In the media, in everyday talk, and even in academia, an Asian woman’s sexuality always seems to be everyone else’s property but her own. As a young Asian woman, as a young woman of colour in Australia, I always feel like my sexuality is treated as a performance intended for someone else’s pleasure. If I’m confidently dressed and made up, the only possible explanation is that I’m seeking male attention, so I’m not allowed to be upset about getting hassled, and I should actually be thankful for constant, unwanted invasions of my personal space in public places. If I’m conservatively put together, I’m regarded with condescending pity, a repressed thing requiring white Western liberation, I must put my skin out there, for all the world to see because to put the self out there as a sex object has now become an important way for women to be free whilst also enjoying their womanhood. Being a woman is hard enough as it is; being an Asian woman brings unwanted and uninvited complications, complications we face because of our skin colour, our skin colour contentious and fetishized because of international relations tangled up with imperial and postcolonial anxieties, armed conflict, poverty, and capitalism’s relentless global gobble.
( Photo via Twitter )
In her “Naked” debut, Australian actor Diana Nguyen talks about always being cast as a sex worker. She asks audience members how much they would pay for an evening with her. The number tends to be very respectable, more than many people’s annual income, very likely higher than it might be for the characters she plays. At this point, I wonder if this bit is going to be about the the sorry lack of complex, exciting roles for Asian women on Australian TV and film – and she would be perfectly, perfectly justified in doing so. But the bit, like the rest of the show, never lays it on thick. There’s time for agitation, but not whilst she gets to perform a role she’s written for herself, the kind of role many Asian-Australian woman actors never get written for them.
That’s Diana’s style. Her subject matter is actually quite dark: she talks about life as the frustrated daughter of a Vietnamese refugee, growing old and being lonely, having to do a lot of unpaid work despite being a multi-talented, accomplished creative, and a traumatic discovery involving a long-distance boyfriend (spoiler: not an affair, but something you would never want to happen to you or the women you care for). But even though you can tell that her soul has been in dark places, her delivery is always featherweight. She engages audience members far far more than any Australian comedian I’ve seen this year. She also uses more musical instruments than any other comedian I’ve ever seen, treating us to her deep, sultry contralto, accompanied by a piano and a playful ukulele performance. My only complaint at this point is that she ought to use an electric ukulele because really, she has the stage presence of a rock star, taking up space and standing tall and powerful in the intimate cabaret room at the Butterfly Club – and it wasn’t just because she was in heels.
The result is catharsis. She’s funny, she’s gutsy, she confesses to being horny and she allows us to feel horny, for her, for our companions, for life. It’s hard to talk about a hard life without descending into a pity party, much less into a cheeky, somewhat aroused heap in the corner. It’s also hard to be a sexually open-minded Asian performer without being caricatured – as a sex worker, as arm candy for an old, white potbellied, serial divorcee, as someone whose life story be used as fodder for political agendas. But Diana floats above the muck. She’s cheerful but not hollow, intelligent but never condescending, warm but not a pushover. I wonder if she might be Asian-Australia’s Dita Von Teese, burlesque icon, entrepreneur, and erotic performer who is sexualised, sure, but owned by no one but herself. Then I think, no comparisons are needed, Asian-Australia can do well without a Dita, although we might backtrack decades without our dear Diana.
In “Naked,” Diana has crafted and performed the witty, silly, sexy, profound Asian woman character Australian media needs but doesn’t have, the kind of Asian woman character who exists just around the street corner but is rarely really noticed because of the stereotypes blinding a numb, narcissistic people to a more interesting world. I left the show with my appetite whetted for more of her work, and wishing her future success in all the best local and international stages.
“Naked” was directed by Louise Joy McCrae.