Frag­ile Mas­culin­ity

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

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Yi Ziyi

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.

De-gen­dered Trend

“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 and, 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.

Redefin­ing Mas­culin­ity

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

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