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BackArts & Culture » Culture » How Vietnam"s Pop Culture Leaves Behind Past Stigmas khổng lồ Embrace Queerness


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The recent rise of music videos and pop culture products that feature androgynous idols and same-sex love sầu has invited mixed responses và debates in the truyền thông, which open a window into Vietnam’s historical relationship with gender và sexuality.

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The last 10 years mark an exciting decade for queer representation in commercial culture, as same-sex desire và love sầu have gained more genuine portrayals. Vietnamese truyền thông has recently reported on a "boom"in the number of music videos spotlighting non-heterosexuality as a subject. Similarly, the recent popularity of idols và artists such as Gil Lê, Sơn Tùng M-TPhường, Vũ Cát Tường, Đào Bá Lộc & ERIK represents more fluidity in on-screen gender expression.

Elsewhere in cinema, films such as Song Lang, Thưa Mẹ Con Điand Yêu have sầu gained praise for their honest treatment of same-sex love sầu. TV talk shows and game shows such as Người Ấy Là AiBước Ra Ánh Sánghave sầu also offered a space where queer people can nội dung their stories và experiences.

Vietnam’s Cultural Construction of Gender

Scholar Richard Quang-Anh Tran argues in his thesis that contemporary Vietnamese conceptualizations of gender và sexuality are different compared to global & Anglo-centric constructions. While discussions regarding the wider LGBT movement often make ontological distinctions between biological sex, gender identities and sexual orientation, they are more often perceived as intrinsically linked in Vietphái nam. This mode of thinking isa historical product of two discourses that entered the country after the shift to global capitalism.

The male cast of an episode of Người Ấy Là Ai. Phokhổng lồ via AFamily.

Tran found that the country"s post-resize pathologization of same-sex identities was influenced bymedical discourses that rested on the 19th-century European theory of sexual inversion, which posits that homosexuality is a size of reversal of gender traits, và hence male inverts have a female soul và female inverts have sầu a male soul. This mode of thinking, coupled with the state"s Hotline khổng lồ refocus on the nuclear family unit and for women lớn return lớn their “feminine attributes,” led khổng lồ different forms of demonization of non-heterosexual relations and subjects.

The use of the Vietnamese term for gender (giới tính) reveals how the sexual inversion system informs taxonomies. Anthropologist Natalie Newton"s study on Vietnam"s lesbian community also points out thatthe term can referto lớn biological sex, social gender, sexuality (as in sex education) và the lesbian gender system, normally comprised of three distinct "genders" including butch, soft-butch and fem. Thus, the truyền thông media & pop culture often use the term nam nữ sản phẩm ba(third gender) khổng lồ refer to lớn non-heterosexual people.

Global LGBT movement discourses only entered Vietnam’s public sphere in 2012 through non-governmental organizations working within the frameworks of development và human rights. These organizations introduced language through translations (literal and metaphorical) that separated sexual orientation (Xu thế tính dục) và gender identities (phiên bản dạng giới). Pop culture texts reflected the un-linking of these two concepts.

The Evolution of Tomboys

In 2011, the talent show Sáng Bừng Sức Sốngaired on TV. Its premise involved finding the talent that would size a girl group, X5 Girls, dubbed the first female idol group in Vietphái mạnh built và managed using a “K-pop formula.” The group broke up two years later, but one of the members, Lê Thanh hao Trúc, now more commonly known by her stage name Gil Lê, is more popular than ever. Sporting an under-shaved cut a with big fringe, sneakers and boots, rotating her outfits between suits và hip bomber jackets & snapbacks, Gil Lê"s androgynous appeal has helped her gain a large bạn base across the country via online platforms.

A slightly similar ibé that entered the music industry two years later is Vũ Cát Tường, through the TV show The Voice Vietnam. Her popularity increased after hits such as "Yêu Xa"và "Mơ," which brought her a number of songwriting awards. Tường’s image changed over time, from a suit-sporting smart look with short side-swept hair và sneakers lớn one that embraces more feminine items. On YouTube, fans leave sầu comments swooning over the two singers" appearances.


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Gil Lê. Photo lớn via Viet Giai Tri.


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Vũ Cát Tường. Photo lớn via Afamily.


In their songs, both women co-opt the male pronoun anh when expressing affection towards an em, which is more commonly used for women in lãng mạn songs. This usage of male pronouns is also employed by songwriters lượt thích Tiên Cookie, who sports a similar boyish look, và opens a plethora of different readings of their songs. They can be interpreted as a female singer assuming a male perspective lớn speak of their love for a person of the same sex, or perhaps the gender identity of the speaker is invisible and the use of the male pronoun anh refers lớn a masculine identity that doesn’t link to maleness or a male toàn thân.

This practice can also resemble a gender-crossing tactic deployed by Vietnamese male poets and writers in the classical era through the 1930s. They wrote from a female perspective sầu & assumed a feminine identity. Female poets, however, were denied this privilege of speaking from another gender perspective sầu.

The personas và appearances of Vũ Cát Tường & