Female Artist Hits Back at the Male Gaze By Rating Men’s Penises

Chinese women are shaming penises in retaliation for an art project rating women’s attractiveness.
June 30, 2021, 11:55pm
pinch
Some Chinese women have used penis-shaming to challenge sexism. Illustration: VICE World News

A Chinese female artist has fought back against a controversial artwork that rates women’s appearances—by assigning scores to men’s genitals.

Part of a growing penis-shaming trend in the country’s online feminist community, 23-year-old Lin Yutong assigned scores to the penises and supposed sexual potency of 14 established male artists based on the dimensions of their facial features and fingers.

Advertisement

The digital art was a response to the work of the artist Song Ta, in which he secretly filmed some 5,000 female students on a university campus and assigned scores to them based on their looks. He stitched together a seven-hour-plus video, titled “Uglier and Uglier,” with a number displayed at the bottom of each clip indicating the women’s rankings.

While the work was originally produced in 2013, it became widely noticed and triggered outrage following its recent exhibition at a Shanghai museum. Online critics accused the artist of violating privacy laws and encouraging the objectification of female bodies for men’s pleasure. Facing the uproar, the museum apologized in June and took down the artwork.

The backlash against Song’s artwork reflects growing pushback among Chinese women against everyday sexism and acts of discrimination by men.

Some women are taking up more aggressive tactics, such as penis-shaming, to confront the male gaze, but they have also faced criticism of fueling hatred in an intensifying gender debate in China. 

In Lin’s work, titled “A guide to identifying vegetables,” the male artists were then each matched with one type of vegetable supposed to look like their penises. For example, Song got a low score of 68 out of 100 and was matched with eggplants. Artist and political activist Ai Weiwei received 56.2 and was assigned sweet potatoes.

Screenshot 2021-06-30 at 5.53.38 PM.png

Artist Lin Yutong puts an image from Song Ta's artwork 'Uglier and Uglier' (left) alongside a picture of eggplants. Image: Lin Yutong

A score above 60 indicates a pass, Lin wrote in a footnote, while a score lower than 50 means “extremely bad” and should trigger an alert for women. The lowest mark among the 14 was 47.8.

Song and Ai did not respond to VICE World News’ requests for comment.

IMG_0077 2.JPG

Ai Weiwei's artwork (left) is put alongside a picture of sweet potatoes. Image: Lin Yutong

Lin, who lives in the southeastern city of Fuzhou, told VICE World News that her piece offered a rebuttal to Song’s artwork, and a new perspective in the objectification of female bodies. While men do not shy away from talking about breast sizes and vaginas, women rarely discuss men’s penises, even among their close friends, she said. 

“Objectifying men is an act out of helplessness,”  Lin said, adding that she holds no personal disrespect for the artists featured in the work. “I know tit-for-tat is not able to take us closer to equality, but I can start a discussion about it. At least I’m not staying silent.”

Advertisement

Chinese women have in recent years become more vocal critics of body-shaming and misogyny. They are increasingly fed up with being constantly judged by their breast sizes, the shade of their skin, their body shape, and whether they are virgins or not. Now, many regard mocking men’s bodies, especially their genitals, as a form of counterattack. 

Some of these feminists call men “needles,” “toothpicks,” and “enoki mushrooms”—all referring to small penises—in criticizing their sexist behaviors, harassing acts or simply their arrogance, which many women believe are the products of a patriarchal society. 

“Those men on the subway always have their legs spread out. Do they not have a place to put their enoki mushrooms?” one woman recently posted on the microblogging site Weibo.

“Enoki mushrooms are calling others fat?” another post read. “You can lose weight if you are fat. But nothing can be done if you are small.” 

On social media platforms such as Weibo and Douban, a search for “enoki mushrooms” turned up at least hundreds of similar posts criticizing men. Some internet users wrote lengthy posts analyzing what they deemed disappointing sizes of Chinese men, citing records from condom sellers. 

But Xiao Meili, a feminist activist from the southwestern city of Chengdu, said by mocking men’s genitals, many women are protesting the body-shaming they have been experiencing.

Advertisement

The tactic also has the pitfall of potentially promoting the mainstream narrative that associates masculinity with large penises, Xiao said.

“I can understand why many are saying these as a way of confronting those in power,” she said. “The world has so few options for women to attack men. Sometimes women just grab onto whatever we have when we are angry.”

pinching hand meme

Penis-shaming memes are used globally, but they have become particularly controversial in countries where feminist movements are running into strong resistance from young men who are frustrated with being targeted in a society already fraught with incessant competition. 

In South Korea, women are using the pinching hand emoji to mock men’s small penises, in protest against gender disparities. But men’s rights groups perceive such feminist activism as anti-men hatred. 

In China, men have also taken offense and attacked the feminist activists for waging a war between two genders. Some have accused the women of belittling Chinese men and favoring foreign races that are believed to have larger genitals. 

Kailing Xie, a researcher on gender and politics at the University of Warwick, said the most aggressive voices in the feminist community, which often get augmented on social media, could fuel divisions and potentially hurt the women’s rights movement. 

She said penis-shaming also promotes the male-centric myth that women’s sexual pleasure is only about size, and fails to help women understand how to pleasure themselves. 

“This is great that young women feel somehow empowered to talk about sex,” Xie said. “But in terms of how to create a constructive space and to bridge understanding, I don’t feel shaming anyone’s genitals is helpful.”

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.