Digital Masquerade: A Conversation with Jia Tan

Jia Tan’s Digital Masquerade: Feminist Rights and Queer Media in China (NYU Press, 2023) interrogates the intersections across digital media of feminist rights activism, queer culture, and neoliberalism in an illiberal context. Drawing on a wide range of artefacts—interviews with feminist advocates and queer media practitioners, participant-observations at queer community events, and cultural analysis of social media content, queer films, and dating apps—Tan develops the useful concept of ‘digital masquerade’. ‘Digital masquerade’ describes the ways in which queer and feminist media users and activists navigate neoliberalism, technological affordances, gender norms, and censorship, which are simultaneously liberating and constricting. Digital Masquerade is an important book that dismantles reductive constructions of feminist and queer activism in China.

Shui-yin Sharon Yam: Your concept of digital masquerade complicates the binary understanding of activism in illiberal contexts as either conformity and compromise or agentic resistance. For instance, rights feminists posted altered images of their bodies online to raise consciousness about intimate partner violence, while at the same time avoiding state sanction. In the chapter Performative Rights, you also discuss how staff in nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and activists evoke and perform different concepts of rights () depending on the contexts in and media platforms on which they found themselves. Why do you think it is important for scholars to develop a more nuanced understanding of feminist and queer activism in China beyond the binary of agency and conformity?

Jia Tan: When we consider activism as either conformity or resistance, we are thinking of it in relation to the state and its apparatus. This binary understanding of activism as compromise or resistance is prevalent in scholarly frameworks that conceptualise activism within illiberal contexts, as well as in international news coverage of feminist and queer activism in China. China is often portrayed as illiberal and oppressive, with instances such as the detention of feminist activists, raids on LGBT venues like bars and clubs, cancellations of LGBT film festivals and community events, and media and internet censorship. However, it is crucial to develop a framework that not only recognises the significant social changes brought about by feminist and LGBT activism but also conceptualises activism beyond its relationship with the state or state oppression. Historically, feminist activism in China has been intricately linked to the state, exemplified by the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF). In comparison, the new wave of feminist activism that I explore in my book is more connected to NGOs and various forms of commercialised media, warranting the need for a fresh research framework.

A central question in my book is how we can theorise media activism within a context that is both illiberal and neoliberalised. In addition to state censorship and sanctions, the pink economy has flourished in neoliberalised China, and liberal discourses such as equal rights for women and LGBT individuals have gained currency. For instance, I discuss Alibaba Taobao’s sponsorship of gay and lesbian couples travelling to the United States to get married. While such examples can be criticised for perpetuating neoliberal homonormativity or homo-nationalism, these critiques may not fully capture the complexity of feminist and queer activism in China.

To address these complexities, I introduce the concept of the ‘digital masquerade’ to examine the interplay between technological affordances, censorship, and the creative energy within feminist and queer media activism. A masquerade can be both submissive and disruptive to dominant social codes. I expand the understanding of masquerade beyond individual subjectivity in feminist and queer theory to encompass the materiality of masquerade in the digital era. My usage of masquerade departs from psychoanalytic theories and focuses on assemblages of embodied experiences and technological affordances within specific historical contexts. ‘Digital masquerade’ encompasses the diverse ways in which individuals act and engage with technology in specific contexts, allowing us to move beyond the binary understanding of activism as mere conformity or resistance.

SSY: Throughout the book, and especially in the last chapter, on app-based lesbian short films, you say the social change brought by feminist rights and queer media is inextricably tied to social media platform affordances, state surveillance and censorship, and the neoliberal economy and consumption. To be more specific, you demonstrate that articulations of rights feminism and queer activism are co-constituted by digital technologies and conditioned by the dominant sociopolitical contexts. What are the implications of your argument for social movement and queer feminist scholars, and for activists?

JT: One of the key concepts that I aim to introduce in my book is the notion of ‘rights feminism’. I employ this term to translate nüquan (女权) to emphasise the resurgence of rights consciousness and discourses within contemporary feminist articulations. This is connected to other rights-related terms such as quanli (权力, ‘rights and power’), quanyi (权益, ‘rights and interests’), and weiquan (维权, ‘rights defence’). The concept of nüquan can be traced back to the early twentieth century. My book primarily explores the diverse formation of a new wave of rights feminism and queer activism in contemporary China in the twenty-first century.

In the 1990s, the prevailing translation of feminism was nüxingzhuyi (女性主义), which emphasised feminine identity but obscured the meaning of rights. What I aim to identify in my book is the resurgence of rights discourses. While feminist ideas and debates have long existed in China, what is new in this wave of rights feminism is the identification as rights feminists. My book delves into how these feminists are emerging as new subjects of rights, stemming from the resurgence of rights discourses.

