Source: Global Times Published: 2018-9-11
○ A TV special shown to elementary school students featuring highly effeminate male celebrities has lit a firestorm online
○ Many official media outlets condemned the TV program for "poisoning China's youth," some using offensive language like "sissy"
○ Other voices, including the People's Daily, are calling for tolerance of the different ways to be a man
A heated debate on China's new feminine-looking male celebrities has flooded Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform, as the country's State broadcaster aired four young male singers in its television special First Class of the New Semester on September 1.
Designed for China's elementary school students, the TV special jointly produced by China Central Television and the Ministry of Education is compulsory for most of the country's elementary students.
Angry parents harshly criticized the youthful celebrities, deriding them with terms like "pretty girls that cannot have babies," and called on authorities to ban the effeminate stars before the next generation adopts their example.
Mr Feng, father of a 5-year-old boy, told the Global Times that he is worried that his son will behave in a feminine way in school under the influence of these stars.
On the other hand, some voices are urging society to respect people's rights to be as feminine or masculine as they choose. Some of these people circulated a video about a 15-year-old boy's death attributed to school bullying over his feminine appearance in Taiwan 18 years ago.
"It is important to stay true to your heart," Zhang Yukun, mother of a 4-year-old boy, told the Global Times, adding, "I will give my son all my support as long as he chooses a path he likes."
A crisis of masculinity
A commentary published by the Xinhua News Agency on September 6 blasted these girlish idols, saying China's youth will have a crisis of masculinity if they follow the way these pop idols speak or dress.
"They look androgynous and wear makeup; they are slender and weak," read the commentary. "The impact this sick culture will have on our young generation is immeasurable. The youth are the future of the country… What a country's pop culture embraces, refuses and conveys is something that matters to the future of a country."
An editorial released by the Beijing Youth Daily, a newspaper under the Beijing committee of the Communist Youth League of China, on Saturday read, "Some children are loyal fans of these effeminate idols and they will copy whatever their idols say or do… If we set no limit to this trend, more people will be proud of this effeminacy and our society and our country's masculinity will be in crisis."
The media's condemnation triggered a heated debate on social media. Some are happy that China's official news outlets are finally voicing concerns on what they see as a harmful trend in the entertainment industry.
"If one man wants to dress like a woman, I will respect that. But this should not be the mainstream aesthetic, and public figures, especially, should avoid that," commented one user on Weibo.
But some netizens said such views fall into gender stereotyping and lack diversity.
"There should not be one standard on male beauty or masculinity. Choose what you like, and tolerate what others like, that's enough. Diversity makes the world beautiful," Huiyu, a Weibo user, commented.
"Requiring that boys have to be masculine is like saying girls must be sweet and gentle," another netizen commented.
Some are especially offended by media reports' connection of feminine idols with China's future.
"My job is to work with people from China's LGBT community. A lot of them, men or women, defy mainstream perceptions of masculinity and femininity. But this doesn't, in any way, affect their capability in the workplace or their contribution to our society and to the country," Ah Qiang (pseudonym), a well-known gay rights activist and director of Guangzhou-based NGO Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), told the Global Times.
Fang Gang, an expert on gender and psychological studies at Beijing Forestry University, said the existence of male idols who don't comply with traditional sexual views is a good thing and shows that Chinese society is becoming more diverse in its perceptions of sexuality.
"Saying that they will affect a country's destiny is too far-fetched," he told the Global Times.
Diversified aesthetic standards
Hours after Xinhua's editorial, the People's Daily published an article calling for people to understand and respect diversity in aesthetic standards. It said that whether a person chooses to be dainty or unkempt, it is that individual's own choice and a rational, mature and permissive society should be inclusive.
A person should be judged by their virtue rather than their appearance. People should focus on the interior and not put much weight on the exterior, said the report.
The report also criticized Xinhua's usage of the derogatory word "sissy," and called on celebrities who boast influence among teenagers to use their sense of social responsibility by being a more positive and upbeat image and displaying health and beauty.
The report also pointed out that in modern society, the range of things considered beautiful has broadened, providing people with more diverse lifestyle choices, and fostering more varied male aesthetic standards.
"Male and female in contemporary China is no longer distinct, and men and women are showing more mutual understanding and accommodation for each other after a long period of social development," said Zhang Yiwu, a professor from Peking University.
"It's not improper that a few actors show femininity, as Mei Lanfang and Cheng Yanqiu, the great cross-dressing opera actors who also paid great attention to their appearance in their daily lives, have been respected and admired by the country for a century for their patriotism and noble hearts," said Zhang.
A young man surnamed Zhu said that he hopes his children in the future, as well as his nieces and nephews, will be free from a fixed feminine or masculine personality stereotype. Men are entitled to be sensitive, which makes them more detail-oriented, and girls have rights to be brave so that they will grow strong-minded, as long as they are righteous and responsible.
China's standard of male beauty has been changing considerably in the past decades.
Zhu Shimao was well-known to Chinese as well as a dream love for most Chinese girls in the 1980s after the release of Herdsman, a hit movie starring Zhu in 1982.
Zhu was deemed a typical "prince charming" at that time with masculine facial features and body curves, big eyes and bushy eyebrows, and patriotism, the most attractive character trait in that decade.
In the 1990s, Chou Yun-fat and Andy Lau, two actors from Hong Kong, were admired by both men and women. They played wisecracking gangsters and suave thieves. They represented an aesthetic standard in that decade. Men dressed like them, and woman wanted to marry someone like them.
In 2000, Meteor Garden, a hit idol drama, swept China and overturned many Chinese people's aesthetic standards for men. The male stars of that series had long and dyed hair, fair skin, and beautiful feminine faces, winning the hearts of school girls. In the same period, beautiful Korean pop stars with dainty and delicate features won the hearts of young Chinese audiences, together with similarly cast idol dramas from Korea and Japan.
Ah Qiang says China's economic growth, rise in living standards and global fashion trends are all factors contributing to this change.
"After China's opening-up, more people have been exposed to the beauty standards of Japan, Korea and the West. Gender neutrality has been a global trend in recent years," he said.
The rise in people's living standards is also a critical factor. The male skincare and cosmetics products market of the Chinese mainland is expected to reach 1.9 billion yuan ($276 million) in 2019, and is expected to grow more than twice as fast as the overall global cosmetics market, according to research by the consulting firm Euromonitor International.
"The reason why men use more skincare and cosmetics, for example, is that they now have a higher living standard. Some might say the older generation are too masculine to use skincare products, but really it's just because they were not economically advantaged enough to care about their appearance," Ah Qiang said.
The debate is ongoing, and unlikely to end soon. In Zhang's opinion, the current debate is only partly about gender stereotypes, and mostly about disgust with pandering to teenagers' vulgar tastes without passing on positive energy and role models, be they masculine or feminine in form.
Zhang Yiwu is a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.