The Dehumanizing Logic of All the ‘Happy Ending’ JokesRoundup
tags: racism, sexism, sex work, Asian American History
ANNE ANLIN CHENG is an English professor at Princeton. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief, Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface, and Ornamentalism.
Almost a week has passed since the shootings at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area, which resulted in the death of eight people, six of them Asian or Asian American women. The Atlanta police have yet to say that the incidents were motivated by racism, seemingly in part because the shooting suspect told them that he suffers from a “sex addiction.” FBI Director Chris Wray has said that, according to an initial assessment, race “does not appear” to have played a role in the shooting.
Yet almost immediately after the news broke late Tuesday night, a certain kind of response started popping up on Twitter: “No happy ending then?” “‘Youngs Asian’ massage parlour … they love you long time.” Social-media comments are notorious for their unthoughtfulness, but these brutal jokes speak to a prejudice that is deeply ingrained, if largely unacknowledged, in American society. The shootings took place within an escalating pattern of anti-Asian violence, but they are also part of the longer history of gendered violence in the United States. They cast light on the continued degradation of Asian women, the criminalization of women connected to sex work (or imagined to be), and American male fantasies of entitlement to Asian female bodies.
This entitlement is both quotidian and dangerous. For many women of color, the idea that misogyny and racism often go hand in hand is a fact of life. Almost every woman of Asian descent I know who grew up in America has experienced some version of strange men cooing at her, “Me love you a long time,” or has endured the unctuous hailings of ni hao ma and konichiwa or the intrusive come-ons that mix flattery with a vague sense of threat. As a young woman on the receiving end of such unwanted attention, I never said anything about it, because I suspected that most people would consider such incidents minor inconveniences, even though these kinds of encounters always produced a sickening sensation in the pit of my stomach.
Then Atlanta happened, and that old pit grew into a persistent pain. Watching law enforcement relay the explanation of the 21-year-old white man who admitted to the murderous rampage—he told police that he shot the women to try to eradicate “temptation”—was an exercise in both disbelief and recognition. It was a harsh reminder that these acts were a very real, very lethal manifestation of what goes unspoken behind all those seemingly harmless, supposedly flattering solicitations that dog Asian women: a profound disregard for them as people, an aggressive imputation of their imagined availability, and a deep assumption of racial and masculine prerogative. As a woman of middle-class privilege, I have been mostly sheltered from the harsher forms of this aggression, but it is a grave mistake not to understand that “mild” and “violent” racist sexism are on the same continuum. Here’s the thing that many people find hard to accept: Hatred does not preclude desire. Hatred legitimizes the violent expression of desire.
Let us be clear: By his own admission, the shooting suspect could not control his desires, so he went out to eradicate the objects of his desires. Is there a more stark articulation of the deadly intent of racist misogyny?
Racism and sexism are partners that stoke each other with frightening ease. Racism may be caused by many factors—demagoguery, religious intolerance, economic resentment, inherited bigotry—but its expression is almost always about the assertion of power. And whenever vengeful male power is in play, it is never good news for women. Anti-Asian racism and long-standing Western colonial attitudes about the plunderable “Orient” enable the possessive denigration and dehumanization of Asian women; patriarchy and sexism further fortify such presumptions.
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