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GOING GEISHA
Written by Noy Thrupkaew
Part 5 of 5

According to Dalby and the geisha she interviews, a geisha in the 1970s earned privileges largely unknown to other women, including economic self-sufficiency, freedom, the possibility of high business achievement in the geisha world, and the excitement of meeting many influential people. One geisha trumpets, "'My choice would be either to be born a man or be born a geisha. That's where the freedom is.' Another says:

Read Liz Dalby's Geisha by CLICKING HERE! The one who gets the worst deal one who gets the worst deal of all is the wife. . . A wife has to put up with everything foolish her husband does because, in the end, she has no power, no economic base, of her own. Men can have a wife, a mistress, and girlfriends on the side, yet can a woman do that? Hardly. It's really an unfair situation.

But now, record numbers of Japanese women are choosing not to get married, or to get married late in life-the average age of Japanese women who marry is 28, by some calculations. Buy Giacomo Puccini's opera - Madama Butterfly by CLICKING HERE! Citing reasons such as enjoying their own independence and financial security, Japanese women are clearly making more options for themselves than were present when Dalby's book was written. Divorce is also on the rise, perhaps in part because wives are increasingly financially solvent, and unwilling to "put up with everything foolish" their husbands may do.

However, many of the geisha's criticisms still hold true. Japanese women are still woefully under-represented in the workforce, especially in senior or management positions, as they are in the United States; and life options still remain limited, despite the work of Japanese women to create more possibilities for themselves.

But geisha life doesn't seem perfect either, geisha life doesn't seem perfect either, it turns out. Among the potential work hazards for geisha? Being the "other woman," they say-if one has the fortune to have a patron and the misfortune to love him-the "day-to-day psychological problem of living as the second woman in a man's life." And despite their proclamations that being a geisha is just about as liberating as being a man, when Dalby asks if the geisha world might afford women more opportunities than being wives, one geisha responds, "That's true enough. [But] it doesn't seem to offset the other disadvantages of being female. . ."

Geisha is an unusual piece of anthropology -threaded with conversations between geisha and descriptions of her own slow transformation into Ichigiku. Dalby's book is invaluable for the focus it places on thoroughly foregrounding geisha's voices and points of view, and the tangible ways it shatters Western preconceptions of geisha. But some points do seem to fall by the wayside. In her attempt to privilege the voices of geisha and understand their lives more from the inside, Dalby avoids taking a critical stance on not only how their work might be degrading but how the institution of geisha speaks to a larger system of male dominance and sexism in Japan.

Although Dalby does say at one point, "Men, on the other hand, freely cross over the lines separating the women's spheres," she doesn't offer greater insight into the matter. As Allison says, "The geisha is still an outcropping of chauvinism, it's still part of a chauvinist, gender ideology. [Dalby] doesn't address that." In her introduction, Dalby rhetorically poses the questions that Western feminists might ask: "Why can't wives go out with their husbands? Why can't geisha marry and work too? Why are there geisha at all?" All these questions are valid, but Dalby prefers not to address them, saying, "But Japanese wives and geisha themselves often have a different view of these institutions, one that we cannot simply dismiss as distorted or false consciousness." While I applaud Dalby's efforts to highlight the words of Japanese wives and geisha and to treat their opinions with respect, I also would welcome the insights of Japanese women who definitively call themselves feminist wives or geisha.

DISCARDING THE KIMONO

Read Mako Yoshikawa's novel, One Hundred and One Ways by CLICKING HERE! All three books flirt, to varying degrees, with becoming geisha. Each supports its "authenticity," or "credibility" in different ways-Memoirs through the flaunting of research by a "real Japanologist" author; One Hundred and One Ways through the geisha bloodline and ethnicity of its author and narrator; and Geisha, well, because she tried it. Each tantalizes with the suggestion that between the covers of the book, the reader can have an encounter with the paradoxical authentic "exotic other." And this is a large part of the appeal of these books. Readers, most of them women, are seduced by both the "truth" of "this is what a geisha is," and the opportunity to use that "knowledge" to experiment with their own sensuality. As Allison says in her paper, "women are flirting with a different sensuality: in the delights of reinventing oneself, playing with masquerades and charades, and finding pleasure in being the object and performer of eroticism." To imagine oneself the master and creator of oneself as a sensual work of art, to feel the intoxicating power of one's own sexuality-these are heady emotions.

So what's wrong what's wrong with trying that on? Well, nothing, I suppose, except when you throw a real geisha out of her robe so you can get in it. Nothing, unless you parade around in a racist and sexist image too often projected onto Asian and Asian American women. It is somehow apt that Sayuri's eyes, "the color of a mirror," throw back nothing but the image of both the intended audience and the author. It is just as telling that a Japanese American narrator, recounting her love-hate relationship with the geisha image, transforms herself into the very image that the public pays big bucks to see in books, TV, and smutty Internet porn sites-the sexually voracious, all-for-her-white-man Asian gal. Dalby is the only one who dares to complexify what a geisha is by truly putting on the kimono in order to better understand the words of the women who inhabit it every day.


The Author
Noy Thrupkaew

Noy Thrupkaew is the former associate editor of Sojourner: The Women's Forum, a 25-year-old national feminist publication. She writes frequently on international women's human rights, welfare policy, prison issues, and Asian and Asian American literature and film.

In September 2001, she will participate in a fellowship at The American Prospect in Washington, DC.

It's sad that the geisha image has become a source of fantasy and sexual play for U.S. women readers. Even in her own country and context, the geisha is a far-from-feminist figure-more powerful than how we think of her here, but a product of the web of troubling male dominance, nonetheless. With the horny-ho flava and trodden-on subservience that we tack on here, you have an image that is far from liberating. And that this image is the mode of fantasy for women certainly says a lot about how limited our options are for picturing a powerful sexual identity-how we are taught not to claim our own sexuality, but to project and shoehorn sexual fantasy into an image that we can embrace, try on, and then discard as not our own.

Luckily, some feminist critics are using the momentum of the geisha craze to critique these very systems that are so damaging. "Teaching Golden's book is good because we can address lots of images about Japan and the so-called exotic Oriental girl," says Bardsley. "We can talk about geisha . . . to expose how we feminize Japan, eroticize Asia." But it goes beyond Asia, as any critique of geisha should. As Bardsley says, "We can discuss how all women are implicated in these mass-produced fantasies."


* Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4 *

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