Working Paper: Western Orientalism and Chinese counter-narratives in anti-trafficking fictions

 Western benevolence in the Trafficking in People reports

Critical feminists have analysed the discourse of anti-trafficking as working in traditional (Western) gendered and neo-imperialist terms, in political and NGO discourse, as well as movies, documentaries, t.v. series, journalism and novels (see, for example, the works of Elizabeth Bernstein, Jo Doezema, (2010), Julietta Hua (2011), Nandita Sharma (2003, 2005), Gretchen Solderlund (2013), and Alexandra Moore and Elizabeth Goldberg 2015).

Much of the critique has elaborated a reinvented “civilising mission” in anti-trafficking discourse. Arguably, narrative devices such as the immorality of male traffickers and desirable vulnerability (Andrijasevic, 2007) of innocent female victims are central to the “rescue” trope that Carrie N Baker (2013) described as working across neo-abolitionist media, NGO and government. The civilising mission of “rescue” is a key element of the US Orientalist discourse of the West saving Asian and Middle Eastern society and culture from itself (see blog part two). This is a reinvention of the imperialist  “white (wo)man’s burden” in sociology Professor Kamala Kempadoo’s analysis, one which works at the convergence of the modern anti-slavery, feminist abolitionist, celebrity humanitarian movements, and neoliberal interests (See also Berstein, 2007). As an ideological myth, “Rescue” achieves a (self) image of the West as compassionate and benevolent. In the anti-modern slavery campaigns, this manifests in the figure of “the daring white knight morally obligated to save the world — especially Asia and Africa — affirming white masculinity as powerful and heroic”.

In feminist abolitionism, it manifests in a moral mission to rescue “poor ’prostituted’ women and children (victims) from male privilege, power, and lust (sex trafficking)” … thereby reproducing “a colonial maternalism in relation to the impoverished non-western world” and “reconfirming the white western middle-class woman as benevolent”. Kempadoo argues that celebrity humanitarian campaigns combine both of these approaches with — as Dina Haynes observed  — counter-productive results.

Baker (2013) observes contemporary US rescue discourse on sex trafficking of women and girls typically begins with

an evil trafficker or pimp who abducts, deceives, or lures a young, innocent, helpless, and often naive girl into a prison-like brothel and controls her with brutal violence until a heroic rescuer comes to save the day. The trafficker is often a man of colour from a foreign country, and the rescuer is often a white, Western man.

The rescue trope involves politically and culturally situated versions of what political scientist Nils Christie (1986) described as the construction of ideal victims and perpetrators. In general terms, the ideal victim is weak and blamelessly oppressed by a powerful perpetrator (or group of perpetrators). This construction works to elicit support for criminal justice measures to address the oppression.

Criminal justice academics Dr. Erin O’Brien and Michael Wilson (2016) analyses forms of idealised victim-perpetrator constructions in the US state Department’s TiP reports. Their analysis of the reports from 2001-12 shows that ideal victims are predominantly young and female, and most commonly from Asian countries (with very few from the US, and none from Western Europe, Canada and Australia). The researchers conclude that the ideal victims are represented as “weak due to their status as young women or girls, and their origin from regions of the global south” (2016:36-7). The represented weakness involves women as passive victims of abuse, rather than active agents of choice.

In terms of blamelessness, it’s notable that while the TiP reports in this period emphasize sexual exploitation, they have only one narrative of a woman who voluntarily migrated for sex work, and that women are otherwise consistently depicted as innocent young women or girls duped into sex work after migrating for non-sex work reasons. This impression is strengthened by the representing the perpetrator as someone who is unknown to the victim, rather than a known person she had a consensual arrangement with, and by representing participation in sex work as only being the outcome of brutality and subjugation  (O’Brien and Wilson, 2016:35-6, 38, 39).

The narratives that exemplify these ideal victim qualities (vulnerability, blamelessness) can be understood in terms of sociologist Nick Mai’s description of “good scripts” that might support “good cases”. Mai (2014, 2016) writes about the “humanitarian victimhood, vulnerability and gender/sex scripts” that migrant sex workers construct in order to fit with the legal requirements of the immigration and rights legal system and humanitarian support agencies in France: an escape script that includes details of abuse suffered at the hands of traffickers would support a “good case” for a trafficking victim visa, or, alternatively perhaps, an asylum claim. ” We might add that “good scripts” work to support (or legitimise) the ideological framework for anti-trafficking policy, including its gendered and “raced” aspects.

The TiP reports represent perpetrators as predominantly male, middle-aged, and involved in sex trafficking,  The ideal perpetrators are often represented as deviant: they are wealthy, Western middle-aged paedophiles consuming child-sex in developing countries. By making such a figure central to the moral panic on paedophilia typical, the TiP makes the ideal perpetrator ‘the embodiment of evil’ while also tarring the entire sex industry with this synecdochal representation.

The flip side of the evil sex-consumer is the producer.  The sex industry per se is represented as the collective noun for the “evil” individuals involved in prostitution and trafficking, often in the guise of gangs involved in transnational organized crime (TOC). Good scripts for the trafficking protagonists are those that fit the narrative and “evidential” requirements of anti-trafficking ideology. A recent example of the “typical” protagonist is the “South African brothel owner and human trafficker” who is represented as admitting that “there are situations where you have to force girls by using rape, abuse or torture. When she begins to fear for her life, she stops resisting and starts working”(TiP, 2017:32). This TiP narrative provides a “horror story” as a typical instance in order to support the urgency of the rescuers’ “moral crusade” (see Weitzer, 2007).

There are consistencies in the ways that such ideal types feed into the rescue trope across government, advocacy and media (including fictional) discourse. These include constants of race and nation, as the rescuing hero (whether a journalist, fictional character, the state or NGO actor) is most often white and male, while the villains are non-Western men (men of colour, Eastern Europeans). In TiP reports this manifests in consistent referral to non-Western states as the source of internal and international trafficking problems. In advocacy representations — including investigative journalism and NGO awareness raising campaigns — the scene of villainy is similarly Asian, Middle Eastern, Black and Eastern European, while the sex workers’ customers are (deviant kinds of) white westerners. The Orientalist representations thus work in conflation with Western moral panics about deviancy from and perversion of acceptable forms of social reproduction and sexuality.

