If young women in China want to know if their male partners support gender equality, there is a good way to find out: talk to them about Yang Li, a stand-up comedian who has turned into a feminist icon for her mockery of men.
Several female comedians have, since last year, gained fame during the stand-up contest Rock & Roast, a new cultural moment in China’s male-dominated comedy scene. Among them, Yang made the most direct, controversial jokes about men.
The 29-year-old famously called men “average yet confident,” a comment on men’s egos women found so accurate that it became a hot meme instantly. She joked that if a man proposed to her, he probably just wanted to beat her up—a reference to the domestic violence that often goes unpunished in China. Facing criticism, she said men turned frenzied and hysterical when they were unhappy, “just like women.”
These punchlines, which give China’s burgeoning feminist movement a new language, won Yang as many fans as enemies. And people on both sides believe the difference makes it impossible for them to befriend or date each other.
It was during an argument about Yang earlier this year that Wendy Liu, a 23-year-old university student in the central province of Hunan, decided to break up with her boyfriend of four years.
While Liu was praising Yang for speaking up for women, her then-boyfriend, deeply offended by the jokes, accused Liu of “getting brainwashed by feminist extremists,” she told VICE World News. The man then proclaimed that no men would like feminist women, and blamed the rise of feminism in China on “foreign forces.”
“At that moment I felt I had wasted all these years,” Liu said. “I don’t know how I lived through these four years. I thank Yang Li for helping me make up my mind to break up.”
Kristen Liu (she is not related to Wendy), a 20-year-old law student in the southwestern city of Chongqing, also broke up with her ex-boyfriend this year following an intense debate over Yang. The man, she said, called Yang “sick” and found her jokes insulting.
Kristen decided she no longer wanted to date this man. “I hope my boyfriend could empathize with women, and at least respect and understand my feminist thinking,” Liu said. In the future, she said, she would find out if a potential date is an ally before committing to a relationship.
China ranks 107th out of 156 in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, which measures gender-based disparity in economic opportunity, education, health, and politics. With growing awareness of gender inequality, young women in China are increasingly pushing back against the society’s oppression of women, from the prevalent sexual abuse to workplace discrimination to everyday sexist language—it’s common, for example, for Chinese men to make suggestive, misogynist jokes at workplace or over dinner.
The popularity of Yang and her fellow female comedians has reflected women’s desire to be represented in the business of fun. However, many Chinese men refuse to acknowledge the privileges they have enjoyed in a patriarchal society and perceive the rise of feminist voices as a threat.
Yue Qian, a sociologist with the University of British Columbia, said her research showed that the divide over gender issues between Chinese men and women has widened in the younger population compared with previous generations. Women are becoming more pro-equal rights as they gain more education, Qian said, but the effect is smaller on men.
“The social divide along Yang Li’s jokes and more broadly, feminism, is also a reflection of the growing gender gap in how men and women embrace gender ideology,” Qian told VICE World News. “Women have become way more egalitarian, whereas men have been left behind. And they are increasingly being left behind by women.”
A pushback against feminism has also been observed in other Asian countries. In South Korea, for example, men who feel victimized by feminism have protested against a pinching hand emoji used by women to mock small penises.
In China, Yang, the comedian, became the battlefield of the gender war. Last year, her critics threatened to report her to China’s media watchdog for verbally abusing men and inciting conflicts between the two sexes. In March, angry men called for a boycott of Intel over an advert featuring Yang, prompting the company to pull the ad. Women fought back by flooding the hashtag “I am a woman, I support Yang Li” on microblogging site Weibo.
Proponents and opponents of feminism have called Yang a “filter” and a “pH test strip” that could help them find out if someone is on the same side.
Joyce Zhang, a 27-year-old mainland Chinese woman in Hong Kong, said whenever she met a fellow Chinese man on dating apps, she would bring up her appreciation of Yang to gauge his opinions on women.
The men who came off attacking Yang would be eliminated.
“Someone who cannot accept Yang will not think about how to respect women,” Zhang said. “If he does not respect me, and treats women as their belongings, we won’t be able to get along. It’s better to find out about it early on.”
But if Yang was a litmus test, its ability to weed out unwanted suitors works both ways. On Quora-like Zhihu, a platform popular with anti-feminists, many men vowed to stay away from Yang’s fans.
“I used to hate Yang Li, but now I like her. Isn’t she a great filter?” said an August post that got more than 6,000 likes. “If you date a feminist and get married, you have to hand in all your salaries. Your children may not bear your surname.”
Yang has never called herself a feminist, although she said being female had made her unique. She counted American comedian Ali Wong as an inspiration. Some women have argued that she is way too mild to be hailed as a feminist fighter, but her fans said the attacks from men had proven her value as a rare voice speaking on women’s behalf.
In the latest season of Rock & Roast this month, Yang made a joke about how women said they would only date men who liked her. “If he likes Yang Li, shouldn’t he be dating Yang Li?” she said onstage. “I finally know why I’m not in a relationship. The few people who like me have all been claimed by you girls.”
Wendy Liu said that when she met her ex-boyfriend in her first year in college, she was anticipating a traditional romantic relationship with the woman taking a subordinate role. But her mind changed in the last two years, as she read feminist discussions online and books by Japanese feminist author Chizuko Ueno.
Liu said she and her female friends now want to date feminist men who could empathize with their concerns about workplace gender discrimination, violence against women, and the pressure on them to have more children.
“It’s hard [to find them],” Liu said, with a sigh. “I would stay single if I can't find any. Dating is not a must in life.”
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