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2020-11-25 11:09:51

A Chinese artist known for pushing the proverbial envelope with sexually charged themes, resulting in many of his pieces being tagged “not suitable for work,” or NSFW, is now being accused of degrading women as sex objects as part of a politically and historically sensitive series.

The artist, who identifies himself as JM, came under scrutiny after users on Douban, a Chinese social media site, shared screenshots from his series “The Empire.” The series was recently uploaded to JM’s personal website after being banned from paid content-hosting platform Patreon.

His artwork has angered viewers for condoning violence against women and incorporating themes such as women’s unconditional submission and subjugation to men. One such piece suggested women should be forbidden from gaining weight or using contraception, while another portrayed a woman as the novel coronavirus that has killed 1.4 million people globally.

In particular, people have slammed JM for portraying “comfort women” — as the Chinese sex slaves kept by Japanese soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War are sometimes known — in a “disrespectful and degrading” manner.

Also known by the Japanese and English names Teikoku Kizoku or Imperial Nobility, respectively, JM has cultivated a reputation for exploring traditionally taboo themes including BDSM, anime porn (hentai), and body modification. On his website — which requests that users be over 18 to access — the artist describes himself as a “digital illustrator,” with a banner reading: “the quest for the bizarre is to entertain / let us treasure life / and treat women with love and respect.”

However, JM’s message in the “Empire” series is a far cry from loving and respecting women. The collection is described as “a journey to discover a world where society is predicated upon the absolute rule of men over women (boldface the artist’s).”

A blurred compilation of JM’s misogynist, NSFW art. From the artist’s Twitter account

A blurred compilation of JM’s misogynist, NSFW art. From the artist’s Twitter account

After recently discovering JM’s work, many in China are urging the authorities to ban or even arrest him. A hashtag with the artist’s name has been purged from microblogging platform Weibo, and nearly all of the 4,000 respondents to an online poll on social platform Douban agreed that JM’s art should be boycotted over its misogynist themes.

A Weibo user who asked to be identified as Amatoshi told Sixth Tone that some of JM’s work had left her “angry and uncomfortable” because of its grotesque depictions of women. Though some may argue that the artist’s work is purely creative and not even publicly accessible — as making or disseminating pornography is illegal in China, punishable with prison sentences — she feels it’s excessive.

“His work doesn’t treat women as humans,” said Amatoshi, an ACG (anime, comics, and games) fan who spoke out against JM on Weibo. “His work is far from being a fictional fantasy. The fact that he treats actual historical victims as the objects of his fantasy crosses the line.”

This (so-called art) approaches the very edge of humanity. Its dissemination is harmful to the thoughts of humankind.

JM did not respond to Sixth Tone’s emailed interview request by time of publication Wednesday.

Weighing in on the discussion around JM’s works, queer filmmaker Fan Popo, who recently released a short adult film told from a feminist perspective, said the current controversy touches on the boundaries of freedom: Does freedom of artistic expression mean any story the mind can conceive is suitable for an open forum?

“I think the answer is no, as this (so-called art) approaches the very edge of humanity,” Fan told Sixth Tone. “Its dissemination is harmful to the thoughts of humankind.”

In recent years, portrayals of women in pop culture have been questioned not only in China, but the world over. Discussion on the romanticization of abuse, whether physical or emotional, became a trending topic thanks to the “Fifty Shades” series of novels, which have sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Meanwhile, movies from Hollywood and Bollywood — including the “Twilight” franchise and Hindi romantic drama “Kabir Singh” — have been called out for normalizing toxic masculinity and violence between partners.

“If one can only feel desire when women are enslaved or objectified, that’s worrying,” Fan said, adding that JM’s work underscores a highly patriarchal mindset that is still prevalent in China. “There are more ethical and inclusive ways to engage with sexually stimulating content.”

While JM’s misogynist work is concerning to many, some gender experts worry that banning his content altogether would set a dangerous precedent.

“We shouldn’t simply use censorship as a weapon to make these things disappear,” Zheng Shiyin, a volunteer at women’s rights group Weiping in Beijing, told Sixth Tone. “But criticism is definitely needed, and individuals can exercise their power as consumers to protest or boycott such work.”

Editors: Bibek Bhandari and David Paulk.

(Header image: Sixth Tone)