The Representation Of East Asian Women On Dating Shows Matters More Than You Think

Photo Courtesy of Netflix
At a time when a third of the world is in complete lockdown, Netflix kindly gifted its viewers Too Hot To Handle, a television show featuring 14 "sexy singles" living in a "no-bone zone" (their words), to appease quarantine boredom. 
To be fair, appease our boredom it did. Moaning to my girlfriends about how ungentlemanly Harry Jowsey is has made a welcome change from repeating "What should we do after lockdown?" on WhatsApp every day. Too Hot To Handle, the reality dating competition about hot people who aren’t allowed to have sex, has really made its mark, even knocking Tiger King off the top spot as the internet’s Most Talked About Show.
Jowsey is far from the show's only talking point. With the contestants hailing from a mix of Western countries (America, Australia, UK, Canada and Ireland), it’s one of the first international dating shows we’ve seen, resulting in the oddly amusing spectacle of watching Americans try to work out exactly what Chloe means when she says she "wants a geezer with banter". However for many viewers there was another issue: the absence of contestants of Asian origin.
Too Hot To Handle is only in its inaugural season and to judge it solely on its first offering may be unfair. But it is not alone in its underrepresentation of people of Asian origin. Take Love Island, another dating show which has enjoyed similar levels of international fame as Too Hot To Handle. It’s not hugely different; the contestants find ‘love’ in an unorthodox way, under rules that take them out of a day-to-day setting. The winner walks away with money (and a massive Instagram following). 
Throughout its history, Love Island has seen few women of south or southeast Asian origin; Kaz Crossley, Stephanie Lam and Malin Andersson identify in part as Thai, Malaysian and Sri Lankan respectively. However, east Asian women whose origins lie in countries like China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have yet to feature.
The underrepresentation of Asian women in Western entertainment as a whole is a longstanding issue that warrants deeper discussion. Even within the community, opinions are conflicted but for most, the general consensus is that of all people of colour: without our faces represented on TV, we feel left out, which has much deeper implications for how we feel about our place in society. 
"I am bothered and uncomfortable how there is a lack of EA (east Asian) representation on [popular dating] shows," Jessie Thavonekham, a half-Taiwanese, half-Laotian woman born and raised in Canada, tells me. "This reminds me and other people of colour that we are the ‘other’, and inherently [makes us feel like] we don’t belong. [It makes us feel like] we don’t deserve to have experiences like this broadcast in the media."
Without a representative on dating shows that are some of the most watched and talked about on TV, east Asian women are only allowed to be involved as viewers. Thavonekham feels it is unfair that society is able to consume (often sexualised) media portrayals of east Asian women, yet these same women can’t own their own narrative through popular television. "We don’t have the opportunity to showcase our sexuality. It hurts EA women to be stuck in the stereotype and trope of being meek and submissive," she says.
Cora Chan, who is from Hong Kong, tells me she doesn’t mind the underrepresentation on shows like this as she believes it is more indicative of "the cultural difference between the East and the West". Chan says that many east Asian people raised in east Asian cultures feel less comfortable talking about sex in public. She says that east Asian people could find a show like Too Hot To Handle – where contestants are expected to talk about sex and lust in order to create dramatic tension – uncomfortable. She does acknowledge however that east Asian women who've spent more time in a Western society might be more eager to participate.
Many east Asian women with more traditional backgrounds are raised in cultures that teach them to be reserved from a young age. In countries like China, women will traditionally wait for men to take the initiative in pursuing love, sex and marriage. They often find themselves in the 'passive' position in relationships. Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, this was a big part of my education but it was also something that I observed in TV dramas and films which I, as a teenage girl, would use as a source of information to learn how to behave in the grown-ups’ world.
Sex is still a big taboo in my family. I am 26 but my parents would be horrified if I were to say that I have had sex. Sex is a forbidden fruit within my culture: a big temptation but absolutely off-limits for me until I am married. Moving to the UK drastically changed my attitude by exposing me to a new world. Meeting new friends opened up my mind but entertainment also shaped my mindset and helped to determine who I am now. In my opinion there is no question that seeing east Asian women on dating shows would help people like me realise we can have power, too.
If east Asian women continue to be left out of dating shows, Thavonekham worries that there will be a "slow drip of resentment" that comes from not being included. "With the current climate of people taking their visibility in their own hands, reality TV will probably wake up to the fact they're not catering to the right audiences," she adds.
Dating show producers, it's over to you.

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