"Joy Ride" delivers a full-frontal subversion of sexuality for Asian women

Both hilarious and empowering, the raunchfest doesn't use its R rating for mere titillation or transgression

Published July 10, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Sabrina Wu, Ashley Park, Sherry Cola and Stephanie Hsu in "Joy Ride"  (Ed Araquel/Lionsgate)
Sabrina Wu, Ashley Park, Sherry Cola and Stephanie Hsu in "Joy Ride" (Ed Araquel/Lionsgate)

The following contains mild spoilers for "Joy Ride"

Name a movie where there's full-frontal female nudity, and it's not sexualized. I'll wait. 

If you answered "Joy Ride," you'd be correct. The raunchy and (clearly) R-rated road trip comedy, directed by Adele Lim and written by Teresa Hsiao and Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, stars Ashley Park, who plays Type A attorney Audrey, as she journeys to Beijing with her friends for a work trip that quickly devolves. 

This vagina is not meant to turn you on. 

Throughout the movie, bare genitalia is teased. Whispers of an elaborate and colorful vagina tattoo on Audrey's friend Kat (Stephanie Hsu) come up again and again. When the proverbial skirt finally drops, courtesy of Kat's long train getting snagged during her K-pop dance routine, it's shocking for two reasons.

On one hand, full-frontal female nudity doesn't happen often in theaters, which makes Lim's choice to go there a bit surprising. On the other hand, when women's bodies are revealed, they are often depicted in a strictly sexual light. But this vagina is not meant to turn you on (and no before you ask, it's not Hsu's actual anatomy either). The large and intricate tattoo surrounding it makes the scene light-hearted and comical. For once, the vagina gets to be a regular body part. It gets the penis nudity treatment that for so long has been a site for comic relief while avoiding objectification. 

This is just one of the many ways that the movie subverts how women have been portrayed onscreen. It's the women in the movie who make the d**k jokes, cunningulus references and share threesome anecdotes. They are unapologetically sexual and in charge of their desire but, crucially, not sexualized. This portrayal critically undermines how Asian women's sexuality has been harmfully depicted throughout Hollywood.

"Female sexuality in previous R-rated movies, or in previous movies just in general, is usually played for sexuality. It is played for titillation. It is played as females are the hot sexy ones, and male nudity, that's the stuff that's usually mined for jokes. We wanted to flip that a little," Chevapravatdumrong told Salon.

Hsiao added, "In this movie, the characters are allowed to be wild and raunchy, but they're doing it on their own terms. [. . . ] When you look back at a lot of these other movies, the women are just there the nags or they're there to be the foil. Whereas in our movie, our characters are the ones making the jokes, but also being the butt of the jokes." 

Pop culture would have you believe that Asian women are overly promiscuous, just bursting at the seams to have sex with you, follow orders and submit. This trope, sometimes referred to as Lotus Blossom or China Doll, is defined by media and cultural studies professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Lori Kido Lopez, as the Asian woman who "is very quiet and submissive and can't speak for herself. Oftentimes, the plot revolves around her literally needing to be saved . . . and needing the white man to both romance her and do things for her that she could never do for herself." We see this in "Miss Saigon," "Memoirs of a Geisha" and Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." 

In Kubrick's 1987 movie, the infamous line, "Me love you long time," delivered by a Vietnamese sex worker (Papillon Soo Soo) to two American GIs, has long haunted Asian women everywhere. In depicting this woman as an obedient sex worker, it reinforces the idea that Asian women are objects that exist to serve men, a stereotype that has real-world implications like increased violence against the Asian American community. This includes the case of the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting, where Robert Aaron Long predominantly murdered Asian women because he had a "sex addiction" and viewed the Asian women as "a temptation" he wanted to eliminate.