Trafploitation fiction

The ideological anchoring work provided by good script narratives is central to a recent fictional genre we might call “trafploitation” in movies, documentaries, and t.v. series, and novels. This genre combines the theme of rescuing trafficking victims with the titillatingly and despotic aspects of contemporary Orientalism. The fictional ‘trafploitation’ genre often provides a fantasy rescue of traditional white masculinity and its social order. The Hollywood movies Taken and Trade both work in this way, with the emasculated male protagonists “learning or reasserting their manhood by rescuing females” (Baker, 2013), while being represented as having to do so because of failures or inadequacies of the formal justice system, and the extreme helplessness of the victims. These movies both climax in a restoration of traditional gendered social order with male authority — as benevolent protection  —  reasserted.

Eden poster with anti-trafficking cliches: voiceless, commodified, young & beautiful Asian victim

For the hyper-masculine rescue narratives to work the victim must be female, and is commonly sexualised, helpless, duped and sometimes Orientalised. However, recent fiction develops trafploitation with a feminist twist, wherein a “good script” version of female agency marries some of the key rescue tropes.

One such fiction is Melanie Griffith’s Eden (2012), which stumbles a drunken line between grindhouse trafploitation and feminist fiction. The film tells the story of a young Korean-American girl who — abducted and forced into prostitution by Texan human traffickers — cooperates with her captors in a desperate ploy to survive. The film begins in pitch black with an audio of fearful cries, before revealing the victim-protagonist’s perspective from inside of a car trunk, from where she views her abductor. This scene establishes the some of the film’s (softcore) grindhouse and trafploitative tropes, including a sexualised and “exotic” (Asian) victim whose innocent youth, escape and rescue narrative provides a good anti-trafficking script.

Eden screenshot abduction
Dialogue: screenshot 2: “Come on baby girl, be quiet now”.

The victim-protagonist’s blameless ideality is established by presenting her as a generally diligent schoolgirl who is respectful of her doting parents, and who has to hide her braces-smile in order to pass for 21 in the local bar. Eden’s story progresses as a coming-of-age narrative, in which “Hyun Jae” is represented as enjoying typical teenage rebellions, including the occasional cigarette behind her parents’ shop, and is willing to let a friend coax her into going to a bar to look for guys.The character’s childish innocence is reinforced throughout the scenes of her abuse by the traffickers:

Eden screenshots an ideal victim
Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “I don’t know where I am. I have to call my mum and dad.” 2. “God damn it, you go there right now or I’m getting the cigar cutter and cutting your fucking clit off.” 3. “I want to go home. I don’t want to be here anymore”.

Griffith’s draws on anti-trafficking stereotypes in portraying the traffickers as part of a transnationally organized gang (managed from Dubai), as well as on the staples of crime and grindhouse genres in having the local (“deep south” good-old-boy corrupt) police chief as a kingpin in the criminal network.  The gang members — ideal villains in anti-trafficking discourse terms — are adept multitaskers, simultaneously maintaining drugs, sex, and baby trafficking businesses. The representation of their business also fits the anti-trafficking ideal of people reduced to commodities: the operation is an industrial-style workhouse for forced prostitution in which (to add the Grindhouse touch) the victims are either killed off at adulthood — because they no longer fit the market for sex with young girls — or kept for the purpose of baby-farming.

Eden screenshots Melanie does Grindhouse
Eden screenshots: Melanie does Grindhouse

In the scene above, the protagonist maintains her good script by biting the (repulsively middle-aged) client’s penis instead of performing a blowjob. The scene then provides a chase-scene, with “Eden” fleeing her pimp. The good script combines with the grindhouse aesthetic: the protagonist refuses her commodification, yet is sexualized with the school-girl porn costume and blood-drenched cleavage as she struggles (and fails) to get away.

The good script/grindhouse combination works through the fictional conceit of “Hyun Jae’s” pretense of collaboration with “Vaughan” (the pimp), who is represented as coming to rely on her for her intelligence and wits, while the relationship between the two is played as a kind of romance doomed by “Hyun Jae’s” underlying virtue and “Vaughan’s” unredeemable awfulness. The pretence narrative culminates in “Hyun Jae’s” return to family, following the escapades of her (virtuous) murder of “Vaughan” and “Mario” (the baby-trafficker), and her rescue of a fellow victim “Priscilla” (who loses her baby to the business).

Eden screenshots Escape and rescue
Dialogues: Screenshot 2. “I’ll explain to you later, but we gotta go right now, OK?”  3. “Mom”.

Eden works as a fantasy in which female agency triumphs over the misogyny of its imagined trafficking industry. It differs from the good scripts of the TiP reports in presenting its victim-protagonist as owning agency, but remains within the ideological orbit of the anti-trafficking movement in portraying a good script victim who resists her forced prostitution as much as possible, and only complies because of force and coercion. This good script is reinforced in antitheses through the character “Svetlana”, whose ‘working her way up’ to a madam-like position is represented in terms of moral failure (she is represented as craven and cowardly).

The film’s narrative fits the TiP ideal form in portraying a transnational crime, whose perpetrators (the unseen bosses) are Middle Eastern and Eastern European; yet it differs in focusing on the local (American) arm of the business (instead of the TiP reports’ focus on American clients). If Eden can be said to be Orientalist to a degree, it is via the vehicle of the exotic sexualized protagonist yet — true to its grindhouse tropes — the protagonist is powerful rather than submissive. “Hyun Jae” is the agent rather than the subject of the film’s rescue narrative. Jenny Platz (2012) argues that the 1970s films of the Grindhouse genre and its later reinvention (in for example, Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) Kill Bill I and II (2003, 2004), and Death Proof (2007), gives their female protagonist the agency that has predominantly belonged to the male hero, yet rely on frequent representations of female bodies subjected to the male camera and gaze. Arguably, this is also true of Eden, even if the effect of a female director —and thus the view through a “female camera” — is only to mitigate (its softcore aesthetic never becomes hardcore). Ultimately, the film’s feminist critique of sexual objectification is incoherent. “We” the viewers are invited to condemn the sexualizing misogyny of the drama’s villains while enjoying the sexualized agency of the protagonist whose titillating representation depends on the sex-trafficking scenario.

