When I was sixteen, I modeled fur coats for a furrier.
White men gazed down my neck like wolves
But my mink collar protected me.
I bet men – and not a few women – are tired of hearing about the indignities of being female. And I’ll bet nearly everyone, including some of the woke, is shocked to find that Asians deal with racism, too. Well, the speaker of the poem doesn’t care what people are tired of hearing about, or what level of stereotyping others think is not too bad; she’s mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it any more.
The poem is one of a set of five poems concerning Anna May Wong, considered the first Chinese American actress. Her career started in the 1920s and moved from silents to talkies to radio and television, and while she performed in dozens of movies and almost as many TV roles (IMDB lists 61 credits), when it came to major roles, she was sidelines by whitewashing: the casting of white actors in non-white roles, a practice that’s still common today.
The conceit of the poem is the conflation of Wong’s 16th birthday and the speaker’s sweet 16 from 1984 [Addendum: See Comments – I missed a major reference here] with the overarching sense of the present. The concerns haven’t changed much:
so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead,
an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city
without shores. Cast me as that girl who rivets centerstage
or cast me away, into the blue where my lips don’t touch
or say. If I take my time machine back to sixteen, or twenty,
or eight, I’d blow out all my candles. Sixteen wishes
extinguish and burn.
I don’t have much to add. Anna May Wong, and/or Sally Wen Mao, has done a pretty good job of speaking for herself. Most women do.