East Asian Popular Culture and the Renegotiation of Gender and Sexuality
Although the representation of diversity in gender and sexual minorities has become a part of mainstream culture, inclusivity remains an issue that requires continual improvement globally. Within the Western world, representation of minorities within television, film, theatre, and music remains limited, despite supposedly leading the way in advancing the rights of the LGBTQ+ community on an international scale. This is especially concerning considering the significant benefits that come from representing such identities, providing increased rights and freedoms to those commonly marginalised, while also creating a platform for understanding and renegotiating these boundaries – offering the ability to reconceptualise what gender and sexuality means to individuals and societies as a whole. Despite the common assumption that East Asia lags behind the West due to the retention of traditional gender roles, the region’s use of representation within popular culture has actually offered greater fluidity of gender and sexuality than witnessed elsewhere.
Drawing on the work of prominent academics, the performative aspect of popular culture can be understood to play a central role in the creation and reproduction of identities. For Foucault, the societal discourses formed around aspects of identity, such as gender and sexuality, create subtle power interactions that result in individuals’ acceptance or marginalisation (Hurford, 2009, pp.11). Han (2006, pp.85) details that through power mechanisms, individuals can be constructed as gendered, racialised, or sexualised bodies, as with “the gendering [and feminisation] of ‘oriental’ men… to disguise western homoerotic desires within the confines of occidental heterosexuality”. By emphasising certain characteristics over others, specific bodies are deemed as not belonging to the mainstream, predominantly Western culture, resulting in the exclusion of many. Categories of gender, sex, and eroticism are [then] not seen as innate but as constricts formed to support or subvert the structure of the dominant culture”, with the body being a primary site of contesting political, social, and sexual struggles (Gabrovska, 2009, pp.72). Linking this to Butler’s work on performativity, popular culture then becomes an act of doing gender and sexuality – a means of defining what concepts such as masculinity and femininity mean, as well as which identities those performing are considered to belong to (Hurford, 2009, pp.12). This then entrenches certain groups as the accepted norm over others. One such recent example has been the perceived authenticity of gay Asian drag queens, with not only physical characteristics of performers, but racialised beliefs regarding the supposed femininity of Asian men compared to their Western couterparts, reinforcing this identity (Han, 2006, pp.83). Thus, modes of popular culture represent a crucial part of the conceptualisation of societal attitudes on gender and sexual expression. And as popular culture varies greatly between nations, it is then easy to understand the different histories and realities of minority communities globally.
In reference to the East Asian region of Japan, China, and South Korea, both historically and currently, popular culture has significantly contributed to establishing and renegotiating the norms and boundaries of gender and sexual expression, which have often been less dichotomous than those seen within Europe.
Historically, traditional East Asian entertainment, such as Japanese Kabuki theatre and Chinese Opera, has, to a certain extent, opposed Western beliefs and stereotypes and instead offered the opportunity for the exploration and understanding of minority communities. With the presence of crossdressing in both forms of theatre, gender binaries were still enforced, yet in a way which ultimately enabled them to be challenged. Despite often emerging from and appearing to entrench more conventional gender dichotomies, the performative aspect of popular culture itself interestingly disrupted these norms. For example, the crossdressing present within Chinese opera originated as a result of highly restrictive historical gender norms, as Ming and Qing dynasty societies strictly controlled interactions between men and women, meaning that all-male or all-female casts were a necessity to avoid social impropriety (Tian, 2018). Yet, despite the practicality of this gender segregation, the complex and challenging nature of these roles ultimately meant that performers were breaking through the barriers of gender – subverting the very norms that informed the practicalities of theatre at the time. Assigned a role within opera school, actors were expected to commit to developing the corresponding traits and skills expected of them, which was an especially difficult task for those performing crossdressing roles and therefore expected to embody “an unattainable masculine or feminine ideal” that not even those belonging to either gender could achieve (Tian, 2018). Similarly, Kabuki theatre, which was performed exclusively by men, also functioned as “a main site for production of gender in premodern Japan” (Gabrovska, 2009, pp.71), as while some presentations of masculinity and femininity reflected society at the time, others were more fantastical – see below the contrast of aragoto characters, the exaggerated heroes or villains in kabuki that wore bright costumes and makeup, compared to the onnagata characters, the more subtle yet traditional portrayals of female characters by male actors.
Figure 1: Aragoto. Source: Japan Zone. (2021). Kabuki Theater [Photo]. Available from: https://www.japan-zone.com/culture/kabuki.shtml.
Figure 2: Onnagata. Source: Via Madrid TV. (2018, June 25). The kabuki company Heisei Nakamuraza performs for the first time in Spain [Photo]. Available from: https://www.viamadridtv.es/41751/la-compania-kabuki-heisei-nakamuraza-actua-primera-vez-espana/. [CN1]
This has worked to push the accepted categories of gender and sexuality in a way that ordinary people were unable to do. Although stemming from traditional binaries and divisions, this historical form of popular culture resulted in the unintentional but important development of new gender identities and characteristics, ultimately underlining the potential that the arts hold for promoting greater understanding and pluralism within daily life.
This tradition has undoubtedly been perpetuated in the modern popular culture of East Asia, proving especially influential due to recent growth of communication and globalisation. New forms of popular East Asian entertainment such as K-Pop, anime, and manga have proliferated both within and outside the region, increasing the spread of their associated values and ideas.
