx writes, “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire like, only lives by sucking living labor and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” (Marx 1887). Since the ultimate goal in the capitalist system is to maximize its profits, everything becomes a commodity that is bought and paid for. Even basic human needs, like education, health, and food. Marx argues that the capitalist system is unstable. Because it cannot endlessly increase profits. It is a system that does everything in its power to convince us we need more. It has trained us to never be satisfied materialistically. While it pushes the idea that physical possessions improve the way we appear to others.

The situationist international was a political art movement from Europe that existed from 1957 to 1972. Similar to my own vision, it was a youthful revolt and agitation against art being used for commercial use. It was inspired by avant-garde groups in Northern Italy. They were interested in the construction of moments of life and living and claimed that capitalism has made life a mere accumulation of spectacles. The artists and poets of the movement claimed they do not want to contribute to their own destruction and encouraged the public to revolt as well. Society of the Spectacle, a book written in 1967 by Guy Debord, was crucial to the situationist movement. He explains a capitalist society is merely a representation of life, a fake reality where the media and advertising masks the reality of capitalism’s true impact on our lives. Debord claims to get away from these spectacles, and to get away from these distractions we must create moments where we are active.

Meriem Mahrez (she/her; they/them) is in their final year in the Honours Studio Fine Arts program while minoring in Political Science at the University of Waterloo.


Graeber, David (2012). The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement. New York: Speigel and Grau.

Haines, Luke (2018). 1968 and all that. The Spectator, July 12, 2018. Retrieved at: 

Harris, John. Guy Debord Predicted Our Distracted Society. The Guardian, Mar 30 2012. Retrieved at: 

Marx, Karl. “The Working Day.” Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I – Chapter Ten. Retrieved at:

Zonakis, Spyros. In a Society Addicted to Consumerism, a Movement of Anti-Consumers. Street Roots, February 22 2018. Retrieved at:

The Tangled Thread of Adoption

By Brontee Forfar

The Red Thread is a popular legend within the transnational adoption community, particularly with children coming from East Asian countries into White families. This legend roots many adoption stories and ties children and parents as objects of fate. The popular conceptualization is problematic in that it erases critical historical and political contexts that led to the proliferation of adoptions in the West. The author argues that transnational adoptions are oversimplified and painted in a generalized positive light, overlooking the real and intricate feelings of adoptees, particularly during National Adoption Month. This paper weaves research and lived experiences, including the author’s, by drawing on popular hashtags and blogs to untangle the complexity of adoption as well as its role in upholding the White Saviour Complex. This exploration sheds light on the importance of adoptee voices and what is lost when they are not part of the conversation.

Keywords: transnational adoption; white saviour complex; Chinese legends; social media; healing

 “Don’t tell us we’re lucky…Tell us that home can be a place we start and a place we end up” (Dolan 2018)

A woman walks along a street all alone in Tokyo, Japan. She is grieving the death of her beloved younger sister, just a few months before. She asks for some guidance, a way to make her feel better when suddenly, she feels a sense of relief fall over her, a weight lifted. At that moment, thousands of miles away, a baby girl is born in China. This is my adoption origin story, as told by my mom. Through fate and the red thread that ties us together, we became a family.

The aforementioned red thread is based on a Chinese proverb: “an invisible red thread connects those destined to meet, regardless of the time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break” (Red Thread Broken 2019). Since the rise of transracial adoption, this legend has been accepted as part of the mythos that roots countless adoptions. The legend has flourished in popular culture and has become the title or the foundation of many adoption books, resources, and narratives. However, what needs further discussion, are the implications of using this legend as a basis for adoption origin stories as well as how the positive tales of transracial adoptions are rooted in the White Saviour complex. Due to my positionality, I will focus specifically on Chinese girls adopted into White households.

