Dan Mei: Ironic Gay-Straight Culture Mix
A month ago Dr. Charlie Yi Zhang, Asst. Prof. of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky, enchanted an audience at Chiang Mai University with his interpretation of a culture-quake going on in China we had barely heard about. We did know that women in North East Asia were fascinated with stories about gay guys, but we did not know this interest had spawned an on-line fan-fad. Charlie filled us in.
Dan Mei is a Chinese subculture centered on fictional homoromantic/homoerotic relationships. As I understand it, websites have been created based on certain stories of love, sex and romance between beautiful, slim, talented boys and young men. Fans of these stories are urban, young, heterosexual women with good jobs. They get on-line and talk to each other about fantasy scripts and developments, adding to the story and including characters from pop culture whom the fans fantasize might be gay, too. The women work their fantasies out within certain boundaries. The stories may begin with a stereotypical rich fellow becoming attached to a younger disadvantaged guy, but sooner or later the tables are turned and the younger lover has the stuff to rescue the older one, showing that there is a balance in their relationship all along. The characters are inevitably effeminate but capable. These websites, Charlie told us, are numerous and very active. Furthermore, they are making inroads into mainline media and influencing popular Chinese vocabulary that even the guardians of Chinese culture cannot avoid.
Then Charlie escorted us through a woodland of topics threatening to turn into a bewildering forest. Rather than try to re-map the zones of neo-liberalism, feminism, and state controls over discourse, I’ll just mention a few of the trees.
What’s going on in this Dan Mei sub-culture is deeply counter-cultural. Whereas, the cultural power structure of the Chinese state has definite roles for women to adhere to, Dan Mei fans are busily imagining alternatives. In the fantasy stories there is a strong male figure, liberated from a tight heterosexual script into a “beautiful and true form of romance.” The women imagine themselves being in the place of the younger fellow, who has a beautiful feminized body but compensating strong masculine disposition. The fans “subject these boys to their voyeuristic gaze [whereas in the West it is the men who inevitably are the voyeurs] and imagine themselves as the one being penetrated.” Charlie was careful to help us understand that this preserves the “domineering penetrating versus docile penetrated” paradigm with the women eagerly seeking the docile role. What is going on, however, is not affirmation of male-centered cultural legacy. They are actually embracing an older pre-colonial traditional culture that contained effeminate “floral men” as valued and significant characters in culture and society. In that way this Chinese form of feminism is the reverse of the feminist position that advocates, embraces and strives for equality. In fantasy and in real-life, the fans dream of finding a masculine, well-built hero but with themselves having equal social, economic, educational, and professional status, by no means walking three steps behind their husbands. Indirectly, therefore, they are undermining “the official social policy of modern neo-liberalism in which women merely complement men in supporting market-driven economic and social goals.”
What this Dan Mei sub-culture is tending to do, Charlie concluded, is to create space for voluntary associations and affiliations. Dan Mei fans are creating “a safe zone to sidestep state-backed gender essentialism.” The goal is to enable a space of flexibility, mutation and contingencies. They are creating a gray area in which both male and female bodies and performances are redefined.
Charlie avoided using the term “revolutionary” to describe the effect Dan Mei fans are having on the state-controlled culture, but he pointed toward the advantages gays and lesbians are deriving from the introduction of a category of life that is utopian, youthful, in between, and free from social penalties and punishments.
PS-Stay tuned for Dr. Zhang's forthcoming article on Dan Mei and for more on this subject see this NY Times' blog post: "Why Many Young Chinese Women Are Writing Gay Male Erotica"
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.