Published: Aug. 1, 2007 By

Work, play, art, science, literature, sex, education … digitization leaves nothing untouched. Social relations are being transformed by the development of telecommuting, hypermedia systems, and the new world of on-line information. In particular, everything in the vicinity of sex, gender, and sexuality is being dramatically rewired (Plant,Babes in the Net).I am an anti-geisha (


 Depiction of angry woman

Figure 1

[1] Masculine fantasies about Asian women, that have excited the imagination of both Western and Asian men, have often inscribed them as gentle, submissive, and servile — they are concubines, maids, flight attendants and prostitutes, among others. Some of the most powerful and enduring images have been sustained by persistent narratives of Chinese and Japanese women appearing as a conflation of all of the above, and more, in the same vein. They can best be exemplified in the imagery of the Madame Chrysanthemum/Butterfly discourse, along with what is perhaps the supreme male fantasy and the one imbued with the most mystique and erotic promise — the geisha. The thriving global business in the trafficking of women, known as the mail-order bride industry, owes much to the myth of the exotic, submissive, demure, sexualized Asian woman imagined through this cluster of images. The sheer force of its persistent repetition has kept alive trite but tenacious images that still apparently have the power to excite the erotic imagination.

[2] Gendered and racialized identities such as these are, of course, hotly contested terrains. Contesting voices can be heard in the academy, in film, literature, politics and other spaces in the public sphere. The focus of this essay, however, is on cyberspace as a site for the development of strategies for the subversion of the cultural fantasies of Asian women’s identities, and for attempts to recreate alternative imagery.

[3] I will examine Asian women’s struggle for representation through the disruption of received images. In the example I have chosen, attempts to reclaim gender and racial identity are especially compelling. Their success in unsettling conventional images, and rupturing a long narrative tradition of the eroticized and exoticized Asian woman, has been facilitated by the uniting of two devices, one technological, the other literary: the Internet is the medium; grotesque/carnivalesque textual practices constitute the feminist critical strategy and political method.

 Upset woman crouching in corner

Figure 2

[4] The work of Wacjman and others has shown that digital technologies can facilitate the blurring of boundaries and diminish the power of gendered binaries. On the Internet, people can choose their disguises and assume alternative identities that run counter to the conventional imperatives of gender presentation. An imaginative and arresting example of this is to be found on the website of the “Big Bad Chinese Mama”, an invention of Kristina Wong. Her website is what she calls a “mock mail-order bride site”. It is a surprise in waiting for unsuspecting consumers. The myths and fantasies that sustain the commodification of Asian women on the global market are easily located and reproduced in cyberspace. The mail-order bride industry is operated primarily on the Internet. Its rhizomic structure allows multiple links to pornography, and it provides vast scope and audience. The Internet is a material and symbolic apparatus, a semiotic and social agent among others (Braidotti, 1996). It is no wonder then that Wong has chosen the same powerful semiotic agent on which to launch her transgressive counter discourse. The mock mail-order bride website, the home of the Big Bad Chinese Mama, is the privileged site of that transgression.

[5] I have drawn liberally on Bakhtin’s analysis of the carnivalesque novels of Rabelais for my examination of Wong’s text. Wong has deployed the strategies of the carnivalesque to produce a topsy-turvy world in which “Hello Kitty” becomes “Bitchy Kat”, her absent mouth replaced by one spouting obscenities, in which a geisha wears a “qipao” (traditional tight-fitting Chinese dress, also known as a cheongsam), and may appear with two heads, no head or seven eyes, and in which mail-order brides sport face metal ( It is a world where the “feminine ideal” is transformed into the ugly and the alien, and where consumers of pornography and genuine mail-order bride websites are lampooned and satirized. Wong’s website is a pastiche of diverse images, and, like a carnival in action, is an unstable and anarchic zone. The carnival, as Stallybrass and White emphasize, is not merely a ritual feature of European culture, but a mode of understanding (their emphasis) and a cultural analytic (Stallybrass and White, 1986: 6). And as Bakhtin asserts, grotesque bodily imagery — an essential component of carnivalesque writings — articulates a universal that even through time and space, extends to all languages, all literatures, and the entire system of gesticulation (Bakhtin, 1984: 319). While the bodily imagery of the grotesque might articulate a universal, it may be staged differently in different contexts and different media. I will focus on cyberspace as the site of its performance.

[6] My examination of the carnivalesque as a mode of understanding that can be deployed for the purposes of cultural critique coalesces around the ideas expressed in the two quotations at the beginning of the article: that it may be possible to rewire and rewrite social relations through digital technology; that Asian women are reclaiming and appropriating — within the context of centuries of near-hegemonic imagery, one might saymisappropriating — images for themselves. I will, therefore, begin by considering the significance of developments in digital technology for the agency of women and the rise of cyber-feminism. The increasing use of blogs and websites as spaces for feminist textual practices is a significant feature of the postmodern world. I will then focus on several aspects of the Big Bad Chinese Mama website, that is: “Memoirs of an Anti-Geisha”, “The Harem of Angst” and “Madame Bootiefly”. Through these links I will examine Wong’s textual practices and their power to diminish the authority of the orthodox narrative by intentionally de-eroticizing and de-essentializing Asian women.