My story began when China enacted the one-child policy as an attempt to address population growth. Couples were limited to a single child; however, for many parents, it became a “one son/two children” policy, where parents could try for a second child, a boy if the firstborn were a girl (Volkman 2003). There were “steep fines for ‘over-quota children,’ sterilization, and the threat of forced abortion in the event of future pregnancies” (33). This policy caused a proliferation of international adoptions, with many parents coming from the United States and Canada. Indeed, the United States saw over 40,000 adoptions from China between 1985 and 2003 (Grice 2005).

Between 1999 and 2009, 8,000 adoptions took place from China to Canada, and in 2000, I was one of these adoptees (Statistics Canada 2016). My single mom, like other waiting parents, spent months with an adoption agency, raising money through fulltime work, odd jobs and the generosity of family, friends and colleagues. Also, like many parents, my mom went through a naming process, choosing an anglicized name for me, as my Chinese name, Xiang Xiang, is not so easy to pronounce. However, that does not mean that my Chinese name suddenly disappeared at the inception of my English name.  I have Xiang Xiang in Chinese characters proudly and visibly hanging in my mom’s living room. This visibility is essential in that it is a relatively new phenomenon for adoptees, one that was not the case with transracial adoptions in the 1950s (Volkman 2003).

The visibility of Chinese adoptees in North American media began in the 1990s, where adoptees were able to start to feel and express pride and reclaim their adoption story without ignoring where they came from (Gonzalez and Wesseling 2013). As well, “art and language and ancient history loom large in the imaginary that is China, and holiday celebrations abound. [However], far less is mentioned about Chinese politics” (Volkman 2003:39). This practise has been criticized by some Asian American parents saying that parents choosing what parts of Chinese culture to package and produce through adoptees is problematic and a form of racism. This racism is evident in that they are omitting critical moments in time where there has been oppression, colonialism and struggles around Asian American immigration (Volkman 2003). Some adoptees have echoed this, criticizing the “failed attempts at assimilation and colour-blind racism” of their adoptive parents (Gonzalez and Wesseling 2013: 259). This criticism is part of ongoing resistance against the power structures within the transnational adoption industry.

While many adoptees may not think of adoption in this way, opening a dialogue to recognize inherent, invisible power structures, I feel, is essential for adoptees. While writing this essay, I had to reflect on my own experiences growing up and try to reflect upon which kind of adoptee I am. Am I one of the critical ones, or am I one of the ones who are a lot more accepting and connect positively with adoptions? Through this reflective process, I have come to realize that there is not one category I, and probably many others fit into.

Adoptee Mila published a thought-provoking and evocative piece titled, “Colonized through Adoption”, where she reflects on her role in society as a way to elevate Whiteness. For her, “to emerge from the darkness of the suffocating White Fog as a mind colonized through adoption is to realize that my existence was being used to uphold and perpetuate White Supremacy and White Saviorism” (Mila 2019). Mila’s statement is crucial, as it shows a way in which transracial adoption, as an institution, implicitly can uphold a system of oppression and White superiority. Importantly, Mila had to add a disclaimer at the end of the piece stating:

“More specifically, it is not that I believe that White parents do not love their adopted children of color. But…White adoptive parents struggle to escape the fog of implicit bias and privilege that clouds their vision and ability to acknowledge and affirm the racial and historical realities of their adopted children of color and the communities from which they originated” (Mila 2019).

I think that this disclaimer shows how entrenched the fairy-tale idea of adoption is in our society, and how having a part of the White Fog lifted can challenge people.

In another post, Mila states that she does not regret coming to the United States, but regrets losing her culture and not being able to grow up with her birth family as well as her American family (Mila 2010). These mixed emotions are not uncommon but often hidden. Society expects adoptees, to inherently place our adoptive parents on a pedestal because they “saved” us. This expectation, however, puts adoptees in the middle of something that is not so easy to contend with, placing loyalty to one family over another.