Trade of Innocents: Justice Needs a Hero

While Griffith’s  narrative traffics in sexploitation, Christopher Bessette’s Trade of Innocents  (2012) markets a kind of neo-missionary Orientalism. In this film poster, the white American middle-class rescuers (“Claire” and Alex Becker”) are foregrounded against a dangerously bloodshot sunset over Cambodia’s (exotic-for-Westerners) Ankar Wat. The poster faithfully reflects the film’s logic in which white western humanitarians must play the role of the hero in order for (criminal and Christian-moral) justice to be done.

Trade of Innocent’s American Christian protagonist’s  are represented as the film’s emotional focal point because of their grief for the loss of their own daughter, who had been kidnapped from their middle-class American home and murdered (prior to their relocation to Asia). The film privileges the working-through of the protagonist’s grief: Cambodia and the trafficking-story work as their therapeutic scene of emotional closure.

The story involves the Western hero’s rescue of very young (and therefore ideally innocent) girls from sex traffickers and their (deviant Western) pedophile customers in Cambodia, and the evil trafficker “Dude’s'” quest to satisfy his American customer’s grotesque desire for younger and virginal girls. This narrative structure places the film’s issues in the realms of Western moral panic and taboo, representing the extreme of pedophilia abuse as if it stands in for the broader realm of sex work in Asian countries.

Trade of Innocents victims and abuser
Trade of Innocents: victims and abusers

Several scenes place particular emphasis on the moral and cultural superiority of Western perspectives over “Asian/Cambodian” morality and culture. The first of these involves a dialogue where “Alex”, who is working for the UN/US as a Human Trafficking Inspector, seeks the cooperation of “Pakkaday”, the new Siem Reap Police Chief:

“Pakkaday”: There is something in your Western Culture you do not understand. I have rescued many children who themselves want to return to the brothels. In the Asian culture, it is the duty of the child to worry about the parents. Usually these families are so poor that they cannot live. A child is sacrificed for the rest.

“Alex”Poverty is no excuse to surrender a child to prostitution. In any culture.

“Pakkaday”And you think that if you catch this one criminal, you can change that problem? The tiger is dependent on the forest just as the forest depends on the tiger.

In this scene, the Cambodian officer is represented as an apologist for Asian/Cambodian culture’s collaboration with child sex trafficking and made to present what is represented as the “excuse” of poverty as the justification for families’ choices to send their children into prostitution.

The scene seeks to dismiss three of the dominant critiques of neo-abolitionism: First, that women (in this case girls) who return to prostitution after having been rescued have made a valid (rational) choice. Second, that poverty is reasonable grounds for participation in prostitution (but in this case, in regards to the extreme example of child prostitution). Third, that anti-trafficking effort would be better pursued by focusing on the larger underlying problems (the forest of poverty, not the trees of individual criminals). Each of these propositions is represented as intrinsic to the moral equivocations that belong to Asian/Cambodian (and by implication) Buddhist culture, against the moral certainty of the Western (Christian) investigator. Asian culture is represented as needing to learn from Western culture and its universal moral values. This theme of moral education is continued in a further scene where “Alex” teaches the “Cambodian police cadets” that their culture of secrets and silence (as embodied in the symbol of Ankor Wat) must be overcome in order to protect the innocent child victims.

Several scenes involving “Claire” and Cambodian women (and girl) characters further reinforce this missionary Orientalism. In the first of these “Claire” is shown visiting the girls who live at the “Serey Jorani” (Jewel of Freedom) rescue home for child victims of sex trafficking. The girls —whom we are told mostly come from very poor villages —are working on repairs for a local widow’s house.  The (un-named) rescue home manager tells “Claire” that “with this work, the girls learn to give back to their people positively”. The didactic message is that the girls’ involvement in prostitution to support their families is a result of ignorance that can be overcome via humanitarian education.

The second scene portrays the rescue home manager and “Claire’s” confrontation of the mother of a trafficking victim who is missing from the Serey Jorani home:

Trade of Innocents: the “bad mother” 1 Dialogues screenshot 1: “She cares for her family”. 2 “Kim-Ly is returned to the brothels?”.






In the scene above, the mother informs the manager and Claire that her daughter has returned from the rescue home to work in a brothel in order to support her family. In preceding scenes, the mother is shown looking accusingly at her daughter while she was working at the widow’s house with the other “rescued” girls, and in this scene, she arises from resting in a hammock (signifying that she is idle and possibly lazy).

Trade of Innocents : the “bad mother” 2     Dialogue: Screenshot 2: “As a mother, you should be ashamed!”

The white protagonist “Claire” then slaps the Asian “bad mother” and tells her she should be ashamed of herself (as one mother to another). This scene encapsulates the film’s message of the moral superiority of the universal humanitarian perspective and reduces the issue of poverty-led sex work to one of individual (and maternal) moral failing. The Cambodian rescue shelter manager and “Claire” confront the “bad mother” together, but it is the American mother who is represented as punishing the “offender”, thus embodying the “moral pornography”  (Joel Marks: 2011) of cathartic violence for the (American) audience’s collective disgust.

As noted above, the film privileges the white Christian protagonists’ working-through of their grief: The grief narrative climaxes in “Claire” and “Alex’s” rescue of a very young girl from “Duke” (the Cambodian Trafficker), and his murder by “Police Chief Pakkaday” (presumably in order to prevent “Duke” from informing on his collusion with the trafficking business).

Like the hyper-masculine hero of the film Taken, the male protagonist “Alex” works towards a form of restored masculinity via his rescue mission. “Claire” is represented as being given her resolution earlier in the narrative, when her empathy with a trafficking victim allowed that girl to gain some emotional closure over the trauma of her abuse and thereby enabled “Claire” to relive her own grief and accept her loss (for her daughter’s suffering and death). These mirroring therapeutic trajectories culminate in a scene that represents the romance of Western humanitarianism and its triumph over Eastern and deviant culture (note the setting of Christian graveyard in Buddhist Cambodia):

Trade of Innocents screenshot: “Claire” and “Alex’s” romantic climax with the child traffic victims

Trade of Innocent’s gendered representations differ from films like Taken as the character “Claire” is a key protagonist rather than just a narrative device to support a male protagonist’s heroic journey, and the Cambodian female characters are also represented as exercising (limited) agency. If the film can be said to provide a kind of feminism, it is that of the anti-prostitution and Christian Orientalist kind in which the positively portrayed Cambodian female characters are either “good script” heroes or victims.

