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Pet Sins December 1999

The Joy Luck Club: conforming to inflated Western expectations of oppressive Asian society

This 1993 movie directed by Wayne Wang is based on Amy Tan's novel of the same name. The plot revolves around 4 Chinese American mothers and their daughters. All 4 mothers migrated from China to the United States. The movie tells the story of their lives in China, and traces the daily experiences of their 4 American-born daughters.

scene from Joy Luck Club Picture ©Hollywood Pictures

All daughters except one, (single) date or marry white men. Maybe the point is that American Chinese daughters break with their mothers in choosing non-Chinese partners. Would it be so difficult to put one African American man or one Latino American man or one Native American man or even one non-Chinese Asian American man into the story as son-in-law? So many choices, so many possibilities. Any non-Chinese partner can bring home the point.

All the Asian men with significant screen time were negative characters. There was the philandering, wife-beating husband played by Russell Wong, the child-husband who makes his wife sleep on the floor, the wealthy man who rapes a widow and then takes her as his concubine.

This popular movie only reinforces white people's pre-existing notions that women of color need to be "rescued" from their supposedly sexist and brutal birth cultures, that women of color benefit from entering white society (usually as the sex-mate of a white man) . The "great white savior" idea is used by many white men to justify their exploitation of women of color. Unfortunately, many whites (including women) have become used to this imperialist ideology and think it is open-minded, charming and exotic for white men to couple with women of color but less acceptable or romantic for men of color to date white women.

The movie also contains a bizarre scene in which a daughter cuts her own flesh to be cooked in a soup for her ailing mother. Supposedly, that is the Chinese thing to do. This practice does not truly represent Chinese culture. In fact, such an act is against Confucianism. Confucianist principles dictate one's body is given by one's parents, and is therefore not to be subjected to acts of mutilation. In ancient times, Confucianist extremists even refused to cut their hair and nails in order to avoid dishonoring their parents. Chinese who were Jewish or Muslim were afraid to let their native Chinese neighbors know about their practice of circumcision because the act of cutting one's flesh was a big taboo in a Confucianist society.

I also question the portrayal of one of the character as a teen bride to a wealthy family's child son. I do not know if it is based on someone's "true" experience, but even if it is "true", it is not representative even of feudal era Chinese marriage practices, and at best gives the wrong impression to the audience. It is true that there were some young women who "married" young boys in the past. But the purpose of this practice was entirely economical. A teenage daughter-in-law could be used as a babysitter who takes care of her infant/toddler 'husband'. The whole point of bringing in an older "fiancee" for an infant or toddler son is to maximize the length of her working life as a housekeeper/farmhand/babysitter etc. Only economically-challenged families were interested in this arrangement. Rich families like the one in the movie have no need to utilize the labor of a daughter-in-law to such a degree, and have no reason to be interested in acquiring an older wife for a child son.

Many Chinese outside the United States, (as well as Asian American men in the US) were alienated and offended by the content of Joy Luck Club. Female Chinese authors in the West have undoubtedly made positive contributions in promoting the understanding of their ancestral cultures and homeland, but sometimes a reader still gets the feeling that the book or movie was directed at white males more than it is at other kinds of audiences. Sensationalism, even to the point of giving a skewed impression of Asian cultures, is given a higher priority than authenticity.


Comment from 'Angel'
First I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to comment on your review. I agree with the point you made about how some who see the white male as "saving" the poor Asian girl don't find the reversed situation as appealing. However I disagree with you, on the point you made about how this movie portrays the Asian men in a bad light. What about Jing-Mei's father? He was a dear old man, who loved both his wife and daughter very very much. Yes the majority of Asian men are portrayed poorly, but I think if you're only looking at the cultural aspect of the movie, you're missing what's at the heart of it. And wasn't Lena's new boyfriend Asian? Sure there could be a small cultural taint on this movie, but it has so many other good messages involving love... Did you read the book? Because I think you might like it better than the movie... I don't know...all I know is that no one is perfect not in this movie and not in real life, including white males.