There is an invisible hierarchy that comes with society’s expectations of how an adoptee views her birth and adoptive parents. These expectations are inherently damaging because they dismiss the complicated feelings that underly an adoptee’s experience. As another adoptee so aptly tweeted, “adoption [is] complicated, often messy & difficult to understand, even for those of us who are adoptees” (Clow 2014). Further, adoption is not a neat box of loyalty and love; it is about entangled regrets, joys, anger, losses, and gains (Mila 2010). To sum up the complicated feelings of it all, “I am left wishing that I could have grown up in two places…that I could have been two people at once, that I could have been a part of two worlds and two families simultaneously” (Mila 2010). Therefore, to say, “you must love one family over another” is overly simplistic, and ultimately reinforces complicated and traumatic feelings within the adoptee because it also emphasizes the idea of the White parent as the saviour.

A White saviour is a person who has been raised in (White) privilege and taught that they possess the answers and skills needed to rescue others, no matter the situation (Walsh 2020). Indeed, the saviour wants to support communities in need, but they are not amenable to listening to the communities; accordingly, they want to lead the communities, not follow directions (Windholz 2019). As Windholz (2019) comments, by “helping” these groups and communities, the saviour is taking away the sense of “a people’s own ability to help themselves”(n.p). It is thus imperative for allies to avoid saviourism in their attempt to help marginalized groups by listening, not talking over and by acknowledging privilege (Walsh 2020). Finally, developing an intersectional lens to understand systemic oppression is critical and imperative in creating change and moving forward without simultaneously taking steps back (Walsh 2020).

Part of the reason Chinese transracial adoption is overly simplified is because of the red thread. The Red Thread is known as a legend of fate, where destiny brings two lovers together no matter where they are or their circumstances. Though there are many iterations of the legend, it is the one in Chinese folklore that has been co-opted by the community of predominantly White parents. In the adoption community, “red threads spring from a newborn’s spirit and attach to all people who will be important to the child, shortening as…[the child] grows and bringing closer those who were meant to be together” (Volkman 2003: 41). While this may evoke a lovely image of bringing a family together from miles apart, there are underlying issues to explore. Even in Chinese folklore, it does not have such a positive meaning (Gonzalez and Wesseling 2013).

Below is a summary of the most well-known version of the legend:

Wei Ku is a man who longs for a wife to give him the perfect family. He seeks out a matchmaker, Old Man and the Moon, who grants Wei Ku a vision of his fated wife, a three-year-old girl. Wei Ku is horrified because she is ugly and too poor to be an acceptable wife and employs a servant to kill her. The servant fails and only wounds the girl, leaving a mark on her forehead. Later, the girl’s adoptive father, a police officer, offers her to Wei Ku as a form of gratitude for his years of service. Wei Ku and the girl, at seventeen, end up marrying and “the folktale ends with the observation that man cannot change his fate, try as he might…Since all marriages are predestined, no prospective partner needs to get upset over…individual lack of choice” (Gonzalez and Wesseling 2013: 261).

In this reading, the legend does not evoke a heartwarming feeling of bringing a family together. Moreover, I do not believe that most parents and children would want their story of a new ‘found family’ to have this underlying connection to an account of forced marriage and attempted murder. Having explained these connotations to my mom, she no longer uses the red thread as our romanticized origin story. Therefore, if this legend and fate are used as origin stories, then parents need to understand and unpack the legend in this context, instead of continuing to promote the legend in this positive idealized way.

Furthermore, modern adaptations do not refer to the Old Man and the Moon, nor do they address the complexity of what it means to be a Chinese girl in a White household (Gonzalez and Wesseling 2013). Consistent with a rags-to-riches fairy-tale, “all Red Thread tales conflate and compress difference of race, ethnicity, nationality into class alone” (Gonzalez and Wesseling 2013: 265). This conflation means that the one-child policy and China’s gender-bias is not addressed, which was the basis for many international adoptions from China. Thus, the idea of fate is problematic because it “silences complex moral issues of entitlement and glosses over the social inequality that underlies the transfer of children from destitute parents in developing countries to…couples in the West” (Gonzalez and Wesseling 2013: 268). As well, it upholds the idea that the White parent was ‘fated’ to save their Chinese daughter in need. Therefore, there needs to be an emphasis on the intricacies of gender politics and biases in China, to ground origin stories and not just rely on the Red Thread fairy-tale.

