China's most popular boy-band is actually made up of androgynous girls
The Far East's obsession with boy bands is already well-documented, and we've written articles before about how seriously monomaniacal certain fans can get about the objects of their affection. You thought One Direction fans were bad? Seriously, try taking a trip to China and South Korea, where enthusiasm for boy bands borders on the cultish, and the devotion to music idols is so extreme that a crowd of cheering fans can turn into an accidental lynch mob at any given opportunity. It's getting to the point where Westerners only ever hear about the horror stories of the Asian music industry; the sasaeng fans who tap private phone calls, gatecrash weddings and break into private property.
But, despite the bad reputation, provided by a small and vocal minority, Asian pop is only getting more popular in the West, due in part to the wholesome image of the bands and the exotic appeal of their music. In fact, there are so many South Korean, Japanese and Chinese boy bands out there now that new groups are being forced to diversify. Yet, it turns out China's most popular boy band isn't actually made up of men. Instead, their numbers consist of more than few androgynous-looking cisgender girls. Think of them as a drag king act dashed off with a generous side of catchy pop tunes, and you'll have the right idea.
Acrush, which consists of Lu Keran, Peng Xichen, Lin Fan, An Junxi, Min Junqian, Peng Yiyang and Feng Yuxuan, have burst onto the scene in China and already boast thousands of ardent fans, none of whom are apparently phased by the inherent contradiction of all-female boy band. Acrush (their name a portmanteau of "Adonis, Greek God of beauty, and the "crush" they hope their fans will have on them) was first established in the coastal province of Zhejiangnand and their music is produced by the Zhejiang Huati Culture Media Company. The group was mentored by Simon Cowell-esque music producer Wang Tianhai, who created the band in order to sponsor a soccer association.
On Chinese social networking site Weibo, their fan page managed to accrue over 750,000 followers after the band performed live a number of times. On April 28, their first single, entitled "Action" (行动派) was released to generally positive reviews. Although it might seem like a form of cross-dressing to us, Wang insists that Acrush has no political or social dimension to it "They just enjoy the male appearance, the carefree style and want to sing like men," he stated in a recent interview. "They want to express a positive and sunny image, to show that girls can be a boyband too. There’s prejudice, and some people think because of their style then they are homosexual, and use that to criticise the band."
Indeed, the five members of the band have repeatedly insisted that they are all straight women in their personal lives, despite the extent to which they play up their seemingly-male personas in front of others. Their most ardent fans give the boyish-looking girls the name "lao gong", or "husbands", when referring to them, and yaoi fanfiction writers often ship the band members together. For those not in the know, "shipping" refers to the fan practice of imagining two or more characters hooking up romantically in a piece of media, and "yaoi" is an anime term referring to an erotic fantasy relationship between two men; often men who are perceived to already be close platonic friends.
How is it that such a gender-fluid band has managed to flourish in conservative China, where traditional values are strictly enforced by the ruling regime? Well as it happens, notions of gender aren't quite as binary as they are in the West when it comes to putting on a show. In fact, the modern Chinese attitude to Acrush is somewhat similar to the West's drag show tradition, which was a staple of British comedy vaudeville acts and sketch shows for many years before being appropriated by the LGBT+ movement. Think about how many people, gay or otherwise, tune into watch RuPaul's Drag Race, and suddenly Acrush doesn't seem so strange.
As Lucetta Kam, professor of gender studies at Hong Kong Baptist University explains: "There’s a long history of cross-gender performance in China, male playing female roles and vice-versa, in traditional Chinese theatre. Feminist issues are getting more and more politically sensitive under the current political regime, but as long as they don’t mention any gender issues and remain entertainment-oriented, it’s all OK."
But another reason why Acrush's predominantly female fanbase might find them so appealing is down to the fact that girls feel less intimidated by them than they would by men. China's one-child policy and strict rules of social engagement mean that many young women grow up without a male influence in their life until early adulthood and can find difficult interacting with men, particularly when it comes to romantic or sexual encounters. Dating in middle and high school is predominantly forbidden in China and young people are under strict parental supervision. Is it any wonder that young women (and closeted young men) might find Acrush to be a safe outlet for their latent sexual frustration?
Back in the early seventies, the late, great David Bowie almost single-handedly changed the way that Western pop music fans thought about gender norms with his glam-rock persona of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie's talent and sex appeal was in no way diminished by his heavy make-up, androgynous appearance, flamboyant outfits and sometimes camp mannerisms. Instead, he opened the floodgates for a more inclusive and daring music scene and paved the way for artists like Queen, Lady Gaga and most of the new romantics in the early eighties. Maybe we'll see a trend of girl-dominated boy bands in years to come.