The forces underlying Acrush’s gender fluidity are more complicated than they might appear from outside China.
Just when you thought the boy-band phenomenon had finally run its course (in how many more directions can One Direction go?), a Chinese iteration goes and renovates the form. At first blush, the five members of Acrush (the “A” stands for Adonis, the Greek god of male beauty) resemble the prototypical Simon Cowell-culled group: boyishly handsome, impeccably groomed, freakishly flawless in a way that mortal teen-agers typically aren’t. There is, however, one difference. Underneath the leather jackets, Timberland boots, and conspicuously masculine posturing, the group is comprised of five cisgender girls.
Acrush originated in the coastal province of Zhejiang, under the auspices of Zhejiang Huati Culture Media Company, a Chinese pop-music factory that has built its brand by clotting the Internet with endless video streams. (Acrush made headlines even before releasing any music, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans with photos posted on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.) In April, the group released its first single, “Action,” whose music video features the band members, backlit against strips of neon, punching the air, thrusting their hips, and squinting meaningfully at the screen. The song’s rapid-fire lyrics deliver a rousing defense of self-determination: “I don’t live for anyone else / Labels—how to break them so I dictate my own life.” Western observers were impressed. “Acrush is bucking century-old norms,” Reuters reported. “China’s first androgynous boy band is breaking down barriers,” HuffPost declared.
But the forces underlying Acrush’s gender fluidity are more complicated than they might appear from the outside. When I first saw images of the band, in the spring, I was convinced that it had been around for years. This is, in part, because its members resemble every other male pop star—androgynous boys whose porcelain skin and elfin features have become the standard of beauty in East Asia. (The type is so prevalent that it even has a name: flower boys.) But, beyond that, Acrush also reminded me of another Asian trend that in recent years has absorbed millions of young women but remains almost entirely unknown in the West: yaoi, or Boys’ Love, a genre of Japanese anime geared toward female audiences that depicts romantic or erotic relationships between male characters.
“Boys’ Love is not gay porn for gays and lesbians,” a Chinese friend in her twenties who is an avid yaoi fan took care to inform me recently. “I’m straight, but I love experiencing the purity of love between boys in B.L.” When I asked her to elaborate, she said that she wasn’t sure Westerners could truly understand. “It’s like this: in China, the relationship between a man and a woman is really complicated by the respective families, their wishes and worries and unsexy financial issues. Reality always intrudes on the romance before it gets very romantic.” In the world of B.L., by contrast, romance can exist free of baggage. “It’s almost like they are not really men but just lovers, in the purest sense,” she said.
My friend’s words are equally relevant to the appeal of Acrush. Despite exposure to the wider world in recent years, China remains a country rooted in conservatism, with a social hierarchy that is rigid and unforgiving. Norms are carefully guarded and labels upheld: man, woman, father, mother, husband, wife. Confucian ideology, which has defined Chinese culture for millennia, places supreme importance on a person’s responsibility to fulfill the role assigned by his gender, class, and age. To dress and act in a manner that does not accord with your position is to violate a fundamental law of existence. To live for oneself is not only selfish; it is depraved.
Listening to the lyrics of “Action,” I, too, was struck by the band’s tone of assertive independence: “A promise of rebellion—to be an exception . . . I refuse to continue this insignificant existence. . . . I’ve tolerated this enfeebled, passive existence.” But how many Chinese youth—even with their vast exposure to the world through their computers and phones—can afford to embrace iconoclasm? In China, to be anything but heterosexual is to be the exception. Homosexuality was only removed from the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses in 2001; same-sex marriage is not officially recognized. To stay single into your thirties as a Chinese woman is to be the exception; if you choose to do so, you will enter the ugly category of so-called leftover women. In the political sphere, to take exception to the status quo is to ask for a prison sentence.
