From Ancient Greece crossing over to the ruling gods of modern-day China, we find a host of popsy-cutesy music-making boys and|or girls ruling the waves of super-stardom. China Under The Radar zooms in on that androgynous captivation throughout – as you do.
In China, a boyband consisting of all female members, FFC-Acrush, in early 2017 made its debut. The “A” standing for Adonis, a male divine figure in Greek mythology who was the embodiment of eternal youth, beauty, and fertility.
The five cisgender debutants didn’t style, let alone define, themselves as either male or female, but rather preferred to be called “Měi Shào Nián(美少年 in Chinese), aka “the good-looking youth”.
So what makes these modern-day mystical and ambrosial creatures and their gender-bending looks tick the trendy and trending boxes from Seoul to Shanghai and beyond?
Plato once wrote that Rhea, mother of the gods in Greek mythology, created three types of tribes: Male, female and the “mix-and-match”. Being superior in strength, both mentally and physically, this third super-non-man tribe at one point in ancient times even tried to banish the gods from Mount Olympus, or so the story goes.
In shamanistic cultures, certain elements of which can be found in Ancient Greece as well, the shaman was clad in clothes of the opposite sex to absorb supernatural deistic powers.
People believed their gods to possess both genders or, at the very least, have the ability to go beyond the boundaries the concept of “gender” entails. In such fashion, the concept of hermaphrodite, for example, wrapped up the ideal ideas of divinity, completeness, and flawlessness.
The notion of gender-bending is found in literature, too. The character of Ariel in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, though the male pronoun was used in the text, refers to an androgynous individual. When brought to the actual stage, the part was played by females from the mid-1600s to about 1930. From that time onwards, both males and females have taken on the role.
On another more spiritual note, then, the Taoist principle of “Yin and Yang” emphasizes the complementariness of contrary forces. It describes those fundamentals which are seemingly polar opposites to be just perceptual concepts, inseparable and interconnected. The best examples here are dark-light, cold-hot, old-young, and female-male.
Enough with the religious and back to poppy, it is.
The salient feature with both the aforementioned Block B and FFC-Acrush bands is the androgynous, or “Zhōng Xìng (中性)”, style. The term “androgynous” itself is thought to have originated from the Greek word “Androgynos”, meaning “to have both masculine and feminine traits”. It is not simply about imitating the counter-gender, yet implies the taking on of both male and female features and blending these in a melodious manner – in cheesily keeping with our musical theme of the day.
Subsequently, it becomes harder to put your finger on a person’s exact gender. It’s not difficult to find androgynous style stars in both the South Korean and Chinese realms of pop music, whereas when the mind wanders off to their Western counterparts, we can only list a handful such role models… Other than David Bowie: Then, now and forever.
Ironically, the core concept of the androgynous look is founded on traditional gender dichotomy. Males borrow a curvy and slim silhouette from their feline peers, highlighting soft and less saturated colors, as well as decorations showing off embroidery, lace, and other frilly details. The women, in turn, abstractly adopt the straighter lines and achromatic colors found in menswear staples or sometimes simply put on the menswear itself.
The notion of “gender” is a sociological concept, ergo dressing in conformity with one’s biological gender is not obligatory in expressing their social gender.
Handsome Girls And Pretty Boys
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto! The expression of gender ambiguity in Asian pop music is considered the attaining of a whole different, transcendent, level of beauty or charm; one that cannot be bound by the limitations of pure gender classification. Expressions such as “handsome girl” or “pretty boy” therefore now make for a new category in compliments.
Within the K-pop scene, for example, boys pursuing the traditional feminine traits are nowadays prevailing in far bigger and bolder numbers than vice versa. And they take things to whole new levels. K-pop boyband SHINee, for instance, several years ago stated in an interview that they did not eat anything after 6PM in order to maintain their slender figure. That’s dedication for ya, right there.
Not only do these ravishing male role models opt for ye standard bigger eyes, double-eyelids, light complexions, and skinny frames, male idols, in general, but are also enthusiastically putting the differently numbered makeup brushes to their cheekbones and dressing themselves to the feminine nines.
