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The Dragon Lady Trope - Reclaiming Her Power

East Asian women onscreen have long been haunted by the figure of the Dragon Lady: a violent seductress who will do anything to achieve her goals. At the same time, the dragon lady is unapologetically driven, ultra-assertive, and has agency—disproving the widespread assumption that Asian people must be “meek”.

TRANSCRIPT

Madame Blossom: “The nature of power is that it belongs to no one, until it is taken through sex, violence.”

East Asian women onscreen have long been haunted by the figure of the Dragon Lady: a violent seductress who will do anything to achieve her goals. The fierce Dragon Lady is the flipside to the passive Lotus Blossom (also known as the China Doll or Geisha Girl). Both are highly sexualized, but the lotus blossom is depicted as submissive and eager to please a white male protagonist, while the dragon lady is sexually aggressive, and even weaponizes her sexuality.

Ling Woo: “Sex is a weapon.”

The dragon lady is exocitized and mysterious, making her feel like an unknowable Other, instead of encouraging the audience to empathize with her. She’s typically framed as a ruthless antagonist to be overcome or killed in battle by the end of the story. And in light of the recent increase in violence against East Asian women in America, we can see how stereotypical tropes like these can have damaging real-life consequences.

At the same time, a number of characters who have been called dragon ladies have also contributed a lot of dramatic and representational value. The dragon lady is unapologetically driven, ultra-assertive, and has agency—disproving the widespread assumption (fueled by both the lotus blossom and the model minority myth) that Asian people must be “meek.”

She’s also in control of her sexuality, using it as she chooses. Some elements of the Dragon Lady trope are even contributing to more multidimensional East Asian characters today. Here’s our Take on why modern media is thankfully moving beyond one-dimensional dragon lady caricatures, but can draw on her power as a blueprint for more nuanced representation of East Asian women.

O-ren: “I hope you’re saved your energy. If you haven’t… you might not last five minutes.”

History of the Dragon Lady

The dragon lady trope grew out of longstanding prejudices and legislation that painted Asian-Americans as a violent threat and associated Asian women with excessive sexuality and sexual diseases.

In 1875, US Congress passed the Page Act, which explicitly forbid “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution.” This was used to prevent the immigration of Asian women, who were stereotyped as sex workers, perceived as a sexual threat, and used as a scapegoat for the spread of sexual diseases. More generally, an influx of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast in the later 19th century led to Yellow Peril—a racist fear that Chinese workers would ”steal” jobs and threaten the “American way of life.” In response, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act greatly restricted Chinese immigration to the United States.

These fears and stereotypes manifested in early Hollywood portrayals of Asian women, especially through the career of Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong. Wong starred in 1924’s The Thief of Baghdad as a devious female villain who wears exotic outfits and headpieces while using her sexuality to undermine the protagonist. In 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon, she starred as the villainous daughter of Fu Manchu, in a role that also exemplified dragon lady tropes.

Ling Moy: “You will first have the torture of seeing her beauty eaten slowly away by this hungry acid.”

Throughout her career, Wong was frustrated with a Hollywood that offered her stereotypical roles, rarely let her be a romantic leading lady due to “anti-miscegenation” laws that said she couldn’t kiss a white actor onscreen, and sometimes even rejected her for Asian roles in favor of white actors in yellowface. In a 1933 interview, Wong asked: “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass? We are not like that.”

While the comparison to a dragon was already in vague use, the “Dragon Lady” trope name was coined in 1934 when the comic strip Terry and the Pirates introduced a villain literally called Dragon Lady, who was beautiful, seductive, and dedicated to making herself rich. The archetype stuck—and prevailed onscreen for decades.

Bad to the Bone: Beware the Dragon Lady

The dragon lady is almost always the villain of her story. Unlike the vulnerable lotus blossom who takes on the role of “object” to be won or saved, she aims to thwart the typically white male character in order to fulfill her own selfish agenda. But her evilness is usually only explored at surface level. Instead of getting a fulfilling backstory or clear motivation, she’s reduced to a plot device or a dehumanized obstacle for the protagonist.

Her weapon of choice is her sexuality, which she uses to trick those around her, in many cases seducing the white male protagonist before betraying him.

Wen Yurang: “I’m thinking of a partnership.” *kisses him* “Shall we um… come to the point?” *discreetly pulls out a knife*

And while there are many one-dimensional white female villains who fulfill a similar narrative purpose, they’re not universally exoticisized or mystified the way that East Asian women are.

Bond: “Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?”

Ling: “You think we better, huh?”