Other recent Western feminist representations that have also attempted to broaden the rescue trope via a white middle-class female protagonist include the tv series Human Trafficking (2005), and the Hollywood movie The Whistleblower (2010). In the tv series,  Mira Sorvino plays a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent who attempts to save a female trafficking victim (in the US). In “The Whistleblower”, Rachel Weiz plays an American peacekeeper who exposes a United Nations cover-up of sex trafficking in post-war Bosnia.

Baker (2013) argues that the degree to which these fictions challenge the traditional gender framing of the rescue trope is limited, as their protagonists’ attempts are failures. The feminist writer-director Jane Campion’s television drama series Top of the Lake: China Girl bears a stronger correspondence to Christopher Bessette’s film than Human Trafficking and The Whistleblower, inasmuch as its white, female and middle-class protagonist (“Robin Griffin”, a New Zealand detective in Australia, played by Elizabeth Moss) successfully saves her daughter “Mary” from a villain (“Alexander Braun/Puss”) apparently involved in sex and surrogate baby trafficking. China Girl is, however, more clearly feminist than Trade of Innocents, not least because its protagonist (the female detective) and most of the focalizing characters are female, while the supporting characters are male.


Campion’s tale is, in part, one of misogyny and migrant sex workers in harbourside Sydney, where the Australian male customers are generally creepy and pathetic, and the Asian migrant sex workers required to work off excessive debts ($30,000 for the drama’s victim), presumably to their traffickers, before being freed. Despite presenting a narrative in which its migrant sex workers might be read as exercising some degree of agency,  and in which female characters are generally not sexualized for the audience’s gaze, Top of the Lake: China Girl is not free of “trafploitative” representations.

This poster plays on the ideas of vulnerability and objectification presenting the protagonist’s damaged body nakedly, from the back-view. The image connotes the fragility of a damaged ceramic (“china”)  mannequin, not a woman but a commodity-image of an ideal female body. The damage appropriates the suffering of the drama’s victim (the murdered migrant sex-worker called “Cinnamom/Padma/China Girl”) onto the body/mannequin of the white middle-class protagonist whose holstered gun suggests, at least, some latent agency. Consistent with the poster’s appropriation, the credits omit reference to any of the drama’s Asian actors (who predominantly play the role of sex workers/surrogates). This is reflected throughout the six-part series where most screen time is  devoted to the white female focalizing characters (“Robin”, “Mary” (the daughter), “Julia” (Mary’s adoptive mother), and “Miranda” (the buddy cop).

China Girl procedural scene screenshot
China Girl screenshots: procedural Dialogues Screenshot 1 “She’s had unprotected sex and got herself pregnant” 2. “My guess, Asian student working in the sex industry. It’s a loophole”.

The body of a murdered Asian prostitute anchors Campion’s narrative. The exposition scene above shows the way in which the agency of the protagonist is foregrounded against images of the victim’s suffering.In this scene, the camera centres on the protagonist as she explains the sex-crime scenario, while an image of victim’s naked corpse works to anchor the explanation that blames the victim for her vulnerability (as she has had unprotected sex, and she has got herself pregnant).

China Girl’s story arc revolves around “Robin” whose key motivating trauma is the loss of her child, which she felt compelled to give away for adoption following her rape by a group of Australian men when a teenager (15 years old) in Sydney. In the preceding initial drama series (simply titled Top of the Lake) the protagonist lives in rural New Zealand where she investigates a child prostitution ring that turns out to involve the local police as key actors. She triumphs and as a result, the victims are rescued. New Zealand is the scene of the protagonists’ other misogyny-related trauma: her father turns out to be a sociopath, her boss a rapist and pedophile, her fiance a cheat, while in the later series some of her Australian male colleagues are sexist rednecks. The underlying generative theme of both series is the extreme, pervasive and ongoing misogyny of white New Zealand and Australian cultures.

The second series, China Girl, can be viewed as being, in part, a reflexive attempt to consider the race and class investments of the female agency belonging to its white characters —the white mothers, would-be-mothers, and daughters, in relation to the Asian migrant sex/surrogacy workers — within the wider misogynistic culture and inequitably globalised chains of social reproduction.

China Girl’s sex and baby trafficking narrative works as a device to enable the protagonist’s quest for reconciliation with her daughter. While the white middle-class resolution is achieved partially through “Robin’s” rescue of the daughter and burgeoning romance with the adopting father “Pyke”, she is represented as failing in her efforts to rescue the Asian sex and surrogate workers sex workers.  The series represents its iconic victims (the girl and her unborn child) as having suffered a fatally failed escape, with the suitcase her body is encased in drifting out to sea only to return ‘home’ to Bondi beach. If “Robin/Mary” and “China Girl/foetus” undertake inversely mirroring West/East journeys, then “Alexander/Asian surrogate mothers” might be viewed as making an anti-trafficking kind of escape, following their landlord “Alexander/Puss” back to a location in Asia, and in the process refusing their surrogate contracts, while they and/or “Alexander” pocket the money paid by the Australian would-be parents.

bad journey
“China Girl’s” journey to a watery Australian grave

Chinese reflections on “bride” trafficking

The engine that pushes Chinese migration from rural to urban and international spheres such as work in Australian cities is the inequality of urbanization that developed under the Maoist regime, and was then exacerbated by the reform era transformations. This was a focus of so-called “6th generation” Chinese film-makers, predominantly in terms of stories of the impoverishment and discrimination faced by the “floating population” in the rapidly swelling urban-industrial-service economy cities. Within this focus, many directors incorporate tales of sex work migration in genres that cross-over from neo-realist social commentary to crime procedurals and noir.

Li Yang’s 2007 film Mang Shan (“Blind Mountain”) narrates several kinds of refusal in relation to sex (in this case, “bride”) trafficking. Mang Shan’s story of internal trafficking is set in rural northwest China in the early 1990s. The film’s protagonist “Bai Xuemei” is a recent graduate searching for work in order to pay her parents back for their investment in her education. A couple recruits her to assist with their “rare herb gathering” business. However, she soon discovers that her new employers have tricked her: There is no job and she has in fact been sold to a rural family (the “Huang’s”) in order to provide a wife for their son “Huang Degui”.

mang shan screenshot welcome
Dialogues: screenshot 1: “Your family sold you to be my son’s wife”. 2. “the fact is I bought you for 7,000”.

