Liu played Yakuza leader O-Ren Ishii in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 cult film Kill Bill: Volume 1. The character was recently used in a Teen Vogue article as a contemporary example of Hollywood’s Dragon Lady Asian stereotype.
Writer India Roby defines the Dragon Lady as a character who “uses her sexuality as a powerful tool of manipulation, but often is emotionally and sexually cold and threatens masculinity” in an essay titled “Hollywood Played a Role in Hypersexualising Asian Women”.
Liu, however, has defended her character against the criticism in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post.
The actor argued that calling O-Ren a Dragon Lady does not make sense considering the film “features three other female professional killers in addition to Ishii”.
“Why not call Uma Thurman, Vivica A Fox or Daryl Hannah a dragon lady? I can only conclude that it’s because they are not Asian,” she added. “I could have been wearing a tuxedo and a blond wig, but I still would have been labeled a dragon lady because of my ethnicity.”
The 52-year-old continued: “If I can’t play certain roles because mainstream Americans still see me as Other, and I don’t want to be cast only in ‘typically Asian’ roles because they reinforce stereotypes, I start to feel the walls of the metaphorical box we AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) women stand in.”
Speaking about discrimination in the industry, Liu wrote that she feels “fortunate to have ‘moved the needle’ a little with some mainstream success” but added there is “still much further to go”.
“Hollywood frequently imagines a more progressive world than our reality; it’s one of the reasons Charlie’s Angels was so important to me,” she said of the noughties trilogy in which she starred opposite Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore.
“As part of something so iconic, my character Alex Munday normalised Asian identity for a mainstream audience and made a piece of Americana a little more inclusive.”
Liu went on to condemn categorisations of Asians in America as “dragon ladies or new iterations of delicate, domestic geishas”, writing that “these stereotypes can be not only constricting but also deadly”.
She referenced the mass-shooting in March, in which three incidents at Atlanta spas saw eight people killed, six of whom were Asian women.
Liu wrote that the shooter “targeted venues staffed predominantly by Asian workers and said he wanted to eliminate a source of sexual temptation he felt he could not control”. She added: “This warped justification both relies on and perpetuates tropes of Asian women as sexual objects.
“This doesn’t speak well for AAPIs’ chances to break through the filters of preconceived stereotypes, much less the possibility of overcoming the insidious and systemic racism we face daily.”