Can we please stop the "dragon lady" stereotype?

Originally published at: Can we please stop the "dragon lady" stereotype? | Boing Boing


This strikes me as it’s going to be a similar conservation to our one being had about Peter Dinklage in other threads… that people with no skin in the game will hem and haw and claim “there is not real harm in these stereotypes” when of course there is. These kind of stereotypes are one of the reasons I’ve been excited to see shows that are from Asian countries made with an Asian audience in mind, as you get to see actors who are cast in a variety of roles rather than typecast based on race and our eurocentric prejudices. I just wrapped up watching the Silent Sea, which has the excellent Doona Bae in it, who was also in the fantastic Sense8:

I actually LIKE when a film doesn’t just have a bunch of people who look like me and then a few “token” actors playing stereotypes of people from other races. I LIKE to see a diverse cast whose characters have different experiences than what I know, based on lived reality, because then I can get a little perspective on the life of others IRL… The fact that so many people are just okay with these racial stereotypes as being the primary roles that many POC can get just boggles my mind…

Speaking of Michelle Yeoh (Shang-Chi, Crazy Rich Asians), I’m really looking forward to her film coming out in the spring, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once… it’s gonna be amazing…

Kung Fu Wtf GIF by A24

And I really, really can’t wait for her Section 31 show! Just put the woman in everything, please!


A lot of people seem to be under the impression that stereotypes are okay as long as they’re “positive” stereotypes.
“That Asian lady is a badass killing machine, how is that offensive?”
“That Native American is perfectly in tune with nature and can summon the ghosts of his ancestors and talk to eagles, that’s not negative!”
I wish more people would understand that a stereotype doesn’t have to depict people as ugly, stupid or immoral in order to be offensive and harmful.


Yeah even positive stereotypes can be harmful. Things like X group is good at X thing. Sure its better than being associated with bad ones but it reduces people into a few traits and denies a rainbow of possibilities to them, especially to the eyes of those outside of that group.


Beyond the core problem of their offensiveness, ethnic stereotypes are artistically lazy. They’re the domain of hacks, the stupid person’s idea of an archetype. The only time they’re of any interest these days is when they’re deliberately and self-referentially subverted.


Meme Reaction GIF by Robert E Blackmon


Stereotypes, whether negative or positive, serve to dehumanize a group of people.

Strereotypes such as “Asians are good at math and science” or “women are natural caregivers” reduces a wide group of people to a function, much like a toaster. And we don’t care about the feelings, desires, aspirations, or pain that toasters feel every day.

In fact, as far as most people are concerned, toasters don’t actually exist until the moment you want to make toast.


I don’t think it’s particularly helpful, though, to boil it down to “this is just how people are”… because it’s really not. I’d argue that MOST of us are much more capable of complex forms of thinking than we actually practice. But we have a culture and an educational system (in the US, at least) that constantly pushes against that. It actively punishes people who seek to do more than put shit into boxes and makes them into the “intellectual class” who are the “enemy of the people”… and this shit predates Trump. You can find lots of that in the culture of the Cold War, for example.

So, I reject the notion that most humans are dumb and unable to think beyond themselves, because I see all kinds of people do that kind of thing all the time. We have a culture that actively discourages it, which is the main problem here.


I watched (most of) an amazing Chinese historical drama (with subtitles), which is translated as “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace”, which sounds a bit porny, but it’s straight up historical. Based on the life of the Qianlong Emperor who ruled China from about 1740 to 1799, and his second empress, who had several names, including Ruyi. Set in the Inner Palace (harem) of the Hidden City, where the empress and concubines live, it’s female-centric, with a very few male characters. It’s seen through a modern lens, but not a Western one, so it’s very interesting to see this non-sexualized portrayal of life in the concubines’ quarters. It’s basically ladies having tea parties with court intrigue.

Each of the main characters is given a complex backstory and the actresses all give nuanced performances, so that we can sympathise, to a degree, with even the villains of the piece, and there are several.

I can’t recommend highly enough.


I think I remember seeing the trailer for that! It looks great! Thanks for the rec!

Also, it strikes me that a later Empress (the Empress Dowager Cixi) is likely the modern inspiration for the “dragon lady” stereotype. She basically was trying to keep China together in the face of great upheaval internally in China and from external, Imperial forces from Europe/US. She was really demonized, especially after the Boxer Rebellion, which she encouraged and which ended up having pretty brutal consequences for the Boxers and lots of people who had nothing to do with the rebellion:

She, probably more than anyone else, cemented this idea in the minds of westerners from the late 19th to the early 20th century.


I remember reading a Pearl S. Buck novel which was a fictionalised biography of her life.


I don’t think I’ve ever read that one, but I’ve been meaning to check this one out for a while now…




I know this line was a throwaway joke on Seinfeld but I kind of wish the writers had spent the time to unpack it a little.


Wait a second: are you trying to tell me that the character of Karen “Dragon Lady” Ko in the 1999-2001 American Gladiators rip-off Battle Dome was not a positive portrayal of race on televion? Say it ain’t so!

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Even when not dehumanizing, they are lazy. “I don’t need to know this person. If they are Black, they are good at basketball. If they are Asian, they are good at math. See, easy!” It makes human beings into characters in a poorly written script, and strips out all the color and variety that makes them interesting individuals.
I guess, more then “dehumanizing” they are de-individualizing. Making imaginary monolithic values systems, abilities, etc so we don’t need to spend effort in meeting and speaking to them.


I did not realize that this was solely a western thing. I have seen plenty of east Asian films with Dragon Ladies, this Taiwanese film immediately comes to mind. Granted some of this may be to do with films like this emulating Western films (a clue might be that there’s fight scenes set to Al DiMeola in the film I linked).

One thing for sure: Michelle Yeoh from what I have seen is only cast as a Dragon Lady in her western films. She’s quite different in HK cinema.

True. Though the Dragon Lady stereotype is more negative and also comes kind of out of the trope that Asian women are all dangerous prostitutes.


Her character’s arc in ST: Discovery challenges that typecasting…


Unfortunately Seinfeld, the show, had issues with race behind the scenes, as the comedian Danny Hoch learned.


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