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Book Review: Backward Glances: Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary by Fran Martin

July 13, 2010

Image via Duke University Press

The study of female homoeroticism in Chinese media is a small yet evolving academic discipline. It is, therefore, of great importance that Backward Glances was written. Exploring popular media produced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, author Fran Martin addresses the ways in which same-sex love between women is commonly depicted, and the ways in which those depictions simultaneously reinforce and challenge the conventional discourse on homosexuality in China.

On the surface, many of the novels, television dramas, and films Martin analyzes do not appear to be particularly transgressive. A common theme among the media she explores is memory; stories of same-sex desire between women are often presented as a fleeting childhood fantasy, something that perpetually exists in the past and can never be fully realized by adults in the present. This memorial mode is also tied to what Martin calls the “going-in” story. Unlike “coming-out” narratives, which depict homosexual identity as the final stage of an individual’s struggle with sexual identity, “going-in” stories start with same-sex desire and end with heterosexual marriage. None of these tropes disturb the status quo of Chinese society, where homosexuality remains incredibly stigmatized.

But Martin contends that there is more to these texts than immediately meet the eye. The protagonists of these stories tend to be overly feminine schoolgirls who fall in love with other feminine girls or tomboys. When that love is not ultimately realized, the lead femme becomes sad and nostalgic, leading to her remembering and recounting the story of her love over and over again. The stories are written so that the audience will identify with the lead femme character; as a result, homoerotic attraction is represented as a natural, universal feminine quality. It is depicted as tragic, if inevitable, when such love is not actualized, and the audience is meant to share in that sadness. Although few of the texts discussed disrupt Chinese societal order by depicting a fulfilled, long-term romantic relationship between women, the depictions of love between women as idyllic, universal, and tragic when prevented from closure suggest an innate acceptance of homosexuality as something natural and expected in young women, if also socially taboo.

What is particularly interesting is the contrast between the complex and, at times, subversive images of love between women in Chinese popular culture and the lack of acceptance of actual lesbianism in Chinese society. Martin frequently mentions this discrepancy, though she rarely explores it as it might relate to pro- or anti-LGBTQ legislation in China. Her primary focus is on the media itself, rather than the ultimate significance of the media in a real-life political context. I most appreciated Backward Glances when it touched upon the audience responses to the texts. Should a follow-up be written, Martin may want to explore the interactions between the viewers and the texts in greater detail, as a way of exploring the impact homoerotic media has (or could have) on Chinese politics and queer acceptance in China.

Though academic in style, Backward Glances is quite approachable. Written as a scholarly text, it can also be of interest to and easily enjoyed by anyone interested in the topics of queer representation, media, and Chinese culture. The book covers a wide range of material, but never feels overwhelming or dense. It may not remain the definitive text on the subject, but until one exists, Backward Glances is a well-written, critical exploration of a newly emerging field of study.

Cross-posted at Feminist Review

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