The Knick and its Disturbing Orientalism Problem

The Knick and its Disturbing Orientalism Problem frequently exploits Asian American women as submissive and docile objects

Last year, I featured Cinemax’s The Knick as a recommendation in a Rec Me Friday: The Knick. I stand by my recommendation because 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’m also extremely unsatisfied at how the same treatment isn’t extended to the Asian Americans characters. So, I hoped The Knick‘s representation of Asian Americans would improve this year in season 2.

…It didn’t. The portrayal of stereotypical and exploited Asian women 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 at the spaces of Asian Americans. The camera shows Dr. Thackery, a rich white surgeon, waking up to a naked Asian prostitute in a hazy and red-lit opium den. Another Asian American 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 much evolve. When Asian women do emerge from the background, they are Orientalized by the white characters.

Probably the most disturbing representation of Asian American women occurs in the sixth episode of season 1.

During the scene, Thackery introduces two naked Asian prostitutes 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.

The Knick and its Disturbing Orientalism Problem frequently exploits Asian American women as submissive and docile objects

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 suggests, 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 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 or at least, fully understand what’s happening. I highly doubt any woman would be a smiling participant in having an untested contraption repeatedly inserted in her uterus for any entire weekend.

Instead, the show likes 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 real personality or voice.

The Knick and its Disturbing Orientalism Problem frequently exploits Asian American women as submissive and docile objects

In season 2, a similar scene takes place between Dr. Mays and Lin Lin in the hospital. Again, Lin Lin is presented as an exotic beauty that the doctor prizes only for her body.

This time, Dr. Mays’ attempt to exploit Lin Lin’s body underneath the guise of examining her is shown as it should be – creepy and gross. I suppose the difference in framing is improvement for the show but that didn’t make it any less difficult to watch. The Asian woman remains an empty and silent caricature for others to fetishize.

The Knick and its Disturbing Orientalism Problem frequently exploits Asian American women as submissive and docile objects

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 this rare occurrence though. Clearly relies on racist ideas to describe the Asian American couple so even without the connotation of sex, words like “heathen” and “docile” are used to describe the woman. 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, his description maintains The Knick‘s very stereotypical representation of Asian women as exotic and submissive.

The Knick and its Disturbing Orientalism Problem frequently exploits Asian American women as submissive and docile objects

Later on in season 2, the show takes a slight detour from the stereotype of submissive Asian ‘Lotus Blossom’ 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. So, an Asian woman actually speaks enough to have an impact of the show’s plot for the first time and it’s through the use of a stereotype. Not great progress.

As for Asian American 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 the 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 ideas. Each character’s individual humanity and personality is never shown.

So, I’m ending yet another season of The Knick hoping that the show will improve its representation of Asian American characters.