What makes a man a man? China has been pondering that question of late as it goes through a millennial-led cultural shift in ideas about gender
Traditionally, many have seen China as a nation of unshakable gender roles. But in today's popular culture, young male Chinese celebrities can often be seen wearing (and marketing) makeup and beauty products. The term “xiao xianrou,” which literally translates as “little fresh meat,” has emerged to describe the young, handsome men leading this male beauty revolution.
Sections of the Chinese press expressed concern and even anger that the younger generation was losing its masculinity with the increasing prominence of androgynous-looking men in youth culture. In September, a fierce debate on the definition of masculinity dominated China's social media, fueled by a television show for teenagers. A number of parents and others worried that the rise of effeminate male idols would have an adverse impact on China's young, even using derogatory and homophobic terms like “sissy” to refer to them.
But in contrast with the older generation's apparent fear of the feminine, more and more Chinese millennials, who yearn for freedom, individuality and diversity, are embracing a culture of androgyny and gender fluidity as they attempt to subvert conventional gender roles.
‘Sissy Pants’ Phobia
“If teenagers are sissy, then the nation is sissy” – the phrase went viral in mid-september after the television show First Class of the New Semester fueled public antagonism toward effeminate males.
A joint production between China Central Television and the Ministry of Education, the show is compulsory viewing for the country's elementary students and parents on the Saturday night before the fall semester begins. Nevertheless, the show sparked fierce reactions as it invited makeup-wearing male celebrities with appearances deemed by many to be “too effeminate.”
Parents worried gender-neutral celebrities would influence their sons to behave in a feminine way at school. Online, there were claims that the trend had gone too far and that these “little fresh meat” were “poisoning” the young.
In a particularly ugly editorial, the state media outlet Xinhua News Agency lambasted the celebrities as “sissy pants” who are “slender and weak” and warned that “the impact of this sick culture on our young generation is immeasurable.”
Beijing Youth Daily, which is run by the Beijing Committee of the Communist Youth League of China, joined the chorus warning: “If we put no limit on this trend, more people will be proud of this effeminacy and our country's masculinity will be in crisis.”
Another state outlet, the People’s Daily, took a more open-minded view, calling for respect of diverse aesthetics and an appreciation of inner beauty.
In late September, China's authorities took the drastic step of putting an “effeminate ban” on the entertainment industry, limiting androgynous-looking celebrities from making public appearances on TV and at concerts. As a result, for the sake of their own careers, many of the idols washed off their makeup, put on more masculine-style clothing and took pictures at gyms, showing off their muscles and hormones.
Some celebrities have thrown their support behind the ban and harshly criticized the effeminate aesthetic.
Wu Jing, the action star and director of the 2017 high octane shoot'em-up Wolf Warrior II, China's highest-ever grossing film, claimed that the series reflected his pursuit of “more real men, fewer sissy pants.”
Famed director Feng Xiaogang also berated the little fresh meat phenomenon, accusing young male actors of being “too timid and sweet.” “Talent agencies should take most of the blame. They make young men wear thick makeup and make various kinds of alluring postures with their slender bodies half-shown, half-covered loosely by clothes. Sometimes I wonder whether they are running a brothel,” Feng said.
On July 10, during a press conference for his new show, The Patriot, Wang Hailin, the screenwriter of a number of hit TV dramas, including The Eloquent Ji Xiaolan, absurdly labeled stars who conform to the aesthetic as “male prostitutes.”
“When filmmakers say they want some ‘little fresh meat' to play roles in their works, they mean they want some male prostitutes,” said Wang, arguing that countries with an “advanced understanding of aesthetics,” such as powerful Western nations, often demonstrate a strong sense of masculinity, represented by popular actors such as Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr.
He claimed the little fresh meat craze threatened the younger generation. “Male actors represent national ideology. If the most popular male actors in our country are feminine-looking ones, it will threaten our national aesthetics. They can exist, but they should not be rewarded. We should not encourage people to take this direction.”
These remarks, many with homophobic overtones, have been criticized as male chauvinism. These “sissy haters” were deemed by many netizens to be displaying symptoms of “straight men cancer,” a neologism that describes a group of men who are stubbornly sexist and call for the return of conservative values.
“I don't like the style of those effeminate men. But it is definitely wrong to take them off the screens. It's their choice and their right,” commented Yang Yi, a Weibo user.
“Every cloud has a different shape, every flower a different color and every road goes in a different direction. The diversity of human beings should be respected rather than be repressed,” wrote Zhang Dahua, a Zhihu user and LGBT rights activist.
Some also point out that public antipathy toward effeminate men is indicative of misogyny. “Softness, tenderness and consideration – aren't these good qualities suitable for a harmonious society? The socalled masculinity of traditional gender stereotypes can be a hotbed for violence, belligerence and extremism. In modern China, where gender equality should be encouraged, our society still views masculinity as superior and femininity as inferior. These voices remind us that Chinese women still face prejudice and discrimination,” feminist Lin Dingding commented on Weibo.
“I basically wear makeup every time I go out. For me, polishing myself and maintaining a clean and neat look is a way of showing respect to other people. And that's not an exclusive right of women,” says Zeng Shun, a 23-year-old Shanghai-based makeup blogger who regularly posts male makeup tutorials on social media. Preoccupied with his look and style, Zeng estimates he spends half of his income on clothing and cosmetics.
“I don't see anything wrong with a man using skincare and beauty products. For me, men wearing makeup is a choice and a lifestyle. It has nothing to do with gender identity. Straight or gay, men have the right to choose their own comfortable way of expressing themselves in their appearance,” he told Newschina.
The young blogger also links looking good to success in the job market. “Wearing makeup makes men confident. Whether we like to admit it or not, we live in a society where people are judged more and more by their appearance. Nowadays, being good-looking sometimes means chances and opportunities – it helps you stand out from the intense competition,” Zeng said.
