Written by Jamie J. Zhao
On 28 April 2017, the first single, ‘Action’ (xingdongpai), of the newly formed Chinese pop group FFC-Acrush (Acrush in short) was released in Beijing. In the music video, five androgynous young people dance and sing like K-pop male idols. Yet, long before the song’s release, the band had already sensationalised Chinese cyberspace for their cross-dressing personas in public appearances and promotion. As the first Chinese ‘boyband’ formed by five young, handsome, masculine Chinese girls between 18 and 24 years old, millions of Chinese female fans have gone fanatic for Acrush members’ androgynous beauty, despite their cross-gender impersonation.
This might seem confusing at first glance. The group refers to itself as a ‘boyband’. Its members’ looks and performances are often marketed as good exemplars of female fans’ ‘husbands’ (laogong). Yet, at times, the members emphasise to the media that they are ‘gender-neutral-style’ (zhongxing feng) girls. Meanwhile, during interviews and interactions with their fans, these female idols also often reject gender pronouns and any explicit discussions about their sexual orientations. This ambiguity surrounding the band’s gender and sexuality has attracted global media attention in the past two months. However, the appearance and wide popularity of this band in Mainland China, as well as its ambiguous queer play with female masculinity and homosociality, should not come as a surprise to Chinese audiences.
In mid-2000s’ Japan, there was a famous ‘boyband’, Fudanjuku, comprised of several cross-dressing females who were otaku (people with great interests in anime, cosplay, games, and similar cultures). In early 2010s’ Taiwan, a similar ‘gender-neutral’ music group, Misster, with five tomboyish girls was formed. Acrush’s K-Pop androgynous style might also have been influenced by the Korean cultural wave that has flooded Mainland China since the late 1990s.
More importantly, the Mainland Chinese entertainment industry had already manufactured a number of well-known tomboyish female idols over the last decade, most of whom rose to stardom after the success of the 2005 Chinese reality singing competition show, Super Girl (Hunan Satellite TV, 2004-2006). In its 2005 season, the unexpected popularity of the show’s tomboyish winner, Li Yuchun (Chris Lee), led to a surge of female celebrities with cross-dressing performances and masculine personas in Super Girl and Mainland showbiz in general.
Nevertheless, despite seemingly serving as a feminist or gender-liberating trend, the Mainland’s commercialisation of this ‘gender-neutral’ style might have quite different sociocultural implications than those of the culture of gender neutrality in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Gender-neutrality is often linked to lesbian visibility and queer female subjectivity in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s mainstream societies, both of which have more openly-out celebrities and better sociocultural atmospheres for gender and sexual minorities. For example, the competition for selecting the group members of Misster was held in a lesbian bar in Taipei in 2009, which already divulges the band’s lesbian undertones. The band leader, Anna Dai, is also a famous tomboy lesbian celebrity in Taiwan. In contrast, none of the tomboyish Super Girl celebrities have ever come out of the closet. Some of them have experienced waves of lesbian rumors online, which either were denied by the celebrities’ agents or greatly damaged their music careers.
The kind of female masculinity epitomised by Acrush often represents either a unique form of fashion or beauty, or a distinctive young woman’s personality in a cosmopolitan China. Gender-neutral female celebrities are often expected to combine desirable masculine and feminine gender traits, yet are not self-identified lesbians or queer women. In fact, whenever this style is closely associated with lesbian sexualities in the off-screen world, celebrities will either downplay or deny this ‘abnormal’ possibility. Although their cross-gender personas often invite fans’ queer readings and fantasies, these queer practices are only limited to playful imaginations and do not necessarily reflect any real-world erotic desires or queer identities of either the fans or the celebrities.
In this sense, the commercialised ‘gender-neutral’ phenomenon in Mainland China might suggest a more worrying mainstream cultural trend for LGBTQ groups. By becoming entertaining elements in sensationalised commercial media, the implied gender and sexual nonnormativities in the Mainland ‘gender-neutral’ style have, to a certain extent, already lost any sociocultural and political significance for gender and sexual minorities. During this queer sensationalism of the Mainland entertainment industry, celebrities can ‘perform’ transgressive gender identities and intimacies without seriously disturbing and menacing heteronormative structures in the real world. In other words, all that is related to queer desires and voices becomes a fictional play on screen to entertain the nation.
What underpins Mainland China’s queer sensationalist commercial culture is actually a distinctive Chinese understanding of female masculinity as a gendered continuum instead of as a signifier for queer sexualities. Jack Halberstam famously noted that female masculinity is more tolerated in women’s adolescence stage as a resistant against adulthood in the Western context. Yet, in both the traditional and modern Mainland Chinese contexts, even when produced by and displayed on adult female bodies, certain kinds of masculinity are not necessarily linked to subjects’ lesbianism, but merely mark an ‘aesthetic form’ or a form of ‘political adherence and moral power’. These cultural specificities of Mainland ‘gender-neutrality’ create a hierarchical, discriminatory queer pop culture that legitimises profitable female masculinities. Groups like Acrush do not explicitly unveil the lesbian identities and desires of celebrities and fans in the off-screen world, thereby aggravating the invisible and intelligible existence and unrecognised daily struggles of Mainland Chinese self-identified female gender and sexual minorities.
Jamie J. Zhao is currently a PhD student in Film and TV Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. She holds another doctoral degree in Gender Studies from Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research spans a wide array of topics on Chinese queer entertainment, celebrity culture, and public culture. Her most recent publication can be found in the volume she co-edited with Maud Lavin and Ling Yang, ‘Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (HKUP, 2017)’. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled “Queer Asia,” a conference held at SOAS University of London between the 16th and 18th June 2017 exploring LGBTQ+ issues in Asia. Image credit: CC Wikimedia Commons.