The Knick and its Disturbing Orientalism Problem
Last year, I featured Cinemax's The Knickas a recommendation in a Rec Me Friday: The Knick. I stand by my recommendation as the show continues to be a beautifully shot series with good stories. The storylines highlighting the racial issues that Algernon Edwards, a black surgeon in the 1900s, faces are especially interesting to see. I greatly enjoy how the show takes the time and effort to explore race with its black lead but I can’t say the same for its Asian characters.
So, I hoped The Knick's representation of Asians would improve this year in season 2....It didn't. The stereotypical portrayal of Asian women and their exploitation remained horrifying to watch, especially as an Asian American woman myself.
ORIENTALISM IN THE KNICK'S ASIAN AMERICAN WOMEN
In season 1, right from the series' very first scene, The Knick provides a very Orientalist look. The camera shows Dr. Thackery, a rich white surgeon, waking up to a naked Asian sex worker in a hazy red-lit opium den. Another Asian woman can also be seen sitting out of focus in the background. Throughout the entire series, this representation of Asian women as docile, often naked, objects in the background doesn't evolve beyond this.
When Asian women do emerge from the background, they are exploited by the white characters. Probably the most disturbing display of exploitation occurs in the sixth episode of season 1. During the scene, Thackery introduces two naked Asian sex workers as Lin-Lin and Delores. He explains to his colleague that for two days, he has been testing his new medical device on the women. By vaginally inserting the device into their uteruses and inflating the women's bladders, the doctors hope to find a solution for a medical problem called placenta praevia. While the men excitedly talk about their experiment, the naked Chinese women don't speak. They merely giggle and smile at everything. Even assuming that the experiment, including the short sex breaks Thackery describes, are part of a financial "transaction" Lin Lin and Dolores have consented to, the scene would have been easier to stomach if the women weren't so completely passive and compliant. A grimace in the background could have signaled their hesitation. Or perhaps a look between the women to suggest that they're putting on a show and at least, understand what's happening.
Instead, the show prefers to portrays Asian American women as submissive dolls for men to play with. The doctors don't view the Chinese women as simply cadavers or guinea pigs in their experiments because the women are given just enough life to be named and exploited for sex.
But never enough humanity to have a personality or voice. In season 2, more scenes of exploitation take place between Dr. Mays and Lin Lin in the hospital. Again, Lin Lin is presented as an exotic beauty whose worth is only in her ability to have sex with. This time, Dr. Mays' attempt to touch Lin Lin's body underneath the guise of examining her is portrayed as it should be - creepy and gross. I suppose the show’s willingness to now frame the man’s behavior as perverse is an improvement for the show but a small one. The encounter is used more as a plot point to depict Mays’ unsavoriness and hold up Thackery as the better doctor. The Asian woman remains an empty and silent caricature in the background for others to utilize.
There is only one instance in which an Asian woman appears onscreen and isn't shown as a sex worker. Racist dialogue from Henry Cleary dominates the rare occurrence though. Clearly relies on Orientalist ideas to describe the Asian American couple. In the context of the scene, docile is used more to describe the woman's state in preparation for an illegal abortion rather than sex but still, words like "heathen" and "docile" perpetuate Asians as the devious foreigner.
Later on in season 2, the show takes a slight detour from the stereotype of submissive Asian 'Lotus Blossom' trope and into the 'Dragon Lady' trope. Lin Lin doesn't directly become the cunning Dragon Lady but she does aid Nurse Lucy in her plan to manipulate her rich employer with sex. An Asian woman actually speaks enough to have an impact of the show's plot for the first time by employing another stereotype.
As for Asian men on the show, they fare slightly better but not by much. An Asian man is given much more of a voice and influence in storylines but not in a very good way. Paste Magazine's article on The Knick's disappointing Asian American characters details how Ping Wu, a martial arts fighting and opium dealing pimp, is a combination of multiple racist Asian tropes.
Season 2 allowed Ping Wu and Lin Lin to gain some power but their characters are developed only through very Orientalist lenses. Each character's individual humanity and personality is never shown.
I'm ending yet another season of The Knick hoping that the show will improve its representation of Asian American characters.