"Quintessentially Chinese"?: "China Doll" Edition

So my dad said the other day, "you could do better than the stereotypical China Doll makeup, but I know that's not your usual style."

This was in reference to a shoot I did a while back. (Yes, I model, but that's neither here nor there.) The theme of the shoot was "light fetish / pinup" and I was made up according to a reference picture of a retro pinup - plenty of blush, fake lashes, dark eyebrows, and red lipstick.

So, think about that combination for a moment. They're not exactly typical "China doll" makeup things, not in my mind. When I hear "China doll", I personally think "porcelain skin, large eyes".

So I had a look at the pictures, and I went, "huh. I guess I kinda do look China doll-like, especially from certain people's perspective."

It's the red lips, I figured. The red lips and red cheeks are reminiscent of Chinese opera.

My friend, the excellent Katherine o'Kelly, said that it had to do with my pose and expressions - the first set I posted were demure, avoiding the camera, shy. (And here, again, I differ in opinion - looking away from the camera does not necessarily mean demure and shy.) But she noted, with the next set of pictures, that with more spunkily-posed shots, despite the makeup I was wearing, the "China doll" look and feel was gone.

The term "China doll" unsettles me. It unsettles me because I've met people who coo and squee over Asian girls because "they are so cute". I have trouble with the term because it ties into the whole "submissive Asian" trope. It bothers me because I am Chinese, and the term "China doll", which could characterize all Chinese women who fit a certain physical look, effectively strips us of our agency in the eyes of others, rendering us, well, dolls.

I took a hard look at that set of pictures. I also thought back to other times I wore similar makeup. I generally avoid heavy makeup for this reason: looking like a China doll. But even as I was avoiding the "China Doll" look, I neglected to ask what the hell, exactly, a "China doll" looks like.

Then I realized, no matter what makeup I wear, I will always look like a "China doll" to someone. I can't help that - I'm Chinese! I can't dictate that everyone think of me as a normal human being - there's no way I can police that. I can't help it that some people don't think women should be wearing such striking makeup to begin with. I can't help it that people stereotype Asians.

Like many other things, the term "China doll" refers to a construct, an idea of what something should be like. A China doll will look like what the viewer wants her to look like. She can range from simply being an Asian woman, to being a fetishly hyper-sexualized submissive. It doesn't matter. What matters is that this is a stereotype, and one damaging to Asian women.

When my dad said that, it sounded like an accusation, "you could do better" (because, yanno, we Asians are all about being the best and all). Do better than what? Looking like a stereotype? It unsettled me because all I did was apply makeup. Sure, more makeup than normal, but still, it's just makeup. Similar to the "Western tart" stereotype of heavily madeup women, the "China doll" look is not bad because of the makeup itself, but because of the assumptions that accompany stylized makeup.

And once more, with feeling, do better? It is as if somehow, looking Chinese (quintessentially Chinese?!) is not ideal. That I shouldn't play up my Chinese-ness. Was I supposed to look... non-Chinese? Doesn't that play into old colonial stereotypes that non-white = inferior? If not, then what default should I have fallen into so as not to look all China doll-like?

Was it my female-ness he objected to? If we keep in mind that some people still buy into the female = passive/male = active binary, then the "doll" claim makes some sense.

I have naturally nice cheekbones which I like to highlight, and my eyes are so small they require liner to get attention. If I put on makeup and people assume I look like a "China doll", the problem is not with me and my makeup. The solution is not to tell me not to "wear 'China doll' makeup". The problem is with old stereotypes ingrained into our modes of thought when we are an audience looking at an Asian woman. My solution is to challenge why we hold on to these ways of thinking.


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