According to the scholar, Barbara T. Risman, gender is an achieved status and is constructed through psychological, cultural and social means (Risman 430). For example, “ladylike” gestures learned in an institution such as school can affect individuals at an early age thus girls are pressured to act a certain way due to society. (Risman 431) We see examples of how gender is a social construct and how it is detrimental in the film Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). Understanding how gender is created through institutional domains, interactional cultural expectation, and individual identity in the film, we can analyze how gender is represented and how it feeds into the eroticization of Asian women. The male gender is further constructed through manhood acts which include the subordination of women thus creating inequality between the genders (Schrock and Schwalbe 108).
Memoirs of a Geisha sets the theme of what it means to be a woman in Japan. With this film in particular, we see that the ideal for women is to become a geisha, which is limited to the female gender. We see that women in Japan essentially have no choice but to become a geisha if they want a “successful” and luxurious lifestyle since no other means are available. The journey of a geisha is told through the protagonist’s point of view, Chiyo who later changes her name to Sayuri when transitioning into a geisha.
The first example of how gender is constructed through social processes in the film is after Chiyo and her sister are sold into prostitution. What their father has done to them helps embed the idea that they are subordinate due to their gender and are not valued in the family. Despite this realization, Chiyo still fights the system with her aggression in hopes to find her lost sister. Yet we see this challenged by Mother (the owner of the geisha house) who tells her “she must be quiet! As a woman should!” This is one of the many examples of interactional cultural expectation and how the identity of the geisha envelopes the identity of the Asian female. Apart from interactional cultural expectation, there are two other processes that construct gender. They are the individual identity (construction of ourselves) as well as the institutional domain (distribution of resources) (Risman 437).
As a girl sold into slavery, Mother makes it apparent to Chiyo she has no place in the world other than to become a servant girl and then a geisha in order to pay her “debt”. Of course Chiyo accumulated this debt by being a rambunctious girl and not the submissive female role that was prepared for her. The cultural expectations for an Asian female to be a geisha is further reinforced by Chiyo’s first encounter with the Chairman. Although the Chairman is a benevolent figure, he makes the assumption that Chiyo wants to become a Geisha too since this dream is chased by many others. “Do you see that woman over there? At first she always fell on her feet when training as a little maiko!” the Chairman further glamorises the geisha by showing little Chiyo that the geisha was once clumsy but tried hard enough so that she could be a geisha and eventually get paired with a man as such as himself. This example of interactional cultural expectation thus creates the geisha as an ideal for Chiyo. “One day maybe I can be a geisha too!” After this exchange Chiyo shifts her individual identity from being a fiery servant girl in hopes to find her sister to a geisha. Her journey into becoming a subordinate and sexualised female is reaffirmed.