Memoirs of a Geisha

HeatherFife's picture
Tagged:  •  

Obviously, this is not going to be a very academic argument. I read Memoirs ten years ago and although this was my pre-liberal arts education time and my mind had not yet been ideologically molded to fit films into theory I was still aware that there was something incredibly disturbing about the book. A white man writing about what life is like as a glorified Asian prostitute. Asian women who find their only power through sex (or what I would now label "hypersexual behavior"). An incredibly cheesy Cinderella story where the stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold gets the what is essentially  q pedophile who pays for female sexual companionship while also having a family at home but is somehow considered a good catch and the end goal for her ultimate happiness. For the women this white man writes about-their only existence in life, their only chance for happiness, for success, for honor--comes from what men can do for them. Instead of bonding together in survival in a male-controlled world they resort to backstabbing behavior to hurt others because innocence was lost and love scorned them. To put it plainly, I did not like the book's overall portrayal of Asian women and all women at that, even though, yes, it was interesting to read about what particular details of life was like for a pre-WWII Geisha. Now, ten years later, the movie comes out and everyone is dieing to see it, including some of my friends and my mom and my sister. Although these are the same friends and the same mom and sister who are never interested in watching authentic films that were made by and in Asia about Asia, they are suddenly dieing to watch this film made about Asians by non Asians in a non Asian place and used non Asians as consultants for Geisha life (Liz Dalby-the only non Asian Geisha, was the official consultant about Geisha). I secretly grumble under my breath, "Why do films about Asians have to be made by non Asians for non Asians to want to watch them?" I turn to Said's powerful argument for answers: Orientalism once again. We like our Asians to appear the way we want them to be)-mysterious, exotic, sexual, subservient. We like our Asians to make us feel better about ourselves, to give us some definition for our own identity. Memoirs just represented ,ore misunderstandings and more misperceptions: So when my girlfriends from the chemistry grad department and I were discussing what we were going to do for our weekly girl's night out and and they decided to eat Sushi and then watch Memoirs, I was outvoted. By this time my mind had been shaped and molded into a fine liberal arts student now in the middle of getting her masters in a program that ended with "studies" so i instinctively knew that I would probably not enjoy the film and I had to say I would not be joining in on our weekly night of fun. "Why not." I'm asked. "This is your thing. Asian people. That's what you study right?""Well, to be honest, I am not really in the mood for an Orientalist fantasy tonight."Of course this opens the door to a floodgate of questions and responses and explanations that my friends do not seem to understand. (All I know about their life in school is that they might use a bunson burner and that they should not get HCL in their eyes, so I in no way look down on them) I tried to explain my point of view, that I did not want to see more Western stereotypes of Asian females as prostitutes, an American made film about Japanese with Chinese actors who speak English with bad accents, a cliche story that represents females only as sex objects. One of my friends tells me that Asians stereotype us as well right? Of course they do but the representations they have of us were usually made by us. We are the ones who make the representations of them using stale stereotypes that perpetuate old ideas about Asian culture. So-called "developed nations" started using these stereotypes about "developing nations" because of the historical relationship of mostly knowing about Asians through war contact (where women become part of the war spoils) or by discriminatory laws that prohibited females from entering the US and so the only Asian females that non Asians had contact with in their own countries in the beginning were prostitutes. These stereotypes continue today to contribute to the current colonized status of Asians in this globalized world where female Asians are now factory workers. Sexually dehumanizing Asian females in films is all a part of justifying their existence as cheap labor in our eyes. Ok, call me over-sensitive, call me hyper-critical, call me feminist if you want-Of course I am. So this weekend I did finally see the film because I am living with a Chinese family and they wanted to watch it (or the mom wanted to watch it because her son and husband were out for the night). As I expected, the story was as cliche and yes, it was orientalist, but the misogynistic content, male fantasy representations of Asian women, and outdated messages are what ended up bothering me the most. Here are just a few examples: 1. In order for the girl to get the attention of an old Doctor so that he will want to pay a lot of money to de-virginize her, her "older sister" geisha mentor makes her cut her upper thigh so the Doctor will see her thigh while he is giving her stitches and be so turned on that he will want to pay to have the opportunity to pop her cherry. Is anyone else completely repulsed by this kind of scene? It was filmed erotically so that we as viewers are supposed to see her Asian naked body on film and feel the same way the Doctor must be feeling. Is it sexy to painfully mutilate your body for the enjoyment of men? I doubt a woman came up with the idea for this scene. 2. The rich Baron character secretly takes the young Geishq into a room where she cannot get out and then violently forces her clothes off while she is obviously in humiliation and fear until she is naked on the floor. Although the scene leads the audience to believe she is about to be raped, it is filmed with so much sexual energy I felt the director intended for his audience to actually be turned on by this scene. Disgusting. Why are films still being made that show violence against women and naked Asian female bodies being harmed as sexy? Once again, I doubt a woman filmed this scene.  3. How about when the Geishas old "friend" Pumpkin, who is now essentially a prostitute for American men, calls the American soldiers in post-WWII Japanese occupation "bastards" while secretly smiling and having the time of her. Do you really think Japanese women forced to please American men were loving their time drinking, partying and doing whatever these American men had sexual fantasies about for a small amount of money in order to survive after years of war? It reminded me of a scene from an American m,ovie made in 1951: Once again, this is what men imagine female prostitutes' life to be like, but it isn't reality. It isn't a crime to represent Asian female prostitution--it's a crime when they are represented according to male fantasies and are not founded on realistic representations. 4. Another disturbing part of the film was the contradictory message that a Geisha has no power in her life or in her destiny but yet has ultimate sexual power over men and the very fact that she gets to dress up and be sexy is exciting enough for these young women. And yet at the same time her sexual power only comes through her ability to refuse to engage in sexual acts and be pure and modest and a prude essentially. Men and women both are sexual. But women's reputations are based on prudeness and modesty while at the same time we must BE sexy and we do want sex. Why are we still sending these outdated messages to women? And why are women still accepting them? Here is my call to arms:1. no more films that take place in foreign countries where foreign actors speak English2. no more white men writing about what life is like for women or women of color where they completely miss the boat--and women--don't feed into it! A friend of mine from the sociology department had a good point-people say Arthur Golden is good at "writing women" because the truth is, women are usually written about by men so our past examples of what life is like for a women in literature come from male dominated accounts. If Golden´s work was compared to work written by women about women then nobody would ever say he really knows women. 3. No more cliche tired old Cinderella stories where the girl gets her man who isn´t even worth the getting because of her virginal morals.4. start watching ASIAN films, that means films made by Asians. There are some really excellent ones out there. 5. Two words Self authorship.My host Chinese mom didnùt like the film either:

