Online CSR: Stepping Up Trans Representation in Chinese Popular Cinema

By Nova Fritz

Media such as music and film often serve as weathervanes for social trends, pointing in the direction of burgeoning changes in popular opinion or social acceptance. In the Chinese romantic comedy Mr. High Heels, released on Valentine’s Day 2016, LGBTQ acceptance in Chinsese society is the question. In the film, a man named Hang Yuan pretends to be a woman to win the heart of his life-long love, Li Ruoxin, who has disavowed men after being cheated on one too many times. Although Mr. High Heels generally follows tried-and-true romcom tropes, when compared to other Chinese films with gender-bending themes, Mr. High Heels stands out through its normalizing portrayal of transgender characters.

In everyday use, the label transgender often refers either to individuals who publicly identify as such or those who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery; in scholastic use, however, a looser, more interpretive definition is used instead. For example, Helen Hok-Sze Leung, who has authored extensive works on transgender representation in Chinese film, argues that the character Sister 13 in the triad movie Portland Street Blues should be understood as transgender. Even though Sister 13 is commonly described as a butch lesbian, she is better understood as a transgender man who experiences homoerotic attraction for male characters (which is a common feature of triad films, such as in the work of director John Woo[1] while having heterosexual relations with female characters. [2]

Hok-Sze Leung identifies three cinematic models of trans representation: transgender as a representation of cultural anxiety, as a type of relating between characters, and as an outcome of explorative bodily modification. The first model focuses on the cultural meaning of gender variant characters. These figures typically disrupt alignments between gender presentation, identification, and biological sex, but they are rarely fully realized characters, and often lack backstory or thorough explanation. Instead, they exist as mere symbols of the cultural fascination and anxiety about crossing the boundaries of gender. A classic example in western cinema is  Buffalo Bill of Silence of the Lambs, while the twisted Madam in the 1987 A Chinese Ghost Story constitutes a Chinese film example. Hok-Sze Leung explains, “Neither Madam’s gender history nor her self-identification is available to the audience who only sees the titillating sight of her gender ambiguity as a physical manifestation of—indeed even a short hand for—her monstrosity.”[3]  Needless to say, these portrayals are often negative and reductive. The second model understands transgenderness as a type of relationality, or how characters’ gender functions in their social context, not simply an identity, and this model applies to the aforementioned Sister 13. The third model focuses on trans ‘practice’; the use of body modification as an alteration or exploration of identity. These practices may be direct, such as gender reassignment surgery, or indirect, such the body alteration achieved through strenuous training; Die Yi in Farewell My Concubine provides an excellent example of this third model.[4]

Through these models, several characters in Mr. High Heels can be understood as transgender, including Lin Shenshen, Hang Yuan (the main character), and Li Ruoxin’s friend Sami. Lin Shenshen (played by the male actor Chen Xuedong 陈学冬) is an underrealized and peripheral character, thus fitting the first model. Shenshen’s background is left unclear, as is her precise identity. Shenshen herself expresses ambiguity about her gender identity, referring to women as “we” while also describing herself as “disguising [herself] as a woman”. Shenshen’s main function is to teach Hang Yuan how to pose as a woman, the key to which Shenshen asserts is “taidu” (态度), attitude or manner. Though Shenshen’s character may be a reductive portrayal, it is not negative or stigmatizing, nor is Shenshen looked upon negatively by other characters in the movie—indeed, Shenshen’s fluency in femininity is instrumental to Hang Yuan’s success.

After Hang Yuan takes Ruoxin’s female friend Sami as a romantic competitor, it is through Shenshen’s training process, as well as through direct body modification (breast inserts, a butt insert, and a wig), that Hang Yuan begins to behave as a woman. The pose is convincing: both Ruoxin and anonymous people perceive Hang Yuan (under the name Hang Wen) as a woman. Men check out Hang Yuan on the street (to his delight), and Ruoxin spends time with Hang Yuan like she would with a woman, with a stereotypical play ‘pillow fight’ and affection with direct physical contact. The second and third models of Hok-Sze Leung’s both apply to Hang Yuan’s character. Indeed, along the lines of model three, after an initial exploratory cross-dressing experience, Hang Yuan’s own gendered perspective changes. After rejecting his friend’s advice that he continue to dress up as a woman, Hang Yuan realizes he likes a pink, rhinestone-studded phone and gets caught up in a song called “I’m a Girl.” In broad terms, Hang Yuan comes to play Hang Wen comfortably, naturally, and joyfully; moreover, he is treated by others as a woman, going so far as to teach Ruoxin to be more assertive in a feminine way. Though Hang Yuan has moments of doubt at first, he comes by a lasting trans identity in a natural and comfortable way; the contrast with the tragic experience of Die Yi in Farewell My Concubine is clear. Moreover, Hang Yuan faces no social stigma, even from passersby, and receives only support from his friends.

