Niangpao is more than weird hairstyle and improper clothing

Wan Lixin
It would be a gross understatement to say these idols are exerting a pernicious influence on impressionable youths.
Wan Lixin

In my recent article "Keep the drums beating in the fight against toxic online celebrities and obsessive fans" (September 7), I expressed my support for the ongoing campaign against chaotic idols, "fan circles," and the digital platforms that seek to recklessly exploit all this activity.

However, it seems more effort is needed to explicate the meaning of niangpao to understand why the regulatory effort is not "something of an overreaction," as Greg Cusack observed recently after reading my article.

While "confessing to also feeling rather put off by some of the young people in this country (the US) who flaunt bisexuality, for instance, or color their hair with incredibly vivid colors, or who wear (or little wear) clothing that seems inappropriate," Cusack also pleaded for leniency.

"Young people, after all, like to flaunt their originality (at least as seen in their eyes) and to sort of taunt their elders with appearances and behaviors that seem custom-designed to irritate us older folks," he wrote in an email.

He added that "I remember being young once myself, and how 'my generation' grew long hair and celebrated rock and roll both because we enjoyed them and also because we knew it drove some of our elders nuts. My father didn't like long hair at all (he always wore his in the short crew cut that had first become popular in the 1950s), so I dutifully kept mine shorn as long as I lived in his house."

I think when regulators singled out niangpao for attack, they had in mind more than long hair and inappropriate clothing.

To translate a niangpao into "sissy boy" would be simplistic, as a typical niangpao is invested with some quite unsavory attributes, while an average "sissy boy" is generally innocuous by comparison.

A couple of days ago some of my colleagues spent quite some time trying in vain to arrive at an accurate definition of niangpao. It became apparent to all that there is a material difference between a typical niangpao and sissy boys, with the former connoting a warped conception of male beauty as a product of capital manipulation in a process exposed to be hugely profitable and exploitative.

In this process the heavily scripted and edited public image of a young man, through shrewdly incited fan engagement and marketing, becomes the defining features of an idol.

It would be a gross understatement to say these idols are exerting a pernicious influence on impressionable youths.

As Zhang Hongsheng, a scholar from the Communication University of China, observed recently at a forum, the "fan circles" are getting younger, community-based, organized, more extremist, and exclusive.

"We should not underestimate the adverse impacts of 'fan circle' culture on teenagers' social values, studies, and social intercourse," Zhang said, adding that this obsession with "idols" might lead -- in addition to excessive consumption -- to cyber bullying, online frauds, and juvenile delinquency by encouraging the craving for ill-gotten gains.

While what is known as sissy boys have been a social phenomenon across all societies all the time -- with its perception subject to individualized interpretations -- the ongoing campaign targets explicitly the systematic creation of idols as a shrewd marketing ploy, an industrialized process modeled on similar nurturing schemes originated in South Korea and Japan.

With these schemes, a paradigm shift occurs whereby star chasing has evolved from simple identification with, and emulation of, the idols in former days to becoming participators in the nurturing and upkeep of the idols.

Meanwhile, the target products consumed by fans have evolved from symbols of content to a mixture of idolized image and public persona. Thus these idols are tightly scripted symbols devoid of substance, essentially homogenious, but deliberately held to be individualistic, with their carefully managed image, hairstyle, gestures, parlance.

This evolution finds its explanation in the fact that fandom data have become a critical gauge of the commercial value of a star, while the public persona could be leveraged to enhance recognition of the fandoms, who would be enthused by the idea of pushing up the rankings of an idol through tipping, consuming or faking data.

As a consequence, the idols degenerate into a visual product to be gazed at, admired, and tipped by their fans, whose zeal is further fueled by provocative posts, rivalry, and competitive tippings.

It is easy to imagine, since fandom needs be diligently engaged in data creation, fan circles becoming closely knit hierarchies with clear divisions of labor.

On the face of it, to dethrone these figureheads would be easy. But it would be more of a challenge to explain the essence of capital engagement to all and sundry young participants co-opted in churning out idols, and who expect to be harvested by greedy capital lurking behind the whole business.

Cleaning up the social soil that gives birth to these fans would be more of a challenge.

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