Let me guess... you're not Japanese, and you sound jealous of these "exotic stereotypes". Have you ever met three real Japanese women? It's time to lay off the anti-Japanese jealousy.

I'll put THIS plainly for you! You are a moron! And I (being a 12 year old girl) will walk right up to you and say you are a dumb idiotic moron. And everything you kept saying a bout a girl not making these scenes is toatally unreal. I would make ALL of these scenes. And that's coming from a 12 year old girl who loved this movie. And will tell anyone who didn't to GO TO HELL!

You seiriously need to get over the fact that your mad your not as pretty as any of these woman! Stop assuming that these scenes are sexist just because a man wrote it and it shows a little skin. And you know what! I bet you are ugly as hell, and you want to put down these types of scenes becaus you can't stand the fact they wouldn't show you in them if it ment they had just wasted millions of dollars.

arthur golden wrote the actual book the movies based on from accounts from a real geisha, so all that stuff actually happened. i get where your coming from though, but all that stuff wasnt made up by a guy so he could make lots of money, its so we all know what it was like back in the day and can learn from it!

anonymous he said in the back of the books that the book was ficitional and he invented chiyo bu i get where your coming fomr this womens crazy , it was such a good book and cultural film !!!

I don't think you are crazy. However, the comments written above mostly sound rediclous. Who is this 12 year old? Liking a film is one thing, but understanding the overt and covert messages is what is being addressed. I myslef loved the book too, but it does feed into a lot of cultural stereotypes. Open your eyes and listen to what this woman is saying. She wrote a long description and broke it down while those of you who disagree; judge and critisize with no intellectual thought but shallow and ignorant words attacking this woman's appearance and her "jealousy" who gives a shit, it never had anything to do with that, and she never stuck herself in an opposing role of the characters in the film. But more importantly she discussed her outrage and the lack of unity between women in general of all races and ethnicity's. You are the one's who lack the beauty..Also, the geisha was giving $ for misinterpertation by the writer himself- check it out people before you react so hastly. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Heather. I apprecaiate and empathize with your frustration. I myself am working on a paper which is looking at perpetuation of stereotypes in films, videos, and media. I appreciate what you had to say.

Thank you

I really enjoyed what you had to say. I was very surprised at the shallow and angry comments by people who did not appreciate the subtleties of your argument and instead resorted to comments about your appearance and supposed "jealousy." You are critiquing this film from an academic perspective, and i have to say that i really appreciated this because i am currently writing a paper based on Orientalism. Thank you.

[...] idea that is frequently seen as sexist. I skipped it. (See what my friend Heather said about Memoirs of a Geisha for [...]

Hi there, I was very impressed by what you have wrote. (I'm actually gathering materials for a paper tomorrow on orientalism). I too, am shocked by many of the angry comments written above. It takes alot for a Westerner to agree with what you agree, I suppose. Which is why I'm even more impressed that you felt this way. You wrote it from a well-versed perspective, not some shallow person who decided to challenge everything in that movie.

It is definitely true that the accounts the the author gave were biased. Firms that put down women like that should never have been approved in the first place.

Hello. I would just like to say that your point of the novel and film was fair. I thought that some scenes were very stereotypical too. Although, some are true. The people who commented that you were jealous, are wrong. In no way is the writer of this opinion jealous. Everyone gets the chance of an opinion wether chosen to or not. I agree with half of what she has wrote, as it is honest and factual, and stated some good points. I enjoyed the film though. My name is Chiyo Nakajima. I was actually born in Japan, but moved to England when I was 6 months old. My entire family originated from Japan, and my great great aunt was a geisha. She is not alive now, as she sadly passed away the year before I was born. I've taken a true fascination to the whole subject of the geishas. Even if the film memoirs of a geisha was based truely on facts, I still enjoyed the fantasy of it all. Thank you for your honest opinion anyway. The 12 year old who called you an "idiotic moron" is thoroughly uneducated and hasn't a clue what they're talking about.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • You can use Markdown syntax to format and style the text. Also see Markdown Extra for tables, footnotes, and more.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h3> <br> <h2>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.