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    More Than ‘Sisters’

    The third season of the popular all-women reality show “Sisters Who Make Waves” inspired a wave of fan-based ships, as audiences challenged longstanding assumptions about female intimacy.

    The third season of the popular variety show “Sisters Who Make Waves” may be over, but fans’ enthusiasm for their favorite imaginary cast couplings hasn’t faded. These include, but are not limited to, the “Twins,” a former Cantopop duo featuring Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung whose old married couple-chemistry resonated with viewers; “Gilfi,” a portmanteau for Gillian Chung and Fiona Sit; and “Relianqi.” The most popular of the fan pairings this season, Relianqi exploded after cast members Liu Lian and Fiona Sit’s dreamy, romantic performance of the song “Dreams.”

    On its own, there’s nothing particularly unusual about any of this. Fans of Chinese variety shows frequently pair their favorite contestants off into imagined, often same-sex couplings, or CPs. Although LGBTQ content is taboo on Chinese screens, the shows’ producers often welcome the attention, fueling audience fantasies — and ratings — with suggestive edits or winking nods to popular pairings.

    What made the third season of “Sisters” different wasn’t the nature of its CPs, but the gender of those involved. Although there is a long tradition of same-sex CPs in TV dramas starring young male idols, the all-female cast of “Sisters” represents a rare example of female same-sex relationships, real or imagined, breaking into the Chinese cultural mainstream.

    Representations of female intimacy, such as holding hands and other physical contact, are not uncommon in Chinese culture. Few shows, however, have been as effective as the third season of all-female “Sisters” in eliciting queer readings of these interactions. For the most part, it is still taken for granted that women, especially those who check the boxes of normative femininity, are heterosexual, and the popularity of “Sisters” simultaneously serves as a reminder of just how little attention has been paid to female intimacy and potential lesbian relationships in China, whether historically or in the present day.

    Same-sex attraction and behavior between women are largely absent from China’s historical record. This is unsurprising, as women were never treated as legal subjects and were largely invisible in public life. But in his 1991 book “Sex in China,” the scholar Fang Fu Ruan argues that it is precisely because women almost never stepped outside their homes that same-sex tendencies between women developed naturally and easily, sometimes even with the encouragement of a husband. Same-sex relations between maidservants in the imperial court or in polygamous wealthy households were not uncommon.

    The invisibility of same-sex attraction and behaviors between women was more about their gender than their sexuality. Although often romanticized, there were plenty of representations of same-sex attraction between men. These were typically based on historical relationships between emperors or wealthy lords and their young male lovers, and the subjects’ sexualities were not presented as a target of social discrimination or moral condemnation, nor were their sexual behaviors treated as fundamental to their identities. The concept of sexual orientation, which categorizes individuals by the gender of the people to whom they are attracted, did not exist.

    As China evolved from a monarchy to a republic in the early 20th century, the idea of same-sex relationships was at once modernized and stigmatized. Western concepts related to sexuality and sexual conduct were introduced into China, including terms like “homosexual” and “homosexuality.” Meanwhile, from the 1920s onwards, the public — and conservatives in particular — argued that same-sex attraction was a disruptive social disease capable of corrupting the nation. They were not alone: The early 20th century also saw the pathologizing of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the West.

    To critics, the popularity of same-sex attraction, particularly between males, was linked to China’s semi-colonial status following repeated failures to defend itself against invasion. Female same-sex relations, although far less understood, were also stigmatized.

    After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese mainland experienced three decades of relative isolation. Sex, to say nothing of same-sex attraction and behaviors, became taboo in the public discourse.

    Even after the onset of the “reform and opening-up” period, the stigma attached to same-sex relationships lingered, if not expanded. In 1978, homosexuality was formally classified as a sexual disorder in the first version of the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders. (It was removed in 2001.) From 1979 until its excision from the Criminal Law in 1997, the charge of “hooliganism” was used to criminalize same-sex sexual relationships between males. The legal definition of hooliganism made no mention of same-sex conduct between females, though a handful of women were also charged for the offense.

    Ironically, that same-sex conduct between two women was never officially criminalized is less a testament to leniency for lesbians than society’s contempt for such relations. Unlike same-sex relationships between men, lesbian relations were rarely identified as a threat to society. Even today, there is a widespread assumption that lesbian relationships are prone to breaking up and that women will always eventually return to the traditional family structure, with its legal, economic, and reproductive protections — a belief reinforced by the idea that women are financially and socially reliant on their husband through marriage and childbearing.

    In my own experience and the experiences of my lesbian research participants, any attachment between two women is liable to be misunderstood as a reactionary response to violence or neglect by males or, in some cases, a supposed lack of sexual attractiveness. Such ideas not only reflect a continued ignorance of lesbian relationships, but also imply the continued dominance of a patriarchal culture that positions women as inferior and subordinate to men.

    In this context, the popularity of all-female CPs in the third season of “Sisters” represented a rare challenge to “compulsory heterosexuality.” The term, first coined by poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, describes “the cluster of forces within which women have been convinced that marriage, and sexual orientation toward men, are inevitable, even if unsatisfying or oppressive components of their lives.”

    The discussions around this season of “Sisters” also challenged popular views of female heteronormativity on a deeper level. In their study of mainstream newspaper reporting on gay men and lesbians in China, Chang Jiang and Ren Hailong found that gay men were often described as promiscuous and violent, while lesbian women were portrayed as “less harmful, closer to heterosexuals and more normal.” I’d argue this is not only because female intimate attachment is often dismissed as a compromised form of attachment, but also a product of prevalent stereotypes about butch-femme lesbian relationships that mirror heterosexual couplings — stereotypes that the more diverse pairings on the third season of “Sisters” subverted.

    Butch-femme lesbian relationships, which consist of a more masculine-looking woman and a more feminine-looking woman, are probably the most visible, if also the most stereotypical of lesbian relationships. These pairings are commonly portrayed as a bond between a dominant breadwinner (the butch) and a gentle homemaker (the femme), a depiction that aligns with traditional patriarchal notions of binary gender differences. In the process, butch lesbians are assumed to play a man role, while femme lesbians are stigmatized as merely “experimenting.” Theirs is only a temporary same-sex sexual orientation, one that can be easily reverted to heterosexual in the future.

    In the third season of “Sisters”, however, none of the show’s CPs fit the traditional butch-femme setting, in part because none of the women involved could be described as butch. As a result, the fan couplings that have emerged from it challenge not only Chinese stereotypes about lesbian relationships, but also how femininity has been socially constructed as “weak,” “passive,” “submissive,” and somehow in need of masculinity. Put another way, discussion of these CPs is a celebration and acknowledgement of the true power of femininity and sisterhood.

    To me, it doesn’t matter whether the “Sisters” series — which has hardly gone out of its way to support the LGBTQ community — is pushing for greater visibility of lesbian relationships. What’s important is the opportunity it offers us to rethink and recognize women’s power and autonomy, regardless of their sexuality. Today, women continue to be objectified and sexualized through the male gaze, and traditional marriage is still seen as a necessary means for women to achieve upward social mobility and secure their financial future through a union with a man. The audience of “Sisters” seems to have glimpsed, however briefly, an alternative way of life, one that could finally bring about a much-needed breakup with stereotypical ideas about femininity and lesbian relationships.

    Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image:  Charlene Choi (right) and Gillian Chung perform on the variety show “Sisters Who Make Waves,” 2022. From @乘风破浪 on Weibo)