The dragon lady’s exoticism is expressed through elaborate headpieces, traditional-seeming Asian clothing, and strong makeup to emphasize her otherness. This is depicted as both desirable and dangerous on screen, as if she is a sexy but lethal creature rather than a woman. We don’t see any humanity reflected in her character, as her makeup and dress literally serve as a mask to prevent us from seeing anything other than a caricature. Chinese actor Joan Chen has spoken on how unrealistic the Hollywood Asian aesthetic is to actual East Asian women, stating in a 2012 interview:

Joan Chen: “I didn’t fit in that mold of what they feel the Chinese girl should look. The image is a little unfamiliar to what, you know, all these concubines or dragon women should appear to them.”

The dragon lady is also characterized by her cruelty.

Hu Li: “Inspector Lee, this is a ying-tao grenade. Please follow me. Or I’ll push this detonator, and blow 32 teeth into your brain.”

Her stoic discipline and disregard for morals make her a formidable opponent. And while her ruthlessness is often pragmatic in the pursuit of her goals she’s sometimes even shown delighting in the pain of others.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Mistress Ching is infamous for being the leader of an exceptionally brutal army of pirates. They do not just steal to gain wealth, but pillage, behead, and take body parts as souvenirs after defeating an enemy. She also capitalizes on other women’s sexuality by running a brothel.

Much like her Asian male counterparts, the dragon lady often exercises her physical power through martial arts or other traditionally Asian fighting styles. Echoing her exoticized makeup and costuming, the dragon lady’s connection to martial arts—a strange, “unknowable” art for Westerners—implies that she has some otherworldly knowledge and strength, adding to the feeling she’s less human and more intrinsically evil.

O-ren: “Silly Caucasian girl likes to play with Samurai swords.”

This dehumanization has real world consequences. When Anna May Wong was confronted by disappointed audiences on her first trip to China in 1936, she realized that even she had internalized Hollywood’s tendency to treat all of Asia as a cartoonish monoculture. She confessed that she had been thinking of China as “a place where the people always sipped tea and philosophized about life.”

Ling Moy: “The Chinese heart is very constant, Ron. It might be sadly wounded in one of your Western affairs.”

In 2020 we saw the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, immigrants, and tourists as they were once again scapegoated for the spread of disease. Asian women were the victims of 68% of Anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021, and there’s undoubtedly a link between the hate and the longstanding hypersexualization of Asian women onscreen. As Lucy Liu wrote, “Chinese women have been depicted as either the submissive lotus blossom or the aggressive dragon lady”—and the key difference between the two is that the dragon lady has agency over her sexual power. The fact that this makes her a villain sends the message that Asian women who don’t exist to passively please white men are a social threat.

Taking Back Her Power: Reclaim the Dragon Lady

Despite the dragon lady’s limitations, it’s important to recognize that we don’t have to completely eliminate all aspects of this trope. After all, there are East Asian women who are ambitious, sexually in control, and at times even ruthless—there’s just more to them than that.

And similarly to the femme fatale trope, the dragon lady is now being reclaimed by many as a symbol of power. Lucy Liu, who has played a number of characters which have since been deemed “dragon ladies”—such as O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill, Alex Munday in Charlie’s Angels, and Ling Woo in Ally McBeal—wrote a Washington Post op-ed discussing how the dragon lady label and critiques can be limiting to Asian-American actors, cutting them off from potential roles and dismissing the value of their characters. Liu argues that many of her characters have been called dragon ladies simply because she’s Asian. Quote: “Why not call Uma Thurman, Vivica A. Fox or Daryl Hannah a dragon lady? I can only conclude that it’s because they are not Asian. I could have been wearing a tuxedo and a blond wig, but I still would have been labeled a dragon lady because of my ethnicity.”

O-ren: “The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is… I collect your f[BLEEP]ing head.”

In Kill Bill, it’s true that (like a stereotypical “dragon lady”) O-Ren Ishii dresses in a “traditionally Asian” manner, fights with a samurai sword, and is a cruel antagonist—but as Liu is getting at, almost all of the featured female characters are ruthlessly violent and mysterious, and O-Ren Ishii is given a well-developed backstory which illuminates why she uses violence to pursue her goals.

The Bride: “The half-Japanese, half-Chinese American army brat made her first acquaintance with death at the age of 9.”

Do her dragon lady-like traits negate the value we can otherwise find in her character? Liu’s words highlight the importance of context in these discussions. If a supposed “Dragon Lady” isn’t presented any differently than other characters in her narrative, is the issue of othering still present? Josie Packard from Twin Peaks sounds like she could potentially fit the dragon lady label because she has her husband murdered, and shoots Agent Dale Cooper to ensure her escape. (The show also leaves it up to interpretation as to whether she seduces Sheriff Truman to help hide her crimes or if she actually has feelings for him.)

Josie: “I miss you. I need to talk to you.”

Sheriff Truman: “I want to talk to you too. Josie, were you at the Timber Falls Motel this afternoon?”

