From Chanel Miller to Rowena Chiu, Asian Women Bring an Important Viewpoint to #MeToo

Life & Love

(Photos: Getty Images; Illustration: Joel Louzado)

Speaking out against a powerful white man is a difficult for any woman, but for women of colour, it comes with more unique challenges, risks and complications.

For Rowena Chiu, a former assistant to Harvey Weinstein, it has taken her over two decades to finally speak out about her experience with the disgraced Hollywood movie mogul. In an op-ed for The New York Times published on October 7, Chiu offers new details on her story, which was first documented in a new book by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the New York Times reporters that broke the story on Weinstein’s widespread misconduct in 2017. In She Said, which came out in September, Chiu describes how Weinstein tried to rape her during a late night hotel room meeting at the Venice Film Festival in 1998. (Through a lawyer, Weinstein claimed to the Associated Press that Chiu’s account and others in the book are false.) Though Chiu and her colleague, Zelda Perkins, attempted several times to report Weinstein immediately after the incident, they say they were ignored and dismissed, and eventually pressured to accpet a settlement in exchange for signing a restrictive nondisclosure agreement. In the years to follow, Chiu struggled with depression and attempted suicide twice as she stayed silent, not telling family, friends or even her husband about the incident. She even continued to remain mum as the #MeToo movement unfolded.

“I had been so completely silenced that although I was central to a story that had ignited a global movement, I did not participate. Remaining silent had become integral to my identity, both as a woman and a person of colour,” she writes in her New York Times op-ed.

Saying #MeToo is hard, but cultural conditioning and stereotypes make it harder

Chiu’s reluctance to share her story is something she believes other Asian women who are victims of sexual abuse face.

“There are very few, I feel, Asian voices that come forward with this kind of story,” Chiu says in She Said. “It’s not because this kind of thing does not happen to Asian people, but I think certainly within the U.S. we have a whole culture around a model minority that doesn’t make a fuss, that doesn’t speak up, that puts their head down and works really hard and doesn’t cause waves.”

Indeed, a 2015 study by the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence found that 21 to 55 per cent of Asian-American women experience physical or sexual violence from intimate partners, and are found to report rape and other forms of sexual violence less frequently than women of other cultures.

Read this next: The Long (But Not Exhaustive) List of Powerful People Accused Of Sexual Misconduct, Post-#MeToo

This data supports how, up until recently, Asian-Americans have been relatively quiet in the #MeToo movement. According to Buzzfeed, Asian-American female producers and actors say both the acceptance of widespread harassment as “normal” and fear of retribution is what hinders them exposing abusers in an industry that’s been historically hostile to them.

“I feel like we are raised to be hardworking and—for the lack of a better word—quiet, with the idea being our hard work at the end of the day is going to pay off,” Jess Calder, producer of the 2018 comedic drama Blindspotting, told Buzzfeed in a joint interview with actor Janina Gavankar. She went on to say she has felt uncomfortable speaking up at work “because I was raised to feel like I’m lucky to even have a seat at the table. Like, what am I going to do? Risk it?”

“I’ve known a few more higher-profile Asian-American women who have dealt with harassment, and there’s almost a sense of expectancy there, like, ‘OK, cool, I’m used to this. I don’t care. I can deal with this.’ So that may have something to do with the lack of outspokenness online,” YouTube comedian and actor, Anna Akana, told Buzzfeed. “Because when you’re so used to being hypersexualized, [you] don’t even register it that much anymore as a violating thing.”

For Chiu, her cultural background and conditioning further affected the dynamic she had with Weinstein, particularly when it came to speaking out. In her op-ed, she talks about how the idea of being an Asian immigrant “model minority” was prominent in her British-Chinese family in fear of standing out.

“I was taught not to talk back—to aunties and uncles, to my parents, to my teachers, to perfect strangers,” she writes. “I learned the social benefits of being deferential, polite and well behaved. As with many Asian women, this meant that I was visible as a sex object, invisible as a person. Harvey may not have created this imbalance, but he and many others have capitalized on it, knowingly or unknowingly, to abuse women of colour.”

Chiu’s Chinese identity was fetishized and exploited by Weinstein  

Chiu says her identity as a British-Chinese woman also played a significant role in falling victim to Weinstein’s grooming process, which she says can be understood through the four power dynamics of gender, race, seniority and wealth.

“My ethnicity initially marked me as different and inferior,” Chiu writes in her op-ed. “He assured Zelda that he wouldn’t harass me because he didn’t, as I remember it, ‘do Chinese or Jewish girls.’ Then later, he turned around and defined me in terms of sexual exoticism, telling me, just before he tried to rape me, that he’d never had a Chinese girl.”

Chiu goes on to describe how Weinstein told her he liked Chinese girls because “they were discreet… because they know how to keep a secret” just hours before he tried to rape her.

By saying #MeToo, Asian women are fighting the stereotypes that have hindered them for years

The idea that Asian women are docile, meek, quiet and unassertive is why it’s more important than ever for those who victims of abuse—sexual or otherwise—to speak up about their experiences. It’s an important addition to the #MeToo narrative, one that was brought to light recently (and notably), when Chanel Miller came out as Brock Turner’s accuser, “Emily Doe.”

Read this next: The Many Ways Ryan Adams Manipulated Women Are Familiar to Me—I Experienced Them, Too  

In her memoir, Know My Name, Miller writes about how growing up as a mixed-race Asian-American made her feel “used to being unseen, to never being fully known.” As novelist Liso Ko notes in an op-ed for the New York Times, “the knowledge that [Miller] is Asian-American necessitates a new understanding of what she experienced and how she was perceived—as a woman of colour, assaulted by a white man, trying to obtain justice in a courtroom presided over by a white male judge.”

And it’s not just Asian-American women who are speaking out—overseas, the #MeToo movement is taking on a life of its own.

Earlier this year, 25-year-old Beijing-based screenwriter Zhou Xiaoxuan became a hero of China’s fledging #MeToo movement when she published an essay describing how China Central Television anchor, Zhu Jun, began forcibly kissing her and groping her while she was an intern. The essay went viral, inspiring other women to come forward with their stories of abuse—so much, in fact, that the Chinese government intervened, blocking comments and banning the state-run news from covering her case.

In 2018, Seo Ji-hyun, a top-level prosecutor, was widely credited with kickstarting South Korea’s own #MeToo movement when she alleged that she was repeatedly groped at a funeral by a senior male colleague while the country’s Justice Minister sat nearby in an open letter on her workplace intranet. That same year, in India, Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta came forward with details of a 2008 complaint she filed against actor Nana Parekar for alleged sexual harassment, which was followed by a flood of stories of sexual harassment and assault on social media from other Indian actresses and writers.

Read this next: Why Rose McGowan’s Feminism Isn’t for Me, or Other Women of Colour  

It doesn’t stop there. In Japan, #WithYou has been used to express solidarity with survivors of workplace harassment; in Thailand, women have their frustration at being slut-shamed with #DontTellMeHowToDress; and in the Philippines, women have flooded social media and the streets in protest against President Rodrigo Duterte’s sexist comments, under the hashtag #BabaeAko (I Am Woman.)

By saying #MeToo (or #WithYou, #DontTellMeHowToDress, #BabaeAko), Asian women all around the world are defying years and years of damaging stereotypes that abusers have been able to take advantage of. They are also providing fellow Asian female survivors the much-needed visibility and support they have been lacking.

As Chiu so eloquently says in her op-ed, “It is important to me now that I speak up, that I allow my voice, an Asian voice, an assistant’s voice, to join the array of voices in the #MeToo movement.”

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