Asian Representation in American Publications in the 1940’s: Barely There, and Mostly Through A White Lens

The following blog post is an essay written by WU graduating class of 2018 student Tay Tuteur for the class, Introduction to Illustration Studies, taught by DMGHL Post Doctoral Fellow Jaleen Grove, Fall 2017.

In the book Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture, Gary Okihiro, an Asian American scholar and professor at Columbia University, writes that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 set the tone for how Americans viewed Asian immigrants. Chinese immigrants were never accepted as true Americans because they were seen as job stealers, and although they were just working hard to live The American Dream, they were demonized and stereotyped for having the same goals as their Western counterparts. Only in 1943, when the Naturalization Act of 1790 was modified to include Chinese Americans, were they allowed to have citizenship in this country (Okihiro 7). Still, this did not mean equal treatment. Many of the stereotypes of Chinese and Asian people dates back to the 4th century, with Hippocrates, who described Asians as meek, timid, unemotional, inexpressive, stagnant, monotonous, and so on and so forth (Okihiro 8). The yellow stereotype began here, a cause of Asians’ so-called “jaundiced” skin tone, and it is still very prevalent today. Europeans and Westerners have always held the belief of superiority over Asians because the European environment meant that Europeans have more “variety of physical traits” and more courageousness, more energy (Okihiro 8). Orientalism supported “‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over’ Asia…” and believed that “Asians were inferior to and deformations of Europeans, and Orientalism’s purpose was to stir an inter people, raise them to their former greatness, shape them, and give them an identity, and subdue and domesticate them” (Okihiro 11).

Imagery of Asians in mainstream American culture in the 1940s is hard to find. When it does occur, it is most often via white authors illustrating Chinese Americans with exaggerated features like slanted eyes and fishy-looking lips. These kinds of portrayals were not meant to be nice or drawn from real life; they were caricatures that simply perpetuated ignorant assumptions over and over again. Similarly, writing about other cultures often stemmed from an outsider perspective-a white traveler visits a foreign place once and writes about the culture as if they understand any part of it. This is the kind of writing that looks at other cultures through a white eye. This kind of writing was especially popular in magazines, filled with easily digestible and short articles. One of the most popular, Ladies’ Home Journal, was published by Cyrus Curtis in 1883 (Scanlon 3). The Journal, edited by Edward Bok for 25 years, “promoted for its women readers traditional ‘woman’s values’ and full participation in the consumer society” (Scanlon 4). This magazine created popular culture, “which delivered through many vehicles notices of what it meant to be an American” (Scanlon 4). Articles, stories, and sold the brand message. Pearl S. Buck’s writing was published in the Journal and were fictionalized stories of Chinese people and culture, influenced by her own outsider point of view, understanding and comparing Chinese culture through a white lens.

Buck was a Nobel Prize winning author who wrote novels based on her experiences living in China. Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries in China, where Buck spent nearly 40 years of her life (“A Home In History”). She “grew up in close intimacy with Chinese people, speaking Chinese… visiting their homes… and absorbing their culture” (“A Home In History”). As Shukla and Srivastava write in an essay analyzing the cultural identity struggle of Chinese Americans in Buck’s writing, “Buck’s novels highlight the impact of American culture on Chinese people”, and since she was well known for her history with the country, “her firsthand knowledge of China promised American readers a glimpse into “real” China” (Shukla & Srivastava).

One story was Kinfolk, which was serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal between the November/ December 1948 and January/ February 1949 issues with accompanying illustrations by Alfred Charles Parker. Fiction illustration, which “seek(s) to entertain by staging scenes to enliven the text” (Dowd 40), was Al Parker’s bread and butter. A master of composition and visual hierarchy, Parker was widely known in the world of commercial illustration in the mid-20th century. In a paper discussing Parker’s methods and influence, D.B. Dowd writes that “Parker embraced the self-awareness of the material and materiality basic to modernism, and that he did so as a designerly illustrator” (Dowd 35). His technical skill in image making added to his ability to communicate narrative. Parker understood how to make viewers focus on particular aspects of an image while still filling in the details to make sense of the scene. Various examples of Parker’s works in Dowd’s paper also point out that Parker considered the placement of the figures in his narrative scenes in relation to the text, which was crucial to the publishing of the short stories and articles in LHJ. Parker used photography to stage images as a way to aid in making his compositions, so it would not be too far of a stretch to say that Parker likely studied and referenced real Chinse people for his illustrations for Kinfolk.

Kinfolk by Al Parker, Ladies Home Journal, Nov. 1948

Ladies Home Journal, Nov. 1948

For Kinfolk, Parker illustrated multiple images, a two-page spread alongside the text as well as two portraits of the main characters. What makes these images different from Parker’s typical illustrations is that they vary in visual language across the set. Still, details of the characters’ clothing give insight about their story, and there is still a strong sense of narrative in the images. The figure is lying on the ground. Her face is obscured, so it is not possible to tell anything about her other than that she is a woman (an assumption based on long hair and feminine clothing). The carpet, the most obvious element of the background scenery, is brightly colored with patterns of saturated reds, greens, yellows, and blues. The wrinkle by the woman’s feet and the cane to her side suggest that she has fallen. A potted plant on the edge of the carpet is the only other object in the scene, a single leaf on the ground is as misplaced as she is. By reading the story or looking at the subsequent portraits, the viewer can understand that the woman is Chinese, the wife of a doctor, and mother to two children. The family moved to New York to pursue the American Dream and create a better life.