[7] The central figurative device on which its transgressive power depends is grotesque realism. Wong’s rhetorical strategies are the figurative devices associated with the grotesque, that is, parody, irony, satire and caricature; her aesthetic mode draws on the vulgar, the bizarre and the excessive. Parody and irony, with their power to introduce the unexpected, the improbable, and the incongruous, can shock and dismay. Wong has rewritten gender identity and articulated an Asian female subjectivity of her own design. Through her use of cyberspace as her forum she has created “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway, 1991: 147). Technology intersects with the body in the domain of representation. Wong’s successful combining of technological and textual practices has refocused our attention on the body as a site of oppression. It has also demonstrated, however, that it can be reinscribed by means of the carnivalesque/grotesque to become, at the same time, the site of escape from the Asian female stereotype.


[8] Apart from the obvious advantages of the Internet associated with its potential to reach huge audiences and the fact that anybody can publish on it — clearly both a benefit and a drawback, given the pornographic, racist or other offensive material that abounds in cyberspace — it seems to be especially suited to the political agendas of women. Bearing in mind Wajcman’s caveat (2004) that we should not be seduced by utopian thinking in assessing the potential of the Internet, we should nevertheless consider its transformative possibilities. Feminist theorizing has shown that it can be an especially useful tool for the advancement of women’s agency. (Braidotti, 1994 [a], 1996; Haraway, 1991; Plant, 1996, 1998; Wajcman, 2004).

[9] It has given rise to what is now called “cyberfeminism” (Plant, 1996, 1998; Everett 2004; Braidotti 1996) or “technofeminism” (Wajcman, 2004). It is a useful semiotic device for transforming racist and patriarchal images, and for the promise of social change. Even though cyberfeminism is difficult to define, and fraught with ambivalence (Wilding 1997), Brayton (1997) states succinctly its raison d’étre: “Cyberfeminism takes feminism as its starting point, and turns its entire focus upon contemporary technologies, exploring the intersections between gender identity, the body, culture and technology” (Brayton, 1997).

[10] While the traditional gender divide that saw information technology dominated by men remains in place globally, in some parts of the modern West, such as the US, on-line participation by women has outstripped that of men (Everett, 2004). Plant (1995) and others have pointed out that the contours of cyberspace are more in harmony with what is considered to be a feminine consciousness. Digital technology and its commonly used manifestations — the World Wide Web, the Internet, cyberspace, the blogosphere, virtual reality, e-mail, hypertext, bulletin boards, chatrooms and so on — are non-linear. If it is true that women excel within fluid systems and processes (Wajcman, 2004: 64), then the cyber-world is as much a feminine space as anything else (Plant, 1996). Women feel at home on the Net, in a world where intelligence, flexibility of mind, lateral thinking and creativity are more valuable then brute strength and force.

[11] Transgressive uses of the Internet, such as Wong’s, can provide the space for a rethinking and a demolition of forms of gender and race essentialism. Wajcman has identified the possibility for the production of a “multiplicity of innovative subjectivities” through the Internet (Wajcman, 2004: 66). With the power to create alternative subjectivities, Wong’s mock mail-order brides have created a cyber-world where gender loses its orthodoxy and is ultimately turned on its head. Cyberspace is the ideal location for the nurturing of “oppositional consciousness” (Sandoval, 2000).

 A woman making a funny face with her hands

Figure 3

[12] Plant asserts that “… the digital revolution is reengineering the very conditions of patriarchy” (Plant, 1995: 28). While the reengineering of the conditions of patriarchy may prove to be harder to achieve than Plant would have us believe, her point is that the Net “… is opening up new spaces for brand new girls …” (Plant, 1995: 28). There are many “grrrl” groups, also known as “cybergrrls”, “webgrrls”, “riot grrls”, “guerrilla girls” and “bad grrls” (Wilding, 1997) who use the Internet to demand attention to their feminist agenda. It is no coincidence that their websites often make creative use of the ironical, the parodic, and the humorous. Braidotti has identified these textual strategies as an important manifestation of new subjective and cultural feminine representations in cyberspace (Braidotti, 1996).

[13] Wong is one such “brand new girl” who has found a voice and a space to position herself to subvert the power of patriarchy to control images of women. Her “innovative subjectivity” is manifested in a number of her alter-egos found on the website. Kristina Sheryl Wong is an Asian-American actor, photographer, film-maker, story-teller, visual artist, writer and social critic. She is famous for her “quirky culture jamming style” (see Her website is an unequivocal and assertive articulation of an oppositional consciousness of a female kind. While an undergraduate at UCLA, Wong had already blurred some of the standard racial boundaries imposed on Asian women by changing her appearance and presenting a decidedly unsubmissive persona. She became, in her own words, “the Chinese-American girl with the spiky bleached blonde hair who always volunteered condemning remark after remark on the state of gender and race relations in the media [and] America …” (Wong, Manifesto).When she became frustrated with the limitations of her political voice, she turned to the Internet to find a medium that would afford a wider audience for her agenda to disrupt the oppressive nature of gender and racial stereotypes and give more power to her passionately anti-patriarchal and anti-racist voice. Her stated aim was also to have some fun (Wong, Manifesto) Her “Manifesto” explains why she launched the Big Bad Chinese Mama website as a mock mail-order bride siteHer “Manifesto” This statement marks her not just as a feminist activist, but also as a cyber-feminist:

The idea behind my site is to catch the oppressor in the act of oppression and use my personal sense of humor as a political force. I wanted to subvert the expectations of a nasty guy in search of petite naked Asian bodies by showing him the full ugliness of “Sweet Asian girls”. The perfect format for intercepting these visitors was to market my site as Asian porn. The format of the site follows that of a mail order bride site complete with a “harem” of not-so-exotic Asian women (pictures submissions I have received from different women of Asian ancestry throughout the world). My brides offer biographies that are much more humanized (and threatening!) than the brides in an actual mail order bride site. I also have prank calls to sex and pornography franchises posted … The site was intended to shock and provoke the boundaries of being “politically correct” and force people to respond the way pie charts, statistics and graphs wouldn’t. I purposely link my sites to nasty clubs and chatrooms to draw this traffic. I also link my site to Asian American activist sites. I even had a couple of ads running in the back of the New Times LA (where the masseuse ads are!) advertising the site as a porn site! (Wong,Manifesto).

