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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.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. Christopher White

    PhD candidate

    An interesting article which raises a range of questions about race, gender and sexuality and the perceptions and presumptions/preconceptions regarding all these.

    I do not watch commercial television (in fact I rarely watch any), so I am unfamiliar with the ad mentioned or any other advertising on that medium. However, it is impossible to fail to notice the prevalence of Caucasian faces in a great deal of the advertising elsewhere. Anecdotally, about the only ads I see that regularly show anything…

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  2. Jacqui Baker

    John Monash Scholar & Visiting Fellow, Department for Political and Social Change, ANU at Australian National University

    Great article Lauren, I love its content and its tone. Hope it leads to some great conversation.

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Great article, Lauren; and nicely cross-referenced, Jane! The Asian depiction on the ads in question appears highly stereotyped, as is Rhonda's, and could do more to challenge our assumptions. Its an uphill cultural battle, though, even with the ABC, who tend to only select the most polished and conservative Asians for shows like Q&A.

      Watching last year, with strangers, in a hotel lobby, I became aware of my own acute embarrassment when Tanveer Ahmed, the superarticulate Bengali social commentator…

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    2. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Thanks, Jane. I was motivated to add my tuppence worth by Anthony's extravagant caricature of Lauren's characteristically brilliant take on a social justice issue as liberal feminism's descent to the bottom of some kind of equal but immoral sump.

      For my part, I thought that both the Asian and Australian characters in the ad offered missed opportunities for advancing the human and ethical discourses that authentic racial and cultural equality might offer. I imagine too, from the vituperation of his remarks, that Anthony might also desire this.

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  3. Matt de Neef

    Editor at The Conversation

    I think the biggest question here is: what does Ketut say to Rhonda in his last line at the end of the most recent ad? It sounds like "keep your eyes on the SOMETHING Rhonda." But I can't work out what the SOMETHING is. Anyone?

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    1. Matt de Neef

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Lauren Rosewarne

      Ah yes. That would make sense. :P

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  4. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    Strewth Lauren - 2 million Australian born in Asia? Really?

    Now arguably we're all born in Asia but apparently we think we are somewhere else so I won't go there.

    But no wonder they have dubious sexual esthetics - they are bloody invisible. There is not - outside of the odd chef and the SBS ghetto - a single Asian Australian male face on TV. Not one.

    Aside from breeding contempt - familiarity produces a sense of physical attraction of esthetics, of difference. To folks who don't know any Asiatic men - who don't know any better - they all look the same. They judge by superficial similarities rather than distinctive individual differences. They group rather than identify individuals. A racialist esthetic.

    Funny that our only male Asian face on TV is somewhere else. On an ad. Safe.

    Shintaro - come back!!!.

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    1. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      If you were more in touch with your artistic side, you would have noticed Jordan Rodrigues in Dance Academy inter alia.

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    2. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Oh, I forgot Tanveer Ahmed. I seem to recall a couple of others, but I do not watch much TV so some others might be able to help out.

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  5. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Yes, I can see how liberal feminism, unable to articulate an argument against male sex tourism to Asia, now welcomes female sex tourism to Asia because it represents a leap forward in gender equity. Everybody is welcome at the bottom of the sump.

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  6. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Environmentalist

    Clearly there was a whole lot going on in the advert that went over my head. All along I've been thinking that Ketut has one of the best winks - Oh no THAT is just sounding wrong...

    ...I love the way Ketut winks at Rhonda... that doesn't sound quite right either.

    I liked this commercial better than the first because in the first the woman massaging Rhonda's foot refers to it as her brake foot, when in fact the right foot utilises both the brake and accelerator pedal...

    Am I missing something here?

    Wish I had never read this article.

    But I DO know Ketut advises Rhonda to keep her eye on the road. Hah!

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  7. Comment removed by moderator.

  8. Regan Forrest

    logged in via Twitter

    To the extent that I've thought about it at all, I always assumed Ketut had the upper hand in the dynamic with Rhonda - Rhonda's sunburned face as a sign of her vulnerability and being somewhat out of her depth, this naivety is positioned in contrast to Ketut's knowing flirtation.

    I'm surprised everyone else has apparently concluded the opposite.

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  9. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I actually don't think Asian men are sexy. In fact, I don't think any man is sexy, or I don't think of men in a sexual way.

    Does this make me racist?

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    1. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Strangely Dale there are apparently quite a few women who seem to disagree with you ... they keep marrying them and even having babies and other such awful business.

      I don't find men sexy either- although George Clooney can look pretty cool - but you're still a very pale imitation of me, George.

      I hope Canberra will dispatch a squadron of trauma counsellors over the region to comfort the billion or so Asian men dashed by your callous dismissal.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Oh, so George Clooney is cool. Maybe he should wear something warmer.

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    3. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      No Dale

      He just looks cool - I, on the other hand, am the real deal. My mum says so anyway. George just flails about trying to ape my panache.

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    4. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Oh no not sexy - just cool will suffice. Being sexy just gets one into trouble Dale as I'm sure you can testify.

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Gosh Peter Ormonde
      You have really opened up there, but I promise not to tell anyone about your secret fantasy of being George Clooney, (because he appears in movies and you think he is soooo cooool).

      Unfortunately he is a white male, and may not appeal at all to various feminists. You may have to find another fantasy.

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    6. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Arse about as usual Dale ... it's George who has the fantasy I'd suggest ... mimicking my style and savoir faire ... a pale carbon copy of the full self at best.

      Interestingly I know quite a few feminists - admittedly old style pre-post-modernist feminists to be sure - and they have no trouble with finding white males sexy. It's just hard to find any that have actually grown up sufficiently to be worth talking to.

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    7. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Yes, I always though vanity was one of your prime characteristics, and something you must have refined and developed over the years, but I am wondering if Asian men have ever been asked if they want feminists to find them sexy?

      In all fairness, I think Asian men should be asked first.

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