The legend has risen in popularity because it is an idealized narrative for White adoptive parents to engage in transracial adoptive practices with China without challenging the underlying social and political contexts. This misappropriation of the legend helps to perpetuate a positive resonance toward transnational adoptions with China. Moreover, the adoptee voices that are emphasized echo the positive adoption stories, helping to uphold this hegemonic view. Even if adoptees are very happy in their family, it is essential to talk about the circumstances that led them to their adoptive families, as well as exploring the way the adoption community has misappropriated the legend. Importantly, not all adoptees experience adoption the same, and they very much grieve their birth families and birth cultures in distinct ways. In only uplifting the voices of adoptive parents, as a society, we are missing this new perspective that can help create a paradigm shift in what we consider a ‘better life’ and who needs the White Saviour.

One instance where adoptees do not have a space to express their feelings is when their voices should be uplifted the most: National Adoption Month in November. This month highlights many views and experiences from the perspectives of adoptive parents or professionals in the industry who are not adopted. These voices are primarily on social media, through the hashtags #nationaladoptionmonth. Recently, however, counter hashtags have become popular during the month, including #flipthescript, #askanadoptee, and #nationaladopteeawarenessmonth (#naam). These hashtags are critical, as they open up a particular space for adoptees to express themselves, and for the public to see adoption from a new angle. They also show that the idea of home is a complex concept that, for some, may never be untangled.

#Flipthescript first emerged in 2014. The hashtag was founded by a member of the Lost Daughters, a blog that was seeking to create an open space for adult adoptees (Lost Daughters 2019). As described on the Lost Daughters, blog, the goal was:
“to promote acceptance of all adoptee voices as important whether they express happiness, ambivalence, grief and loss, or anger—or all of these themes at once; and to unlabel adoptee narratives as “happy” or “angry” by accepting and expecting complex conclusions from complex life experiences” (Lost Daughters 2019).

Below are some particularly relevant tweets that I have curated while searching through Twitter:

“During National Adoption Awareness Month, one would expect to hear stories from all different sides of adoption…The reasons vary, as do the outcomes. There are some happy stories, there are some horrific stories, and usually there is a mix of good and bad…When it comes to adoptees, people only want to hear the happy stories, the Hallmark movie material” (Jodi 2019).

#NAAM should be an entire month of adoption agencies, adoptive parents and legislators listening to adult #adoptees tell them what adoption is actually like. There are plenty of #adopteevoices. We should be heard (Gulledge 2019).

“Loving your adopted family and not being grateful for the circumstances that brought you together are not mutually exclusive” (punkelevenn 2019).

In sum, “#flipthescript for #nationaladoptionmonth isn’t about giving adoptees a voice. We have a voice. It demands we stop being silenced” (AmandaTDA 2014). This silencing is an ongoing attempt to control the narratives surrounding adoption and the White Saviour narrative. This silencing is also shown through the reactions towards this narrative shift.

For example, when I first came across these tweets, I was not as accepting, and my immediate reaction was shock and sadness that they were so critical. As I went through them, I realized I had to take a step back and reflect. This meant recognizing that it is imperative for me, as an adoptee, to listen and not be so quick to dismiss, just because their experiences did not mirror mine. I also had to examine why I had such a strong reaction to their stories, and why I immediately thought that it did not fit the ‘right’ adoption narrative. By exploring these reactions, and through reading the literature, I have come to realize that my responses are at least partly based on how society and adoption narratives within the media want me to react to “ungrateful” adoptees.

As one tweet puts it:

“I don’t have a problem with adoptees who have had a positive adoption. I consider my adoption to be overall ‘positive.’ I have an issue with those who use their positive experiences to invalidate others. I will acknowledge all aspects of my adoption. Since society speaks for me when it comes to the ‘positives,’ I will speak up when it comes to the complexities and challenges” (lilly_fei 2019).