Finally, there is Sami, Li Ruoxin’s female friend. As with Hok-Sze Leung’s previous discussion of Sister 13, there is value in viewing Sami as transgender rather than simply lesbian. Leung’s concept of the ‘moving target’ is meaningful, as butch lesbianism was in the past understood to denote patterns recognized today as transgender. Representations of transgenderness have evolved and continue to evolve rapidly, making them shifting and difficult to pin down lastingly.[5] Sami enters the film after Ruoxin has been betrayed by her husband-to-be, and, through martial arts training, she teaches Ruoxin to despise men, asking Ruoxin to repeat “男人都是混蛋” (all men are jerks!) and “你们通通都去死吧” (you should all go to hell!) while striking. Still, Sami relates to characters throughout the movie on very male terms, along the lines of Leung’s second model. In fact, Sami’s masculine prowess exceeds Hang Yuan’s; in Ruoxin’s mind, perhaps she represents a better alternative to men. While watching Sami train Ruoxin, one woman remarks, “Really? Bend me!” (an invitation to seduce her away from heterosexuality). It is evident that in the world of Mr. High Heels, gender and sexuality are fluid, and this digression is treated as normal.

When Sami invites Ruoxin to an all-female nightclub, Sami goes in male attire while Ruoxin dresses in traditional female clothing. Sami’s gestures and wide gait and immediately recognized as masculine; as Chinese cinema scholar Felica Chan notes, women cross-dressing as men rely primarily on exaggeratedly male body language.[6] Sami’s cohort at this club reinforce these assumptions; many dress in masculine clothing, with the bouncer even sporting a drawn-on mustache, and reproduce the patterns of heterosexual relationships. Interestingly, only Sami, intimately in touch with both femininity and masculinity, is able to see through Wang Yuan’s disguise, demonstrating a kind of “gaydar.” Still, Sami does not see Hang Yuan’s cross-dressing as illegitimate, but simply urges him to be honest and tell Ruoxin his true feelings. Thus, Mr. High Heels constructs a space in which both men and women may transgress gender boundaries.

This normalizing portrayal stands out in mainstream films produced for a mainland Chinese audience. Gender-bending is taboo in Chinese society; when carried out in real life, it often results in social alienation, harassment and assault.[7] Therefore, when portrayals of gender-bending are carried out in film, they are fleeting gestures accompanied with a highly specific premise (desperate love, in Mr. High Heels), or represent warped gender identities that reflect a character’s twisted personality. A well-known example of this premised cross-dressing is in Hua Mulan, in which Mulan must present as a man in order to serve in the army. Additionally, comic cross-dressing is quite common in Chinese film and is even a common feature of many Spring Festival movies.  Sometimes a female character is played by a male actor for comic effect, or sometimes a male character briefly cross-dresses to enact a necessary deception.

It could be argued that Mr. High Heels is nothing more than a collection of these devices writ large; indeed Shenshen is little more than a pile of these gags. However, while cross-dressing is often used as a gimmick, Mr. High Heels makes gender-bending the central theme of the film, using it as a much broader exploration of gender than most comedy films would go. In the films mentioned above like Hua Mulan, even though characters may briefly perform other genders, their true gender identity is never in doubt; in contrast, gender lines become increasingly blurred throughout Mr. High Heels, and remain so at the conclusion. For example, after Hang Yuan’s ruse is discovered, he states, “Hang Wen is Hang Yuan and Hang Yuan is Hang Wen. She is me and I am her, we are the same person.” By this act, Hang Yuan accepts Hang Wen as a true iteration of his own identity. Furthermore, when Hang Yuan later characterizes Hang Wen as a deception to attract Ruoxin, he does so in the context of other iterations of his identity (such as his long-haired student days).

Hang Yuan’s identity has always been in flux, and his gender representation is unexceptional in this regard; his confession, in which he removes his clothing and monologues confidently into a television camera, represents a moment of self-actualization; this is the moment in which Hang Yuan publicly comes to terms with his true self. Not for nothing does Hang Yuan attends his wedding banquet dressed as Hang Wen, wearing a wedding dress as he marries Li Ruoxin. He maintains his trans-through-relationality status even after casting off the superficial changes (makeup, wig, etc.) he once used. In contrast to more conventional films where cross-dressing is a brief gimmick, and gender identities are never really in question, Mr. High Heels is surprisingly subversive. The destabilized gender norms evolve over the course of the film and they are fully realized in the end.