Although this has recently shifted towards creating a more inclusive array of gender and sexual expressions, East Asian popular culture has previously contributed to the enforcement of traditional roles. For example, within Korean popular culture such as K-dramas and films in the 1980s and 90s, the salaryman was the dominant male aesthetic, centred around traditional strong, ruling, and authoritative men as the preferred norm (BBC, 2018). Modelled after historical war heroes and rulers, this dominant mode of masculinity was strongly tied to classic Chinese heroes in literature, with a focus on occupation rather than sexual ties (Carlos, 2019). Furthermore, the K-Pop industry has tended to favour the reinforcement of patriarchal representations of women, especially through presenting female bodies as for heterosexual male desires (Garza, 2019, pp.5). With K-pop idols representing the peak of Korean beauty standards, such as small, v-shaped faces, pale skin, and slim figures, it is understandable that many ordinary citizens are suffering from negative body images due to the pressures to fit these strict ideals. Ultimately, the perpetuation of these standards through popular culture has led to a culture of excessive beauty product consumption and high plastic surgery rates, meaning that individuals - especially young Korean women - are putting themselves in danger by dieting, using potentially harmful skin lightening products, and undergoing permanent procedures to achieve the K-Pop idol look (Keng, 2021). Meanwhile Japan continues to generate two distinct kinds of gendered manga, with heroic action storylines (shonen) targeting male readers, and romantically oriented stories (shojo) targeting female readers (Hurford, 2009, pp.4). Through this, this form of popular culture is shown to not innately challenge social norms, often cementing their existence. However, it does have the power to renegotiate and entrench new identities due to its central position in society.
Nevertheless, the more revolutionary role of popular media in East Asia can be observed through the broadening representation of different gender and sexual expressions in recent years. As categories of identity such as gender have undergone intensifying questioningsince the 1970s and the queer movement has developed, the meaning of masculinity and femininity, and the predominance of heteronormativity, has been transformed across Asia and the world (Carlos, 2019). To reflect and contribute to this, aspects of Asian popular culture have changed alongside mainstream culture to reflect divergence from strict traditions and allow the development of more modern understandings and representation. Anime and manga series have started to promote more mainstream models of lesbian sexuality, provide commentary on the need for queer spaces, and legitimate a broader range of sexual practices and gender identities (Hurford, 2009, pp.64). Furthermore, K-Pop stars have increasingly been shown to play with traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, ultimately opening possibilities for average citizens by creating new accepted forms of being (BBC, 2018). Potentially undergoing the greatest renegotiation, traditional perceptions of masculinity have been softened through the proliferation of K-Pop groups. Due to the intensive training and strength involved in the process to becoming a K-Pop idol, this form of masculinity has retained elements of traditional, refined Confucian masculinity - with which Korea has strong ties (Carlos, 2019). However, with the use of makeup and hair dye, tightly choreographed routines, and polished fashion, male K-Pop stars have successfully developed an accepted feminine or androgynous masculinity, widening “what it means to be a beautiful man in a heterosexual or non-heterosexual way” (BBC, 2018). Unfortunately, this has contributed to unrealistic beauty standards for men alongside women, with the more feminine or androgynous K-Pop idol look forcing Korean men to pay greater attention to cosmetics, haircare, and maintaining an idealistic body type than before (Keng, 2021) - potentially acting as a negative equaliser to the widening of masculinity. Nevertheless, the expansion of East Asian popular culture has undoubtedly acted as a central platform for the negotiation and exploration of personal identities, highlighting the importance of popular culture not just for entertainment purposes, but as a basis for change.
Through the performative aspect of popular culture, conventions can be both upheld and renegotiated, allowing for the challenging of traditional standards towards greater fluidity of identity. Acting as a “form of soft power to disseminate discourses and ideologies” (Garza, 2019, pp.4), popular culture enables the emergence of new social identities – deconstructing “dominant notions of doing gender while constructing cosmopolitan notions of femininity [masculinity, and sexuality] that can be accessed by all” (Garza, 2019, pp.26). In renegotiating and normalising a range of identities through these mainstream platforms, new possibilities are created for all individuals for acceptance and freedom of expression, contributing to more inclusive societies.
BBC. (2018, September 5). Flowerboys and the appeal of ‘soft masculinity’ in South Korea. BBC News. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-42499809.
Carlos, Marius. (2019, January 26). Going SOFT, Going HARD: The Transforming of the Korean Man. Breaking Asia. Available from: https://www.breakingasia.com/culture/the-transforming-of-the-korean-man/.
Gabrovska, Galia. (2009). Gender and Body Construction in Edo Period Kabuki. Core Ethics, 5, pp.71-87. Available from: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/60533268.pdf.
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Keng, Cho. (2021, May 26). Korean Beauty Standards - What It Is And Why It Is So Strict. The VOU. Available from: https://thevou.com/beauty/korean-beauty-standards/#korean-beauty-standards-idols.
Tian, Chen. (2018, August 29). What Chinese Opera Can Teach Us About Gender. Sixth Tone. Available from: https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1002838/what-chinese-opera-can-teach-us-about-gender.