Cross-dressing troupes - just a passing fad?
An all-male group of cross-dressing costume players - or 'cosplayers' - from Wuhan, Hubei province, has become a showbiz sensation on the mainland, but a rise in the phenomenon has raised concerns from some quarters about a national 'masculinity crisis'.
The Alice Fake Girl Club was established in October 2009 by a group of university students in Wuhan as a cosplay troupe for people who attend fairs dedicated to animated cartoons, comic books and video games.
Through a number of high-profile appearances on variety shows that air on mainstream television networks, the group and other troupes have become a new selling point in the mainland networks' battle for advertising money - increasing the occurrence of men in drag on the air.
Going by his feminised name, Xiaolu, the troupe's spokesman and one of its core members, said they had just returned from a performance in Shanghai on Tuesday for a variety show on Dragon TV, and they had another guest appearance lined up for a Henan TV show.
Xiaolu, a third-year accounting student at Wuhan's South-Central University for Nationalities, said the public attention had been rewarding, as each participant earned up to 500 yuan (HK$615) for one show, but that they also just loved cosplaying.
'We dress up as girls on stage because of our passion for animated cartoons and the characters,' he said, 'but offstage, we go about our studies and work just like anybody else.'
However, the rising popularity of cross-dressing artists and cosplayers on the mainland, while underscoring greater freedom in self-expression, has raised eyebrows in the broader community amid fears that the activity diminishes masculinity, particularly among teenagers.
In May 2010, Liu Zhu, a student at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, set off a heated debate over the cross-dressing phenomenon and its gender implications when he entered a male singing competition on Hunan TV wearing heavy make-up, stockings and high heels.
To address this perceived 'masculinity crisis' in boys and young men who are seen as becoming too feminine, the Shanghai No 8 High School began a recruitment push last week for an all-male school where masculinity would be cultivated.
Xiaolu said Alice Fake Girl Club members grew to more than 200 in months. They included performers, costume designers and photographers. But the media caught wind of the group's popularity in 2010 - resulting in an exodus by members who were pressured by friends and families to quit. Just four members remained, and the group was forced to rebuild itself from scratch.
Associate Professor Song Sufeng, who teaches sociology at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, said that viewing cross-dressing performers as a threat to masculinity was an overreaction. 'Those efforts to cultivate masculinity almost amount to saying that there is only one fixed [definition for] masculinity in the world,' Song said.
Today, the troupe is composed of more than a dozen key performers who have been recruited based largely on physical criteria: female silhouettes, long legs and a 'cute' look. From time to time, they include men with more masculine features to play antagonists in performances such as re-enactments of cartoons. Their repertoire also includes renditions of song-and-dance routines from South Korean female pop groups.
Zhou Shuyan, who specialises in gender studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the growing appeal of cross-dressing cosplay originated in Japan, where animated cartoons and comics, known as manga, are a large part of the culture.
However, Zhou believes its mainstream popularity 'will be short-lived and temporary, because its selling point will be quickly consumed'.