Zeng is one of a growing number of young Chinese men showing interest in male beauty products and unisex clothing and displaying a softer form of masculinity.
The total market for male beauty consumption in China is expected to reach 13.2 billion yuan (US$2.1B) this year, according to research firm Euromonitor International. The firm estimates that China's male beauty sector will grow by 6.5 percent in 2019, well above the expected global category growth rate of 4.9 percent.
Research suggests that the grooming needs of Chinese men are not confined to basic, traditional categories such as shaving, but are also expanding to less-traditional categories such as skincare.
According to the De-gendered Consumption: China’s Gender Trends Report recently released by e-commerce platforms Vip.com and Jd.com, 96 percent of male online shoppers purchased beauty and cosmetic products at least once last year. The report found that for the past three years, the sales volume of male beauty products has almost doubled year-on-year, with cleansing face masks being the most popular choice.
Chinese male consumers' exploration of beauty has not stopped at skincare, for more and more are showing interest in cosmetic products, such as beauty or blemish creams, makeup-removal, concealers, lipstick and eyebrow pencils. Millennials are the major demographic driving the male beauty trend. One in five Chinese men born in or after 1995 use cosmetics or light makeup such as creams, lipstick and eyeliner, the report shows.
Major cosmetics companies and luxury brands around the world are employing gender-neutral marketing by working with androgynous-looking brand ambassadors. Last year, French cosmetics brand L'occitane saw a double-digit sales growth after introducing Chinese superstar Lu Han as its brand ambassador. Lu has won millions of hearts for his effeminate face and flawless skin.
Japanese cosmetics brand SK-II uses young musician Dou Jingtong as its brand ambassador. Dou is the daughter of Chinese pop diva Faye Wang and rock songwriter Dou Wei.
The 21-year-old artist, who sports a conspicuous chin tattoo, is loved by Chinese millennials with her distinct musical personality and natural androgynous style.
In addition to skincare and cosmetics, fashion is another area where Chinese millennials challenge traditional gender roles to express themselves.
“Androgyny has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It's just style, choice and self-expression,” said Wang Chen, a 20-year-old student of Nanjing University. The first time Wang tried on a woman's dress was at a comic convention at the age of 16. Wang was cosplaying as Kikyo, a female character in the Japanese manga Inuyasha. He has cosplayed as various female characters since. With a soft look and slender figure, Wang has been praised for his close resemblance to the characters.
Cosplaying gives him an opportunity to try out different identities and experience the female version of himself. In real life, he prefers gender-neutral clothes, and frequents the female sections of stores like Uniqlo and Zara when looking for more variety.
“Seldom do people scold a woman for wearing men's clothing. They say it's cool and charming. But when it comes to men wearing women's clothing, they may say it's morbid. It's a double standard that no one really questions,” Wang told Newschina.
Deng Xiquan, the head of the China Youth & Children Center's Youth Institute, says the trend of blurring gender roles shows the inner desire of Chinese millennials to declare their independence and nonconformity from traditional mainstream culture.
Despite the influence of effeminate Korean and Japanese actors and pop stars cited by many analysts, Deng claims the rise of feminine aesthetics among men is also down to rapid economic growth and a stable environment. The modern lifestyle has challenged traditional gender roles. Feminine temperaments, which are more cooperative, considerate and understanding, may lead to better interpersonal communication and less conflict.
“The seeming dominance of little fresh meat in popular culture is a temporary cultural phenomenon, a result of idol-making and gender-neutral marketing. Effeminate aesthetics constitute one part of contemporary China's diverse cultural landscapes, yet they remain subordinate,” Deng told the People’s Daily, adding that it is unnecessary to exaggerate the negative impact since being androgynous is still a choice of the minority.
Many Chinese millennials argue that the definition of masculinity should be re-evaluated. They see real masculinity as relevant to one's character and inner qualities, rather than gender expressions and appearance.
“I find it a rather silly idea to equate makeup-wearing, androgynous-looking men with weakness or a lack of courage. To me, being a real man means to be brave and responsible. One's looks are irrelevant. If a muscular, tough guy is misogynistic, has no sense of responsibility to his family and is even a domestic abuser, can he be called a real man?” asked Zeng Shun.
“The public's antipathy toward the little fresh meat phenomenon is unnecessary. It reflects a traditional, outdated, rigid and binary gender view – traditionally, people believed men should be masculine and full of strength, and women should be soft and tender,” noted Fang Gang, a well-known sexologist and professor at Beijing Forestry University.
From Fang's perspective, gender is a crucial aspect of self, but it has long been narrowly defined and rigidly enforced. Individuals who contravene gender norms may face innumerable challenges and misunderstandings. Even those who vary slightly from the norms become targets of disapproval.
“In an advanced society, individuals' gender personalities and expressions might vary. They have the right to choose their own gender temperament and stay true to themselves,” Fang told Newschina, encouraging people to be liberal and tolerant of gender diversity.
“It's good to break free from gender stereotypes and embrace gender diversity. Even if you do not like certain gender traits, you need to respect people's own choices.”
“Society's gender expectations of men are much higher and more rigid than toward women,” said Zeng, suggesting that men are the victims of conventional gender stereotypes. Compared to women, men have to face more restrictions when they choose androgynous styles.
“We are still living in a patriarchal society where the masculine men dominate the power of discourse. As you can see, women are generally more tolerant and understanding toward effeminate men. Masculine men might regard androgynous men a threat to their own gender identity and gender expression,” Zeng added.
Young male stars participate in the online reality show Idol Producer
Li Jiaqi, born in 1992, applies lipstick during a livestream on Taobao, China’s largest online shopping platform in Shanghai, January 3, 2018