Viral fame brings online abuse, sparking debate online and off

Zhang Long
A young woman with a rare disability has become an Internet sensation since her parents posted videos of her life, sparking concerns about exploitation and cultural appropriation.
Zhang Long

You might or might not have seen videos of Xiaoxiao on TikTok, but millions of people around the world have. The young woman with a rare disability has found herself at the center of an online firestorm, raising complex questions about exploitation, cultural appropriation, and disability rights.

Nicknamed "plastic bag girl" and "Dobby" by some online viewers, Chen Xiaoxiao's unique private life has been made glaringly public.

Viral fame brings online abuse, sparking debate online and off

One of the videos shows Xiaoxiao angered by her mother and throwing a tantrum.

Suffering from Seckel syndrome, a rare congenital condition, 35-year-old Xiaoxiao stands a mere 1.1 meters tall and weighs less than 14 kilograms. Her unusual appearance and mannerisms have sparked both fascination and controversy on platforms such as TikTok.

Her videos typically feature her singing, dancing, playing, or simply going about her daily life. She often appears aggressive to her parents and people around her.

Xiaoxiao lives in rural Sichuan Province, where her family struggles with their limited resources to support and care for her. Seeking to document their daughter's life and perhaps find financial support, her parents in their 60s began uploading videos to the domestic social media platform Kuaishou, amassing a following of 140,000 viewers.

Her videos were re-uploaded to TikTok, soon reaching millions of views. TikTok users began mimicking her appearance and voice in mocking parodies, often garnering millions of views for themselves.

Xiaoxiao's online presence continued to grow. As her videos were shared across platforms including TikTok, she gained a massive audience but also faced mocking parodies and offensive depictions.

Viral fame brings online abuse, sparking debate online and off

A Japanese TikTok user uploaded a video of people doing a street dance dressed up as Xiaoxiao while wearing qipao.

During Halloween, a particularly egregious incident occurred when Japanese TikTok users sparked outrage by dressing up as Xiaoxiao and performing a street dance in traditional Chinese qipao, an act widely condemned as disrespectful to both Xiaoxiao and Chinese culture.

Her pictures were also posted on X with offensive captions.

With the unexpected fame came intense scrutiny. Concerns about Xiaoxiao's well-being surfaced as viewers questioned the portrayal of her life in the videos.

Some TikTok users raised accusations that Xiaoxiao's parents deliberately provoked her anger to fuel the short video content, essentially exploiting their daughter for online fame.

Local authorities in Zhuning City investigated the matter but ultimately concluded that, while the mother's actions in some videos were inappropriate, there was no evidence of systematic abuse within the family.

"Xiaoxiao struggles with communication, often expressing herself in ways that others find difficult to understand," clarified a local official. "She has a short temper and can be clingy toward her mother, who sometimes teases her in good fun. However, there is no evidence of physical abuse within the family."

Initially, Xiaoxiao's mother started their account on Kuaishou simply to document their daily lives. Following Xiaoxiao's unexpected online fame, her mother saw an opportunity to also utilize the platform as a means to sell their homemade honey.

In August 2022, local village officials discovered Xiaoxiao's account and, upon finding some of the videos inappropriate, requested Xiaoxiao's mother remove them. Subsequently, Xiaoxiao's Kuaishou account was permanently banned.

Since 2011, the local government, along with the Disabled Persons Federation and the Women's Federation, have been providing Xiaoxiao's family with monthly and basic living allowances to help support them, local authorities said.

Additionally, these organizations are actively exploring ways to assist the family in selling their homemade agricultural products.

Viral fame brings online abuse, sparking debate online and off

Xiaoxiao is not always aggressive.

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