After enduring half a century of vitriol for allegedly “breaking up” the Beatles, Yoko Ono’s controversial place in pop culture has been re-examined once again following the release of Peter Jackson’s new documentary series The Return. The account coincides with a growing and widespread movement in which many question the ways Asian women have been portrayed and the consequences of misrepresentations, experts say.
Ono, who was married to Lennon for 11 years before his assassination in 1980, is hardly the main subject of the eight-hour series on Disney+, for which she is credited as a producer. But her appearance prompted viewers to see her differently. While she has long been blamed for keeping Lennon away from his bandmates — the Beatles broke up a year after Ono and Lennon were married — to many viewers, her behavior in the documentary, which Jackson described as “benign,” shows nothing of the sort. It has prompted many critics to demand a collective apology for it.
But experts say this cultural moment for self-reflection is incomplete, without examining the sexism, racism and xenophobia that have contributed to Ono’s reputation.
Ono, an accomplished performance artist before you met Lennon, was routinely photographed in both the British and American press, and by Beatles fans. “My most complex glob of John Renon,” I read an Esquire 1970 article on Ono, mocking her Japanese accent. According to the 2004 book “John Lennon Imagine: The Cultural History of a Rock Star,” fans often surrounded the Beatles’ London headquarters calling Ono “nip,” “Jap,” “Chink” and other derogatory names, and insisting she should go back to her country. “.
These descriptions of Ono were popular and lasted for decades. In a 2018 episode of the TV show “Family Guy,” for example, Ono was described as “the woman who comes out of the well from The Ring,” a reference to a supernatural being in the popular Japanese horror movie.
Experts said Ono’s insult is rooted in degrading stereotypes about Asian women inflamed by the political climate at the time. Experts add that Ono’s refusal to succumb to any criticism and downplay the deeply hurtful sides of herself was a subtle but powerful act of resistance.
Nadia Kim, professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, told NBC Asia America. “So the very question that people are asking, that the Beatles could have unraveled the racist, sexist and original dimensions of the question, shows how absurd that question is.”
The documentary series, which debuted last month, follows the band through the production of their 1970 album “Let It Be.” In it, Ono stays in the ocean. Described by British and American newspapers as a key manipulator of Lennon and a divisive presence among the band’s members, Ono appears in the documentary as he conducts normal activities. Like knitting, reading the newspaper, or eating what appears to be a piece of chicken while the band is practicing. In one scene, she is seen in depth in conversation with McCartney’s wife at the time, Linda Eastman. Although he is omnipresent in the footage, Ono does not appear to be interfering in the affairs of the band or having an opinion on any of their decisions.
In recent years, many have realized the role sexism played in the image of Ono in the press. Kim said women are often blamed for men’s failures rather than when men succeed. But Kim also emphasized that the way Ono, a Japanese immigrant, was singled out is unique. Other band members also had long-term partners—including Eastman and George Harrison’s partner, Pattie Boyd, who were white—but were never blamed for the Beatles’ breakup. Ono herself blamed “sexism and racism” for the accusations, telling CNN reporter Anderson Cooper in 2010 that she was “used as a scapegoat.”
Ono was regularly called the “Dragon Lady”. Lauren Kajikawa, associate professor of music at George Washington University who specializes in race and politics in American music, said the Dragon Lady metaphor comes from the idea that Asian women collude with beings who use seduction in manipulative and dangerous ways. These accusations of deception have often been met with such accusations of deception, Kajikawa said.
At the height of the Beatles’ popularity in the 1960s, Britain was also experiencing a resurgence of nativism.
Kajikawa noted that the documentaries briefly showed how “Get Back” was a commentary on the xenophobic views of Member of Parliament Enoch Powell. An early version of the song parodied Powell’s incendiary “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which he warned that if immigration continued, violent race war would be inevitable. Against this political background, Ono was always viewed by many as an outsider, no matter how long she lived in Britain or the United States, Kim said.
Grace Hong, director of the Center for Women’s Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the ongoing attacks on Ono for her appearance, with the media repeatedly calling her “ugly,” have roots in racism. Ono, who came from the avant-garde art scene, with her long black hair and Japanese features, did not fit European standards of beauty, often being compared to other band partners, who were thought to embody more charm. Aesthetic.
“Yoko’s alleged ugliness has to do with expectations about white femininity, and the ways she didn’t fit in,” Hong said.
Hong added that while she was getting over the vitriol, Ono didn’t seem to change her behavior or style.
“People really resented the general staging of their relationship and the sexual nature of it. There’s the magazine cover where John Lennon is naked and standing on either side of Yoko Ono, he kisses her enthusiastically.” He’s like, ‘Why do you deserve to be John Lennon’s girlfriend when you should be?’ Nice English, any white girl, or nice white American girl?”
Given this racial hierarchy, and Lennon’s status as one of Britain’s most desirable men, Ono’s romance with him combined with her refusal to assimilate made her a “threat,” Kim said.
“Nothing angers people who are, I think, born in Great Britain, or the United States, more than an immigrant who appears to outdo them or outlive their place,” Kim said. “She has never been groveled or mocked, especially for someone who was a public figure, which only irritates people. … It is the idea that she cannot fully enjoy her personality, that we have to somehow dehumanize her because, in our eyes, she is not equal. In any case “.
While some call for a recasting of Ono’s place in history, Kajikawa said some defenses of her as a quiet, unobtrusive presence play a role in other stereotypes of Asian women.
“This justification, in some ways, takes her from being the Dragon Lady who broke the Beatles to being the submissive Yoko Ono, which is also not necessarily fair,” Kajikawa said. “The idea that this justification elicited about her doing nothing in the documentary, too, for me, goes back to a familiar stereotype of Asian femininity.”
In fact, Kajikawa said, Ono has been known to not be “quiet”. Although Ono seemed unfazed by the insults, when asked how she felt about the “Dragon Lady” poster, she said she was “honored,” adding that “Dragons are a very powerful mythical animal . . . well maybe they think I’m strong, thank you very much for you “.
Ono’s insistence on sharing space with a legendary band making history is a powerful statement, even if it’s an unintentional one.
“The Beatles are a distinct group of the 20th century in some ways. The fact that Yoko insisted on being there, so that we could somehow see something not white within that history, is really important and wonderful,” Kajikawa said. “It goes against this idea that we can imagine the Beatles as something like all-whites, all born in Britain…as if there is a version of their existence that challenges the ownership of that history.”