The Chinese government has ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities as it escalates a fight against what it sees as a cultural import that threatens China’s national strength.
In a directive issued on Thursday, China’s TV watchdog said entertainment programs should firmly reject the “deformed aesthetics” of niangpao, a derogatory term that refers to effeminate men.
The order came as Beijing tightens control over the country’s entertainment industry, taking aim at an explosion of TV and streaming shows that hold increasing sway over pop culture and the youth.
Young, delicate-looking men who display gentle personalities and act in boys’ love dramas have amassed large fan bases mostly comprising women. Many of them, like Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, are China’s top-earning celebrities.
They came in sharp contrast with the older generation of male stars, who were expected to sing revolutionary songs and play intrepid, aggressive soldiers defending the country from foreign enemies.
But the more gender-neutral aesthetics have come under criticism from conservative voices in society. Some officials and parents fear the less macho men on TV would cause young men to lose their masculinity and therefore threaten the country’s development.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education pledged to promote sports education in Chinese schools in response to a politician’s proposal about “preventing men from becoming too feminine.”
The latest boycott order is part of a broader response to what the government deems as “chaos” in Chinese entertainment. Days before the order was issued, a commentary published by a Communist Party mouthpiece called the popularity of “sissy pants” a social problem that would distort the taste of the Chinese youth.
Cui Le, a researcher on queer issues in China with the University of Auckland, said the clampdown on “sissy pants” reflected authorities’ attempt to reinforce mainstream gender roles and resist what they regard as Western gender values.
“Masculinity is being associated with nationalism,” Cui said. “It’s believed the effeminate male image could mislead young people, hinder the nation’s rejuvenation, and weaken the country’s ability in fighting with others.”
The pushes for macho men have triggered backlash from an expanding feminist community. Many women feel offended by the term “sissy pants” and the sexist implication that traits associated with women are inferior.
Some internet users expressed worry that the official rejection of “sissy men” will encourage the kind of toxic masculinity that leads to violence against women, sexual minorities as well as men who do not fit into the traditional macho image.
“So men should be masculine, as in being dirty and having big bellies,” said one of the top-voted comments on the microblogging site Weibo.
“‘Sissy’ is the highest compliment for a man,” another person wrote. “It means the person is probably very handsome. He would pay attention to personal hygiene, have good manners, and respect women.”
Guo Ting, an expert on gender politics in China with the University of Toronto, said young Chinese people have embraced gender-neutral figures in entertainment as a way to challenge the patriarchal culture in real life.
But the state regards traditional hetero-masculinity as part of its security-focused authoritarian rule, which promotes a need for a strong leader, militarism and aggressive diplomatic rhetoric, she said.
It’s unclear how the government will define “sissy pants,” but the order is expected to prompt more stringent self-censorship by tech and entertainment companies that are already caught in a sweeping regulatory crackdown.
Explicitly homosexual characters are not allowed on Chinese TV, and no prominent mainland Chinese celebrity has come out as gay. Platforms have previously blurred male stars’ earrings and ponytails because of their ostensible association with rebellion and counterculture.
The Thursday notice also banned idol survival contests and reality shows featuring celebrities’ children––some of the most popular and lucrative genres in the past. Authorities have accused the shows of causing food waste, irrational spending, and harming children’s growth.
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