The early scenes establish the rural context in which women of marriageable and child-rearing age and extremely rare, and indicate the high value placed on such women by the community and family (the 7,000 rmb paid for the “bride” in the early 1990s representing a large sum for a farming family).

mang shan wedding night a
Wedding night curiosity

The film quickly establishes key trafficking tropes; the young woman is commodified without her consent; once the trafficker and customers have made their deal, she is not free to leave; she is expected to fulfill the role of wife, including sex with the husband she is forced to marry, bear and raise a child for. Li Yang also establishes elements that are particular to the rural context, including the expectation that “Xuemei” will submit to traditional family authority (personified by the mother in law).

mang shan wedding night b
Wedding night toasts. Dialogue screenshot 1: “Drink or remain a bachelor”. 2. “Drink up or else no women in your next life either”.

Unlike the American anti-trafficking fictions, Blind Moutain is not a narrative of an individual evil predator. Instead, the community starved of young women is involved in “Xuemei’s” oppression. The “Huang’s” (her parents-in-law) physically restrain her in order to help their son “Degui” rape and hopefully impregnate her. Villagers work together to prevent her attempted escape and reject the price offered by her father for her release. The local governor stands by and allows the villagers to prevent her escape. The two local men she has consensual sex with both fail to support her (and one of them flees, fearing retribution from the villagers). “Xuemei’s” kidnapping is presented as typical for rural China: when she becomes pregnant she makes friends with other young mothers who turn out to have also been bought and have generally come to accept their situation. These formerly urban women are valued for their biological and cultural contribution to the villagers’ social reproduction: “Xuemei”, for example, is expected to contribute to the village community through teaching. Educational cultural capital is highly valued because it is one side of the urban/rural inequality divide.

The film’s climax presents an ambivalent picture of “rescue”.  In the international version of the film, the Huang family and the villagers are able to prevent the policemen from forcibly effecting her escape. “Mrs. Huang” prevents “Xuemei” from taking her child,

whose baby is it
Dialogues: Screenshot 1: “This is my baby”. 2. “The cops are taking the baby”. 3 “Leave the baby”.

while the police advise her to let Mrs. Huang have the child (“for the time being”) so that they may leave safely. However, they are unable to do so as “Xuemei’s” husband  “Degui” and the villagers accost the police and argue their case:

Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “It is illegal to steal away her rights. 2. “Many people buy wives. Have they all broken the law? 3. If she pays me back, then she can go.

Mang Shan’s title plays on the popular use of the term “mangliu (literally “blind flow” or drifting), one of several used pejoratively to refer to rural migrants as “blind”, and workers as “outsiders”in the 1990s. “Mang” — indicates those who cannot or will not see ugly or uncomfortable truths. As Amanda Weiss observes, Li Yang’s film reflects these popular ideas ironically, confronting the (Chinese) viewer with the proposition that it is the audience (or, perhaps, middle-class society in general) that is “blind” to understanding rural migration and its causes and effects.

The climax of the international version of Mang Shan might be regarded as the confrontation between urban privileged ignorance (“mang”) and the demands of the rural migrating class being played out in miniature, as the villagers refuse the proposition that the legal rights of the individual woman (the trafficked victim) outweigh their need for social reproduction and their common customs.

who is mangliu
Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “Get out of the way. We have to leave today”. 2. “Someone help!”

In the international version’s final shots, “Xuemei” stops “Degui” beating her father by hacking him with a cleaver. Her subsequent shocked expression may include a sense of freedom, even as she has become as “barbaric” as she says the farmers are, and the audience may know that her actions likely lead to prison and death rather than a return to urban family life.

The domestic-audience version painted a less confrontational scene. As Amanda Weiss observes,  in this version “Xuemei’s” mother-in-law still refuses to hand over “Xuemei’s” son. However, instead of “Xuemei” and “Degui’s” violent confrontation, several of the other mothers join the escape, but one of them changes her mind and refuses to go because she doesn’t want to lose her child. “Xuemei” gazes back at “Mrs. Huang” chasing the truck with the child clutched in her arms. Her expression is ambivalent. In both versions, the endings are a long way from the romantic climax that tends to end the Western rescue trope and trafploitation genre films.

Factional Fictions: situating trafploitation and the rescue narratives in relation to ethnographic research and counter-narratives

The governmental and fictional narratives discussed above can be considered in relation to the anti-trafficking ideology embodied in the TiF reports, and the relevant ethnographic research. The narratives of the TiF reports are clearly intended to work as synecdoche, particular instance examples that readers should take as typical of the situation as a whole. They are rarely well substantiated with verifiable research and even when credited to the ideal victim whose stories they narrate, are likely to be “good scripts” involving a conflict of interest between the alleged victims’ need to tell the kind of story that fits with her legal claim (for protection, for immigration status) and the narrative’s credibility. This may be particularly true of instances where the narrative goes against the grain of the prevailing ethnographic research. It is likely that the TiF reports, like other state-invested human rights research, is deliberately opaque precisely because the research methods used for their production are not credible. What matters, from a (US) state point of view, is not so much social-scientific credibility, but that the narrative and any “evidence” presented should fit the neo-imperialist and retro-gendered ideology of the neo-abolitionist movement in a way that resonates with its intended audience. In other words, “moral credibility” trumps factual credibility in practice, yet the TiP producers would have its readership understand it as being morally factual (not counter-factual).

Moral-factuality pervades the entertaining fictions that seek to interpellate viewers as part of the rescuing crusade.The fact that Eden was based on a “true story” that turned out to have been fictional does not matter in a sense, as it nonetheless provides a “good script” for anti-trafficking ideology not least because it manages the trick of relying on and critiquing the sexploitation of the female body. Trade of Innocents’ also claims to be based on facts but has a religious focus absent from Griffith’s film. It stars Mira Sorvino — a devout Christian and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking —and was designed for anti-trafficking awareness-raising. Speaking at a UNODC screening, Sorvino said “Most people are unaware that this terrible trade of children for sexual exploitation flourishes both in the United States and around the globe. Trade of Innocents will open their eyes and their hearts, and inspire them to become part of the solution.”

