Onnabe and Mei Lanfang—Gender Bending and Ideals
For most people and in most situations, gender is assumed to be a concrete concept. If one were to sit down and put more thought into what defines a gender, the conclusion might be reached that it is both a cultural and a biological concept. Some might even note the psychological component of gender identity. However, the depth and detail in which the subjects of these documentaries have studied and analyzed not only their own gender, but also what defines male and female within their societies is incredible. It takes a lifetime’s worth of observation and imitation, analysis of detail and appreciation for intricacies, and conscious and subconscious noting of behaviors and reactions to achieve that level of awareness and understanding. Especially for the Shinjuku Boys, this heightened level of awareness results from their inability to identify with classic gender categories. After twenty-odd years of feeling different and uncomfortable with expectations of their biological sex, they have spent a great deal more time developing their own understanding of male, female, and onnabe identity. “Othered” by their gender-bending, these women (or men?) are acutely aware of what relates masculinity and femininity, what is expected of those roles, and where they do and do not fit them. From clothing and grooming, to chest binding, to hormone treatments, the degree to which these women change their bodies to suit their masculine identity varies. Mode of dress and hairstyle seem the most consistent, especially when they are working. Suits and shorter hair are universally associated with “maleness,” and regardless of other practices all the hosts used this basic identity marker.
Appearance is the first characteristic to which humans react when meeting someone, and a good deal of how we relate to that person is wrapped up in the conclusions drawn due to appearance. Thus, it makes sense that the Shinjuku Boys would put a good deal of time and energy into their surface portrayal of men. However, as recent men’s wear trends in women’s clothing have shown, a woman in men’s clothing—even one with a masculine haircut—is still female. Where the onnabe truly begin to unseat traditional gender roles is in behavior and attitude. Body language, tone of voice, and ways in which the hosts react to situations are vastly more important in convincing the women, or “tricking” them as one puts it, that they are men. From birth, we are conditioned to respond to the behavior of others in certain ways. If these women accurately behave as men and fill the social role of a man in a club, then the heterosexual female patrons begin to subconsciously accept them as men and behave towards them as they would a man.
We hear the Shinjuku Boys talk about the frailty, dependency, and vulnerability of women, and their refusal to behave as such. As men, they explain, they make the decisions, they have affairs, they have the power and the control. This is explicitly stated multiple times throughout the documentary, but most powerfully by the host who is dating a transsexual man. In discussing whether or not they fulfill traditional male and female roles in a romantic relationship, they discuss the need to be “strong,” who is allowed to cry and when, and even who carries heavy objects around the house. While they admitted to adhering to certain norms, the discussion concluded with the statement that they were “equal.” Both were allowed to be emotional and both were allowed to be strong—emotionally and physically—because either the manifestations of their biological sex or their social gender called for it. For me, this statement was the most powerful moment of the documentary because there sat two people, neither of whom fit typical categories of gender or typical roles in a relationship, yet they have found happiness and balance where many heterosexual, “normal” couples cannot.
This refusal to be vulnerable and dependent is, one might conclude, at least partially due to psychological distress. This was most apparent with Gaish, who spoke not only of emotionally distant parents, but also of an affair with a teacher who then left him for a more traditional lifestyle. He acknowledged, in fact, that as a result of being left by his teacher, he purposefully remained detached from his lovers because he “knows” that eventually they will leave him for “real” men, marriage, and children. The same distress is apparent when the Shinjuku Boys discuss sexual relationships and their extreme discomfort with their bodies. Their refusal to undress or to let their partners perform sexual acts on them reveals the disconnect felt between their physical form and their perceived identity. It is important to note, however, that Tatsu and Kazuki, who are in steady, long term relationships are more able to accept their bodies in a romantic situation and do have a more developed sexual relationship with their partners than Gaish, who seems the most damaged by childhood experiences. Tatsu and Kazuki speak of their struggle to get over their discomfort and the limits on their sexual desires. Tatsu describes taking his clothes off for the first time as like “jumping off a cliff,” but with the love and support of his partner, he was able to do so. The fact that they were able to overcome that initial aversion to being naked in a romantic situation seems to support the idea that psychological trauma and self-consciousness limits their ability to be sexual, not just another aspect of the onnabe identity. However, it is obviously highly problematic to assume this deviation from “normal” sexual behavior is due to some psychological abnormality or issue shared by all onnabe.
The case of Mei Lanfang is different in that his portrayal of women was solely for the stage—outside of opera, he identified as a heterosexual male. However, the Shinjuku Boys’ intense scrutiny and study of the opposite sex’s mannerisms, behavior, and appearance is relevant here as well. In fact, due to his upbringing and his father’s career as a performer of female roles, Mei Lanfang’s study of women was probably much more explicit and guided than the observation and imitation of the onnabes. Both the Shinjuku Boys and Mei Lanfang are said to perform the role of the “ideal” opposite sex, yet the types of performances are drastically different. Stage productions require actors to exaggerate and hyperbolize—both for dramatic effect and so people in all parts of the audience can identify the characters and their emotions or personality. As an actor, Mei Lanfang would behave in ways that an audience would automatically recognize as female because they are ideal or magnified versions of typical female gestures, features, or manners of speech. By following a script and having rehearsed many, many times, Mei Lanfang could produce a more artificial depiction of the ideal woman, whereas the onnabe must be a relatable, more natural, nuanced, individual of the opposite sex.
