Taiwan's Female Athletes Still Fighting Institutionalized Sexism

Taiwan's Female Athletes Still Fighting Institutionalized Sexism
Photo credit: Youtube截圖
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'Almost 50 years after Chi Cheng was subjected to crude sexual objectification in Taiwan's media, there is little to suggest the narrative has progressed that much.'

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Anyone who kept half an eye on local media coverage of the 2017 Taipei Summer Universiade that closed on Aug. 31 will likely have noticed the sometimes cringe-worthy manner in which Taiwan's female athletes were “feted” for their achievements.

It didn't take long for this brand of patronizing sexism to rear its head at the games, with Taiwan's first medal winner, taekwondoka Lin Kan-yu (林侃諭) introduced by a male official at her post-victory press conference with the rhetorical question, “Isn't she cute?”

The "kawaii (Japanese for 'cute') culture" that permeates social media usage in Asia has doubtless exacerbated this unblinking tendency toward the sexual objectification of female athletes and celebrities. This is not a uniquely Taiwanese phenomenon, as the likes of Great Britain's Jessica Ennis-Hill, the 2012 Olympic heptathlon champion, can attest.

But the focus on a female athlete's appearance over her achievements appears so ingrained in Taiwan as to elicit bemusement when questioned. This mentality can be seen as having emerged in tandem with professionalization of female athletics and sports beginning in the 1960s.

Consider, for example, the following gem:

If not beautiful, she is at least immensely attractive, in looks as well as personality. She is the antithesis of the woman athlete who is more like a man. She doesn't wear make-up in public but admits that she likes to try cosmetics in the privacy of her room. Her mirror does the judging. Success has not spoiled her. She does her own cooking, washes her own clothes … and then works out for those long hours that are required to win races and medals.

The description comes from an article on Taiwanese athlete Chi Cheng (紀政) published in the government-sponsored Taiwan Review (then Free China Review) in April 1970. Chi broke five world records that year and was beaten just once in 154 events between 1969 to 1970 across disciplines ranging from sprints and hurdles to long jump. The following year, she set college records at Cal Poly Pomona in the 100m, 200m and 400m, the 100m hurdles and the long jump, all of which stand today. On the back of these achievements, she was voted Associated Press Athlete of the Year.

Yet this world class athlete broke through as a force in world athletics at a time when gender issues were clumsily subsumed into the morass that was national identity politics in Taiwan. Chi herself has said that, even growing up in rural Taiwan where patriarchal modes of thought were the norm, she never felt gender to be an obstacle.

In some senses, news features from the era discussing the budding young star appear anachronistically progressive. Another Taiwan Review article from 1963, for example, notes:

Time has changed the position of women in China. Though Miss Chi's old grandmother may dislike to see her appearing in shorts in public and in front of so many men, the younger generation has no such compunction.

Yet, as with the majority of articles on Chi published during her heyday, the piece is littered with embarrassingly chauvinistic turns of phrase. She is “fair but not weak” and “wept with joy” on receiving a letter of encouragement from her old schoolmates. More importantly, the dualistic language that one finds in these pieces illustrates the curious space that Chi and subsequent female athletes have occupied in the formation and projection of national consciousness in Taiwan.

Branded “the flying antelope” when her figure, gait and athleticism are being referenced, she is also dichotomously termed the “iron girl.” When loping elegantly down the track or springing over wooden boards, she is the gangly “long legs;” in striking down her adversaries, she transforms into the deadly (and woefully politically incorrect) “yellow lightning.”

In an article on how images of sportswomen in Taiwan have been co opted to reinforce a nationalistic narrative, Tseng Yu-hsien observes that “female athletes were depicted as physically masculine but emotionally feminine, and represented as sports heroines and daughters of Taiwan.” Tseng adds that “the female body embodies the gendered nationalism and gendered discourse pervading Taiwanese sports culture.”

In trying to force the move from the antithesis to synthesis, hyperbole and ludicrous metaphor are employed, resulting in unwittingly hilarious passages, such as the introductory paragraph to the 1970 profile:

Free China's "Iron Girl" has a heart that the Tin Woodman of The Wizard of OZ would envy. She won three gold medals in the American indoor track and field championships last February 28 and then broke into tears. The crying does not rust her joints as it did those of the Woodman. She steels the muscles of her long legs and goes out after another world record.