Some adoptees do not have any doubts about their adoption origin story and the idea of the fated red thread. In contrast, other adoptees are critical and question adoption as an institution and its place in perpetuating the White Saviourism. Even still, there are others, like me, who are in-between: appreciate their adoptive parent(s) and families, while also questioning the deeply-rooted ideology underlining transracial adoption and the conditions that made Chinese adoptions such a phenomenon in the West. Regardless of what kind of adoptee someone is, their voice is just as essential to the adoption conversation and should be viewed as such by society, and most importantly, the adoption community.


Brontee Forfar (she/her) is in her final year of Social Development Studies with a specialization in Social Policy and Social Action. She is graduating in October 2020 and credits her two cats and copious amounts of caffeine for getting her there!


Brenner, N. (2018). 20 quotes from adoptees about being adopted that every adoptive parent should read. Retrieved from: 

González, M. G., & Wesseling, E. (2013). The stories we adopt by: Tracing “The Red Thread” in contemporary adoption narratives. The Lion and the Unicorn, 37(3), 257–276.

Grice, H. (2005). Transracial adoption narratives: Prospects and perspectives. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 5(2), 124–148.

Lost Daughters. (2019). #flipthescript. Retrieved from

Mila. (2010). Do you regret that you were adopted? Retrieved from:

Mila. (2019). Colonized through adoption: Whiteness as savior and oppressor. Retrieved from:

RTB. (2014). Flip the script. Retrieved from:

Statistics Canada. (2016, October 7). International adoptions. Retrieved from:

Volkman T.A. (2005). Embodying Chinese culture. Cultures of Transnational Adoption, 81–113.

Walsh, G. M. (2020). Challenging the hero narrative: Moving towards reparational citizenship.  education. Retrieved from:

Windholz, A. (2017). Unpacking white saviourism.  Medium. Retrieved from:

我是收养 . (2015). About This Site. Retrieved from:

Broad City and the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy

By Chelsea Brake

The Madonna-whore dichotomy has largely influenced the way we view women in everyday life and even more so in media. The concept leads us to categorize and label women based on the way they preform femininity. It tells us that women are considered “good” Madonnas when they adhere to gendered norms, or they are “bad” whores when they do not. As closed minded as this is, it is largely what we still view in television and film. We view it in shows like Jane the Virgin where it is based on Jane’s virginity and the importance of saving sex until marriage. Fortunately, we also have shows like Broad City that depict funny, independent women who enjoy having sex, smoking weed, and being feminists. It is through the main characters Ilana and Abbi that we see that women can be authentically themselves and not adhere to gendered norms while still being good people.

Keywords: feminism, Madonna-Whore Dichotomy, Broad City, heteronormativity, Jane the Virgin

Broad City is a comedic television show that is produced, directed, and written by the two female lead characters (IMDB 2019). The show follows the lives of Ilana Wexler and Abbi Abrams who are best friends navigating their twenties and living in New York City. Through this viewpoint, the audience gets to watch Ilana and Abbi restructure television and film’s ideas of how women should act. This is because Ilana and Abbi are funny, sex-positive, have attainable bodies and beauty, smoke weed, hate their jobs, and are unapologetically themselves. As a type of stoner comedy Broad City is ground-breaking because it fundamentally eschews the typical focus on men smoking weed while objectifying women (i.e Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, How High) (Teitel 2014). In contrast, Ilana and Abbi smoke weed because they enjoy it and it is a form of meaningless fun (Teitel 2014).

These traits are uncommon in the majority of comedic television because it is typical to have a male-centred cast due to the stereotype that men are funnier than women and because society holds women to a different standard than men. Typically, when people think of stoner comedy or casual sex, they tend to think of men in those roles. For example, Charlie Sheen is well known for his character Charlie on Two and a Half Men where he has sex with many women (Teitel 2014).

