“Isn’t she cute?”
Those were the words used to introduce a Taiwanese Taekwondo athlete standing alongside her male peers during an official 2017 Universiade press conference this Monday.
She was being lauded for winning Taiwan’s very first medal at the games — a silver in the women’s individual poomsae event. Her name is Lin Kan-yu [林侃諭].
I didn’t see the footage but I can imagine how it played out.
The “isn’t she cute?” remark was delivered as a throwaway line. Just a lighthearted comment from a male press official who thought it was a clever thing to say.
Lin Kan-yu probably didn’t even react. Not because she didn’t hear it, but because I can bet she’s heard similar comments thousands of times.
As usual, at the very moment when she’s being held up to the spotlight for achieving something truly remarkable, Lin Kan-yu is pulled down a few notches with a flippant comment about her looks from some random bystander who has no idea how hard she’s worked, and for how long, to get to that moment.
But what’s the big deal? It was a compliment! And compliments like this one happen every day in Taiwan, don’t they? Inside schools, workplaces and even around the family dinner table. It’s nothing new. And it’s definitely not “sexism”.
In Taiwan, women don’t get catcalls from creepy strangers on the sidewalk. Instead you’ll get unsolicited comments about your hairstyle from male colleagues the first week you start a new job.
Women don’t get honked at by cars or trucks either. Instead your uncle might decide to announce to everyone at the family reunion how you’re looking “thick”.
Is it still sexism if it comes from these benign, everyday voices? Is it still sexism if it’s so mainstream that young girls are groomed to ignore it, and grown men feel no embarrassment or shame when they’re called out on it?
How do you unpack everything that’s wrong with miniskirt-clad “booth girls” at industry tradeshows in 2017? Or the fact that hundreds of Taiwanese men stand feet away taking videos of them with their phones?
How do you explain to your male colleagues who laugh and insist there’s nothing wrong with hanging posters of women in bikinis at their desk?
How do you begin to understand the thinking behind a pre-kindergarten graduation ceremony where official school portraits on the big screen show little boys dressed up as Mickey Mouse, but little girls are dressed in sparkly midriff-baring cheerleader costumes with full make-up and wigs?
I was there for that last one. The answer is you look away and cringe. But then you wonder why none of the parents, grandparents or teachers thought it was inappropriate. How could dozens of little girls be primped, posed and photographed in this way without one adult to say, “let’s find other outfits, shall we?”
Like that forest tree that’s fallen without witnesses, are these examples actually sexist when no one raises their voice to say so?
Sexism deniers, I can hear them now. But the Taiwanese media oogles at good-looking men too! But Taiwanese women are totally fine with it! But she really is very cute! But it’s not hurting anyone!
It’s those kinds of responses that make conversations about Taiwan’s casual sexism feel pointless. Sexism against both men and women, I’ll add, because it’s equally gross when boys get sexualized by adult women. Yes, I’ve seen that at family reunions too.
Sure, it’s easier to neatly pull the curtain on this part of Taiwanese society and pretend it’s just a cultural quirk. But these days it’s so in-our-faces that I worry there’s no turning back.
These days the media is relentless when it comes to pushing out tasteless stories about “crazy cute” policewomen and “hot” athletes. It’s gotten so bad I fear Taiwanese people have already started to believe we’re really that shallow and dumb. We have become a society with the collective sexual maturity of a 15-year-old and no one’s interested in having an adult conversation about it.
So what can be done? The jaded pessimist in me thinks, let’s be real. There are no Malala’s here. The brain drain is in full effect, the population is shrinking, and there are much bigger things to worry about.
But then the optimist in me says, you know who we do have? Now we have 2017 Universiade Taekwondo silver-medalist Lin Kan-yu and her medal-winning Taekwondo teammates. We also have gold medalist and world-record weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun.
Plus we have the Taiwan women’s soccer team, the women’s volleyball team, the roller-skaters, the gymnasts, the archers, the badminton players, the tennis players and everyone else who’s kicking ass and breaking records at the Universiade.
We can spread their names and images far and wide so young girls, young boys, grown women — and most importantly, grown men — can see these female athletes don’t give a shit whether or not a random male official thinks they’re cute.
Who knows. Maybe next time, he might know better and shut up.
A Chinese translation of this article can be found here.
Above image of Taekwondo team Lee Ying-hsuan, Chen Hsiang-ting and Chen Yi-hsuan from 2017.taipei.