Given the fact that many films treat transgenderness as an unnatural distortion of identity, Mr. High Heels’s positive portrayal of gender-bending is striking. The archvillain in The East is Red takes on a trans identity in his (then her) evil quest for power, and the character Die Yi of Farewell My Concubine is more sympathetic, but hardly healthier. Although Die Yi is a likeable character, his gender confusion is a product of his tortured past, including his traumatic childhood, brutal training, and sexual abuse at the hand of his master. Cui Zi’en’s 2004 film Enter the Clowns is accompanied by the progressive tagline “We are All Transgender,” but it nonetheless pursues this message with a disquieting aesthetic and disturbing imagery; the implication, perhaps, is that all of our identities are unnatural and distorted.[8]

In contrast, Mr. High Heels boldly naturalizes transgendered identities. Even though Shenshen is silly, he is neither tortured nor perverse; even as Sami is initially seen as a man-hating lesbian villain, her subsequent appearances are much more humanizing. When Sami recognizes Hang Yuan’s ruse, she does not chastise or reveal him. Instead, she tells him that, if he really loves Ruoxin, he ought to be honest with her. Sami reappears at Ruoxin and Hang Yuan’s wedding, teasing the couple with a funny video of them. Taken in sum, Sami’s butch identity is not really a product of her hatred of men. Finally, Hang Yuan is not depicted as tortured, traumatized, or disturbed in his exploration of feminine identity. Rather, after some initial hesitation, he enjoys his exploration of femininity and never looks back. Hang Yuan at the end of the movie has changed, and perhaps evolved, but has not become a distorted person. For Hang Yuan, the process of transitioning and enacting a female role was a process of discovery and empowerment, through which he found new joys, new understanding, and finally new bravery.

The only caveat to this statement occurs in a brief clip after the credits roll. Du Jiang 杜江 (who played Hang Yuan) clarifies that the events in this movie were just acting, and that his future son should only do things like this in the pursuit of true love (although Du’s wife still says she will support her son without qualification if he wants to cross-dress).While Du’s statement exoticizes cross-dressing, his wife’s does not, and in sum these statements are rather tame. Moreover, spoken by the actors themselves rather than their characters and occurring after the credits, the clip is separated from the narrative, an aside to the audience to provide reassurance about social acceptability. While this is not part of the narrative, it clearly expresses the limits of open social embrace of gender-bending.

Although Mr. High Heels has many problematic and reductive depictions of gender, Mr. High Heels represents a shift in perceptions of trans identity, a shift towards acceptance that can be observed in broader society[9].  Although Mr. High Heels’s exploration of gender is not as probing as that of Farewell My Concubine or Enter the Clowns, it is neither less real nor less valuable. In fact, Mr. High Heels is both timely and unique in presenting gender-bending in a comfortable way. In the transgender community, the hazards of pathologizing transgender identity as “gender dysphoria” is debated, with members of the community arguing that this identity should not be categorized as a mental illness. Instead, they point to how homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness, a real-life manifestation of the ‘moving target’.[10] At at time when transgender identities in popular culture are often portrayed as an upset or disturbed state, Mr. High Heels taps into this sensationalism, but trans identity itself is not sensationalized. With all its faults, Mr. High Heels is a refreshing depiction of trans people as simple, healthy, and normal individuals.


[1] Jillian Sandell, “Reinventing Masculinity: The Spectacle of Male Intimacy in the Films of John Woo,” Film Quarterly 49, no. 4 (1996): 23–34, https://doi.org/10.2307/1213555.

[2] Helen Hok-Sze Leung, “Trans on Screen,” in Transgender China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2012), 186–87, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137082503_7.

[3] Leung, 191.

[4] Leung, “Trans on Screen.”

[5] Sally. Munt and Cherry. Smyth, Butch/Femme : Inside Lesbian Gender (Cassell, 1998).

[6] Felicia Chan, “Wuxia Cross-Dressing and Transgender Identity: The Roles of Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia from Swordsman II to Ashes of Time,” Enter Text 6, no. 1 (2006): 111–33.

[7] Chengzhou, He. “Performance and the Politics of Gender: Transgender Performance in Contemporary Chinese Film.” Lecture, Lecture: Performance and the Politics of Gender: Transgender Performance in Contemporary Chinese Film, Brown University Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Providence, December 1, 2011. July 2, 2012. Accessed November 28, 2018.

[8] Helen Hok-Sze Leung, “Trans on Screen,” in Transgender China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2012), 161, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137082503_7.

[9] “China’s Transgender People ‘Step Forward’ from the Shadows,” The South China Morning Post, June 14, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/author/agence-france-presse-1; John Sudworth, “China’s Acceptance of Transgender People,” The BBC, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-18805969/china-s-acceptance-of-transgender-people.

[10] Alice Dreger, “Why Gender Dysphoria Should No Longer Be Considered a Medical Disorder,” Pacific Standard (Santa Barbara, October 2013), https://psmag.com/social-justice/take-gender-identity-disorder-dsm-68308.

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