...and vice versa. In China, gender-bending is all the rage.
BY ERIN CON WAY-SMITH • Contrary to Asian stereotype, school uniforms in China are more sloppy couch potato than sexy schoolgirl. They typically involve shapeless blue sweatpants and a matching zip-up top that hides the wearer’s physique in a way that evokes the gender equality of revolutionary decades past. But rather than tarting up their uniforms in rebellion, teenage girls in China have taken to one of the country’s most talkedabout trends: they’re trying to dress like boys. And the boys are looking a little girlie. The Chinese call this “neutral style” for the gender lines it blurs. And it’s no mere teenage subculture, having gone mainstream thanks to androgynous pop stars. On the streets of Beijing, the style is hard to miss: the boys often appear more done up than the girls—if you can tell them apart.
To keep it “neutral,” girls wear their hair short and choppy, eschew makeup and keep accessories to a minimum. Boys edge toward pretty, with baby-smooth complexions, and thumbnail-sized sparkly earrings in one lobe. Jin Xueting, 17, a sullen teenage girl with the requisite short haircut and schoolmandated royal blue track pants, says the androgynous look is a chance for students to express their personalities. But “the school doesn’t let us dress like that,” she adds, and so self-expression is limited to sneakers and what’s above the neck. “I just think it looks really cool,” says He Meijuan, 16, also with blue pants, cropped hair and no makeup. “It looks fresher because it comes from overseas.”
The neutral style, in fact, takes its cues from Korean pop culture—far bigger in China than its Western equivalent. It had its breakout moment during China’s version of American Idol, a female-only show called Super Girl, watched by hundreds of millions of viewers. It was a clear sign that audiences are tired of traditional Chinese pop stars: beauties with long hair and a sugary sweet demeanour. The winner, boyish Li Yuchun, and the similar-looking runner-up, drew millions of text-message votes. Meanwhile, on a male-only TV singing competition called My Hero, the boys looked feminine and emotional, with one contestant being described as Li’s “kid sister.”
Li, who goes by the English name Chris Lee, looks stunningly boyish: NBA star Yao Ming has been teased for being her lookalike. In the music video for her first single, she boxes a man in the ring—and gets knocked out by him. “The popularity of such androgynous idols is the result of public fatigue with conventional aesthetics,” sociologist Li Yinhe, an expert on gender issues, told one Chinese newspaper. “It also shows that Chinese society is increasingly tolerant when it comes to sexual identity.”
But it’s not just the “neutral style” that has gained mainstream acceptance. Crossdressing is also drawing nationwide attention through the appearance on a China Central Television talent contest of a young man who dresses like a woman and sings folk songs. China Daily, the state-run English newspaper, noted the national trend of “blurred gender lines,” and described cross-dressing as a “a bit of good clean fun.”
But there are limits. At a recent Beijing art festival, a monument depicting last year’s Super Girl winner and runner-up, posed with one foot forward and arm outstretched like old-style revolutionary heroes, was roundly criticized for taking things too far and mocking Communism. The organizers promised to dispose of it. M
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