On Jan. 25, Netflix’s YouTube channel released a trailer for Netflix Golden, a new social media channel promoting stories from the pan-Asian diaspora. The short video featured a slew of well-recognized Asian actors, comedians and other celebrities stitched together, all reciting a corporate-diversity-jargon filled script about how Netflix is celebrating Asian stories. What caught my attention was Tan France’s cameo around the 48-second mark, where he says, “We are classy, we are sassy and guess what? We’re fuckable too!”
Tan France and I are both part of the Pakistani diaspora, and we both grew up crushed by the weight of Eurocentric beauty standards. I understand why he so proudly stated that Asians are — sexually — desirable because a lot of us have never felt that way, and some of us still don’t. I always felt like I had been given an impossible task; I had to attain the South Asian beauty standard with all its colonial and colorist undertones, then contend with the American/Eurocentric beauty standard, to whom my features would always be considered “ugly.”
As we got older, my friends and I dealt with our internalized dislike of our features in different ways. Some exclusively pursued white people romantically to validate their attractiveness, while others refused to date at all, believing that they would always be second best to a white person. Many of us struggled to find people of our own race attractive or believed that dating someone of our race would be too clichéd. Others opted for plastic surgery to fit the present beauty standard — although this phenomenon is not exclusive to Asians or people of color. Often, these feelings and decisions gave rise to immense guilt and contributed to a feedback loop of self-hatred.
There’s nothing wrong with having people of color as love interests or as objects of desire in the media (although I would like it if we weren’t always paired with a white person) and there is nothing wrong with declaring that we are “fuckable.” Rather, my main concern is that being sexually desirable is not a mechanism for equity or, in a larger sense, a tool for liberation. How does a white person finding us attractive improve anything for people of color around the world? It doesn’t. Being fetishized and desired is not acceptance, and these ideas have historically been used to harm people of color rather than uplift them. I know it’s not easy to move past the politics of desirability because people of color have been repeatedly told that the more proximity to whiteness we attain, the better. People of color who identify as LGBTQIA+ have to navigate communities that claim to be inclusive but frequently end up perpetuating Eurocentric beauty standards. Women of all races are encouraged to seek male validation, and when pressure to conform is added to those existing feelings, that mindset can feel impossible to escape.
I talk about my experiences because they deeply impacted my self-esteem and continue to affect my connection to my racial identity and because no one should grow up feeling as though the features they were born with are “ugly.” Although these experiences were hurtful, I have personally realized that there are larger issues at hand, and that is why I resent desirability politics becoming a dominant topic among people of color, especially among the Asian diaspora. It detracts focus from the more serious issues we face — rising hate crimes, the surveillance of South Asians post 9/11 and exploitative immigration laws, to name a few. Too often, discussions surrounding the politics of desirability only touch on “pretty privilege” rather than exploring and dismantling the harmful stereotypes surrounding people of color. These stereotypes, from the “exotic” South Asian woman, to the “submissive” East/Southeast Asian woman, the “creepy” Indian man and the “spicy Latina” can put people of color in actual danger. If the conversation begins and ends at “I, personally, feel unattractive,” we make no progress at all. If on some days we do feel unattractive, what’s the problem with that? After all, we don’t owe it to anyone to conform to their idea of desirability.
(Thank you to my lovely friends who lent me their perspectives for this article, you all are the best and I miss you!)