[14] By flagging her site as a mail-order bride site, she has lured users — the oppressors in the act of oppression — who are looking for genuine mail-order bride sites and shocked them with her disturbing images (to be discussed below). The fact that she has marketed the site as Asian porn seems to indicate that in Wong’s counter-narrative, oppression, the nasty guy, and pornography are conflated. While the content of the discourses may overlap, and the discursive constructions may contain mutually reinforcing images, it is not at all clear that they have the same agenda, nor effect. Wong herself engages with the pornographic, and eradicating pornography is never stated as one of her goals; indeed, she has published erotic photographs of herself on the Internet (see, for example: The discussion below shows that she understands well its importance as a cultural form, and that fantasy, particularly when it is focused on bodily performance, may veer unsteadily between the parodic and the pornographic. Her images are, after all, perversions. Pornography is an unstable category, as Kipnis has pointed out (1999). It is difficult to define, and it is even more nebulous and incoherent when it comes to implicating it in a patriarchal scheme to objectify and dehumanize women. What is clear about pornography is that it is a form of political theatre, and, like the carnivalesque, is a cultural analytic whose aesthetic mode makes use of what Kipnis terms “the allegories of transgression” (Kipnis, 1999: 167).

[15] Perhaps Wong’s agenda to subvert racialized and gendered categories to disturb the “nasty guy” in his search for both the means of oppression and pornography is only one of a number of converging agendas circulating in the related discourses of her creation. Her site came up eighth in a Yahoo search for “mail order brides” (Lin, 2006). This is a creative reversal of one of the shortcomings of the Internet: that is, the near impossibility of screening what appears when a user keys a term into the search engine. Anyone who has typed “Asian women” into Google will know that a plethora of pornographic and other offensive material will appear. Wong is well aware that perhaps the greatest value of the Internet is its reach. TheManifestostates:

The site has created a stir. With over 130,000 hits in a matter of months, merchandise sales that have me on bi-weekly visits to the post office, invites for speaking engagements and guest lecture presentations in University classes throughout California, feature articles on major sites and publications, and thousands of letters and messages from fans and enemies each month—my little junky website has a lot of people talking! I leave many of the hate messages open to the public in my unedited guestbook. By keeping these comments visible, I hope to remind my Asian American/ Feminist critics who want to critique my unorthodox tactics of the real issues what I am addressing. For me, this project is successful because I am bringing a voice that is uniquely mine to so many people. The web allows me to be flexible with my additions and edits. It’s good to know that the humor and presentation is effective in creating a buzz. I also receive many emails from women who are inspired by my work and ask to help me with mine or how to create their own sites (Wong, Manifesto).

[16] The increasing popularity of the site, and the growing celebrity of Wong herself is not only an affirmation of the potency of her own political voice; it is also a source of pleasure to her. The publicity it generates is exciting. But there is something else: if the countersignification provided by Wong is a little confused and its transformative possibilities uncertain, its therapeutic qualities are more obvious. Wong defines the wider meaning of the site for her:

… Basically, I got bored and was becoming numb to the issues. In that last year of college, I accessed my learnings: I realized that it is a lot easier to discuss oppression with the oppressed rather than the oppressor. I learned how to write thesis papers in one night that would only be read by myself and the teaching assistant …I was going to graduate with a ton of knowledge under my belt, but had shared none of it outside of the classroom. With an upcoming proposal for my senior project due, I refused to write another half-assed paper that would be read by only two eyes and tossed afterwards. I wanted to utilize an accessible medium for audiences inside and out of the Asian American community. And most of all I wanted to have some fun! With this in mind, I drew up the plans for … I had become so humorless after that angry first year of college and thankfully eased off for the sake of my sanity. I accepted pretty quickly that being the “ideal identity” of an Asian American woman was impossible (Wong, Manifesto).

[17] While Wong’s intervention may not be as transformative as she would hope, and the Internet limited in its power to do little more than temporarily unsettle certain forms of patriarchy, her creative use of technology has other significant consequences. Her own gratification is evident. The responses to the website, and contributions to it, from “women of Asian ancestry throughout the world” are also an indication that the uses of the grotesque, the parodic, and the sometimes pornographic, may be even more powerful as a means of creating a space for identification with other anti-geisha. Her audience is, however, wider than that. The unexpurgated messages to which she refers in the previous quotation, are often disclosures of sexual fantasies of violence and racialized male domination ( She responds assertively with threats such as: “Now please get out of my face before I ram yours in” ( She is also visited by more earnest critics, and those with a less aggressively misogynistic voice. Her audience has its own diverse agenda. Some people are inspired to offer a critique of the position of women in Asian societies, some have made personal attacks on her, some emerge in defence of the white male, and some have condemned the mail-order bride industry. Her audience has extended beyond the site to include a number of other cultural spin-offs. She appears in undergraduate papers and publications such as the Village Voice and Ms Magazine, and is linked to other sites dedicated to countering racism and sexism. These include the highly politicized Exoticize My Fist, (, Bamboo Girl (, Yelloh Girls (, and the more mainstream Generation Rice (, a site designed to celebrate the Asian-American cultural experience. Her reach has extended beyond the English speaking world, and with the publicity gained from her appearance in a Dutch feminist website ( she is becoming a minor global celebrity. Wong is now part of a wider field of Asian-American women who deploy the interactive possibilities of the Internet to claim an anti-racist, anti-patriarchal space in the public discourses for themselves.

