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2019-03-26 07:32:42 Voices

With more than 28 million fans, Maomao Jie — Chinese for “Sister Maomao” — is one of the most popular vloggers on the video-sharing app TikTok, also known in China as Douyin. Her neon orange hair, drawling southwestern Mandarin accent, and comically exaggerated takes on women’s everyday lives also mark her as one of the most distinctive.

Netizens praise Maomao Jie for her humorous portrayals of supposedly universal feminine experiences. Past clips have dealt with topics like blind dating, shopping, dieting, and meeting friends. In the words of one enthusiastic commenter: “Maomao Jie understands women better than they understand themselves!” If that seems like an odd thing to say about a woman, that’s because the individual behind the Maomao Jie persona isn’t a woman: He’s a 20-something man from the southwestern province of Guizhou named Yu Zhaohe.

While he may be the most popular, Yu’s just one of a number of male TikTok vloggers winning fans over through their performative interpretations of femininity. While at first glance, these viral stars might seem like a subversive, potentially transformative force in China’s highly patriarchal society, the reality, however, is more complex — and less optimistic. Often, rather than subverting gender norms, their videos serve to reinforce them, portraying women exactly how they’re already depicted in the mainstream media, only in drag.

The key to Maomao Jie’s popularity lies in Yu’s ability to accurately capture private emotions that everyone shares, then perform them for a public audience. His catchiest phrases, which include lines like “So high!”, “When are women at their happiest? When enjoying hot pot!”, and “It’s so rare; I must have it!” are stereotypical, but amusing and relatable. In one video, Maomao Jie goes shopping for a coffee-colored eyebrow pencil. As she walks up to the checkout counter, however, she’s blinded by signs reading “limited-edition lipstick” and “Bright red looks great,” while the cashier flatters her by comparing her to the popular Taiwanese singer and actress Elva Hsiao. Soon, she’s seen walking out with a bag full of the latest makeup.

A GIF from a skit in which Maomao Jie goes shopping. From Douyin account “多余和毛毛姐”

A GIF from a skit in which Maomao Jie goes shopping. From Douyin account “多余和毛毛姐”

The tens of thousands of comments his videos attract — many of them saying things like “Maomao Jie is talking about me!” — suggest Yu has devised a winning formula. But it’s ultimately a thin one, and his performance is more retrograde than transgressive.

Social issues and dissent have never been hot topics on TikTok, which bills itself as a creative space and is largely dedicated to amusing and diverting short clips in the vein of the now-defunct social media platform Vine. Yet while the platform’s vloggers may appear to share intimate details of their lives to connect with fans and build an audience, it’d be more accurate to say that TikTok is a manufacturer of social sentiments. It mass produces commonly felt emotions — including anxiety and a lack of belonging — for public consumption, thereby providing viewers an illusory feeling that they’re part of something larger than themselves.

Within the maximum 60 seconds allowed by the platform, Yu affects a conversational air, in part by structuring his videos around questions like “Are girls…?” “Are you…?” or “Are your friends…?” It’s not as though women’s lives are really a series of universal ordeals, involving makeup, dating, or fighting with your mother-in-law. But Yu and his cross-dressing peers succeed in commodifying the female experience anyway, in part by simplifying it to a baseline set of symbols and stereotypes anyone can recognize or relate to; packaging them into a short, easily digestible format; and then offering them up to viewers.

Yu is not the only male vlogger to have made a name for himself by cross-dressing on TikTok: Other popular accounts include Dalian Laoshi Wang Bowen, Front Desk Liu Yiping, and Mao Guangguang. In their videos, these men not only dress up as exaggerated caricatures of women with brightly colored wigs and cackling laughs, but also frequently switch between male- and female-coded roles.

Three popular vloggers and their female personas.  Photos from Weibo users @大连老湿王博文, @前台刘依萍, and @我叫毛光光, and re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone

Three popular vloggers and their female personas. Photos from Weibo users @大连老湿王博文, @前台刘依萍, and @我叫毛光光, and re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone

The male roles tend to fall into one of a few largely fixed categories — mostly rational, detached types such as the unfeeling boyfriend, the well-dressed male teacher, the “normal” son of a crazy mother, or the cool-headed bystander. Their female roles, on the other hand, range from middle-aged women taking exaggerated photos in scenic areas to jealous best friends fighting over a guy and young girls obsessed with losing weight or going shopping. Unsurprisingly, the punchline and payoff to the joke generally come at the expense of the latter, not the former.

According to Judith Butler’s theory of “gender performativity,” gender is a social construct. It’s created and reinforced through the repetitive performance of certain signifiers, which society sets. Society explicitly seeks to reach and teach women how to behave in certain ways, until these norms become second nature.

On the surface, men who perform in drag, like Yu and his compatriots, seem to subvert these established social gender distinctions between men and women. To Butler, drag was capable of revealing the performative nature of gender: It’s transgressive in the way that it redefines power mechanisms and bypasses gender binarism. After all, if men and women can swap genders on the stage, the same can occur in real life.

The content produced by Yu and others like him is, at its heart, a product of heterosexual norms and gender binarism.

But shows like Maomao Jie’s aren’t subverting anything. The content produced by Yu and others like him is, at its heart, a product of heterosexual norms and gender binarism. As symbolic representations of femininity, they are ultimately defined by pre-existing societal stereotypes of what women should be. Take Maomao Jie’s high-strung, emotional, shopaholic personality, for example. It’s less a reflection of actual femininity than it is a reproduction of patriarchal gender norms.

In short, such gender performances don’t challenge society’s preconceived ideas of femininity. Instead, they reinforce and reaffirm these ideas. In doing so, they only widen the gap between men and women by positing and propagating the notion that there is some ultimate, nonnegotiable split between the sexes.

When not performing as Maomao Jie, Yu posts videos of his daily life. In them, he’s clearly coded as male, and his masculine appearance — which is quite different from his flamboyant Maomao Jie persona — draws just as much praise from viewers as Maomao Jie’s histrionics. “Not only is this guy good-looking, but he also understands women. It’s so rare that the lives of women are given a voice,” reads one representative comment. His fans don’t seem to mind that his understanding of “women’s lives” boils down to regurgitating stereotypical tics and talking about shopping.

It’s unfortunate, but the current state of drag and cross-dressing videos is less a challenge to the gender binary than a solidification of gender norms and stereotypes. Given their nature, short, virality-targeted videos are perhaps not the best medium for reconstructing gender roles — there is, after all, little room for nuance in 60 seconds. But it would be good if they’d at least refrain from making the problem worse.

Co-author: Wang Qianni.

Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.

(Header image: A promotional image featuring Maomao Jie. From Weibo user @多余和毛毛姐)