Josie: “Ehh…I have to go.”

Yet in the context of noir-ish Twin Peaks, which is filled with sexualized, double crossing, and violent characters, all of these behaviors fit right in. Josie’s race seems to have little to do with how her story plays out.

There’s also nothing inherently bad about some of the dragon lady’s signature traits—in fact, they can be pretty essential in successful people. The Expanse’s Chrisjen Avasarala—a UN official of Indian descent played by Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo—is ruthless and manipulative (not to mention always dressed in the most beautiful fineries of her culture), and her dragon-esque ferocity makes her an outstanding leader who’s confronting a time full of challenging wars while attempting to hold onto a humanistic vision of the future she’s fighting for. More generally, the figure of the dragon, a key figure in Chinese mythology and legends, is an appealing, inspirational spirit to many. In the 2010s, white character Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones set off a craze for viewers who wanted to channel the power of a fire-breathing dragon.

Daenerys: “I am the dragon’s daughter.”

In recent years, Hollywood has allowed for more nuanced characters who may initially be perceived as dragon ladies, but who subvert our expectations and prove that Asian women can check some of these boxes while still having depth and relatability.

While Melinda May in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a proficiency in martial arts and initially presents a cold and emotionless exterior, her behavior is shaped by trauma in her past, and we watch her become fiercely loyal to her teammates, eventually comfortable enough to reveal her more emotional side.

Melinda: “That pain is love. I know, because… I was afraid of it, too. But you let me feel it.”

Similarly, Cristina Yang might appear to be a typical high-powered dragon lady in her relentless pursuit of medical excellence. But she’s a complicated character who cares deeply about the people she’s closest to, and her platonic relationship with Meredith Grey is one of the most central relationships throughout the entire show.

Cristina: “You are my person. You will always be my person.”

Lucy Liu’s character Kirsten Stevens in Set It Up —at first presenting as a harsh boss with no compassion—has adopted her tough exterior as a defense mechanism in response to a cutthroat corporate environment and a broader society that’s judgmental of women like her.

Kirsten: “But you have to have a tough skin. So, if I am the most awful person when this shitstorm of an industry is hard on you, I know you’ll be prepared.”

As these stories progress, characters like Christina and Kirsten ultimately make us think about how “acting nice” is less important than offering authentic inspiration and meaningful support to other women.

Ji-Ah in Lovecraft Country seems at first to be a submissive lotus blossom who is then revealed to be a dragon lady, and at times she is manipulative and dangerous.

Atticus: “You killed 100 men.”

Ji-Ah: “It is my nature.”

But the series also humanizes her by making her character complex, showing the internal conflict she experiences between her own desires and those of the kumiho fox spirit possessing her. Paralleling our expectations of dragon ladies, Ji-Ah initially believes herself undeserving of love because she isn’t human, but eventually finds both platonic and romantic companions who care for her and allow her to reclaim her own humanity.

Ji-Ah: “We’ve both done monstrous things, but that does not make us monsters. We could be the people we see in each other.”

In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Xialing—who is both a kickass martial artist and potential future antagonistavoids falling into the dragon lady trope through her concrete and relatable motivations, as well as the story’s questioning the gender roles society has forced her into.

Xialing: “I wasn’t allowed to train with the boys. But, I watched everything they did and I taught myself how to do it better.”

And while Crazy Rich Asians’ Eleanor Young initially appears dragon lady-level fierce and intimidating without patience for anyone who’s less elite than her uber-rich family, she’s eventually sympathetic due to her underlying motive of doing what’s best for her loved ones.

The distinction underlines that ultimately what’s most important in avoiding any one-dimensional stereotype is giving us a window into a human being we can feel for.

Conclusion

While Lucy Liu’s character in Charlie’s Angels provoked criticism for her lack of depth, Liu wrote: “As part of something so iconic, my character Alex Munday normalized Asian identity for a mainstream audience and made a piece of Americana a little more inclusive.”

Awkwafina: “Lucy Liu and Charlie’s Angels was like the pinnacle of like everything to me. It changed the way that I looked at myself and the world.”

And Liu’s perspective, like the history of the dragon lady trope as a whole, raises the complicated question of whether flawed representation is still a lot better than no representation. Undoubtedly, the cartoonish version of the dragon lady as an “Other” is limiting, and risks perpetuating exoticized stereotypes about East Asian women’s sexuality and linking them with violence. But looking back, we can also acknowledge how onscreen versions of the dragon lady carved out an important pathway to East Asian representation. And moving forward, elements of the dragon lady can be preserved in stories about nuanced, complex, and powerful female East Asian characters of the future.

Xialing: “If my dad won’t let me into his empire, I’m gonna build my own.”