Another paper on a similar subject draws attention to terms such as “female soldier” that have frequently been employed by Taiwan's media. In some cases, Taiwan's female competitors have even been labeled “fake men.” The authors of the study cite examples of weightlifters whose “masculine” qualities have been embraced in competition, only to subsequently find themselves forced to undergo TV show makeovers to help them “get a boyfriend.” Compulsory heterosexuality, the paper contends, has been the order of the day for Taiwan's female athletes.

The references to “steel” and “iron” that abound in articles about Taiwanese athletes from the 1960s and 1970s reveal a Nationalist (Kuomintang, KMT) government was desperate to communicate an image of strength and resilience to the outside world, without compromising “traditional Chinese” standards. In the case of Chi and other female athletes, this was the paragon of dutiful, domestic femininity. Chi is portrayed as model of daughterly devotion, with some salt-of-the-earth peasant decency thrown into the mix for good measure. “In the Chinese way,” we are told, “the daughters of poor families are commonly reputed to be filial and usually are.”

True, the authors of these perverse odes do occasionally display something approaching enlightenment, revealing that Chi “wants, also, to be the first Chinese girl to break through the barrier of a tradition that both protected and exploited her sex.” Yet, they cannot ever completely abandon the embarrassing stereotypes and tropes.

It was not just in Taiwan that Chi was sexually objectified. In fact, with her relocation to the United States, the references to her appearance and character took on a decidedly fetishized, orientalist tone. The following article from a 1970 issue of Sports Illustrated is downright creepy in its barely veiled sexualization of Chi's “father-daughter” relationship with her coach Vince Reel, who went on to become her husband. “Chi looks like a delicate flower," says Vince Reel, "but she's as hard as a fortune cookie.”

In a fascinating examination of how Chi's case played into race and sex relations, CL Cole has contended that the Taiwanese athlete became an object against which African-American femininity and white masculinity in America could be gauged.

Particularly compelling is Cole's argument that Chi's balance of combativeness and femininity served as a contrast to what were cast as the overly aggressive, psyching-out tactics of homegrown black athletes. These issues continue to resonate today, with Serena Williams recently indicating that she is perceived as “mean” because of her color. “They say African Americans have to be twice as good, especially women,” Williams said in an interview with Vogue.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that Chi's marriage and divorce from Reel have almost been expunged from many of her biographies, with several authors even unsure as to whether they were ever married. The “Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women,” published in 2003, for example, states that "some American sources suggest that the two were married."

Footage of the couple's marriage (the first of three for Chi) at Xinyi Presbyterian Church can be found online as can references to a daughter they had together. One must wonder where all this uncertainty comes from. Online tittle-tattle hints at deep shame among Nationalist bigwigs, who had essentially facilitated Chi's move to the U.S. for the greater glory of Free China, but hadn't banked on her being quite so warmly and literally embraced.

With her career blighted by appalling injuries that left her for a time unable to walk, Chi's career came to an abrupt end. She later moved into politics as a nominally independent legislator from 1981 to 1989, as Taiwan edged toward democracy. She became a National Policy Advisor under former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and has been taken on as an ambassador-at-large by his successor President Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文).

Noting cases like Chi's, Tseng admits that there has been great potential for advancement for women through sport. “The unique character of Taiwanese sport nationalism creates empowerment opportunities for female athletes,” she writes. However, she adds, “Gendered disciplinary discourses, such as the beauty myth and compulsory heterosexuality, still dominate Taiwanese female athletes' media representation and further influence their practice and self-identity.”

Almost 50 years after Chi Cheng was subjected to crude sexual objectification in Taiwan's media, there is little to suggest the narrative has progressed that much. Part of the problem, particularly in the social media age, is that cutesy depictions of or references to women are invariably dismissed as harmless fun, and often, sadly, accepted and perpetuated by women.

To be clear, this is obviously not misogyny of a kind that poses an immediate, tangible threat to the physical well-being of the average woman, but in way it is all the more dangerous in its ingrained, insidious nature.

It's high time people – the male-dominated media and athletics world in particularly – call out this institutionalized sexism wherever they encounter it and start affording Taiwan's female athletes the respect they deserve.

Editor: Olivia Yang