When Mao Zedong ruled supreme in China, androgyny wasn’t considered such a bad thing, in fashion terms at least.
Men and women wore similar clothes – baggy blue or grey outfits, comprising of loose fitting trousers and boxy jackets. The idea was to eradicate some of the more obvious visual differences between the sexes and the garb also had a levelling effect – people couldn’t flaunt wealth or power if everyone was dressed the same. Or at least that was the theory.
Fast forward 40 years and a new type of androgyny is the subject of heated debate. This time the focus is on niangpao, or so-called “sissy boys” in the worlds of fashion and entertainment who are young, fresh-faced and often a little effeminate in their mannerisms.
The question became a hot topic in early September when a back-to-school television gala co-produced by state broadcaster CCTV and the Ministry of Education featured several of these stars, including three of the male leads from a popular TV show called Meteor Garden (see WiC418).
Conservative-minded parents took to social media to complain that these stars were poor role models for their children. “What can I expect my kids to learn from these sissies? How to apply lipstick?” asked one.
“Who are these men? Won’t they lead our kids astray?” fretted another.
State media then waded into the debate with Xinhua attacking niangpao culture for having a negative impact. It took aim at the “effeminate” male celebrities on the gala show, complaining that “this sick culture is having an inestimably adverse impact on teenagers”.
“To nurture those who will shoulder the job of helping our nation reach its renaissance we must shield them from undesirable cultures,” it warned.
The Peoples’ Liberation Daily picked up on the same theme, bemoaning the shortage of “martial spirit” among the nation’s youth and reminding its readers that the Roman empire met its fate because its citizens had given themselves over to the pursuit of luxury.
“We are worried not only about the changes in the external looks of adolescents, but also about the desolation of their spiritual world and the erosion of their martial masculinity,” the army-backed lamented in rougher tone.
Such sentiment is part of wider concerns that manhood is under threat in China as the country becomes more affluent – emulating some of the places where niangpao culture originated, such as South Korea and Japan. Compounding the anxiety: Chinese women are less willing to accept the traditional gender roles of wife and mother, preferring to focus on their own aspirations and careers.
And when asked what type of partner they want, some women say xiao naigou or “little puppy dog” – a man willing to do anything to please. The message is that masculinity is in retreat as women look for husbands with different attributes to previous generations.
“In the past we all wanted to find a ‘father’ and be loved like a daughter. Now we all want to find a ‘son’ and be respected like a mother,” a popular blogger called Er Geng Shitang wrote in March.
Increasingly Chinese men are experimenting with cosmetics to improve their appearance (see WiC415) and beauty bloggers cater specifically to customers who want to get the same dewy look of the “little fresh meats” (the Chinese term for the boyish actors and singers). E-commerce companies such as Alibaba and JD.com have launched livestreaming platforms that allow viewers to buy products as they watch these video hosts and cosmetic firms see a big opportunity (Chanel is set to launch a makeup line for men later this year).
In Shanghai the authorities seem particularly worried about the influence of ‘sissy’ culture on the city’s male adolescents. The local ministry of education introduced classes in some schools on how to be more masculine two years ago and it has been trying to recruit more male teachers so that children get to have more masculine role models during their early years.
“The gender imbalance [in staff] at preschool and primary schools may lead to girls growing up to be more powerful than boys, who will lack confidence and be unable to tackle tough challenges,” one education expert told the China Daily at the time of the announcement.
Yet not everyone is concerned about the “feminisation” of Chinese men.
After the initial wave of negative feedback over CCTV’s gala show there was pushback from other netizens that the criticism was going too far. Other parts of the state media felt so too, saying that the niangpao trend reflected concepts of beauty and plurality that could be seen as a good thing.
Xinhua’s denigration of the sissy boys was too much for the People’s Daily, for instance, which weighed in that a modern society should allow for broader “aesthetic standards” that recognised “more diversified living styles” and “more facets to masculinity”.
Back on social media, younger women questioned what was wrong with men wanting to look clean and presentable. “They aren’t dressing up as women. They look very handsome to me,” said one.
Another female contributor to the debate said that many of the people criticising the young stars were older men who are just “behind the times”. Some of the critics were just being sexist or homophobic, she added.
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