Furthermore, I explore the convergence of feminist and queer practices, which highlights the often-overlooked queer presence within the feminist movement. By engaging feminism in dialogue with queer thinking and lesbian movements, I aim to expand the historiography of feminism in China, which has often sidelined lesbians and female homoeroticism under heteropatriarchy. An intriguing aspect of this new wave of rights feminism is the significant role played by queer women, with the previous lesbian movement paving the way for this new wave of rights feminism, as evident in the involvement of queer women activists in the feminist action at Shanghai Metro Station in 2012, when lesbian activists displayed anti–sexual harassment slogans in the station. Moreover, my exploration of rights feminism and LGBT rights engages with what I identify as the ‘Liberal Paradigm Critique’ in gender, queer, and rights studies. This includes critiques by scholars such as Nancy Fraser of the ‘elective affinity’ between second-wave feminism and neoliberalism, David Eng’s concept of queer liberalism, and the tensions between studies of rights-based movements and of human rights. As mentioned earlier, when considering China as simultaneously neoliberal and illiberal, my book aims to provide insights into the complexities of feminist and queer activism within this context.

Another significant feature of this new wave of rights feminism and queer activism is the pivotal role played by digital media forms—such as digital filmmaking and distribution, social media, and e-journals—as vital arenas for feminist and queer expression. I hope to utilise the term ‘digital masquerade’ to theorise media activism as assemblages of embodied experiences and technological affordances within specific historical contexts. By doing so, I hope we can avoid being trapped in a sense of helplessness when facing censorship and other forms of control in a world that is increasingly tilting towards illiberalism.

For activists, I hope that my book can serve as a record of feminist activism and a repertoire for future activism. Much of the information about feminist and queer actions discussed in the book was previously widely accessible online, but now a significant portion of it is no longer available due to censorship and the ephemeral nature of online media. In recent years, we have witnessed unfortunate developments such as the decline of feminist and LGBT NGOs, the suppression of the #MeToo movement and feminist online discussions, and the marginalisation of gender studies in Chinese universities. The ShanghaiPRIDE event, which I discuss in my book, ceased its operations in 2020, and the Beijing LGBT Centre was shut in 2023. The space for the new wave of rights feminism and queer activism charted in this book is diminishing, even though media-based feminist actions, such as the #MeToo movement, have continued to thrive since 2018.

However, concurrently, there has been an unprecedented surge in online discussions about feminism. More and more women, particularly urban young women, are identifying as nüquanzhuyizhe (女权主义者), or what I refer to as ‘rights feminists’ in my book. The current discussions about the meaning of rights feminism are heated, with rights feminism becoming a more explicit target of online misogyny. Hopefully, my book can offer a historicised perspective on the development of Chinese feminism and the shifting meanings of feminism, including rights feminism. Moreover, my emphasis on the convergence of rights feminism and the lesbian movement contrasts with the recent feminist debates that have garnered significant attention, which primarily focus on heterosexual marriage and childrearing decisions.

SSY: You drew on a very diverse body of primary artefacts in your book: film festivals, interviews with activists and legal advocates, feminist social media campaigns, community-based queer films, and video content developed and circulated by lesbian dating apps. How did you curate this archive, and what informed your analytical approaches?

JT: The formation of feminist and queer activism in China was heterogeneous, and the inclusion of different primary artefacts captures this diversity. I conducted extensive research fieldwork in China from 2014 to 2019 and attended numerous small and large community events. My fieldwork took me to major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Chengdu, where feminist and queer events were more frequent than elsewhere. Some of the community events were multiday gatherings with hundreds of participants, while others were shorter, two-hour events with a smaller audience. I also had the opportunity to meet with activists in other contexts, such as in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Through my fieldwork, I discovered that these feminist and queer activists are situated within a myriad digital media landscapes. For instance, some may be involved in rights advocacy and media campaigns, while also using lesbian dating apps to watch videos. Others may actively participate in community-based digital filmmaking workshops and film festival circles, while also engaging in legal activism. While dating apps may initially appear overtly commercial, Chinese dating apps have attempted to collaborate with NGOs and initiate antidiscrimination actions in public spaces.

Furthermore, this diverse body of material also helps me capture the complexity of activism within a simultaneously liberal and neoliberal context. For example, in the chapter on dating app videos, I highlight the limited focus on urban, middle-class, and homonormative lifestyles, which is a common criticism raised by the ‘Liberal Paradigm Critique’. However, by examining the specific content and context of these dating app videos, a more nuanced and complex picture emerges that cannot be simply explained as a new form of homonormativity. Similarly, when exploring different references to weddings in feminist and queer activism, I argue that marriage and its associated rituals have more intricate implications than solely advocating for the legalisation of same-sex marriage based on equal rights, which complicates the argument of homo-nationalism.

