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 glamorizes 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 sexualized female is reaffirmed.
Lastly, Chiyo’s identity as a geisha and a subordinate is further constructed through the institutional domain. The institution includes distinct social practices, expectations and norms, as well as the constraining and facilitating of behavior (Risman 431). The geisha school is a prime representation of the institutional domain Risman uses to understand the structuring of gender. The geisha school teaches Chiyo what it means to be a woman, for example one must sleep still like a doll or else rice will stick to one’s perfectly polished hair. A geisha must also not be in a relationship with someone else other than her Danna or she will be tainted. Everything a geisha does in public must also be alluring or overly sensual to attract males. These constrain Chiyo’s identity and further sexualizes her into an object thus creating gender inequality. At one point, Chiyo even loses her identity as a woman and is only referred to as Sayuri the geisha. As a geisha, the only source of income is through her danna which is always a higher class male figure. The relationship between the danna and a geisha clearly produces gender inequality. Even the great Geisha Mameha tells Sayuri that a geisha does not choose her danna but rather the other way around. Mameha shows Sayuri how a geisha must attract the attention of a successful businessman in order to survive and she does so through her own relationship with her danna, the Baron. Not only is this a interactional cultural expectation for the female’s purpose to be a sexual object but it also serves as an example of trading power for patronage which Risman addresses as a factor in gender stratification (Risman 437). According to Risman, women often gain economic benefits of patronage for themselves and their children in exchange for their subordinate status (Risman 438). This is very much the case in Memoirs of a Geisha when Sayuri embarks on her journey to find a danna. Throughout the movie we even observe her constant struggle as a geisha without a danna. This reinforces the geisha’s role as a subordinate female and patriarchal ideology.
In comparison to women portrayed in the film, men are seen to live quite comfortably. Male characters include Nobu, the Chairman, the Baron, and Dr. Crabs, all of whom are very affluent. Although the male characters span from being portrayed as heroes to violent characters, each one stills contributes to the patriarchal system. Apart from patronage, males in the film perform manhood acts to affirm their masculinity and exert domination over the geishas. According to Schrock and Schwalbe, manhood acts include the subordination of women and the competition between men (Schrock and Schwalbe 113), both acts are very distinguishable in the film. Heterosexual appetite is very rampant in Memoirs of a Geisha. Not only is there a lack of homosexual representation but heterosexual appetite appears to be the main goal Sayuri wishes and is forced to fulfill as a geisha. For example, all men compete for Sayuri’s virginity which essentially demeans her into a sexual object. The Baron, despite this competition, sexually harasses Sayuri. She is later blamed for the Baron’s act of indecency and is further pushed into the corner of subordination. All major males in the film have wealth which affirms productivity and is a sign of their masculine selves (Schrock and Scwhalbe 111). Not only is Nobu depicted as emotionally tough, but he also uses violence to incite fear into Sayuri which results in the protection of hegemonic system. When Sayuri questions him at the end of the movie, he breaks and throws glass as an act of controlling authority. In variation, the Chairman is represented as a benevolent man wanting to help Sayuri in her journey as a geisha. He demonstrates qualities of rationality and resolution, adopting a paternalist manner. His position as well as Sayuri’s obsession with him, glorifies the idea of the benevolent male guide which demonstrates loyalty to the male hierarchy (Schrock and Schwalbe 112). Even stereotypes of “feminity” are viewed as weak when representing men. Dr. Crabs is very clean, quiet, has a small frame and is very polite which are all traits associated with feminity even though it is a social construct. The film portrays Dr. Crabs as the lower bidder when bidding for Sayuri, thus justifying his weaker “effeminate” figure.
“The predominant stereotypes of Asian women in popular culture is the exotic sex object who is submissive to men – concubine, geisha ..” (Fuller 319). Memoirs of a Geisha reinforces this stereotype despite it being told from Sayuri’s POV. Almost every aspect of the film characterizes the geisha as a woman of the exotic, as a mystery women. There is not one bit where we see the daily activities of a geisha. Even the portrayals of simple tasks such as pouring tea is sensual and glamourized. Having the geishas portrayed in such a porcelain way contributes to the fetishization of Asian women especially in western culture. “In American society, people of color are stereotyped not only on the basis of their race-ethnicity, but by gender as well which is referred as the gendering of ethnicity…functioning to promote the image of white, middle class Americans as normal.” (Fuller 319) A prime example of this case is when the white cisgender straight male Colonel Derricks is introduced. The Chairman and Nobu push Sayuri to pleasure Derricks due to his status as the idealized normal. By doing so, Sayuri is not only pushed into a weaker position but she is seen as a “mystery of the Orient.” We see Derricks’ obsession with Sayuri grow when she continues to portray herself as a fragile and submissive woman. Not only does this produce gender inequality but it also diminishes true representation of Asian women. The eroticization of Asian women is supported by this film and as a result, the actual roles Asian women may hold in countries such as the United states become overlooked.
Some would say that Memoirs of a Geisha is a cultural look into Japan’s society but in theory it proves to support the harmful patriarchal society. Through constructing gender with interactive cultural expectations of women and acts of manhood, the film serves to portray women as subordinate. The eroticization of Asian women is also idealized through this film. This is accomplished by limiting the representation of other Asian women who are not geishas. Combining all these aspects into one film creates gender inequality and further solidifies racial stratification.
Risman, Barbara J. “Gender As a Social Structure: Theory Wrestling with Activism.” Gender and Society. Sagepub, 01 Aug. 2004. Web. 03 Aug. 2015.
Schrock, Douglas. “Men, Masculinity, and Manhood Acts.” Multi-Cultural Film: An Anthology. Ed. Michael Schwalbe. Boton: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2013. N. pag. Print.
Fuller, Abigail. “What Difference Does Difference Make? Women, Race-Ethnicity, Social Class, and Social Change.” Multi-Cultural Film: An Anthology. Ed. Abigail Fuller. Boton: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2015. N. pag. Print.
Abbie Garcia is a Queer content creator with a knack for events and community engagement! Current projects include Spoon Live Streams, Thoughts On That Podcast, Lifestyle Themed Youtube Videos, and LGBTQ+ Events. In their spare time, they like to cycle, sing, hike, and empower others through the education of social justice issues.