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taiwan sexism

Let’s Talk About Taiwan’s Totally Casual Sexism

“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.

Comments (16):

  1. BdBMTaiwan

    August 23, 2017 at 12:39

    It’s funny that you mentioned not being cat-called in Taiwan.
    I lived in Taipei for 14 years. Was not really cat-calledor anything.
    I moved to Zhubei, Hsinchu 6 months ago. It’s VERY different. On a daily basis, I get men yelling greetings and comments at me from their scooters, trucks or even where they are working at the side of the road. I’ve also had 2 men, on different occasions, take a step towards me after after yelling their comment.

    As someone who loves walking, this behavior has started putting me off walking around the city.

    Reply
  2. Deana

    August 23, 2017 at 19:00

    Yes!! I have left remarks on some places about the pix or articles. There is one about the Vietnamese girl who won and her “hot looks”. And there was one about the “joys of going to the women’s volleyball game”, and it was all butts!!
    Disrespectful to women athletes. They have worked hard to get where they are and deserve respect!

    Reply
  3. mauro

    August 23, 2017 at 22:29

    well said!

    Reply
  4. CZL

    August 24, 2017 at 13:12

    the taiwanese electing their first female president is also something to be optimistic about in the battle against sexism

    Reply
  5. Andrew

    August 24, 2017 at 13:17

    The sexism in Taiwan is extremely prevalant and tolerated. I definitely agree that the form it takes is much more casual and “relaxed” which is what makes it so insidious. I have difficulty imagining a catalyst which might break the traditions and cultural norms that continue to perpetuate sexism, but I hope that education and awareness of these issues can organically drive sexism out of Taiwan (or at least Taipei to start).

    Reply
  6. praimetiz

    August 25, 2017 at 07:19

    I agree that it’s common for young women with great performances in their field being regard as cute (正妹 in Chinese, I think that’s what you mean). But I must remind you that it’s also quite common for young men with good looking may be regarded as small pieces of fresh meat (小鮮肉 in Chinese), which is only a compliment (maybe, it’s more like a light sexual harassment to me sometimes) on their handsomeness. Sexism is something not only limited to women. It always affects all genders in different but similar ways.

    Reply
    • Kathy

      August 25, 2017 at 13:30

      Thanks for your comment. I do mention that it happens to young boys too and it’s equally gross. What you described was exactly the situation I was referring to at my own family reunion.

      Reply
      • praimetiz

        August 27, 2017 at 09:12

        Then I should apologize for missing that part in your article.
        And may I ask another question which comes to my mind since reading the beginning of your article: How would you tell apart “casual sexism” from other kinds discrimination toward people’s appearances? In what kind of situation would you regard it “casual sexism” if similar things can happen to both sexes? I agree that sometimes they can be mixed together in one case, but usually, when people being called cute, handsome, thick or fat, they are just being discriminated by their appearances. There may be nothing about their sexes or genders.

        Reply
        • Kathy

          August 27, 2017 at 14:04

          My point is women are judged by their looks consistently, unnecessarily, and more openly by Taiwanese society, by media across Asia and across the world in general. But in Taiwan no one discusses or dissects why this is wrong or unproductive. That’s why it’s so casual. I would be interested to read articles by Taiwanese men who want to speak out against casual sexism against men. But since I’m a woman, that’s not something I can write about. Also it’s not just commenting positively or negatively against physical looks, it is behavior like this example of blatant workplace sexism I shared on Twitter: https://twitter.com/trickytaipei/status/900608868274782208

          Could you imagine this scenario happening if the genders were reversed?

          Reply
          • praimetiz

            August 27, 2017 at 21:13

            I don’t think a woman would place a man on her lap when taking the photo. For other parts of your experience, I think it is possible to happen with genders reversed because it’s a typical abuse of power and the abuser can be a woman. It wouldn’t be sexism to those men being abused. In contrast, it would be highly possible for those men to say the woman had done this because she is a woman and she can’t use her power properly.
            I think this may be the reason why men don’t talk about sexism toward men. Men usually stay at a position of the majority. Another reason is that they are not the “direct target” of sexism in most cases. An example is the water polo team from the Netherlands in this Universiade. Most of the Taiwanese media were focusing on their muscles, but I’ve heard no Taiwanese man comment this as sexism even though it quite similar to your example in the beginning of the article.

          • Kathy

            August 27, 2017 at 21:27

            Yes, more than a handful of responses from men to this article (on FB and other channels) have also brought up the example of the Dutch waterpolo team. It’s interesting that a post about sexism against women very frequently becomes a discussion about sexism against men. That’s part of the problem, wouldn’t you say? The point of this article was to focus on sexism against women, which I feel is a topic worthy of discussion on its own.

  7. Nathaniel Dahl

    September 17, 2017 at 18:52

    One of my recent students (I tutor English in Taipei) used to come to class in her work “uniform” due to the fact that she typically worked late and didn’t have time to change. She was a teller at a pretty large international bank, and it seemed a bit odd to me that the outfit looked like an EVA Airlines stewardess uniform – tailored blouse that accentuated the bustline, tight-fitting skirt, stockings, pumps, and all the trimmings. I asked her how she felt about it, and what followed was a torrent: she hated it; it was uncomfortable; it made her feel devalued as a person and objectified, and she felt that it invited inappropriate “attention” by both male customers and male co-workers. She also told me that only young women who “looked good” in the uniform were allowed to work in her area – older, plain, or un-stewardess-like women could only work in the back office. In her case, she wanted to work in the back office where she could wear her own clothes but was never given the option and when she asked her (male) manager about it she was ignored. She added that she felt she had to mention her boyfriend on a regular basis in front of her male co-workers (all the upper-level account managers were male) to keep the toufu-eating (=flirting) factor down to a manageable level.

    Reply
  8. Mike

    September 19, 2017 at 23:50

    “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?

    The women love it. Good easy money. They compete to get these jobs. How is this sexism? Granted I think it’s tacky and childish and completely dated, and don’t like it myself but I fail to see the sexism in it. The men crowding around to take pics are like helpless docile nerds and the women like strong queens. That’s the impression I always get

    Reply
    • Kathy

      September 20, 2017 at 12:17

      “The women love it. Good easy money. They compete to get these jobs.”

      How do you know? Is this an assumption/generalization of yours? Or do you spend time getting to know these young women and they tell you they feel like “strong queens” when they take these jobs?

      Reply
      • Mike

        September 20, 2017 at 15:00

        Did you spend time with them? Or are you generalizing about them based on your lens of the world?
        After decades and dozens of exhibitions, yes, I have spoken to quite a few about their job. For many students its fairly easy fairly good cash. The alternatives are much worse. For the more senior hosts it can be really good cash. These mini-skirts by the way are not too dissimilar from what many of them might wear to a lounge bar or club for instance.

        I see sexism in other areas: women cleaning men’s toilets, old women working on construction sites, female staff more submissive while male staff scream and shout after few drinks at company parties, controlling abusive mother-in-laws to young wife, cartoon boobies every which way one turns….and so on.
        It’s an interesting discussion anyway

        Reply
        • Kathy

          September 20, 2017 at 16:15

          I guess my lens of the world would be questioning how it would feel working as a female employee for one of these companies, or as a female attendee at a tech exhibition. Hard to imagine sexism wouldn’t creep into the company culture if it’s right there displayed on stage. Could it be much worse for these booth girls? Yes, and that’s one way to look at it. But on the flip side, couldn’t it also be much better? In response to their outfits, I think an interesting point was made by the other commenter who described the required uniform for young female bank employees.

          Reply

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