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05. Self Under Self, a Pile of Selves I Stand
Female celebrity fans and their existential crises
Hi there. Welcome to Active Faults.
In honour of Women’s History Month, the two upcoming issues of AF will continue to focus on identity negotiation within fandoms but specifically look at female celebrity fans in China.
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Like elsewhere, women are the overwhelming majority of any fandom’s demographic, so much so that the word fanquan is inherently gendered as feminine in the Chinese context.
I cannot emphasize that enough: in the public’s eye, “fangirl” is the equivalent, not the constituent, of fanquan. That would explain the protracted misrepresentation of fanquan as a space of neurosis and irrationality where no meaningful conversations can take place. By association, fandom studies are constantly sidelined as an academic discipline, in my opinion, because the presumption is that fangirls only scream nonsense.
And I, again, beg to differ.
We’re going back to Produce Camp (hereafter PC) 2021.
I keep returning to that wild show because it was acafan’s jackpot - those who have seen it would agree with me. Its 94% (unofficial statistics collected by a viewer) female audience base meant that the PC fandom, like fanquan in general, is anomalously saturated with female voices and, more importantly, female power and female desire.
Nowhere else in China would witness such a drastic power reversal where women are on the other end of the gaze and in complete control of a man’s survival, quite literally so. Idols who failed to debut have resorted to all ways of living, from becoming a waimai driver to a cashier at Brandy Melville.
Yes, that empowerment has consumerist undertones as female fans sometimes pay to be in power, but I want to highlight the sheer rarity of such an occasion: women being implored to enact their power as feminine subjects.
That alone is sufficient for a gendered awareness to gather momentum.
PC fandom raised healthy scepticism like how gender stereotypes might be coded into the show’s production itself.1 Spoiler alert: it is. Female PC fans point out that the previous season selecting female idols, PC 2020, had them live in a pink fairy-tale castle and measure each other’s waist on camera, whereas male idols in PC 2021 are made to live in neutral-toned dorm rooms and camp on the beach with survival kits.
But the interrogation doesn’t stop at that. Female PC fans have also delved inward to examine in themselves the duality of being a woman, a feminist, to be more precise, and a fan of a male idol.
This is particularly prominent in the AK controversy. PC 2021 contestant and rapper Liu Zhang, also known as AK, had a “house-falling” moment very early on in the show when audiences dug up his previous diss track against idols, the industry and female xiufen. In the said song, he has referred to male idols as “sissies” “f*ggots” and “eunuchs” because of their feminized features, while calling female xiufen “b*tches” who masturbate to photos of their idols. The hypocrisy of his dismissing idols/idol fans with sexist slurs and then competing in an idol show has attracted immense criticism, especially from feminist PC fans. They claim, vehemently, that anyone who vaguely sees oneself as a woman would naturally boycott AK, let alone spend money to support him. Prioritisation is the due course: the identity of the Woman must prevail over the one of the Fan.
On the other hand, AK enthusiasts defend him by defying The Feminist as a fossilised and restrictive label. Female PC fans can be pro-AK and pro-feminism simultaneously. They want the right and freedom to like AK because feminism is supposed to liberate and not further incarcerate women.
This went on to become a broader discussion on speech and practices in Chinese online feminism. The most noteworthy specimen of this controversy is a post written by a self-proclaimed feminist fan of AK. She has famously alerted others that feminism has been abused as a term. It became an irrefutable, omnipotent Expelliarmus spell, slapped on various instances with vested interests to disarm anyone opposing them. It’s blindly used in lieu of “correctness” and “authority”, weaponized to attack fans of AK.
Funnily enough, the same argument is again upended by anti-AKs, saying that he is still misogynistic even if feminists claimed to like him. It is true that feminism should not be used interchangeably with “correctness”, and so a feminist’s support of AK should not go unchallenged as a superior mark of approval that ignores AK’s misogyny.
On one end of the spectrum of all PC contestants, you’d get AK and his attempts at being a manly man. On the other end, you’ll find the likes of Hu Yetao and Xue Bayi who are more androgynous. Throughout the competition, both presented themselves with long(er) hair and were characterized as “beautiful” “dainty” and “elegant” by producers as well as peers.
Welcomed by some fans as the “hot girl” bunch, both Hu and Xue have definitely tried to play their uniqueness to their advantage. After Hu’s introductory performance, he said that “I came to the show because I am not the typical male idol most people imagined” (and the camera also cuts to Xue in this speech). Most viewers warmed up to that, because who doesn’t love a Legally Blonde narrative of overturning expectations? Because there are people like AK out there bashing femininity in male idols, female fans want to defend their aesthetic choices as well as their own femininity by supporting idols like Hu.
