As a researcher at a journalism school, I must admit I am surprised to find myself having to weigh in on the issue of whether Chinese state media outlets should be referring to Chinese citizens as “sissy pants,” but here we are.
Part of the reason for my surprise is that China has a long history of acceptance toward men that might be considered androgynous or effeminate in other cultures, whether in ancient literature and opera, or in today’s TV shows that star “little fresh meat.” Then again, that general acceptance hasn’t prevented the country from experiencing periodic bouts of backlash. The current anxiety and debate over China’s so-called crisis of masculinity, for example, can be traced back to the 1980s — when it emerged as a reaction to the rising status of women and the consequent decline in men’s own relative social standing.
However, this particular long-simmering issue blew up in the aftermath of the annual back-to-school gala program, aired on Sept. 1 by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) and co-produced by the Ministry of Education. The gala was mandatory to watch for many school-age kids and their parents — who in some cases had to provide photographic proof that they had viewed it together — and the program incensed parents, first by subjecting them to 12 minutes of ads for expensive private tutoring classes, and then by prominently featuring members of the new F4 boy band — seen by some as overly effeminate. Online, many parents criticized the decision to feature the group, calling them poor role models for China’s young boys.
State news agency Xinhua then poured gasoline on the fire when it published a commentary last Thursday lambasting the popularity of young male celebrities who have slender figures and an interest in makeup, calling them “sissy pants” and emblematic of a “sick culture.” Later that day, Party-run news outlet People’s Daily published a rebuttal of Xinhua’s piece, dismissing terms such as “sissy pants” as derogatory, stating that a man’s value should be measured by his character, not his outward appearance.
To understand the nature of this controversy, we must first understand how Chinese have traditionally viewed masculinity. Kam Louie, a professor of Chinese literature at The University of Hong Kong, argues that masculinity in China’s cultural context historically appeared in two main forms: wen and wu — the literary and the martial, respectively. And for most of Chinese history, wen masculinity — that of the scholar, not the warrior — was actually seen as superior to wu, especially when the state was at peace.
To be clear, regardless of whether or not they embodied wen or wu, in those days Chinese men still wielded absolute power over their families and society. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — there was no cultural expectation for men to behave in what would be considered an outwardly macho manner, and warriors were not always lionized over the literati.
In other words, the current backlash against “sissy pants” and inadequately butch men is rooted not in a traditional cultural abhorrence of slender, gentle, and delicately proportioned men — who were the masculine archetype throughout much of Chinese history — but in more modern concerns.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, one of the first tasks the country’s new leadership set for itself was rebuilding the country’s economy after decades of almost constant war. In desperate need of workers to build a new China, Mao’s famous declaration, “women hold up half the sky” was meant to mobilize Chinese women and draw them into the country’s workforce.
Although some feminists argue this movement did not liberate women so much as desexualize them and use the discourse about class struggle to downplay entrenched gender hierarchies, it is difficult to deny that women’s increasing involvement in the economy during this period led to a fundamental shift in the country’s gender dynamics.
After Mao’s death and the beginning of the reform and opening-up period in the 1980s, however, a backlash began to form. As scholar of masculinity Geng Song points out, Chinese pop culture from this period leans heavily on wu archetypes in an apparent attempt to “re-masculinize” Chinese culture and reestablish patriarchal values. Movies such as “Red Sorghum,” for example, prominently feature wild, virile, and “masculine” men. In Imperial China, men did not necessarily feel the need to highlight their masculinity or showcase their physical strength, since their dominance was rarely ever in question. Once women started gaining economic independence, however, protecting masculinity took on a sudden importance.
Although this debate might seem specific to men, women were soon scapegoated by those looking to explain the rise of what they saw as alternative, “effeminate” masculinities. In recent years, angry men — and even some women — have repeatedly declared female appreciation of androgynous idols and “little fresh meat” abhorrent, and blame women for the style’s growing popularity. Famous screenwriter Wang Hailin even compared the female fans of young idols to pedophiles, writing, “These old broads and pedophiles have taken over the discourse.”
I believe these attacks are the result of male anxiety over a loss of power and authority. But men may not be able to do much about it, save turn the clock back 100 years. According to an international, cross-cultural study conducted in 12 cities around the world — including Shanghai and the nearby eastern city of Hangzhou — women are more likely to connect faces they identify as masculine with aggressiveness. And the more urbanized a woman is, the more likely she is to make this connection. This last point is a crucial bit of context for a country that has urbanized rapidly over the past 40 years.
Studies such as this one may offer us insights into China’s growing preference for a gentler kind of manhood. As a country develops, women — especially urban women — have more and more access to better educational resources and so become increasingly financially independent. This means that traditionally “masculine” characteristics and responsibilities, such as being the family breadwinner, may no longer be desirable or necessary qualities in a man. Instead, women may be starting to seek out traits more stereotypically feminine — such as tenderness, patience, sensitivity, and a willingness to compromise.
Whether they are trying to cater to the female gaze, as their critics suggest, or they are simply inspired by feminist ideals, more and more men have started challenging gender stereotypes and embracing this new paradigm by trying things like applying makeup, paying more attention to their physical appearances, and taking part in other supposedly “effeminate” activities. Others, meanwhile, view this perceived blurring of gender boundaries as deeply frustrating and anxiety-inducing. This may be one reason why they are so desperate to revive what they view as more natural gender dynamics.
Currently, China’s patriarchal family structures are starting to show cracks. Chinese men are faced with sky-high real estate prices, soaring child care and elder care expenses, and a changing job market. They are also increasingly unable to perform their societally expected roles as breadwinner and patriarch. It is a stressful position to be in, and any loss of privilege or authority — even a perceived one — has the potential to trigger an aggressive response.
But rather than admit this, critics justify their resentment of “sissy pants” men by seeking to conflate their rise with national collapse. This is summed up in the popular online saying “sissy kids make for a sissy country.” Or in the more delicate words of last Thursday’s Xinhua editorial, “In order to nurture those who will one day revive our nation, we must shield them from undesirable cultural influences.”
But what do “sissy pants” boys even look like? Who are they? How do they feel about themselves? How do they view their role in all of this? These are far more important questions than whether it’s possible to still be a man while wearing makeup. It is revealing that most attacks against supposed “sissy pants” are based on their outward physical appearance. There is no recognition that “effeminate” men are capable of inner strength.
China’s real crisis of masculinity isn’t “sissy pants” — it’s a generation of men anxious and insecure about their declining social status and their desperation to cling to power. In the end, however, we must all learn to accept the fact that a delicate face does not mean a weak heart, slender shoulders do not reveal a fragile soul, and a “betrayal” of outdated masculine stereotypes is not a betrayal of the nation.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A scene from the 2018 TV series ‘Meteor Garden.’ IC)