Len Brown, Sex Scandals, Stereotypes, and Anti-Asian Racism

I am not interested in Bevan Chuang or Len Brown’s sex lives. As a socialist I think private conduct between consenting adults should be their concern and no one else’s. The only ‘betrayal’ from Auckland’s mayor that interests me is from last year is when he betrayed the wharfies.

But media coverage of the last week has played on some deep-seated, and ugly, stereotypes of Asian women. Those do matter for socialists, and for us all.

What became glaringly obvious in the week since the scandal broke was the anti-asian and sexist media coverage of the whole affair. The day after the story broke, the Stuff website ran photos of a suit-and-tie Brown, next to a photo of Chuang in a cosplay outfit. As a recent failed candidate for the Auckland Council, there were undoubtedly a plethora of photos that the site could choose from showing her in business or formal wear. But no, they needed to hammer home the stereotype of the China Girl. Salacious profiles, and old stories of her plans for a ‘Dragon Baby’ lent further Orientalising atmosphere to the whole fake ‘scandal.’ That kind of rubbish is unsurprising from Cameron Slater, but the Herald got in on it too.

Stereotypes of Asian women constantly trivialise – and sexualise – them as objects and as ‘exotic’ Others, not as actors in political life. These latest sets of stories reinforce this. Renee Liang puts it well in a column for the Herald:

“Yellow Fever. China Girl, Geisha Girl, Manchu Girl. Peking Duck. Asian Lolitas. These and other ugly terms have been flying around this week. They’re casually dropped, often “as a joke”. Often by people others might categorise as informed, intelligent, even culturally aware. […] Asian people are not stereotypes. We are not viper-like “dragon mistresses”, nor are we little girl-women who can be innocent and slutty at the same time. We are not Tiger Mums. We are people. Individuals. And not all of us can do kung fu.”

There’s a lot in Liang’s article I agree with, and it’s worth reading. But her response also draws out a limitation in political responses to this story. There is no ‘we’ or ‘community’ uniting all Asians, any more than there is for Pakeha or any other ‘ethnicity.’ We are divided along class and political lines, just like everyone else.

All sorts of assumptions, snobbery and prejudice is coming out – against Asians, and Asian women, around Chuang, and against Pacific Islanders in South Auckland too, as media commentators all assume that ‘the South’ is more conservative morally. (Somehow the fact that openly lesbian Labour MP holds a seat in Manurewa gets missed in discussions of the ‘conservative’ South).

There is nothing interesting to learn politically from looking at Len Brown’s private life. That’s his business. But there is something to learn about the kinds of stereotypes and racism the ruling class promotes by looking at how this ‘scandal’ has been covered. That’s our business.