Meanwhile, their personification seems to also be carefully curated by the program. A lot of Hu and Xue’s content filmed by the PC crew is distinctively “girly”, featuring them playing with makeup or dress-ups. In my opinion, this is problematically done to spice up the assortment of contestants and fish for traffic rather than to genuinely promote gender fluidity. Their goal is somewhat achieved when, unsurprisingly, their androgyny came under fire as portions of the fandom won’t tolerate effeminate and non-Wolf-Warrior men.
A countermovement ensued. A cluster of posts found in the PC forum on Douban asked for an official intraforum ban, or at least everyone’s self-refrainment, from using words such as “sissy” (娘) to express dislike for an androgynous contestant in a derogatory sense. Fans also protest against the usage of “motherly” (母) or “aunty” (姨) as deprecatory adjectives along the same lines. Feminine attributes that they themselves possess, they claim, should not be synonyms for insults. The Woman must prevail over the Fan. 2
Hu and Xue’s presence throughout the show has done a lot more. For the season’s finale, Hu picked Jolin Tsai’s “Pretty” while Xue went with Amei Zhang’s “Matriarchy” for their performances that were broadcasted live.
Both songs have explicit feminist leanings and are originally sung by queer favourites who self-declare as LGBTQ+ allies, like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. This was practically unprecedented on idol shows. Viewers welcomed their stages in shock (partly due to their less-than-satisfactory delivery) and awe.
A handful of self-declared feminist fans were outraged by Xue’s audacity to sing about oppressed women under patriarchy as a biological, heterosexual male. He has no right and is in no place to do so, said some. Another fan wrote in response:
he can’t [be a real feminist and] fight for female rights, yes, but surely he can argue for equal rights. He can empathize with women and speak for rights that every human should have. To improve the rights of female, male, trans and everyone on the gender spectrum without specific leanings towards any party should be the general attitude.
The fact that he sang it [as a gesture] should be appreciated...have other males ever been brave enough for speak for women in this industry?3
Here is the age-old debate of men’s place in feminism, and the negotiation between feminists who exclude for a sharper focus, and feminists who include for solidarity.
Is this still just fangirl nonsense?
Everything I’ve mentioned so far has gone way further, entirely above and beyond the parameters of fanquan talks that outsiders are keen to presume. But there’s more.
PC 2021 was the first season to go international. Out of the 90 contestants, more than 20 of them are foreigners coming from Japan, Thailand, Russia etc.
Several of the international contestants signed by the Japanese company AVEX became extremely popular and were predicted to debut. A few weeks before the show drew to a close, AVEX was reported to have listed Taiwan as an independent country on its official website. All hell breaks loose. Some PC fans were quick to condemn the agency and by association, started to organise a boycott of the Japanese contestants. The language used in the PC forum that targets those boys made me feel like I time-travelled to 1938, and it wasn’t just all words either.
Fans compiled a directory of relevant government authorities and made phone calls to report the situation, including to places like the Department of Culture and the National Radio and Television Administration. Some people have drafted a speech template for all to use as the most effective and succinct report rhetoric. Here are some snippets:
[...] The One-China principle should not be doubted or shaken and violations of our national sovereignty should not be tolerated. Japanese companies with rotten ideologies should not appear in cultural industries that are widely influential.
Japanese and Korean companies have been invading our cultural industries with soft powers for quite some time…AVEX and its attempted infiltration into fanquan with their Japanese artists through PC have led to irrational, unpatriotic and infantized behaviours of the fans…morals of the young people are damaged…underage fans are misled to form the wrong kinds of ideology…
I, the informer, stand by the One China principle and any capitalist corporation that does not support our national sovereignty should not enter our market. 4
This might as well be an excerpt from Zhao Lijian’s daily briefings. The fans knew the sore spots and deliberately exploited them for their convenience, encouraging each other to use specific reasonings such as not providing “correct guidance” for youths. Again, the callers ask for prioritisation when balancing their multiple identities: one must defend the country before anything else. One is Chinese first, fan second.
I wonder where the Woman comes in for this one. 5
Fanquan and nationalism are like two awkward neighbours who avoid each other at all costs but somehow always end up in the same lift. In the next issue, let’s talk about that lift ride. See you then.
Happy International Women’s Day!
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Except as linked above, other quotes from fans are no longer traceable after two years. This issue is adapted from my academically approved dissertation in which rigorous data collection has been conducted then, but a lot of the sources I found have now been deleted, removed or privated. You’ll just have to take my word for it.