'Tiger Lady' Is a Racial Slur: How Wendi Deng Murdoch Fights the Stereotype of the Meek Asian Woman

First, there was Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, who was recently attacked in the media as a “tiger lady” for her child-raising tactics in her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Then last week, Wendi Deng Murdoch, wife of Rupert Murdoch, was called a “dragon lady” when she stepped into the limelight by jumping up and slapping a guy trying to “pie” her husband. A century-old racist term, “dragon lady” is still being callously used today in describing Asian women. Yet Wendi Deng, far from being scary or evil, is a bold role model for young Asian women today.

Although Asian Americans have had a long history in the United States, from building the first railroads in the late 19th century to being entrepreneurs in the present digital age, stereotypes of Asians still abound. Asian American women have to deal with sexism as well as racism. The derogatory term “tiger lady” is all the rave after the recent attacks against Amy Chua—from the Wall Street Journal's, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” to the New York Times op-ed, “Amy Chua is a Wimp.” Melinda Liu's “The 'Chinese Mom' Backlash” in Newsweek (January 18, 2011) is a rare piece in Amy Chua's defense.

“Dragon ladies,” which predated the term “tiger ladies,” was coined in the 1930s, and is a racist and sexist stereotype of East Asian women as evil, strong, deceitful, domineering, or mysterious. Although “dragon lady” has been used to negatively refer to any powerful woman, it has a historically racist edge in its countless uses toward Asian women, including Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Empress Dowager and Asian actresses, including Anna May Wong.

Empress Dowager was the epitome of the “dragon lady” for the West during the 20th century. Edmund Backhouse, a British expert in what was then called “Orientalism,” provided much of the lies that history texts used to condemn Empress Dowager, and wrote Décadence Mandchoue in 1943 on his deathbed, claiming he had an affair in his 20s with the 69-year-old empress. No one would publish it and finally British historian Huge Trevor-Roper revealed Backhouse as a fraud in his biography, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse (1976).

Even well-respected media figure Katie Couric tweeted a racist joke about “giving new meaning to tiger mother” and CNN wrote an article titled “Crouching Wendi, Hidden Tiger.” By still referring to strong Asian women today as “dragon ladies” means we are still steeped in the racist and sexist notions from a century ago.

Racist, sexist terms like "dragon lady," combined with supposedly positive stereotypes like “model minority” (the implication that Asian Americans are a flawless, role-model minority group) have a destructive effect. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Asian American women have the highest suicide and depression rates among women ages 15-24, going completely against the longstanding assumption that Asian Americans have perfect grades and no problems. Eliza Noh, an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at California State University at Fullerton, has studied depression and suicide among Asian American women since her sister committed suicide in college. She said, "My sister had a really low self-image. She thought of herself as ugly."

If we want our girls to grow up believing in themselves and their dreams, we need to point out strong role models for them, especially Asian and Asian American female role models. For instance: Wendi Deng Murdoch. A Chinese immigrant who has been married twice before, she’s been accused in the media as a potential golddigger. However, her accomplishments—from working at a Chinese restaurant at age 18 to graduating from Yale business school—discredit that accusation, and have gone against centuries of sexism and internalized sexism.

At age 25, Deng scored an internship at Star TV, the Asian satellite broadcaster, by striking up a conversation with fellow passenger Bruce Churchill, then COO, who was so impressed he hired her on the spot. Star’s CEO, Gary Davey, remembers Wendi Deng as “fearless, full of charming natural confidence” but also a “bit clumsy.” Another colleague recalls, “I don't think she had any existing network, but she just started making one. She had no fear."

Married to media mogul Rubert Murdoch for the last 12 years, Deng is the former head of MySpace China, has raised two children, co-produced Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (now in theaters) and is now more than ever considered her husband’s adviser, says biographer Michael Wolff.

Deng came from humble beginnings in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, China, where she was born to factory engineers. True to Chinese tradition, she has maintained her filial piety and since brought over her parents to the predominantly Chinese area of Flushing, Queens. She pulled herself up by the bootstraps and was determined to leave her poor childhood life behind, but news articles have been quick to criticize her ambition. The Daily Mail wrote, “Rupert’s tiger wife who clawed her way up…and caught her billionaire,” while CNN.com claims she’s been nicknamed “golddigger.” It’s a clear sexist double standard, which calls aggressive men “successful go-getters” and women who do the same thing “selfish bitches.”

Wendi Deng Murdoch is a role model for young Asian women. We can certainly learn much from her ambition, her willingness to make mistakes and laugh it off, and reaching for big dreams. She is bold, goes for what she wants and has complete faith in herself and her abilities even when she can’t speak the language or isn’t familiar with the culture. The criticisms she has received are often sexist and racist and would not have garnered the same attacks if she was white or a man.

When Wendi Deng stood up to slap the pie-thrower, she was not only protecting her husband from a pie in the face, but standing up for herself as well. We, as Asian women, can certainly do a lot more of that.


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