[18] Wong’s site is undoubtedly a site of “oppositional consciousness” (Sandoval, 2000), but the imaginative possibilities may be greater than Wong imagines. It is also significant as a space where one can experience the excitement afforded by the creation and enjoyment of illicit images. Wong’s satirical and semi-pornographic website might have affronted some strands of Asian/American Feminism, as she suggests, but it is in accord with other feminist writers who have identified the reclaiming of the rights of women to fantasize as an important political project (Kipnis, 1999). Wong’s images locate her in a field of feminist activism that sees sexual creativity as an adventure to be enjoyed by both men and women (Strossen, 1995; Williams, 2004). The experience of sexual pleasure in women’s engagement with pornography is, of course, not confined to the West. Shamoon’s (2004) study of Japanese women consuming pornographic comics highlights just one example.

The Carnivalesque/Grotesque as a Feminist Textual Strategy

[19] Braidotti (1996) argues that the contradictions of the post-industrial world cannot be resolved by the “flight into nostalgia”. She suggests that we seek the solutions in minor literary genres, in particular cyber-punk (1996). Cyber-feminists are “devoted to the politics of parody, or parodic repetition”; they are the ironists, and the ideal travel companions in postmodernity and the search for a new ethics of gender difference (Braidotti, 1996). Kristina Wong is one of these “iconoclastic readers of the contemporary cultural crisis” that Braidotti (1996) speaks of, and a fellow traveler in a cyber-dimension where nostalgia for the “Asian woman”, “the charming, petite, soft, and gentle and extremely feminine” ( woman — the essentialized geisha/wife — has no home.

[20] The defining characteristic of Wong’s website is the use of “grotesque realism” as its chief textual strategy. Bakhtin’s study of the fiction of Rabelais shows that the grotesque and the carnivalesque as literary strategies have been effective in writers as diverse as Voltaire, Molière and Swift, amongst others. For Bakhtin the grotesque-carnivalesque is an all-purpose textual tool for the deflation of cant, the debunking of universal truths, and the emergence of narratives counter to the orthodox. It is also very funny. He points out that “the four-hundred-year history of the understanding, influence, and interpretation of Rabelais is closely linked with the history of laughter itself” (Bakhtin, 1984: 59). While not all texts deploy “authentic carnival themes” many animate “fragments of the mighty and deep stream of grotesque realism” (Bakhtin, 1984: 53). He says:

In all these writings, in spite of their differences in character and tendency, the carnival-grotesque form exercises the same function: to consecrate inventive freedom, to permit the combination of a variety of different elements and their rapprochement, to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted. This carnival spirit offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things (Bakhtin, 1984:34).

 A woman standing in a corner

Figure 4

[21] The grotesque is not just a literary style; it is a transgressive genre, and is therefore liberating. It is also an effective feminist strategy. On Wong’s website, nostalgia for the submissive always-sexually-available Asian woman is transformed and replaced by repugnance: the grotesque has obliterated nostalgia and instigated a new order. Her images metamorphose the Asian woman into the very antithesis of Madame Butterfly. I want to show that through use of a carnivalesque/grotesque text, desire can be converted into anxiety and revulsion. The following sections examine three links in Wong’s Big Bad Chinese Mama website.

Memoirs of an Anti-geisha

[22] Wong’s political agenda “to subvert the expectations of a nasty guy in search of petite naked Asian bodies by showing him the full ugliness of ‘Sweet Asian girls'” is immediately evident in her home page image (Figure1) that shows what the “nasty guy”, expecting an Asian pornography or mail-order bride site, sees as the website opens up: the “Lovely Lotus Blossom” eating junk food with her mouth open. The Sweet Asian Girl is transformed into an ugly termagant through the focus on the mouth. Representation of the grotesque face without distortion of the mouth is almost unthinkable, for, as Bakhtin shows “… the most important of all human features for the grotesque is the mouth. It dominates all else. The grotesque face is actually reduced to the gaping mouth … (Bakhtin, 1984: 317). The mouth is the introduction to Wong’s textual carnival of travesties of the Asian female body. The Big Bad Chinese Mama demands to know: “… did I ruin the mood for ya?” ( It then invites the user to enter and: “Browse through the brides in the ‘Harem of Angst’ or read the ‘Memoirs of an Anti-Geisha’ (What Arthur Golden didn’t tell you!). Listen in on prank calls to those sex industry franchises you love to patronize. And most of all, watch your fucking back!