The film faithfully adheres to the American neo-abolitionist ideology, making it clear that “justice” requires a Western Christian hero (or to put it the other way round, it legitimises Western Christianity as heroic in contrast to Asian (and Buddhist) moral weakness. Like the TiF report narratives discussed by O’Brien and Wilson, it works as synecdoche, taking the extreme instance of commercial child prostitution in Cambodia as indicative of the general problem of “sex trafficking”. The film’s “evil” protagonists (the trafficker, clients, corrupt police) are morally taboo and their actions and justifications, therefore, figure as non-credible: In the film’s logic poverty is no excuse for child sex, familial pressure on daughters to engage in or return to sex work is a betrayal of maternal love; children are too young to exercise agency and therefore cannot consent to sex work. Each of these points works to emphasize the film’s moral (Christian) logic.

Trade of Innocents has been promoted as being factual. Its producers claim that the story is motivated by their own experience of encountering child-sex abuse in Cambodia, and Jeff Blom, (a human trafficking investigator), described it as “the most realistic representation of the work done on the front lines against the commercial sexual exploitation of children, particularly in Southeast Asia.” Sorvino’s involvement gives it added representational credibility as she is a key (celebrity) player in the UN/US anti-trafficking institutions’ representational “war on trafficking”.

Cambodia makes an apt choice of fictional site for neo-abolitionist symbolic politics because of the already-established moral panic over child sex abuse. The overdetermination of representations of trafficking in Cambodia by the American moral crusade provides a good example of the way in which the desire for ideologically good scripts outweighs the credibility of the evidence it relies on. Keo et al., (2014) explain the manner in which moral panic has worked in Cambodia, following Talbot’s (1999) elaboration of the concept of moral panic (Chen, 1973). Talbot’s elaboration includes

1) uncorrected statistical over-inflation;

2) refusal of credible counter-evidence;

3) non-credible research;

4) problematising via indiscriminate merging of varied crimes.

Keo et al., elaborate this schema further in terms of the trafficking moral panic. They note that Talbot’s schema works, in this context via the vehicle of highly emotive language and discourse. It is mobilised by interested parties including, in particular, moral entrepreneurs (journalists, politicians, rescuers, etc.,). The panic —working across local, national, global levels — produces negative consequences including “bad legislation, misuse of resources, demonization of certain groups, and criminalization of innocent people” (Keo et al., 2014: 220-1).

Sorvino’s idea that child trafficking is “flourishing” (presumably in Cambodia) is undermined by research showing that the scale of sex-trafficking (and child sex trafficking in particular) in Cambodia has been subject to highly exaggerated claims. Much use has been made of an erronous estimate of 80-100,000 prostitutes working in Cambodia made by the NGO Human Rights Viligance of Cambodia (HRVC, 2000). Subsequent estimates including UNICEF’s 2003 estimate of 55,000 sex workers in Cambodia have also been shown to be exaggerated. Steinfatt showed that the numbers were likely to be far lower, with 18,256 direct sex workers in 2003, of whom 2,000 may have been trafficked, and the Home and Community Care Program estimate of 17,000 sex workers in 2008 corroborated this finding (Steinfatt, 2011; Keo et al., 2014: 207).

Within the trafficking moral panic,  the agency of “victims” and the character of “traffickers” has been subject to sustained misrepresentation. Bessette’s filmic misrepresentations work through a horror story and reductively moralizing narration. In the moral universe of Trade of Innocents, consenting to sex work is not possible because the film narrows its focus to the abuse of very young children only. Ethnographic research with sex workers suggests a different worldview. For example,  Keo interviewed nine (older) boys and eight girls who had been “trafficked” from Cambodia to Thailand and subsequently returned to Cambodia (Keo 2006). He writes,

None saw themselves as “victims.” They had willingly followed their recruiters to Thailand to earn an income and support their impoverished family. They considered themselves “good children” because of their ability to work and share the burden of supporting their family. Most had been “trafficked” by family members, relatives, or neighbors, and a few by strangers. Few had suffered physical abuse and most of them had been treated well (Keo, 2014).

The villains in Trade Of Innocents include the (effectively) trafficking “bad mother” who is represented as choosing to exploit her own child for money, instead of working herself. Here, as in other instances, the film maintains its moral factuality by misrepresentation. Family members including mothers and other known persons are often involved in managing sex work, including recruitment, and as the testimony of Keo’s trafficking victims attests, in the context of Cambodian poverty sex work represents a sometimes invaluable contribution to families’ livelihoods.

Criminalising ‘trafficking’ in Cambodia —by way of US anti-trafficking pressure — has resulted in the criminalization of the poorest of the poor, and women, in particular, involved in sex work. Rather than the male cartoon-villain “Dude” being shot by the police chief, a factual representation might have portrayed an impoverished mother or female madam being convicted and given a long-term sentence. Moreover, as Keo et al. (2014) suggest, this kind of outcome would be likely because a) s/he was unable to pay the bribe to the police and/or court and b) the judge needed to support the Cambodian justice systems desire to maintain favour with the US by producing convictions, even where there were not sufficient actual crimes to do so. In this catch-22, such a judge might reason that his only route to successfully meeting his target is to target the powerless.

Trade of Innocent’s dismissal of the socio-economic context for sex work in Cambodia is culturally racist, and the anti-trafficking “rescue” imperative that it celebrates has been harmfully counter-productive. In the context of poverty, unemployment, underemployment and badly paid employment, sex work is one of the few routes available to rural young women that enable sufficient income and the possibility of social mobility and self-development. This is the socio-economic “forest” in which individuals make their grounded-rational decisions.

American style moralizing (prohibitionist) criminal justice approaches are counter-productive and often result in injustice because of geopolitical pressure and the partial dependency of the justice system on the informal economy.  Trade of Innocents represents that dependency in Orientalist terms, sheeting its moralizing blame to the roots of the whispering tree it suggests as an icon for Buddhist moral equivocation and its silencing and condoning of the imagined child-sex problem. Postcolonial and post-Marxist critics would sheet the blame instead to the ongoing legacies of colonialism and the enforced inability of Cambodia to escape its peripheral weakness. Trade of Innocents is able to perform its feat of racist transformation by reduction: the extreme horror of child sex trafficking stands in for the inferiority of non-Western non-Christian culture against the superiority of Western Christianity. This represents a severe form of the cultural silencing that works through the film: the one critical voice that might have spoken its narrative is that of the underage sex worker “Kim Ly”, who escapes the rescue house in order to return to work in the brothel. But this character’s perspective is subsumed within the white protagonist’s heroic punishment of the (morally) bad mother.