"Kinfolk" by Al Parker, Ladies Home Journal, Feb. 1949

Ladies Home Journal, Feb. 1949

In line with Parker’s awareness of materiality, the large image is beautifully rendered with shadow, form, and a sense of naturality without breaching hyperrealism. One portrait of the wife is drawn with what appears to be a black crayon and only her hair, her skin, and an umbrella she is holding are colored in with watercolor (as opposed to gouache, which Parker was known for using).  Her white dress is left blank, with no lines or shading to show wrinkles. The other image is a side view of the woman. Her hair and shirt are flat colors, a few lines delineating a pattern on her shirt give it form. Her face and the hand holding her chin are outlined in pencil and filled with watercolor with some shading.  Both portraits have plain white backgrounds with simple color blocked borders.

"Kinfolk" by Al Parker, Ladies Home Journal, Feb. 1949

Ladies Home Journal, Feb. 1949

These images are not demonizing or overtly racist. Neither are they sexualizing or fetishizing images of women. Seeing as these images are the only images that I have found of Parker illustrating a race other than white, it could be said that the subtle shift in style recognizes the fact that the representation is of a woman of color. This image had the potential to be widely seen by the Journal audience. According to Scanlon, “mass culture has often discouraged rather than encouraged democratic participation” and “the need for continuity from issue to issue demands a formulaic view of the world”, “the ideology of dominant social groups, is a given, and hence, rarely questioned” (Scanlon 5). To have imagery that normalizes at least one kind of ‘the other’ recognizes that the other exists in the first place. It breaks its own formula of the white family by even suggesting that there are different kinds of families in the United States at the time. Parker humanizes the woman, drawing her without ridiculing her; her eyes and skin tone look like a real Chinese person’s eyes and skin tone would look. Buck’s stories about American and Chinese identity conflicts could help Americans begin to understand the complexity of cross cultural identity, or at least attempt to empathize with someone going through what many immigrants must have struggled with.

Why there were not any Chinese illustrators or writers whose work reached the same scale as white people writing about them is still a question that current society grapples with when looking at diversity and representation in media. While it is certainly problematic that Chinese people were being represented by white people in Kinfolk, it is a step toward recognition to have the story featured in such a prominent magazine. Minorities should not have to accept the recognition they are given, but their characterizations in this scenario have been researched to some degree and weren’t meant to hurt a group of people. At its core, with this story, the image that readers digest is given to them by a familiar face, in a language that they can understand.


Annotated bibliography

Scanlon, Jennifer. Inarticulate Longings: the Ladies Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture. Routledge, 1995. This book describes the ways in which Ladies’ Home Journal became a staple in the woman’s household in the 20th century, thus promoting the traditional women’s role in the household. The author addresses the absence of people of color represented in the magazine, writing about how the standard promoted by the journal could only be achievable by middle-upper class white women.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, editor. “Ladies’ Home Journal.” Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.,

A summary of the history of Ladies’ Home Journal– who started the Journal, who their demographic was, and their general contributions to women’s magazines.

Shukla, Ambri, and Shuchi Srivastava. “AMERICAN ORIENTALISM: CULTURE AND CRISES, IN PEARL S BUCK’S, ‘EAST WIND: WEST WIND & KINFOLK.’” International Journal of Linguistics and Literature, vol. 4, no. 4, July 2015. An analysis of Buck’s writing as informed, but still racially biased. The author discusses how Buck’s writing is technically very skilled but still promotes America/Caucasian culture as the ideal, and how her writing disseminated the idea to a wider audience due to Buck’s influence as a writer.

Plunkett, Stephanie H. “Alfred Charles Parker.” Biography, Accessed 26 Sept. 2017.

A biography of Al Parker’s life. Provides a detailed history of his personal life as well as his professional life. Mainly about Parker as a person, not as an artist.

Pearl S. Buck Volunteers and Pearl S. Buck International. A Home in History: The Pearl S. Buck House International Historic Landmark. Accessed 27 Sept. 2017. A biography of Pearl S. Buck. Describes Buck’s family situation and their history of living in China. Gives an overview of her most famous novels and achievements. Details her humanitarian work and her activism against injustices.

Okihiro, Gary Y., and Moon-Ho Jung. Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. University of Washington Press, 2014. This book describes the ways in which Asian people and cultures have been stereotyped and misrepresented in (Western) media. Gives a history of Asian immigration, setting the stage to prove that, although Asians existed in places other than their home towns, they have been historically marginalized and othered.

Dowd, D.B. “Abstraction in (Dis)Guise: Al Parker, Fiction Illustration, and Commercial Modernism.” Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO. This essay describes how Alfred Charles Parker created a branch of illustration deemed “commercial modernism”. Parker’s mastery of technical skill, color, fresh ideas, and typography made him a revolutionary in the field of commercial illustration. With the advances in technology, Parker embraced the change and materialism of the medium to become one of the most well known and respected illustrators of his time.


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