[23] On entering the Memoirs of an Anti-geisha link (Figure 2), the reader is confronted with the following declaration: “Arthur Golden [author of the popular book Memoirs of a Geisha] better step the fuck back, because there is no way I am going to let him speak for me”. She further announces that:

I am an anti-geisha. I am not Japanese, I am Chinese. There is a difference between the two, you know. I have gigantic size 9 1/2 feet, crater zits that breaks out through my “silky skin” before and after and during my period, and a loud mouth that screams profanities and insults … I have a little pot-belly, I have an ass that needs to go to the gym. I have hangnails and callouses and blisters and baggage … I pick my nose when I am driving and flick my boogers out the window, I fart and cough at the same time so that nobody can tell what came from where (because I am a real lady). I blow my nose in the shower all over my hand and then when I go in for that big interview later that day, I use it to shake Mr. White’s hand- and boy does it shine! I give the finger liberally while driving through my neighborhood in Los Angeles, San Francisco …When I get drunk, I give the finger some more and tell strangers to “fuck off.” I chew with my mouth open. I once threw piss (not my own, because I am a real lady-remember?) at a guy who fucked me over … I am a beautiful animal (

[24] Wong has focussed on the indecorous activities and aspects of the body that have usually been refined or rendered invisible by cultural practice. She also pushes the limits of propriety with the use of curses and oaths, what Bakhtin calls marketplace speech (Bakhtin, 1984), and which is liberally used in carnivalesque texts such as those of Rabelais. The use of the profane and obscene speech of the market can transform the real world into the base and ignoble, but liberated, domain of the carnival. In a reference to Golden’s (1998) popular book on the lives of the geisha, she asks: “So Mr. Golden, are we still the delicate creatures you imagined in your bestseller?” ( Her exposure of the natural progress of degeneration of the body (pimples, snot, blisters), and of what Bakhtin (1984) calls “the lower stratum” (menstruation, farting) is an image of the true grotesque — it catches the body in the act of growth and decay and exposes the incomplete and unfinished nature of being (Bakhtin, 1984: 52). The image of the body of the anti-geisha in its less than perfect state, and the harsh reminder of its inexorable decline, must appear even more of unsettling to the website visitor when compared with the standard image of the geisha:

“When a maiko [apprentice geisha] enters a party, there is a gasp, no matter how jaded the company … Her face [the geisha], smoothed to eggshell whiteness, becomes a blank screen onto which desires and fantasies may be projected. She is beautiful but anonymous. All traces of her uniqueness have been erased. Her eyes and mouth are highlighted and emboldened, beacons to the opposite sex.” (Cobb, 1997: 8-10, cited in Foreman, 2005: 35).

[25] The vivid contrast between the two images highlights the power of the artistic logic of the grotesque that: “…ignores the closed, smooth, and impenetrable surface of the body and retains only its excrescences (sprouts, buds) and orifices, only that which leads beyond the body’s limited space, or into the body’s depths” (Bakhtin, 1984: 317-318). Wong has replaced an image of perfection with an image of incompleteness not yet refined by the artifice that culture demands.

[26] Russo’s distinction between the classical and the grotesque body points to the exclusionary binary implicit in the difference between the denatured classical body that epitomizes culture, and the grotesque body signifying its links with the real world:

“The grotesque body is the open, protruding, extended, secreting body, the body of becoming, process and change. The grotesque body is opposed to the Classical body which is monumental, static, closed, and sleek …” (Russo, 1994: 62-63).

Russo speaks of the Classical Greek body, however, the sharp contrast between the bodies in her analysis has obvious parallels with the classical body of the geisha/Madame Butterfly imagery. Her description of the classical body as “transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical, and sleek …” (Russo, 1994:8) is an apt description of the classical Japanese ideal. The following review by Donna Seaman of Cobb’s (1997) book on the geisha confirms the role of cultural artifice and the illusion of perfection in the creation of the phantasmagoria of the geisha:

Geishas are both artists and living works of art, professional performers who transform themselves into embodiments of a timeless, anonymous, and emblematic beauty. With their stark white faces and carefully exposed necks, sculptured black hair, and brilliant red lips, eyebrows, and eyelids, these poised and elegant women transcend the everyday … (Geisha: The Life, the Voices, the Art)

In contrast to the disciplined body of the geisha, Russo’s grotesque body seems to be an especially apposite description of Wong’s ungovernable anti-geisha with her “open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple, and changing” body (Russo, 1994:8). Russo stresses that not only is the grotesque body identified with “low” culture, but it is also identified with the carnivalesque, and with social change (Russo, 1994:8). Wong’s character is incorrigibly disobedient and positively celebrates “low” culture and the undisciplined body in a discursive strategy aimed at what Braidotti (1994[b]: 161) calls “willful social transformation”.

Harem of Angst

[27] Wong presents the mock mail-order brides in a series of weblinks which she calls the “Harem of Angst”. Her deployment of grotesque realism as a political strategy must be especially disturbing for the consumer of pornography and mail order bride websites, the “nasty guy in search of petite naked Asian bodies”. Her mock-mail order pages exceed the politics of parody and irony and move into the realm of the bizarre and the vulgar to ridicule the nasty guy as well as to give a voice to Asian women and the space to write their own inscriptions.

[28] The following comments are published on one genuine mail-order bride website calling itself the “Asian Bride” dating service site:

Why are Asian women so very attractive to the average man? Why do huge numbers of men find almost any Asian woman more appealing than almost any American woman? There are many reasons. For instance, in our opinion the Asian features, black hair, slender builds, smooth, golden skin, and Asian eyes are extremely appealing. They seem to be usually slim, well-groomed, and dressed with an understated sensuality that never appears tarty (

Contrast this with the images of the mock mail-order brides on Wong’s website. Figure 3 shows Jade who has the desirable Asian features of black hair and appealing eyes. However, the expectation that she will be “slim, well-groomed, and dressed with an understated sensuality that never appears tarty” has been demolished and the image of the submissive bride vandalized. Jade is anything but a “Lovely Lotus Blossom”. She is certainly Asian, but is decidedly punk and has consciously made herself unattractive. The Asian Bride website does not mention the possibility of brides with face studs and a “Serial Killers” T-shirt with the word “Bitches” emblazoned across it. Such an image is a deliberate tactic: it interrupts a historically sanctioned narrative of the exotic Oriental woman by replacing her with a cyber-punk, a new and disturbing representation that few Western men could find sexy or alluring.