Joy RideSabrina Wu, Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu and Sherry Cola in "Joy Ride" (Ed Araquel/Lionsgate)If they're not portrayed as sex workers and other hypersexual damsels in distress, then Asian women in Hollywood fall on the other end of the spectrum, that of the Dragon Lady. This stereotype sees Asian women as deceitful and evil temptresses. The most famous example of this is O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) in "Kill Bill: Vol. I" or Alex Munday (also Lucy Liu) in "Charlie's Angels." As the Dragon Lady, Liu's characters wield sexuality in order to lure men, seduce them and then kill them. The moral of the trope hammers home the notion that Asian women are dangerous, largely because of their weaponized sexuality.

"The characters are allowed to be wild and raunchy, but they're doing it on their own terms."

"Joy Ride" is where these stereotypes go to die. No one in the ensemble is d**kmatized, docile or a siren. Just try telling Lolo (Sherry Cola) what to do. Lolo does what she wants and who she wants. When she's not making sex-positive, penis-shaped artwork, she talks proudly of sex, getting her pleasure and saying what's on her mind, however real or TMI that might be. 

"Sex isn't shameful; it's beautiful like the noises," she tells basketball star Baron Davis (who plays himself in the movie), right before the pair make various hissing, moaning, choking and slurping "sex" sounds. Thirsty and candid, Lolo's a far cry from the Lotus Blossom trope or the deceitful Dragon lady. And the movie takes this as a given — no one is shaming or coming onto Lolo because of it. It makes sense why the friend group chooses to sing a K-Pop rendition of Cardi B's "WAP." What lyric is more emblematic of reclaiming sexual desires than "There's some whores in this house?"

Even Lolo's grandmother, Nainai (Lori Tan Chinn), isn't meek about sex. When she gives Audrey a dress to meet her birth mother in, she tells her it's the same one she wore when she was deflowered and then flashes her a cheeky smile.

Perhaps the scene that most explicitly subverts tropes about Asian women's sexuality is when the characters meet the Chinese Basketball Association, who save the day by rescuing the friends from being stranded on the road. At their gym, Lolo, Kat and Audrey stare, almost salivating, at the men. Slow-motion close-ups of the men's bodies are pointed reversals of how women are often the ones being objectified in movies, particularly when it comes to raunchy comedies.

Each of the crew then embarks on their own sexual endeavors with the basketball team. Audrey gets her "Eiffel tower" moment with Kenny (Chris Pang) and Arvind (Rohain Arora). The men's attentions are focused on her pleasure, proving that two heads are not only better than one, but can also go down simultaneously. Audrey, ever the one to be in control of her own life, is the dominant one here, pulling the men's hair back, directing them and swinging their heads around. She directs them with so much gusto that the men bash heads and get a concussion. 

The other men don't fare much better either, and the comedy is all the better because of it. Kat, struggling to remain monogamous and abstinent with her religious fiancé, is working off the cocaine-induced horniness at the gym. There she runs into Todd (Alexander Hodge) whose sweaty shirtlessness is not helping. When she pulls a muscle, he whips out his Theragun (which is not an innuendo). The quick vibrations of the bulb speak to Kat on a sensual level. She uses him and his gun to find her pleasure. Like Audrey, she takes charge, directing Todd to point it this way and that. Her climax comes at the direct expense of his pain, when the massager ends up aggressively vibrating against his crotch, putting him out of commission for future games. 

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Unlike so many movies that linger on women's bodies and male pleasure during sex scenes, this one drastically flips the script, using men almost to their breaking point for women's pleasure. Each sex scene is everything that Sam Levinson's "The Idol" isn't. Lim keeps the women in charge, reclaiming sex from something that's done to Asian women to something they dictate instead. Even Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) who, in place of having sex, has a dance-off with one of the basketball players, offers a refreshing break from the ways Asian people are depicted as perpetually horned up. When the men hobble out of the rooms the next morning, beaten and bandaged, it's as humorous as it is empowering.

In an age where representation can easily become a tokenized marketing buzzword, "Joy Ride" offers a more nuanced portrayal that upends the hypersexualization of Asian women characters. It's testament to how representation is not just a matter of putting people of color onscreen but also behind the camera, in positions of power and in the writers' room. 

By Kelly Pau


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Asian Women Commentary Full Metal Jacket Joy Ride Movies Sexuality