In an interview with Glamour, Ilana Wexler notes that women are forced to repeat themselves in order to be heard and for that reason it is important for women like herself to create funny content not only for feminism but also to change the world of comedy into one that is not curated just for men (Morris 2016).  In this sense, the creators feel that they are making strides for feminism by breaking down stereotypes and by showcasing and normalizing a different kind of woman. This female archetype does not have to be perfect and hyperfeminine, rather she can be funny, enjoy sex, smoke weed, and just be herself.

The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy

Kahalon et al. (2019) suggest that women in North American society tend to be framed within a Madonna-whore dichotomy in which women are either good and pure ‘Madonnas’, or they are bad and promiscuous ‘whores’. This Madonna-whore dichotomy stems from Freud’s psychoanalytic complex in which he believed men felt affection and sexual desire for their mothers (Kahalon et al. 2019). They argue that Freud believed that men grow up and feel anxiety over these feelings of attraction, so they categorize women into women they admire or women they are sexually attracted to. This results in men valuing and loving women they admire and devaluing and hating women they are sexually attracted to (Kahalon et al. 2019).

The feminist perspective of the Madonna-whore dichotomy is that conventional societal attitudes perpetuate the idea that women are either virgins or they are whores (Kahalon et al. 2019). It is the idea that women could not possibly be both feminine and act in typically perceived masculine ways. It puts women into the position of being forced to choose what box to put themselves into. This leads to heterosexual women feeling shameful but also confused because they are supposed to strive to be desired by men while they are also supposed to not desire men (Kahalon et al. 2019). It is the ultimate lose-lose situation because no matter if they chose to be a “Madonna” or a what is considered a “whore”, they will face some consequence. For example, heterosexual men are culturally expected to have sex with as many women as they can, but women are not supposed to have sex unless it is in a committed relationship with one person (Kahalon et al. 2019). The women who choose to be a “Madonna” may feel pressure from their male partners to have sex earlier than they would like or they may feel as though male partners lose interest in them because they are not willing to have sex with them until there is a commitment. Women considered “whores” are willing to have sex in an uncommitted relationship but they face the stigma of being called a “whore”. Replicating the continued stigmatization of sex workers and women alike.

Through this script, women are taught to be good girls or else they will not be accepted (Kahalon et al. 2019). This dichotomy works to control women by penalizing individuals who deviate from acceptable sexuality and these messages are internalized by women, so they self-objectify and gain sexist beliefs (Kahalon et al. 2019). Through this dichotomy, virgins are placed on a pedestal being viewed as pure and desirable, which means women who are sexual are viewed as less than (Kahalon et al, 2019). This causes the “Madonnas” to feel superior and the “whores” to feel inferior (Kahalon et al. 2019).

Broad City vs. Jane the Virgin

I examine the Madonna-whore dichotomy through a comparison of Broad City with another sti-com, Jane the Virgin. According to this theory, Ilana and Abbi would be considered ‘whores’ because they have casual sex and speak openly about sex. For example, in the opening scene of the first episode, What a Wonderful World, Abbi is holding a vibrator and then puts it away to FaceTime Ilana where they talk about how Abbi schedules time to masturbate. Then, as they are talking, Abbi realizes that Ilana has been having sex while they have been on the video call and instead of ending the conversation, Abbi says hi to Lincoln who is Ilana’s “friend with benefits” and they carry on their conversation as if nothing happened. From the onset of the show, the audience can already tell there is an element of sex positivity and that the lead characters are extremely close (Trimmel 2018). On the other hand, Jane the Virgin would be the perfect example of a Madonna. The first episode, Chapter One, starts with a young Jane being taught by her abuela, through the symbolism of a white rose, that once the rose is crumpled it is impossible to put it back to as perfect as it was before. Her abuela explains that this is a metaphor for sex and once you have sex, you cannot go back to the way you were before; you are damaged. Because of this lesson, years later Jane still has the rose framed in her bedroom to remind her to stay a virgin until marriage. Jane will not have sex with her boyfriend until they are married, whereas, Ilana and Abbi are shown having sex with men the first day they meet.