 Legs in high heels

Figure 5

[29] One young woman on a mail-order bride/dating website says of herself: “I am a sweet and pretty girl, in me with all the quality of oriental women (sic) such as kind, tender (sic), caring, respectful, understanding, family-minded, faithful” ( This is the diametrical opposite of mock Oriental mail-order bride Georgina Young. In Figure 4 she appears to be urinating like a man. She specializes in sarcasm, irony and shocking vulgarity. Her webpage parodies the qualities of the “Oriental” woman as submissive, semi-articulate and primarily interested in the sexual satisfaction of a Western man:

Oh … I sho sorry …I talk too much …I sorry …I woman … I risten to man …I live only to give man pleasure … to be exotic object. I be good wife fo you … I no speak English … so I not talk much … No need to talk same ranguage to know ranguage of love.Yeah, right … You want exotic, erotic subservience? Go fuck yourself with an “Oriental” vase (

[30] Real mail-order bride websites often panegyrize the qualities of Asian women and essentialize their suitability as wives for Western men. One website claims:

Asian ladies are honest, faithful, rarely get out of condition or lose their attractiveness and sexuality as they age, are extremely supportive, and care more about your heart than your bank account, totally alien to the demanding and unappreciative women that you are probably accustomed to. Asian women are extremely loyal. Once they decide they love you, they will stand by you in good times and bad. They are charming, petite, soft, and gentle and extremely feminine, making it a pleasure to spend time with them. Asian women are ladies and thus appreciate a gentleman. These women will not scold you, and call you a male chauvinist when you hold open a door for them. They appreciate politeness and thank you for it, to hell with feminists…who needs them! …… So, go east young man and find real happiness with the Asian lady of your dreams! (

[31] One of the women in Wong’s harem is Mikki (Figures 5 and 6). It is obvious that Mikki does not possess the qualities desired in an Asian woman. She is not charming, petite, soft, nor feminine; she is androgynous. Her uses of irony and the parodical representation of Asian women have blurred the boundaries of the standard gender dichotomy, and present the unexpected. Mikki is well aware of the standard imaginary of the Asian mail-order bride as a sexualized and infantilized object. She understands fetish, and is clear about her loyalty to her prospective husband. She says:

Hello, I am Mikki, a delicate unspoiled little eastern flower. I am thirteen and still in pigtails. I wear my cute schoolgirl outfit for you. You like? I will do anything to please my slaver husband. I know how you like your girls clean shaven, so before we meet I will have to shave my chest and back for you. You will also notice my dainty feet, large and unbound — perfect for giving the oriental back walking massage. I’m sure you will cry with tears of joy with my petite 200 pounds crushing the small of your back. So please, please send your money (1, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 — easy payments of $1! cash, all up front) so you can teach me the ways of love (

[32] Other mock mail-order brides on the website have names such as L’il Miss Death Wish, Phuc Yu, and Miss Eerie. They are sometimes of indiscriminate gender, have five o’clock shadows, hairy legs, face metal and faces deliberately pulled grotesquely out of shape. They make lewd suggestions and obscene insults. All violate and lampoon the standard Western male imaginary of Asian women; all deflect the male gaze by reclaiming their own images with grotesque embodiment and carnivalesque textual strategies. They are all radically de-eroticized, threatening and ugly. Each is the diametrical opposite of Russo’s classical body. Every new link in the Harem of Angst brings more humour. All these mock mail-order brides send themselves up, yet all have a very serious political agenda.

[33] The “Harem of Angst” is a cyber-zone that is more than unsettling; it is unnerving, intimidating and hideous. Bakhtin understands the grotesque as an alienated world where: “… all that was for us familiar and friendly suddenly becomes hostile” (Bakhtin, 1984: 48). That it appears at first glance to be a real mail-order website, makes it all the more alienating, since, as Thomson has pointed out, the grotesque derives some of its effect from being presented in a realistic framework in a realistic way (Thomson, 1972: 8). Wong invites the consumer into her mock mail-order bride domain with the following mocking and intimidating warning:

Inside are contained the “demure lotus blossoms,” the “geishas,” the “oriental sluts”— whatever you had imagined in your patriarchal, colonialist longings. These women will take you by storm (and will kick your ass). Yeah, you’ve seen mail order bride sites before, you may have even surfed over to an Asian porn site, but never in your wildest culturally commodifying sick sexual desires, have you been schooled by women (womyn) like this! So, go ahead Mr. Smartypants. Come on in! After all, us “Orientals” are known for our hospitality and genteel demeanor. We aim to please… (

[34] What is perhaps most disturbing of all is the power of the grotesque to reveal the contingent and constructed nature of gendered perceptions along the commonly perceived binaries of man/woman, beautiful/ugly, gay/straight, desirable/frightening, alluring/repugnant. Bakhtin remarks:

Actually, the grotesque … discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life. It leads men out of the confines of the apparent (false) unity, of the indisputable and stable … It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities (Bakhtin, 1984: 48-49).

