Saturday, April 27, 2013

Invited Seminar: Gendered State Gymnastics

WU Kaming 
Associate Professor, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, CUHK 
"Gendered State Gymnastics: Ceremonial Usherettes, Hyper Femininity and Post-socialist China"
19 Apr 2013

The speaker talked about her research on ceremonial female usherettes. These women exist in many contexts, such as the signing ceremonies for businesses, but Wu focused only on the group of women who serve at national occasions, such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008. These ceremonial usherettes wear uniforms and have healthy bodies and beautiful faces. Their appearance manifests the cultural standard of beauty recognized by the Chinese government. They usually do not get paid. Even though it is a voluntary temporary job, these women are selected carefully. They are given a certificate after national events.

Recently, ceremonial usherettes have been under the spotlight. They appear on the news. The mass media in China creates a collective desire towards a certain female body. It reflects how a nation makes use of the female image as a symbol of China’s modernity and development. In the contemporary era, women have more opportunities to enter the economic and political realms. While it seems that women’s liberation can now be seen, the female body has also become a site of debating nation’s progress.

Women have always been seen as sex objects. They are gazed and consumed under the patriarchal order. The training of ceremonial usherettes in China is seen as hyper feminine cultivation. There was specific formula for calculating the face ratio. In one of the trainings, women were asked to practice the way of smiling. For instance, they needed to put a chopstick in between their teeth. When they smiled, they should only expose 4 to 6 teeth. They were required to practice this for an hour. Women were asked to correct each other on the number of teeth exposed. There was also training on the way ceremonial usherettes walked. A book was put on women’s heads. They were also asked to keep some distance between the arm and the waist when they were holding a tray of medals. They needed to represent the “oriental beauty” of the modern China. The training for ceremonial usherettes usually contained military elements. The women needed to learn the military style of standing and jogging. While these women acquired the prefect feminine qualities and extraordinary bodies, they also had to acquire physical skills. These women were tall, all between 165 and 178 cm.

Through the embodied practices, it showed that there was a uniformity of body shape of ceremonial usherettes. The speaker emphasized that the collectivity and uniformity of usherettes’ appearance was important in a country like China, which upheld socialist ideology. As no class difference should be seen, variations in women’s appearances and individuality should be eliminated.

The speaker then traced the history of gymnastics. During the Second World War period, gymnastics was seen as the symbol of the Nazis and the German spirit. It also represented the national culture and symbolized the patriarchal order of control of men over women. For the communist countries, gymnastics was seen as new revolutionary practice. New socialist men were created by the engagement in keeping the uniformity of the idealized body shape. The Communist party promoted gymnastics after 1949. Under the market economy, the state responds to the market’s need to “sexualize” women’s bodies. Women’s bodies have always been sites for re-inventing, debating, negotiating the meanings of “Chineseness” and Chinese femininity. Under the discourse of the state, the making process of idealized young female bodies is the “natural” way to show the traditional “Oriental” beauty of China.

In conclusion, the state displays its national power and the patriarchal order through the bodies of ceremonial usherettes. Feminists see this as a commodification and objectification of the female body. Through the selection, training and disciplining on ceremonial usherettes, these female bodies show the most desirable elegance in Chinese women. The talk in general has shown the complicated relationship between gender and the building of the nation-state.

Candy YU
M.Phil. Candidade

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