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Overthinking Ketut: Sex, Sexiness and the Asian Man

Rhonda and her beautiful brake foot

Last week in this space I posted a piece about Magic Mike titled Where are the Willies? Originally I’d dubbed it “Where’s the Wang?”: a title exploiting my love of alliteration and my recent work on sexual euphemisms. I was telling Dad about it – crowing delightedly about my superb title – and with a furrowed brow, he asked, “So it’s about the absence of Chinese men in the film?” Huh? And, as a quick family poll soon exposed, the women knew wang to be a euphemism for penis, the men however, did not.

A seed, nonetheless, was planted.

The topic of sexuality and representations of Asian men has preoccupied me for a while now. By representations of course, I’m referring to those found in Anglo pop culture: fans of Asian cinema would, presumably, be much more satisfied with their pickings. (Cue clips from In The Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004) and Lust, Caution (2007). Yes, the overrepresentation of Tony Leung is duly acknowledged).

AAMI have recently been flogging car insurance with the “Rhonda” series. I don’t own a new-fangled ad-fast-forwarding-gizmo, but for those who do skip the ads: homely Rhonda is spending the dosh she’s saved on safe-driver insurance by sunning herself in Bali. In the first ad she partakes of foot massages, in the second she savours the ministrations of the attractive cabana boy Ketut.

Rhonda keeping her eyes on Ketut

The Rhonda/Ketut ad has divided audiences. There are the voracious fankids, devoting Facebook pages to honouring the duo’s “chemistry” and wearing t-shirts to… well, I’m confused there, but then I don’t do slogan clothing.

And then there are those revolted, those offended, those who’ve interpreted the ad as promoting colonialism, imperialism, exploitation if not also sex tourism.

Evidently an attractive Asian man can only ever be construed as subordinate, as economically sexualised, as a sex worker who is passive, trapped.

I was thinking a lot about Rhonda, about Ketut, and the general absence of Asian men as figures of desirability in pop culture when I stumbled across an issue of the Gay News Network. One of the articles discussed an apparently common – if alarming - phrase “no rice, no curry”. Four hideous words used in classifieds to denote that a non-Asian, non-Indian lover is sought.

Ruminating a little longer and - in serendipitous timing - Christian Vega posted a fantastic blog entry on Asian sex workers in Australia. Vega, a sex worker himself and an activist, explored the challenges - and the offence - of clients assuming Asian sex workers to be trafficked, powerless, exploited, disease-riddled, desperate and completely without choice.

Similar to critics' assumptions about Ketut.

Vega provides a useful way to think about Ketut, about the absence of sexy Asian men on screen and about how mind-blowingly offensive it is that some people feel justified in ruling out the desirability of entire populations.

Apparently we can laugh at Asian men, see them as sinister, duplicitous, math geniuses, feminised, as drug barons, as refugees, but God-forbid they be portrayed as sexy. If they are, then an explanation is demanded.

So when Ketut appears in the AAMI ad, there’s a chunk of the audience who are frothingly desperate to “decode” his presence; to expose a subtext. He can’t just be an attractive man working at a resort, rather, Ketut has to be the embodiment of all the worst, the simplistic, the most clichéd assumptions about Asian men.

That only kinda-frumpy women like Rhonda would find him attractive.

That Ketut’s “desperate” circumstances dictate Rhonda to be his meal ticket.

That as an unusual presentation, Ketut can only ever be a caricature.

Most of my research examines representations of sex and sexuality in film and television. A question often asked by journalists is “okay then, so what needs to be done?” I’m anti-censorship, equally I’m opposed to suggesting what producers need to do; society doesn’t change because a soapie is cajoled to do diversity. That said, I’m equally aware that variety won’t spawn spontaneously.

Australia is home to over two million people born in Asia. My maths is bad, but that’s a fair few. A lot even. I’m not demanding quotas, I’m not suggesting boycotts, I am however, politely requesting that the definition of desirability be broadened a little wider than the sea of whiteness proffered to us by most screen content.

Maybe the journey can start with a single insurance ad.