Where the classical body is complete and self-contained, the embodied denizens of the “Harem of Angst” are multiple and changing. The most significant aspect for a rethinking and reimagining of gendered and racialized stereotypes is that each character is unique; each representation is an innovation. These are not the beautiful, but anonymous geishas described above, the blank screens onto which fantasies and desires are projected. The stereotype cannot survive the intervention of individual characteristics and human faults and frailties. The anti-geishas do not object to the male gaze, but command it. Its deflection through the use of irony, parody, and the grotesque demands a recognition of Asian women on their own terms.

Madame Bootiefly

[35] The character of Madame Butterfly has been for over a century the epitome of desired Asian womanhood; she is the ultimate geisha — the beautiful, charming, submissive, self-sacrificing Other to the Western man. The original story of Madame Butterfly was written by American lawyer, John Luther Long, and published in Century Magazine in 1898. Since then it has been through a surprisingly large number of versions with the same theme including Puccini’s opera, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical “Miss Saigon” and David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly.French Orientalist Pierre Loti’s novel about Madame Chrysanthemum (Loti, 1985) is part of the same genealogy.

[36] The Butterfly is more than a stereotype; it is an archetype. It transforms the Asian woman into a trope, an example of discursive meaning, rather than a character with a resemblance to any real human. As Barthes (1990) has pointed out, an important feature of the representation of women in Orientalist texts — and it must be recognised that mail-order bride websites are digital Orientalist texts — is that the female character is structurally absent, she is the place of an absence, she is a fact of discourse, not a fact of desire (Barthes, 1990: 114). The Butterfly narrative has been so powerful and enduring that it should be thought of as an ur-text, one that revisits and continues to legitimise the image of the Asian woman who will risk everything to be the partner of a Western man — rather like the way in which the mail-order bride is imagined today. The discourse is capable of such enduring power because it lends itself to updating and modification — so the nineteenth century geisha can easily be transformed into the twentieth century Saigon prostitute — without damage to the integrity of the story of the Asian woman who is ever willing to sacrifice herself for a Western man. The Butterfly/Chrysanthemum/geisha is the quintessential Asian woman, and one of the most widely recognised in its various manifestations.

[37] Cyberspace, however, has given Madame Butterfly an alternative persona, and a new location in the Harem of Angst. She has morphed into Madame Bootiefly, one of the “bad grrls” Wilding (1997) has identified who roam the Net. Using irony as her discursive technique Madame Bootiefly demands a reversal of the standard power differential between men and women. Russo points to misogyny as the culprit in female anxiety about “losing one’s femininity” and “alienating men”. Madame Bootiefly, in a strategy of reversal of images well known in carnivalesque literature, has willfully abandoned femininity and alienated men. She has done much more than blur the boundaries of gender dichotomy; she has violated the gender boundaries. She says of herself:

Madame Bootiefly [is a] very angry asian grrrl in search of catcalling sexist-dirty old-assaholic-construction worker to play victim in high scale ass beating along with multiple kicks in the big fat head with big clunky chunky platform shoes and a few knees in the tiny penis. Must be hairy, racist, unable to cope with a non-submissive female, and plagued with the socially defunctness of fetishism (

Wong’s use of the geisha image as a form of feminist counter-practice may be even more compelling when compared to other discursive constructions of the geisha circulating in the mainstream. An alternative view of the Butterfly/Geisha imagery can be found in a forthcoming book by another Asian-American, Korean Py Kim-Conant, called “Sex Secrets of an American Geisha: How to Attract, Satisfy and Keep Your Man”. The book encourages women who want to be successful on the marriage market to “get in touch with their inner geisha”. This can be done by developing a “geisha consciousness” that helps maximize a woman’s femininity. Her advice is to “stay beautiful and feminine” even when careers, friends, in-laws, children, hobbies will all tug at your kimono sleeve” ( For Kim-Conant, “geisha” is a mode of orientation to self. Wong’s geisha is an acerbic satire on the imagery of gender oppression, designed to disrupt the standard discourse; Kim-Conant’s geisha is a suburban reinscription designed to exploit the patriarchal desire to maintain the gender and race order.

 Person standing in room with stuffed animals while smoking a cigarette

Figure 6

[38] Given its traditional the power, it is an exquisite irony that an Asian woman could appropriate the geisha image and use it as a vehicle to express blatant aggression against men, to intentionally confound her own femininity and to forestall any new reinforcement of gender boundaries of the sort to which Kim-Conant subscribes. In Wong’s “Harem of Angst”, geisha consciousness has been hijacked by oppositional consciousness.

[39] Playing on the slang for buttocks, Madame Bootiefly introduces possibly the most grotesque and shocking of all the images on the website, that is, a woman, pants down and sitting on the toilet. Bakhtin identifies the importance for the grotesque of the scatological and the base. The promise of the carnivalesque to turn the world upside down relies on the elevation of “the material bodily lower stratum” (Bakhtin, 1984) to a position of textual privilege. This “downward movement” as Bakhtin calls it:

“… is inherent in all forms of popular-festive merriment and grotesque realism. Down, inside out, vice versa, upside down, such is the direction of all these movements. All of them thrust down, turn over, push headfirst. Transfer top to bottom, and bottom to top, both in the literal sense of space, and in the metaphorical meaning if the image” (Bakhtin, 1984: 370).

