Chinese Diasporic Female Sexuality in Saving Face (Chelsea)
In the film Saving Face (2004), we are introduced to a mother and daughter who are both experience the challenges surrounding female sexuality in Chinese and Chinese American culture. In the beginning of the movie, we meet Wil, a Chinese American woman who is also a lesbian. She is very conservative about this aspect of her sexuality, embarrassed even, and we see that her mother is constantly trying to set her up with Chinese men. It isn’t until later in the movie that we find that her mother, Mrs. Pang, started these set-ups after she found out her daughter is a lesbian. Mrs. Pang shows similar sexual embarrassment when she shows up at her daughter’s apartment after her father, Wil’s grandfather, kicks her out for becoming pregnant outside of wedlock. In the meantime, Wil meets Vivian and starts dating her. As Mrs. Pang refuses to reveal the identity of the father, Wil continues to hide her sexuality from her mother and the Chinese community, despite her relationship. Wil’s apprehension becomes apparent to Vivian, and creates tension in their relationship. Wil tries to help her mother by setting her up on dates with Chinese men so that she might marry and be re-accepted by her family. The real liberation comes when Wil interrupts her mother’s wedding to save her from marrying the wrong man. The father writes Mrs. Pang a letter saying that he wants to be with her and father their child despite their age difference, and Wil reveals the father in order to help her mother. Once liberated, her mother goes to the airport with Wil to stop Vivian from leaving. Yet, Wil cannot get past the cultural and societal stigma placed upon her sexuality, and cannot prove her love to Vivian via a public kiss, causing Vivian to leave. Three months later when the two meet again, Wil kisses Vivian in front of their Chinese community. This conservative approach to sexuality on both ends, female sexuality in general and then also female queer sexuality, can be attributed to the traditional Chinese cultural values that then transfer over to the diasporic peoples in the U.S. The women and their sexualities are not liberated upon the move here as they are still bound by cultural norms of their home country and diasporic ideologies.
In “Spoken Pleasures and Dangerous Desires: Sexuality, Marriage, and the State in Rural Southern China,” by Sara L. Friedman, female sexuality in China’s nation is discussed and the issue of its representation debated. Friedman poses an imperative question to her audience, centering her argument but also provoking thought around the subject of female sexuality in China. She asks, “[a]re there contexts in contemporary China in which women openly voice their sexual desires, and if so, are there consequences to such expression?” (19). This question not only pertains to the female population in China, but also females within the Chinese diaspora among other countries. Throughout the movie, female heterosexuality and homosexuality are both hidden. Mrs. Pang will not reveal the identity of her child’s father and watches porn privately and almost ashamedly, and Wil introduces Vivian as a friend rather than as her girlfriend to her mother, along with being unable to display her affection in public. It is thus seen that sexuality is acceptable to display only in a private context in this movie by Mrs. Pang in the privacy of her daughter’s empty apartment, and by Wil in the secrecy of Vivian’s apartment.
Friedman proceeds to discuss this further when looking at where in China this sexuality has become more openly displayed or even talked about. She mentions, “that talking openly and even publicly about sexuality has come to constitute the hallmark of a specifically urban modernity, as seen in the proliferation of counseling hotlines in China’s major cities” (20). As cities develop and become more modern, this female sexuality is more openly accepted and displayed. It is interesting then how in the movie, in New York City, one of the most progressive and modern cities in this country, the women continue to feel as though their sexuality must remain oppressed. Within their diasporic community they will still be ostracized by their gender and sexual expectations despite their location in an urban and modernized metropolis. As the community is felt to be the root of support within most diasporas upon arriving in a different nation, their ideologies uphold regardless of location.