Perhaps the most thought provoking aspect of Mei Lanfang’s life (in my opinion) was the way in which he protested the Japanese invasion of China. As a world-renowned performer of female roles, his livelihood and reputation depended on his ability to convincingly become female. By growing a mustache and cementing his masculine identity, he no longer could produce the same beautiful, ideal female character. One might argue that there were other ways Mei Lanfang could have made his protest. What is interesting is that in being strong and standing up to the Japanese authority, he is assuming a more masculine role, and to do so, he chose to change his appearance in a way that would immediately prevent him from being associated with femininity. The women he portrayed were delicate, obedient, fragile, and loving—but in refusing the requests of the Japanese government, he was strong, assertive, and principled. This was the man behind the performance, and by putting aside the idealized female persona and reinforcing his masculine identity, Mei Lanfang made himself a more formidable, intimidating opponent.
The Promise; The Curse of the Golden Flower
Although costumes in The Curse of the Golden Flower seem reminiscent (at least more so than in The Promise) of historical clothing that we have analyzed in class, I do not think that either director was preoccupied with historical accuracy. Instead, each director took artistic license and chose to use clothing to help to tell his story while simultaneously creating a visually appealing experience. The breasts of the servant women are exposed in Flower in a way that seems quite sexy and even “Hollywood-like.” Their tight robes are different from the conservative Changyi that we have encountered in class. The bodices may appeal in a provocative manner to a modern audience while embodying the restrictions of the servant girls in the palace. A more seductive form of dress may also speak to the film’s theme of forbidden lust.
Although the soldiers’ uniforms in The Promise do contain vestiges of traditional symbolism, (rank is depicted by the designs on the chest) Kaige presents his red army in a non-traditional, self-orientalizing, almost satirical manner. He depicts brightly feathered soldiers who jingle as they walk because of strange appendages on their armor. They have absurdly tall helmets and red flowing hair (which cannot possibly be very helpful in battle) that matches that of their horses. The details are so elaborate and exaggerated that they seem as if they came from the mind of a non-Chinese onlooker. They are not meant to be historically accurate but visually moving. The performance-like battles further make the costumes seem like just that, costume; not imitations of real battle wear.
Kaige also portrays a clear separation of good versus evil. Black seems to represent evil while red represents good. Horns seem to carry dark connotations, feathers good. At the same time there seems to be a sincere sense of compassion for the lower classes which leads me to think that the bizarre dress of the military figures as well as the distinctions between good and evil through dress, are part of a critique of Chinese systems of power. Although the young Qingcheng’s peasant clothes are tattered and worn, they are still incredibly bright and beautiful in their own way. Kunlun also adorns a cape of brightly colored feathers that seem to become his own sort of armor. (He does not seem to be able to move in his sub-human way when he is bogged down by the General’s armor). These two people, both once lowly, eventually escape through love. The General, and the man whose impractical military helmet had at one time gotten the best of him, do not find peace.
I was struck by the way in which visual effects are used to make costume colors vibrant in both films. The sharp red of the military dress against a richly green landscape in The Promise, as well as the colored marbling of light that reflects off of the royal robes in Flower, create unearthly effects. The vibrancy of the “red” in The Promise screams Chinese nationalism so loudly, that to me it seems purposefully overdone. (And perhaps part of the political critique that I mentioned earlier). The computer, especially in The Promise, further moves the costuming away from a historically relevant context to an artistically mystical one. Animation allows the costumes to take on a transcendent form especially in the case of the ethereal Goddess Manshen. Instead of lying limply on her body, her garments move independently; waving and flowing as if they are a part of her being.
While men fight wars and try to fulfill their own destinies, women seem to remain stagnant. They are not as much characters with personal agency as they are symbols of Chinese culture as a whole. In this respect, they seem to carry more responsibility in representing “Chinese-ness” and tradition than men do. Qingcheng looks as if she has been untouched, seated atop a pedestal her entire life. Her complexion is pale whereas the skin of the men has been tanned by the sun. They wage wars, live life, and even fight over her while she remains helpless, her destiny sealed by her promise. Once the general gives up being a warrior, his metal armor and structured jacket are exchanged for a more feminine pink robe that matches Qingcheng’s. He adopts a more female dress, as if falling in love and settling down (and perhaps abandoning one’s destiny) have feminine connotations. The female slaves in the Tang dynasty primp their bodies to look exactly the same. They seem to be nothing more than symbols of subordination, while the Empress is so extravagantly adorned (even her fingertips are accessorized) that she might be mistaken for a statue. The women that do have a certain amount of personal agency are mischievous characters that seem to stand in the way of the destinies of the male characters. The goddess Manshen sneakily doles out curses and bargains while Qingcheng and the Empress fiddle with the hearts of men. In both films, the power that a woman does have is a dangerous, sexual one. An entire army relinquishes its weapons to see what treasures are hidden under a woman’s robe.