Although the five members of Acrush have claimed to be straight (to say otherwise would invite a backlash), their avid fans, mostly young women, pay them the highest compliment available to boy-band members: they refer to them as lao gong, or husbands. On Weibo, tween girls profess feeling a genuine “bond” with the stars. “You are so handsome like a god but I feel like if we met, we could be friends,” a high schooler in Guangzhou gushed. When I asked another friend in China who is familiar with teen culture why young women might prefer girls dressed up as boys to real boys, she drew my attention to the culturally enforced chasm between the sexes. “To adolescent girls in China, boys can be unknowable and intimidating,” she said. Traditional Confucian fathers can be authoritarian and remote. As a result of the one-child policy, few girls grow up with a brother, a member of the opposite sex with whom they might have formed a natural bond. Moreover, dating in middle and high school is largely forbidden in China, so young women have little real-life experience with men until college, when they must hustle to find a good match before they turn into leftover women.
Even if Acrush, like yaoi, is the product of deferred desires and inexpressible yearnings, its appearance will have little effect on China’s social reality. In China, the market inevitably supersedes abstract social quandaries. Trends are to be exploited, not explored for meaning. As Wang Tianhai, the founder of Zhejiang Huati Culture Media Company, has taken pains to note, “We have no intention to push a political message . . . We have no clue even what the term L.G.B.T. means.” The important thing, he said, is “just tapping into what the fans want.”
For the time being, Acrush’s young followers, like adolescents everywhere, are in the process of figuring out what it is they want, groping their way to desires they are not yet fully conscious of. “I had a dream about you last night,” a middle schooler with the handle LinFang’s Little Sister posted recently in a message to Lin Fang, one of the band’s members. “Since I first saw your face on a poster three months ago, this is the first time I have dreamt about you. In the dream, you are chasing me down the stairs of our apartment building. We are laughing and shouting and playing this game where you have to catch me. You are getting close–so close!–and I want you to catch me but I also want to win.”
Action (English Translation)
I refuse to be an insignificant existence any longerWhen will this world of primordial chaos start to rupture?Hotheaded, too hotheaded: a sign of dangerHotheaded, too hotheaded: I’ve lost my paceHotheaded, too hotheaded: sound the alarmLet it goHow do I fight my hardestSo that the future will come?How do I tear off these labelsSo I can be the master of my own life?Why wouldn’t I understand the principle of “haste makes waste?”Instead of waiting for a gift of a bouquet, why not plant flowers yourselfOvercome the obstaclesEvolve to be irreplaceableBreak free from a sea of fireI am my own trump cardI refuse to be an insignificant existence any longerWhen will this world of primordial chaos start to rupture?I’m sick of this weakness and enduranceCome back as a go-getterEven if it must be painful, let it be the most euphoric releaseEverybody goBounce everybody, bounce everybody, heyBounce everybody, bounceBounce everybody, bounce everybody, heyWe got right nowThe metamorphosis starts nowThis is the worst and the best of timesFlaunt your individuality and show off your talents, yeahYou have to earn approval to have the right to be sentimentalDon’t count on it, I’ll never show you any weaknessMy trump card awakens, I accept my opponents’ worshipI’m on full firepower, I conquer the whole stage(up up up)Mark my wordsI’ll be the one exceptionI don’t exist for anybodyMy beating heart breaks through every barrierPure power is beyond the imaginationCome back in the highest positionHigh-key go-gettersEverybody goBounce everybody, bounce everybody, heyBounce everybody, bounceBounce everybody, bounce everybody, heyWe got right nowThe metamorphosis starts nowEverybody bounce yeahEveryone’s anticipating my new collisionsRight now follow my perfect paceAnd see that I’ll shatter every illusion
Everybody goBounce everybody, bounce everybody, heyBounce everybody, bounceBounce everybody, bounce everybody, heyWe got right nowThe metamorphosis starts nowBounce everybody, bounce everybody, heyBounce everybody, bounceBounce everybody, bounce everybody, heyWe got right nowThe metamorphosis starts now