Harriet Evans looks at one aspect as to why this conservatism of sexuality was maintained in China, and thus trickles down to its diasporic peoples. In her essay “Defining Difference: The “Scientific” Construction of Sexuality and Gender in the People’s Republic of China,” Evans addresses the “science” behind female vs. male sexuality in China, or what was deemed acceptable by such notions in terms of ideologically acceptable behavior. It was presumed that women were only to have sexual appetite in order to reproduce, while men were granted more freedom. This “discourse on sexuality brought to this vision of ideologically correct behavior a code of normative sexual and gender expectations legitimized by so-called scientific authority” (359-360). The use of science to determine acceptable sexual behavior then works to justify the difference between male and female sexual expression, causing Chinese females to remain silent in their communication. This translates over to the Chinese American diaspora because within their own community the same ideals are upheld. Regardless of the fact that they are now in the U.S., the ideals, which guide and unify them in their home country, are what keep the community together in other countries. They therefore hold onto these ideals for their unity, however some of the ideals continue to oppress their women.
Audrey Yue’s essay “Queer Asian Cinema and Media Studies: From Hybridity to Critical Regionality,” looks at the ways queer Asian cinema came about and how it has framed examination of the issues presented in these films. One thing I found interesting that she shares with her audience is that only in “2001 [homosexuality] was removed as a mental illness in China” (146). This seems incredibly current to me compared to other progressive movements and those of the U.S. Because of the recentness of this development, “the popularity of these films among queer and mainstream straight audiences in the West and across Asia marks the “very suddenness of Asian film-making’s about-face when it comes to homosexual positivity” and “has been arguably more startling than elsewhere in the world”.” (147). Being a diaspora based strongly in ideological and cultural traditions, this boom would strike the countries as being exceedingly progressive and forward moving at a fast pace. It may even suggest a closer bond with the West in its ideas and progressively. As a result of its closeness with Western ideals, it propels a shift in how this media can be studied. Yue makes claim for the use of “bipolar reading.” She explains, ““bipolar reading” suggests how, despite the fact that plots and influences can be superficially Western or Eastern, these films invite resolutions that are not exclusive either to a universally Western or to a nativist Eastern imagination. Bipolar reading, a critical practice that mobilizes the double consciousness of Western and Eastern perspectives, promotes an “internationality/ intertextuality” that us key to the modern film medium and global cinema literacy” (147). What this bipolar reading does is bring the West and the East together by allowing us to read across cultures and binaries. The queer can no longer be considered a new and Western concept as it has clearly been embedded in Eastern tradition as well, only silently. Therefore, as it unifies the two cultures it also speaks across the two cultures as well as combines the two cultures, until it can be argued that culture becomes void in the face of sexuality. Sexuality, while perceived different among different cultures, is not exclusive to one culture or people.
The movie, therefore, provides some insight as to how these ideologies surrounding female sexuality in Chinese culture pertains to Chinese American culture, and also queer culture. If Chinese American women remain oppressed in terms of sexual expression, then Chinese American queer women are even more so oppressed in that their sexual expression is more of a taboo than that of simply the hetero female Only being liberated from the stigma of mental illness within the last fifteen years, the women undoubtedly feel the pressure that Chinese science and ideologies have placed on their sexual freedom. We can better understand the roots of sexual oppression within diasporic peoples when considering the traditions and socio-cultural influences placed upon them by their home country. As the culture unites the diasporic peoples in their new country, it ultimately binds them to these ideals, preventing them from rapid progression into what is considered the norm of the new country. Because of this, Wil and her mother felt the need to hide the truths behind their sexual natures, feeling the pressure from their Chinese community. These traditional ideologies can be seen to create a hindrance upon the sexual liberation of Chinese women even in the U.S.
Evans, Harriet. “Defining Difference: The “Scientific” Construction of Sexuality and
Gender in the People’s Republic of China.” Signs. 20.2. 1995. 357- 394.
Friedman, Sara L. “Spoken Pleasures and Dangerous Desires: Sexuality, Marriage,
and the State in Rural Southeastern China.” East Asia: An International Quarterly. 18.4. 2000. 12-39.
Wu, Alice. Saving Face. Destination Films, Sony Pictures Classics. 2004
Yue, Audrey. “Queer Asian Cinema and Media Studies: From Hybridity to Critical
Regionality.” Cinema Journal. 53.2. 2014.