Furthermore, this Madonna-whore dichotomy seems to be very prevalent in Jane the Virgin but not in Broad City. In Jane the Virgin, Jane is viewed as being pure and a good girl due to her virginity, whereas, the women who have sex in the show are viewed as having loose morals in the way that they are either dating around, are teen moms, or are cheaters. For example, Jane’s mom is viewed negatively by her family because she got pregnant as a teenager with Jane and she told everyone that the father was just some guy in the army. Years later, the mother dates multiple people. Jane loves her mom, but she talks about her in a way that makes it clear that she has purposely lived her life to not end up like her. Moreover, other women in the show are shown having sex with someone else more times than they are shown having sex with their partner. These depictions feed into the dichotomy by showing that women like Jane who remain virgins are good girls, whereas, women who have multiple sex partners are immoral and have no consideration for monogamous relationships.

On the other hand, Broad City boldly asserts that there is no right or wrong way to have sex as a woman, rather they simply show women having sex and enjoying themselves. For example, in season two in the episode Knockoffs, Abbi is shown finally having sex with her neighbour Jeremy that she has had a crush on since episode one. In this episode, Jeremy misunderstands Abbi when she says she wants to switch sex positions and he thinks that she means she also likes pegging and wants to be the one penetrating him. After he brings this up, he feels embarrassed that it was not what she meant but is comforted when Abbi does not take it the wrong way and says she has to go to the bathroom. While in the bathroom, she calls Ilana to ask for advice, to which she gets Ilana’s response of telling her it is a great opportunity and it is something she has always wanted to do. Because of this, Abbi ends up pegging Jeremy and it goes well. She calls Ilana after the experience and Ilana screams that it is the happiest day of her life.  Later in the episode at Ilana’s Grandmother’s funeral, Ilana’s mom is going through Abbi’s purse and finds the dildo Abbi bought for Jeremy, which sparks a discussion about the pegging with Ilana’s family. During this conversation, Ilana’s dad says that he thought only gay men liked to be penetrated anally, to which Ilana’s gay brother responds that both gay and straight men can enjoy being anally penetrated due to their prostate and it does not mean they are gay. Ilana’s mom then tells Abbi that she is proud of her for trying something new and that what she did was terrific.

This conversation with Ilana’s family not only breaks apart the stereotype that parents are uncomfortable with talking about sex but pushes towards a progressive sex-positive engagement in which Ilana’s brother breaks apart the stereotypes surrounding pegging and helped normalize it. Broad City in comparison to other television shows normalizes multiple forms of sex and sexuality and creates space for discussion instead of marginalizing or making fun of someone for having a different sexual preference. While Jane the Virgin adheres to the Madonna-whore dichotomy as central to its plot, Broad City refuses it. In Broad City sex is just sex, women are not better or worse for having it or not having it. Morever, they take sex acts that are not normally shown on television or talked about and normalize them in a way that does not shame the characters for having different sexual preferences (Trimmel 2018).

Sneak-Attack Feminism

Drawing on an interview with co-writer Abbi Jacobson, where she states “if you watch one of our episodes, there’s not a big message. But if you watch all of them, I think, they’re empowering to women” (Angelo 2011), Megan Angelo has described Broad City as “sneak-attack feminism”.   Since the show does not adhere to typical gendered norms that most other shows do, Broad City’s characters defy gender stereotypes. Abbi and Illana enjoy sex, they are comfortable with their bodies (though they go through insecurities like other people), and when they show affection it is often towards each other and not towards the men in their lives (Morris 2016). Given these characteristics, many people have read the lead female characters as more masculine and they are quick to see them as one of the guys (Morris 2016). This is problematic because it suggests the only way people can be comfortable with women not being sterotypically feminine is to picture them as “one of the guys” which is another take on the Madonna-whore dichotomy that attributes masculine characteristics to women who refuse the dichotomy itself. Women are only seen as acceptable when they are stereotypically feminine and take on typical gendered roles, but they are unacceptable when they do not conform by acting in ways that are viewed “masculine”. In Broad City there is a new type of acceptance only when considering the girls as “one of the guys”. Yet, Ilana and Abbi are neither “one of the guys” nor easily put into the Madonna-whore box, instead they are engaging in relationships that affirm who they are as people, subverting the male gaze.