SSY: In your analysis, you point out that many acts of queer digital masqueradesuch as the funeral disco for Feminist Voicesexude a kind of creative lightness (p. 145) in terms of their tone, style, delivery, and aesthetic. How and why are playfulness and light-heartedness significant to feminist and queer media activism in China?

JT: The idea of creative lightness is crucial in my theorisation of digital masquerade. The way I use the term does not assume the existence of an authentic personal identity behind the masquerade. Instead, it focuses on the various ways individuals interact and engage with technology in specific contexts. The term digital masquerade allows me to emphasise the lightness, flexibility, and creative utilisation of digital media in feminist and queer activism and culture in China. This lightness highlights the portability of digital cameras and mobile phones, the ease of spreading information through social media, or the quick connections made on social apps. The concept of lightness also points to the relatively minor presence of feminist and queer activism and media content in a larger picture of mainstream and heteropatriarchal culture.

Digital masquerade can be perceived as light-hearted and humorous, but it can also evoke melancholic or heavy-hearted emotions. For example, I use ‘platform presentism’ to describe how social app videos exemplify the ‘lightness’ in their tone, form, and organisational style, resembling a form of digital masquerade. However, it is important to note that these expressions are not always light-hearted or humorous. Instead, they encompass a range of emotions, including the coexistence of melancholic lesbian subjects and the presentism of urban mobile life.

Similarly, a wide spectrum of light and dark emotions can be found in other digital expressions, such as the diverse constructions of first-person audiovisual content, the provocative and angry expressions denouncing sexual abuse and harassment, as well as the more recent #MeToo movement. Despite these differences, the term digital masquerade is productive in highlighting the lightness of digital forms, as well as the tactical approaches to engaging with technology as a complex assemblage. Exemplified by the funeral disco that took place shortly after the closure of the @FeministVoices Weibo account, digital masquerade can sometimes be playful, involving swift and guerilla-like acts in the negotiation of daily life.

SSY: Following up on the previous question, the use of ephemeral and humorous tactics in social movements is a transnational phenomenon. For instance, in 2020, Thai queer and student activists were known for their creative and humorous use of cartoon characters and inflatable ducks and dinosaurs to mock the government. What transnational coalitional potential do you see between feminist and queer activists in China and those elsewhere?

JT: Transnational coalitions have always been an integral part of feminist and queer activism, with creative and humorous expressions serving as important strategies for mobilising public attention and empathy. The specificities of media regulation, censorship, and industry development set the boundaries of my book’s research, which focuses mainly on feminist and queer media culture in mainland China. However, it is important for readers to not perceive this book solely as a book about China, as transnational and transregional connections and exchanges play a crucial role in the phenomena examined.

My book addresses several significant transnational dimensions. First, the international and UN human rights framework is crucial in the tactical use of rights by feminist and queer activists. Notions of feminist rights and LGBT rights are influenced by UN conventions and widely discussed and disseminated in conferences such as the Asian Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. International bodies like UN China and Oxfam actively promote gender equality in China and provide support to feminist and queer NGOs.

Acknowledging the importance of previous Sinophone queer thinking and activism in Hong Kong and Taiwan, this book adopts approaches such as inter-Asia referencing to highlight the transnational politics of knowledge production and the complexity and multiplicity of Chineseness. Particularly, it traces the formations of transnational film festival networks like the Asia Pacific Queer Film Festival Alliance (APQFFA) and the Network of Asian Women’s Film Festival. The inclusion of queer films from Tonga in the APQFFA network raises questions about Pacific indigeneity within the transpacific context, which has the potential to challenge existing epistemic structures of queer theory based on the binary of West/non-West or non-indigenous/indigenous. I see potential in a South–South coalition through such transnational exchanges and practices.

This vision of global and local connection is also shared by feminist practices, as demonstrated by the 2013 feminist school held in Beijing, which brought together activists from Mexico, South Korea, and China. The Queer University group also practised a South–South coalition. In addition to the content introduced in my book, the group developed a participatory video training program (2017–19) between Chinese and African queer activists.

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Shui-yin Sharon Yam

Shui-yin Sharon Yam is Associate Professor in Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies and Faculty Affiliate in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is a diasporic Hong Konger and the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship (2019). Her research focuses on transnational rhetoric, political emotions, gender, and race.

Jia Tan

Jia TAN is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is the author of Digital Masquerade: Feminist Rights and Queer Media in China (NYU Press, 2023). She received her doctoral degree in critical studies of cinema and television from the University of Southern California. Her works have appeared in Critical Studies in Media Communication, International Journal of Communication, Crime, Media, Culture, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, International Journal of Asian Studies, and Journal of Chinese Cinemas.

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