A Chinese Coconut Drink Company Bets Big on Female Desire
If sex sells, Chinese beverage giant Coconut Palm is on course for another banner year. The company, famous for implying its coconut drinks can enhance consumers’ breast size, has continually pushed boundaries with racy commercials featuring voluptuous female models frolicking to suggestive jingles. (One classic tagline features a well-endowed woman proudly declaring “I’ve been drinking it since I was small.”)
Unsurprisingly, these tactics are controversial in China, and the company has been a frequent target of both the country’s feminist movement and regulators. When Coconut Palm jumped aboard China’s livestreaming craze last year, it stuffed its studio with young, large-breasted women in skintight clothing and had them caress their chests with one hand while holding a coconut drink in the other. Viewers called the streams soft-core pornography, and the company’s channel has been suspended multiple times in the past year.
Past run-ins with the law have done little to deter Coconut Palm — which set a new record for revenue in 2021 — so it’s hard to see why this time would be any different. But the company did make one concession to the critics: This March, Coconut Palm began recruiting male livestreamers almost as buxom as their female counterparts. Candidates had to be at least 5 feet 9 inches tall with defined pecs, abs, and what the company likes to call a “handsome, sunny disposition.” One widely shared clip of the new streamers in action features a fit, good-looking guy on top of an exercise bike: Flashing a charming smile at the camera, he leans over until his chest grazes the handlebars, showing his cleavage off to millions of viewers.
So far, the response to Coconut Palm’s latest gimmick has been overwhelmingly positive, at least on social media. When a politics and economics magazine launched an online poll asking if viewers still saw the company’s livestreams as soft-core porn, 86% of the 360,0000 users to respond selected “No, it’s a confident portrayal of healthy bodies that is normal to appreciate.” Fans of the all-male livestreams have described them, not entirely negatively, as “equal opportunity gender discrimination.”
But is that really true? In everyday life, women are constantly being gazed upon and consumed by men as sexual objects. Even when women view other women, they unconsciously internalize male aesthetics and objectify themselves. This concept, known as the “male gaze,” was detailed as early as 1975 by the British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. While her findings were based on cinema, they are no less relevant to the current short-video era.
The more recent shift toward sexualizing men in ways traditionally reserved for women reflects a changing economic and social order: As women become financially independent consumers, brands and marketing companies can no longer wave aside their aesthetic preferences. Thus the rise of xiaoxianrou, or “little fresh meat,” a Chinese term for fresh-faced male celebrities. This shift has not been without controversy: Defenders of “traditional” masculinity frequently grouse about the supposed femininity of little fresh meat idols. The men used in Coconut Palm’s campaign, on the other hand, have largely dodged these critiques through a combination of charming looks and muscular physiques.
Yet, while they use their bodies to titillate, they are not — and possibly cannot be — sexualized in the same way as their female counterparts. Women in a patriarchal society are structurally incapable of applying a “gaze” to men. Even the social media frenzy around Coconut Palm’s male anchors suggests that the so-called female gaze it inspired lacks the violence and demeaning connotations of the male gaze. Female viewers discuss the men in emotional terms, rather than purely sexual ones, similar to the way female fans idolize male celebrities. They know the names and personalities of each male livestreamer and buy drinks as a way to show their support.
The result is a kind of engagement that is relatively safe and acceptable to both consumers and public opinion, but which is unlikely to advance the cause of gender equality. At least some within China’s feminist movement seem to recognize this. In a widely shared post on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, a feminist commentator wrote: “Objectification is not based on how little you wear, how much you bare, or how provocative your moves are. Rather, it comes from the agents of objectification … The ‘gaze’ is not created by the ‘gazed upon’ but by those higher up.”
The male gaze is offensive precisely because of the viewer’s condescension. It’s a privilege that men hold over women in the home, at the workplace, and in all social interactions, whereas a female fan’s appreciation of her favorite male livestreamers ends at the bezels of her phone.
It’s easy to understand why some activists have called for a more radical female gaze, an equal opportunity gender discrimination in which women are encouraged to talk about and evaluate men’s bodies on social media in the same way that men do with women’s bodies. But this “eye for an eye” approach will never be more than a clumsy imitation. We need to question and dismantle gender inequality, not weaponize it. Everyone, regardless of gender, social status, or cultural background, should enjoy mutual respect and recognition in their daily lives, free from scrutiny from an unseen beholder.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Cai Yineng.
(Header image: Stills from Coconut Palm’s livestream, reedited by Sixth Tone. From Weibo)