This variation on the image of Madame Butterfly is extravagantly vulgar — and extravagance is an important characteristics of the grotesque (Thomson, 1972). Its exaggeration serves to reverse her position of structural absence. The Oriental woman is no longer “the place of an absence” or a “fact of discourse”. Madame Bootiefly has reclaimed her space and filled the absence with a real person, with a real human body and real human needs. It is grotesque realism — shockingly real. Thomson points out that “it is precisely the conviction that the grotesque world, however strange, is yet our world, real and immediate which makes the grotesque so powerful” (Thomson, 1972). It is the link with our own world that destabilizes the classical image. This image juxtaposes the idea of the perfect, civilized body of the beautiful geisha with the disgustingly base. The two are incongruous and incompatible. Madame Bootiefly, as the antithesis of the Asian woman who is “slim, well-groomed, and dressed with an understated sensuality that never appears tarty”(, constitutes a profound conflict. The true grotesque, rather than the merely comic or ironical, must contain an unresolved conflict (Thomson, 1972: 21). This image provides an insoluble conflict by unequivocally linking the “high culture” of the exalted Asian Other, with the “low culture” of human biology and bodily requirements. For Bakhtin, ” … debasement is the fundamental artistic principle of grotesque realism; all that is sacred and exalted is rethought on the level of the material bodily stratum or else combined and mixed with its images” (Bakhtin, 370-371).

[40] Examples of the excremental despoiling the romantic and the nostalgic are not unknown in Western literature. Norman O. Brown’s study of the relation between psychoanalysis and history considers the “excremental vision” (Brown, 1968: 163) in Jonathan Swift. Swift, a literary satirist like Rabelais, demolishes the illusion of the grace and delicacy of women with his scatalogical poems. Romance cannot withstand the realization that: “Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits!” (Brown, 1968: 163): Brown points to Swift’s perception, a favourite theme in his poetry, that there is a profound contradiction between being in love, and the awareness that one’s beloved is also a slave to unappealing bodily functions. The heavenly goddess is found to be human, and is quickly de-eroticised and de-romanticized. It is a conflict forever unresolved, and forever able to contaminate images of the cherished with thoughts of the reviled. However civilized and cultured the geisha may appear, even her existence is dominated by the natural demands of the body.

[41] It is perhaps in the image of Madame Bootiefly that Wong’s textual strategies intersect most obviously with the pornographic. Like the grotesque, pornography’s transgressions are first and foremost aesthetic. It has the power to shock us because it makes us confront what is conventionally hidden from bourgeois sensibilities. As Laura Kipnis’ study of pornography reminds us, its theatrics of transgression ensure its relentlessly downward focus (1999: 175). This is made possible by what may be the quintessence of pornography: the flagrant disregard for the separation of the private and the public. Pornography is preoccupied with violating cultural limits; the private can escape its confines to invade the public. Kipnis might have had Madame Bootiefly on her screen when she wrote that: “Pornography’s ultimate desire is exactly to engage our deepest embarrassments …” (Kipnis, 1999: 167). It is difficult not to be embarrassed by Madame Bootiefly.


[42] Wong’s grotesque/carnivalesque text has blurred the boundaries of a number of the binary oppositions and gender orthodoxies that serve to maintain the myths and fantasies of Asian women. Some theorists have pointed to the rise of the posthuman condition as a significant consequence of the spread of cybernetics and other digital technologies. The posthuman subject is described as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity” (Hayles, 1999: 3) in a cyber-dimension where embodiment is erased and considered non-essential to human existence (Hayles, 1999: 5). In Wong’s cyberworld, however, embodiment has not been transcended, nor the human rendered obsolete. On the contrary, the human body has been reinvented with a new emphasis on its weaknesses and unsavoury aspects, and is positively exulted. Wong’s mail-order brides are more human and their bodies more real than the Madame Butterfly/geishas, whose humanity and uniqueness have been partly erased. It is the interconnection between technology and embodied performance that has allowed Wong’s carnivalesque text to “suggest a redeployment or counterproduction of culture, knowledge, and pleasure” (Russo, 1994: 62). She has used the textual differentiation between the “high” culture of the civilized (the geisha, the well groomed, understated sensuality of the mail-order bride) and the “low” dimension of the carnal (the material bodily lower stratum) to produce a counternarrative of the Asian woman.

[43] Wong’s desire is to challenge universalizing narratives and to reclaim representations of Asian women through an imaginative engagement of the cyber-feminist with the Rabelaisian. Her website is an electronic stage for a series of performances that fulfil this agenda. These performances, unlike stage performances, are mediated, and therefore, are encompassed in a different ontological frame. Phelan describes the ontology of performance:

Performance’s only life is in the presentPerformance cannot be saved, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representation: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance (Phelan, 1993: 146).

Wong’s performative gestures of transgression are integrated into the economy of reproduction. Far from betraying the promise of their own ontology, they are enhanced by this economy, and become something other than performance. They not only participate in the representations of representation, but also influence and manipulate them. They can be saved and documented, and they can interact with the audience, as Wong’s guestbook, and her responses demonstrate. While the internet cannot engage with the affective domain in the way live actors can, performance in cyberspace has a life that makes past and the present coterminous. The cyberworld is a dimension in which, as Wajcman says: “Real virtuality replaces stable, social foundations (place, nation, class or race) with virtual and changeable environments, which can exist in cyberspace quite separately from geographic locations or real cultural backgrounds” (Wacjman, 2004: 60). This has encouraged the emergence of textual representations that replace stable, gendered, familiar images with the shocking, the gender-ambigious and the destabilized.


I would like to thank Kristina Wong for her generous permission to use the text and images from her Big Bad Chinese Mama website for the purposes of this essay. All images are from her website

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