These costume dramas exaggerate the elaborate nature of Chinese tradition in a way that releases the audience of the rational conventions of modernity. They are pure entertainment, celebrating beauty, movement, and imagination in a way that is refreshingly irrational. As a result, their popularity may stem from the escape that they provide a modern Chinese audience. Modern dress is functional; people have earthly restrictions, responsibilities, and boundaries. But in The Promise people run and fly at lighting speed. They travel in time, and are visited by mythical figures. In The Curse of the Golden Flower material beauty is everywhere. Pleasure is everywhere, and seduction runs rampant. By entering these worlds, audiences are alleviated if only for a few hours, from their own mortal restrictions. The theme of “destiny” runs through both films. Perhaps it is this hopeful traditional value, along with mythical plots and traditional symbolism that spark a sense of elevated national identity and make these movies so popular amongst modern Chinese audiences.
October 5, 2009
Screening Journal: The Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower
The rendering of costume in The Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower is bound to be a contentious point for several reasons. To begin with, both films attempt to show how people dressed during the Tang dynasty. Regardless of how accurately a film might try to convey ancient costume, the fact that it is a reproduction means that it is inherently bound to be influenced to some extent by contemporary culture and preconceived notions of what dress might have looked like in ancient times, regardless of the how it actually existed.
For example, in the Promise, the little girl, dressed as a peasant, wears a patchwork dress of rags that seems to align more with a modern notion of peasant wear, than the actual reality of what people wore. The patchwork seems to be excessively costume-like in order to clearly designate the girl as a peasant. In both films, dress is essential to signaling a character’s identity. When General Guangming’s army fights against the opposing army, the red of their costumes contrasts sharply against the gray of the enemy, clearly indicating who the audience is supposed to be cheering on. The contrived nature of the costumes makes them less convincing as authentic dress.
Great effort is also taken to make the costumes visually appealing. While this is a treat for the eye, it also makes them appear to be less genuine. In Curse of the Golden Flower, the female characters wear elaborate make-up and nails that were actually inappropriate for the time. The bright pink powdered eye shadow seems more appropriate for a runway model than an ancient Chinese empress. However, there are also scenes in this film that manage to be visually appealing without sacrificing historical accuracy. In several scenes, the elaborate design of the characters’ costume corresponds to the design of the elaborate wallpaper they are in. The vibrant colors of the costumes and the setting complement each other and offer the audience a rich visual display, which is historically believable.
The Promise, on the other hand, has a slightly different tone than Curse of the Golden Flower. It is more fantasy based, and so has license to make the costumes more surreal. The Goddess Manshen seems to have a deliberate CG aesthetic in order to capture her other-worldly nature. Her robes seem to have a rubbery texture, and her hair floats as though suspended in water, in clear defiance of gravity. In this case, the audience is able to accept the unnaturalness of her costume given the context: she is otherworldly.
In Curse of the Golden Flower, the costume seems unnatural in a different sense. The women are dressed in eroticizing corsets that have a neckline so low, their breasts seems ready to spring out of their restraints. It seems dubious that women of the Tang dynasty dressed in such a provocative manner. These dresses seem to have been included for erotic appeal. The men’s costumes also seem to have been exaggerated to fulfill an idealized Oriental style. They are a piercing bright red, with embroidered dragons— common images that come to mind when imagining Asian dress. The fact that the costumes in the film fulfill this prototype indicates that the film is self-Orientalizing to some extent. More historically accurate costumes might seem less commercially Asian, and as a result, be less exportable.
The costume in The Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower also differs in their relationships with gender. While in The Promise, men and women wore robes of a similar style, in Curse of the Golden Flower, women were adorned with make-up, hair accessories and clothing that restricted their movement. Interestingly, in the Promise, the female characters were more independent. The female protagonist steals bread from a child of military royalty and is able to take care of herself. Correspondingly, her costume gives her more physical freedom. Though the films both take place in the ancient Tang dynast, the way men and women are dressed is still relevant in how it relates to our modern understanding of gender roles. Each film selected to feature different types of ancient costume, which either allowed the female characters to be more independent or unable to defend themselves.
The films are also relevant to Chinese self perception. When the two films were created, their target audiences were Chinese movie-goers. Of the $33.5 millions US dollars that The Promise grossed worldwide, 18 million—more than half—was earned in mainland China. Both the films belong to a genre that has proven time and again to be a success at the Chinese box office: that of the fantasy historical epic. I think that this genre appeals to Chinese audiences because it indulges the desire to be entertained with fantastical imagery and action/ adventure, while at the same time allowing Chinese audience members to feel connected to their rich history. Perhaps, by viewing films like the Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower, audience members can feel more connected to their national Chinese identity. At the same time, undertones in these films reveal other social issues at hand, from gender roles to a tendency for Chinese films to orientalize their characters. Film is more than a source of entertainment, but a modern cultural artifact.