Woman, man, or East Asian pop star?

I was babysitting ESL study block at my old high school yesterday morning when I saw the desktop background on a Chinese student’s Acer Netbook.

“Is that a girl?” I asked.

The student, a teenager from Guangdong, looked slightly shocked and annoyed. “No! Of course not!”

“Are you sure?” I smiled and she and her friends knew I was just joking. But honestly, I was only half-joking. Here’s the photo:

It’s Korean pop star 金范, but I don’t know his Korean name.

Sometimes my northern Chinese friends mention how they think southern Chinese males, especially Taiwanese, are too feminine. They laugh at the way they talk and they way they look. Sometimes they say that Western (white) women are too masculine. I had an American co-worker in Tianjin who smoked, and she was constantly told that this made her too masculine.

Now, I’m not saying men can’t 打扮打扮 if they want. But I’d be lying if I pretended that young urban Chinese masculinity ideals — or at least Chinese pop media masculinity ideals — don’t sometimes appear a little feminine to my Western sensibilities. And the women, at least the young and trendy relatively privileged urban ones and their pop culture role models, seem like they’re trying to embody an extreme femininity: anemic, weak, passive, desperately in need of a male’s strength and assertiveness (there’s even a term related to this: “little birdie leaning on a man”/小鸟依人). It’s like gender identity in general plays out a little more toward the feminine side of the scale in China.

Westerners have been getting this impression for generations, as have the Chinese themselves (“feminine” is one of many adjectives Lin Yutang uses to describe Chinese masculinity). There are lots of reasons why Chinese and Westerners perceive each other as too masculine or too feminine — some of it’s biological, but a lot of it’s cultural. And this post is really only talking about the thin slice of Chinese society that foreigners interact with the most: the urban, educated, relatively privileged with enough disposable income to enjoy a consumerist lifestyle. (If foreigners in China spent most of their day-to-day lives with peasants, I wonder how our gender impressions might be different.)

Ever since my first major cross-cultural experiences in rural Uganda and Tanzania, where my language teacher and new friends explained in all sincerity that fat women are more attractive than skinny women, and then laughed so hard (once they got over their disbelief) when we told them that in America it’s the opposite, I’ve been aware that a lot of the specifics of what we “naturally” find attractive (fat/thin, dark/pale, tall/short, muscular/weak, smooth/scruffy, manicured/”man-hands,” etc.) have a lot to do with the families and cultures we grow up in.

Other posts about Chinese/Western beauty ideals:

2 thoughts on “Woman, man, or East Asian pop star?”

  1. “If foreigners in China spent most of their day-to-day lives with peasants, I wonder how our gender impressions might be different.”

    Masculine. At least in north China, that would be the case.

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