Campion’s China Girl also lays claim to factuality. The tv series was grounded by (a short period of)  research with sex workers and sex worker advocates in Sydney, and Campion stated that she incorporated their views into her work. The director told The Guardian

I really liked the idea of setting it in Sydney and making it very much about women and their bodies and the sex industry, in particular the experiences of migrants within the industry,” says Campion. “Just what the reality of the job might be like – not the way it’s usually presented with sex in bikinis or whatever but just the ordinariness of it, how you do it and earn money from it and keep earning money from it.

Some scenes work as Campion suggest, representing a kind of normality (rather than invested-gaze fantasy) of day-to-day sex work, and the world of the brothel (where, for example, the madam and her spouse are ordinary and down-to-earth, and the madam wears the trousers, not her inarticulate Australian husband). In the scene in which the sex workers tell “Mary” about the business, one sex worker states that she found the clients gross, but had a day when she earned $500 and so decided to continue with the work. This representation of a grounded rational decision for sex work corresponds to the views of Chinese (Chin and Finckenauer, 2012) and Chinese, Thai and South Korean migrant sex workers (Renshaw et al., 2015) given in recent ethnographic accounts.

Campion claims to have consulted sex workers in construction her fiction, recounting that

I met with the Scarlet Alliance [Australia’s national sex workers association] and they said, ‘Why the hell do you have to have a story about dead prostitutes – it’s such a cliche and pathetic’, and I was like, ‘Oh OK, well it is a crime story’, and they said, ‘Yeah, I know but’ and explained why they hated it. So, in the end, we included their viewpoint in the story to get that voice across.

It’s difficult to see how Campion included their objections, and also how the “inclusion” of their point of view, such as it is, works in a way that does not privilege the Western feminist point of view, and delegitimize that of the sex workers. China Girl’s inclusions are tokenistic and actually amount to representational silencing. “Knowledge is power”, as post-structuralists are fond of saying, and delegitimized knowledge is powerless. In this scene (below), the white protagonist’s penetrating gaze forces the sex workers advocate to “recognise” the violence of sex trafficking, using a horrifying image of the victim’s corpse. The protagonist’s (painfully informed) gaze trumps the (Asian) advocate’s “delusional” description of sex work in Sydney as being regulated and safer than walking the streets (it “obviously” isn’t safe to cross the street if you might end up at the bottom of the ocean in a suitcase).

Framing the sex workers perspective. Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “So, what makes you think she’s a sex worker?” 2. “It’s safer to work in a brothel than to walk home at night”. Screenshot three has the detective showing the sex workers’ collective the victim’s corpse.

Despite the attempted recognition of the sex workers’ point of view, their voice (to the extent that it could be claimed to be present) is generally ‘heard’ but not listened to (to employ Leah Bassel’s 2017 distinction), as in this scene with the sex worker advocate, and in the use of the dead prostitute trope (despite the Scarlett Alliance’s objections).

The delegitimization is reinforced by the series’s constant reiteration of the dangerous inadequacies of Australian masculinity and of its sex work clients represented by the “sex wizard, Brett” and his motley crew of friends” and the character “Alex/Puss”. The young men involved in the online sex worker rating club/meeting are caricatures of male inadequacy,  whose homosocial bonding depends on their objectification of women. When one sex worker performs the “girlfriend experience’ for the most empathetic of them (the one who turns out to be violently delusional), she comes across like a bad drag act performing Asian sexual submissiveness. Asian sex work is represented as supporting a normality of Australian misogynist fantasy and masculine inadequacy.

These themes of socially harmful objectification are reiterated in the complex representation of the character “Puss/Alexander”. This character is given the job of (mis)representing left-wing “post-feminist” views on migrant sex work. As discussed above, he organizes the surrogate sex workers’ rebellion and exodus, depriving the desperate Australian would be parent’s of their paid-for babies, claiming to restore the migrant women’s’ agency over their own bodies and fates, and redressing the economic inequality between the wealthy Australians and Asian women.

However, the sincerity of this emancipating mission is undercut by the way that this character is represented as exploitative and misogynist. The Asian sex workers’ affection for and trust in the man they named “Professor Puss” (he is the brothel’s landlord, and teaches them some English) is framed from the point of view of the focalising protagonist .”Robin” perceives their affection as delusional, given her “more realistic” perception of this man as a criminal suspect (he may have murdered “China Girl”), a paedophile (who abuses her teenage daughter “Mary”), and a mentally deranged and violent misogynist. He is also represented as using “Mary” as an object to shield himself from being shot, and as a bigamist who humiliates his wife by entertaining his underage “girlfriend” at the Cafe Stasi (their business). Finally “Alexander Puss” is represented as a fraud, a failed academic whose rebellions against bourgeois morality — including the “prostituting’ of “Mary” — may represent envy, resentment, and self-loathing (furthering the drama’s expressions of masculine inadequacy).

Like the corrupt police chief character in Bessette’s Trade of Innocents, Campion’s “Alexander/Puss” is a narrative device which works to delegitimize the poverty argument for involvement in migrant sex work or — in this case —migrant surrogacy work.  Moreover, there is little apparent agency for the migrant women in Campion’s representation of their “escape”; the agency is exploitative and belongs to “Alexander/Puss”. If Campion had wanted to represent an act of migrant agency, she might have made the sex workers themselves the agents of their escape. In the same vein, the sex worker’s view that their earnings provide sufficient grounds for sex work, and the sex worker advocate’s view that the work is safe in Sydney (where it has been legalised and regulated) is undercut by the representations of the unremitting awfulness, violence and pathetic nature of the clients and the villain, and the terrible fate of the title character “China Girl”.

China Girl, while grounding its examination of western women’s complex motherhood and mother-daughter dynamics, and focalizing on the white protagonist’s “wounded attachments” (as Wendy Brown puts it), uses the representations of sexualized Asian bodies, and the dead prostitute trope in particular, without giving that character anything more than minimal screen time (predominantly as a device to illustrate “Brett’s” girlfriend fantasy). The procedural climax – “Alexander/Puss’s” revelation that the “Asian” migrant “Padma” (“China Girl”) had committed suicide comes as a minor aside to the white family romance of “Robin-Mary-Pyke”. This exploitative use of the Asian-exotic scene for Campion’s Western post-misogynist romance undercuts the director’s claimed interest in the perspective of migrant sex workers.