Broad City is a Feminist Stoner Comedy

Broad City is also a feminist stoner comedy. The characters act in ways that ignore or eschew what is typically deemed acceptable female behaviour and refuse to create plot lines determined by the male gaze (Medved 2014). Where Broad City differs compared to other shows is that it is created from a feminist vision where women are shown in a way where they are “meant to be loved, not to be understood” (Teitel 2014). This means that they resist the stoner comedy tropes by refusing to perform gendered stereotypes. Judith Butler describes this by claiming that when it comes to sex, sexuality and gender, society distinguishes people in categories of normal or perverse (Trimmel 2018). So again, women are forced into these categories of being normal Madonnas, or perverse whores. Through this, what is deemed normal is often heterosexual and cisgender, and perverse is anything other than that (Trimmel 2018). In Broad City, these categories of normal or perverse sexuality are not found due to the unpredictability of the show (Trimmel 2018). Broad City is unpredictable through its use of stoner-style cringe-comedy in the way that the embarrassment the girls face on the show is embarrassment viewers can feel themselves (Trimmel 2018). The embarrassing things the girls go through is unpredictable which makes them flexible and adaptable (Trimmel 2018). This flexibility creates space for the show to challenge ideas around sex and social conventions (Trimmel 2018). Therefore, unlike most shows, Broad City allows the audience to understand the girls in both their best and most embarrassing moments, but it also allows them to love the girls because they are relatable.

Lucia Aniello, one of the show’s directors, producers and writers describes it as being, “about a kind of woman who does not have it together, who can be a lazy slacker, who’s just looking to have fun. Saying that she is cool for being herself- not for her accomplishments, just for being herself, and for having cool friendships with other women” (Menta 2019). In this sense, Broad City is about women being their genuine selves and enjoying life, rather than trying to fit in and obsessing over being desirable or successful. Therefore, this sneak-attack feminism is allowing women to be themselves and normalizing it for other women. Which helps to make strides in accepting women as they are, instead of accepting women only when they are good girls or one of the guys.


In conclusion, Broad City is a show that breaks down and challenges the typical Madonna-whore dichotomy that the majority of other shows put on women. Too often women are classified as either a good and pure Madonna, or a bad and impure whore (Kahalon et al. 2019). By comparing this show with Jane the Virgin where characters are held in high regard and viewed as pure or viewed as having loose morals in which they sleep around, I show that Broad City completely eschews the dichotomy altogether. Ilana and Abbi are both sex-positive and any type of sex on the show is never stigmatized. The girls talk openly about sex and no one is ever made to be viewed as pure or impure for their sexuality.  Finally, Broad City preforms a sort of sneak-attack feminism in the way that it empowers women in ways that most shows do not (Angelo 2011). Broad City normalizes and portrays women who are not hyper-feminine, who do not have their lives together, who can be lazy, who like to have sex, and who prioritize fun (Menta 2019). Ilana and Abbi create a new narrative for women where they do not have to be categorized into a dichotomy, rather they can be their authentic selves and people will love them for it.


Chelsea Brake (she/her) is a 4th year student doing a double major which include Social Development Studies at Renison University College and Sexuality, Marriage and Family Studies at St. Jerome’s University College (two campuses within the University of Waterloo). After this degree she plans on getting her Master’s degree in Social Work to work towards her goal of being a therapist. When she is not in school, she enjoys rock climbing, yoga and spending time with friends.


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