Fox’s “most erotic Ally McBeal ever” featured our heroine succumbing to the wiles of an Asian sex kitten. Although the otherwise scatterbrained and fickle Ally declared, “I’m not gay,” co-counsel Ling Woo exploded Ally’s boundaries with a pucker. “The idea of kissing her doesn’t gross me out,” Ally murmured to her fascinated roommate. Late in the greatly hyped November 1 episode, she confessed she even had “an urge” to smooch Ling.
Now, just a month after their steamy spit-swap comes news that Lucy Liu, who plays Ling, has sprouted wings. The casting of Liu alongside Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore as one of Charlie’s cinematic Angels indicates that Ling has been a speedy vehicle to stardom. But is Hollywood capable of viewing the nation’s leading Asian American actress as more than the fetishized sex symbol she plays on TV?
Liu’s fictional alter ego certainly would not merit a halo. Ling made the “damn hot kiss” even hotter because “she’s the exotic, erotic experimenter of the group,” says Scott Seomin, of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, to explain “why Ling” was the character to kiss Ally. Darrell Hamamoto, associate professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis, puts his own twist on it: Ling is “a neo-Orientalist masturbatory fantasy figure concocted by a white man whose job it is to satisfy the blocked needs of other white men who seek temporary escape from their banal and deadening lives by indulging themselves in a bit of visual cunniLingus while relaxing on the sofa.”
But David E. Kelley, creator of the Emmy award-winning dramedy, sees nothing to atone for. His co-executive producer and colleague of 11 years, Jonathan Pontell, reports that “Sometimes we’ll get letters: ‘I’m an Asian American and I’m offended by, you know, blah, blah, blah.’ ” But “it doesn’t really affect the way [David] writes.” In fact, Pontell warns, “if you start paying too much attention to that kind of thing, it’s gonna muck things up.”
Thirty-year-old Liu understandably claims to relish the role, saying it is “liberating” to play Ling. “She’s so free. She doesn’t apologize for anything she does.”
Indeed, Ling is hardly inhibited. She shoots withering glances, seduces, and manipulates with abandon. Since her September 1998 debut, she has burned up the small screen by growling like an animal, sucking fingers, and giving “hair jobs” to her boss-cum-boyfriend, all the while keeping her long, black mane flawlessly lacquered.
Ling does have a flip side. Even while she has coldly tyrannized virtually everyone around her, she is sometimes hurt and confused over being disliked. And while she oozes sensuality, she hardly endorses sex.
But these inconsistencies do little to obscure the character’s main function: to inject into the show “sensuality, promise, terror, sublimity, idyllic pleasure, intense energy”—elements long associated with the Orient in Western culture, according to Orientalism author Edward Said. Kelley’s Ling frequently brings to mind the dragon lady, the geisha, and the inscrutable Oriental, often in whiplash-inducing rotation.
Some Ling watchers imagine a redemptive value in the caricature. American Civilization professor Robert Lee of Brown University proposes that “the excessiveness of the stereotype seems to self-subvert,” gamely suggesting that the show uses blatantly slanted images to poke fun at mainstream America. Even Hamamoto maintains that Ling “sends a powerful message to white America that Asian American women are not to be trifled with. She runs circles around that tower of Jell-O who serves as her white boyfriend. She’s competitive in a profession that thrives on verbal aggression and analytical skill.”
Amy Hill, who played the grandmother on Margaret Cho’s short-lived ABC sitcom, All-American Girl, adds that Ling “could be terrifying in the hands of a lesser actor, simply because it could be ‘stereotypical’ if played without the depth and complexity that Lucy provides.” Indeed, the Emmy-nominated Liu’s deadpan comedic instincts and easy self-confidence have won over critics who nevertheless object to her character. And the unprecedented pleasure of seeing an Asian American actress play in the big leagues may be keeping potential Ling detractors quiet. Ethnic Studies professor Elaine Kim, of UC Berkeley, says that for some Asian Americans, “it’s really important to have very highly visible media figures under whom we can rally.” To an ethnic group that endures sparse representation on television or in movies, Kim says, Ling is “better than nothing.”
But to confuse support for the actor with endorsement of Kelley’s imagination would be to confuse fact (Liu is competent and popular) with fiction (Ling is a fantasized creature). In the end, that blurry line between life and TV presents the real problem. “You have to place Ling in the context” of “at least a 100-year history of sexualization of Asian women,” Kim stresses. She wonders whether “ordinary viewers”—by whom she means those who are not university-trained cultural critics—know or care about that legacy.
Sabrina Margarita Alcantara-Tan, who publishes the feminist, proqueer, procolor zine, Bamboo Girl, thinks not. “Asian women are so sexualized that people are used to it. So when they see something like [Ling], it’s just, ‘Oh, yeah, well whatever.’ I don’t think someone would look at Ling and think she’s an exaggerated persona. I think they would look at her like,’Yeah, that show I like my Asian women.’ ”
Helen Wan, an attorney in the New York offices of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison, attests to people’s inclination to confuse images with individuals. “Surprisingly,” she has not been compared to Ling at work, but says she has been compared to other Asian Americans, fictional or otherwise. “Any time there is any ‘new’ Asian American female face in the media, there are going to be morons out there who ask me if we’re related, do I know her, you look so much alike, etcetera,” she complains. “I am not making this up,” she assures, “a coworker once asked me if I was an ice skater. Once, in a bar, this guy was convinced I was an evening news anchorwoman, and would not go away until I signed his cocktail napkin. And when Joy Luck Club came out, I heard so many ridiculous comments: ‘Do you really cook soup of your own blood when your parents get sick?’ Answer: ‘Um . . . no.’ ”
Kelley’s decision to make Ling Ally’s kissing partner shows just how much of a traditional fantasy figure she ultimately is. The kiss with Ling was not Ally’s first same-sex lip-lock—she once kissed another female character in an attempt to convince an unwanted male suitor she was a lesbian. Yet, even though the more recent kiss was born of real desire, it in a way still convinced viewers that Ally was straight. Had she passionately kissed one of the white female characters, the moment might have seemed too real—less outrageously titillating than the encounter with exotic Ling and perhaps too close to an everyday, and therefore threatening, attraction. As it was, Ally could claim she temporarily fell victim to Ling’s supernatural sensuality and unstoppable ambition. It will be no surprise if the bad guys in Liu’s Angels do, too.