One sex worker commented that

Campion’s women are “not passive victims” — unless, of course, they’re sex workers … Campion’s dead (and, hence, passive) woman is, specifically, a migrant sex worker, a population that is consistently denied a voice Western pop culture/Australian political discourse, despite there being a great deal to say. 

She went on to observe that the Scarlet Alliance “has done groundbreaking research by and for migrant sex workers, which, if Campion had bothered to look at it, trouble assumptions of migrant sex workers as necessarily “trafficked”, exploited, and voiceless”. Key to the misrepresentation of migrant sex workers as “trafficked, exploited and voiceless” prostitutes is the idea that such women must be acting under the duress of force or coercion, rather than on the basis of the informed consent that the commentator describes as “foundational to our work”.

China Girl’s white feminist politics works by providing a narrative world that corresponds to some of the factual phenomenon reported in recent ethnographic research. The Thai, Chinese and South Korean women who make up the majority of migrant sex workers in cities like Sydney and Melbourne reported generally good and fair working conditions, and high levels of satisfaction with their earnings.

As noted above, Campion’s series does reflect the research showing very few claimed to enjoy sex work, but most reported that the good income made it worthwhile. China Girl also reasonably represents the prevalence of sex work among migrants on student visas. This corresponds to the research indicating the vast majority entered Australia legally and work in the sex industry voluntarily. However, the drama undercuts its points of accuracy in order to make unfounded representations. As opposed to the $30,000 debt owed by a sex worker in China Girl, none of the migrant sex workers interviewed by Renshaw et al., (2015) reported extortion through debt, and very few claims of having been trafficked. Similarly, many of the Chinese migrant sex worker interviewed by Chin and Finckenauer (2012) self-funded their legal international migration or paid comparatively small amounts to facilitators for irregular migration.

Research with migrant sex workers in Australian cities  (Renshaw et al., 2015) demonstrates the inaccuracy of portrayals of migrant sex workers as passive exploited victims. Unlike the risk suggested in anchoring device of the drowned prostitute’s corpse in Campion’s tale, migrant sex workers in cities like Sydney and Melbourne report high levels of personal safety and safe sexual health, and none of the migrant sex workers they interviewed identified themselves as victims.

In the end, China Girl’s exotic Asian-in-Sydney scenario works like Bessente’s “Cambodia” as an anchoring device for white western rescue trajectories; if Campion’s drama climaxes with the protagonist’s white family romance based on appropriate (consensual, non-exploitative) sexuality, her failure to “rescue” the Asian sex workers from the exploitative (and now trafficking) “Alex/Puss” is sheeted home to the triumph of damaged masculinity and its misogyny disguised as anti-imperialist equality politics. Both migrant sex work and the refusal of surrogacy are represented as working in the realms of exploitation, not in the grounded rationality and female agency that recent ethnography recognises as central to migrant sex workers’ decision-making (As well as Chin and Finckenauer, 2012, and Renshaw et al, 2015., see for example Agustin, 2006; Ahmad, 2005; Kempadoo, 2004; Mai, 2016).

Conclusion: the moral pornography of trafploitative anti-trafficking representations

The American and Australian anti-trafficking dramas examined here share much of the Orientalist and undemocratic character of the TiP reports. They share in common a silencing of the non-scripted views of migrant sex workers. This silencing works in part by misrepresentation, providing good script characters and narratives in which ideal victims desire rescue from exploitation. Those fantasies work to legitimate the moral narcissism of neo-abolitionists (including Western feminists and Christians).

These narratives engage with issues of gender, class, nationality and “race” but are not intersectional: they progress by suppressing one category (class/political economy) in order to privilege another (gender/morality). The silencing involved allows for only good script voices: for example, the migrant sex workers taking their foetuses home to Asia at the end of China Girl beckon to Mary to join them. But she alone has seen through the illusion of “Alex/Puss’s” benevolence: he is (“actually’) just exploitative (she knows this from her greater intimacy with him). In contrast, the group of Asian migrant sex workers (they don’t really achieve the kind of individuality that focalising characters own) are delusional (“mangliu”, blindly following their exploitative pimp). This kind of silencing is central to the neo-abolitionist logic in which there cannot be consensual sex work because all sex work is actually exploitative prostitution. That kind of essentialising view replicates the alleged silencing of Althusserian models of non-scientific ideology: sex workers are subjects of gendered interpellation and misrecognise themselves and their (exploitative) situation. They need rescue from their ideological ignorance.

That ignorance is represented as belonging to the culture of trafficking “victims” and “perpetrators”. Hua (2011) locates American anti-trafficking representations as working with a cultural racism that continues (or reinvents) European modernity’s hierarchies of civilisational development wherein the non-Western society is always in a state of “non-yetness” (Chakrabarty, 2000), requiring education to facilitate its eventual journey towards Western modernity. This reinvents the liberal concept of capacity as the boundary of freedom, relegating those who do not (allegedly “cannot”) adopt a good script perspective as irrational, backwards, barbaric, incapable.

As noted, this logic is built on occlusions of the point of view of those represented as being involved, including the sex worker’s, migrant sex workers’, facilitators, community members (in the migrants’ place of origin). That silencing confines the dominant perspective (in the West) within an onanistic loop of non-communication that might be understood as a failure of desire for transcultural understanding in the registers of class as well as ethnicity, “race” or nationality. The West — in this neo-abolitionist form — cannot meet and engage with the other, will not open itself to the critical self-transformations involved in reciprocity, but merely projects a fantasy image of a lesser-self.

Counter-narratives, such as the ethnographies of Chin and Finckenauer (2012) and Renshaw et al., (2015) and those of film-makers like Li-Yang (and in Europe, Nick Mai) provide a more democratic account that listens to rather than just hears the voices of migrant workers and those left behind in the journey’s origin. In Li Yang’s case, this listening is potentially transformative as Blind Shaft give space to the rural perspective in which anti-trafficking law is viewed as a further entrenchment of severe culture-class inequality. The listening involved in that perspective is the inverse of the cultural imperialism of trafploitative narratives like those of the TiP reports, and mainstream Western film and tv dramas.


Author: shabbycheek

Lecturer and researcher in intersectional cultural studies, historical sociology, American and migration studies. Working in China on America, British, Australian and Chinese social justice issues using Feminist materialist, post-Marxist (Gramscian), Critical Race Studies and post-colonial perspectives.

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