One such example of the latter is that of K-pop idol G-dragon, whose star style experiments stretch well and far beyond. This particular artist is a conspicuous fashion icon who is also known to be a good friend of Karl Lagerfeld and Jeremy Scott, decorating global fashion week front rows.
His archive of some 200+ hairstyles includes asymmetric, seaweed-like hair, waist-long Marilyn-blonde hair, and a pale pink curly do. When he wants to convey a sense of blurred lines, he will literally create a mix of mens- and womenswear. G-Dragon is the first male icon who wore a “real” skirt, whilst out and about in “real” daily life, in South Korea.
Hitting The High Notes
Of style. While more and more boys are joining in the effeminate style movement, traffic in the other direction is seemingly stuck. Amber Liu of K-pop girl group f(x) is always the epitome of androgynous girl dressing. (Minor detail: Liu hails from Taiwanese parents.) When f(x) first burst onto the scene, people were falling all over themselves since — as with all things fluid — it proved rather difficult to pinpoint Liu’s gender. “Where does the boy end and the girl begin?”, or vice versa, the question soon became.
The heated gender debate was turned up a notch when this particular tomboy in the 2010 video for “NU Abo” looked like a punk boy with her pixie cut, sneakers, and blue jacket, whilst her fellow band members were boasting long hair and high heels. Liu had the crowds humming along and buzzing like a beehive with rumors rife.
Of all those girls who have loudly declared their affinity for the androgynous or so-called “girl crush” style, Liu thus far has remained the one and only icon in the field. She maintains a uniform look that includes short hair, basketball-uniform-styled oversized T-shirts, never ever cinching in that waistline, and sneakers. Even when partaking in a Hanbok (the traditional South Korean dress) styled photoshoot, which is the must for every divine pop group in celebration of the annual Korean traditional holidays, Liu sports the men’s attire.
From South Korea to the Middle Kingdom, we travel. Li Yuchun, also known as Chris Lee, is the No.1 representative of androgynous style icon within the C-pop scene. Riccardo Tisci once described her as “the most revolutionary Chinese muse,” in his interview with Ifeng Music. Lee doesn’t come with the usual female celeb tag; what’s more, rumor has it that FFC-Acrush acquired and copied her gender-less style bible.
Other celebrities such as Ella Chen and Faye Wong are also often considered to be stars of androgyny, boasting tomboy, boyish personalities which often adds up to the “cool” style.
Very much unlike is the case in South Korea, it is relatively hard to find a male andro icon among Chinese pop stars, though some of them could be classified as androgynous from an Occidental perspective.
In general, however, Chinese pop singers portray a sense of masculine grace — unless they are seeking to take a K-pop-influenced style stance. One honorable mention, and exception, here goes out to TFBOYS (aka The Fighting Boys), one of the most popular bubblegum C-pop teenage boybands. Wearing crisp cookie-cutter suits and clean haircuts, the boys are a beacon of non-gender pop goodness.
FYI, and on a false note, this band’s music has since its formation in 2013 evolved to include pro-nationalism themes, e.g. in “Go! Amigo!”, the song’s message is about teamwork and serving the collective — hello there, communist values!
Well, for what it’s worth, the Mao suit was a unisex uniform style too. Androgyny avant-la-lettre and an ode to the soft power of fashion.
The androgynous trend for one surely has nothing to do with traditional values given that only one decade ago, androgyny largely was more of a taboo matter than a sway one.
Taking this 10-year shift into consideration, the androgynous fashion trend in both South Korea and the Middle Kingdom ostensibly brings to the front pages a new standard in terms of beauty.
The newborn state of beautiful beings is one transcending boundaries and expanding minds – and wardrobes alike. Like the days of Ancient Greece when the hermaphrodite represented absolute perfection, the K- and C-pop celebrities of our 21st century digital age perhaps are promulgating through their gender fluidity exceptional levels of social evolution.
In truly social and hardcore fashion, the featured gender-bending gems swing and sway across traditional division, clearing the path for those young dreamers or those struggling at their birth-assigned gender core to be accepted without further ado. After all, we all must admit…
Social division holds no joy.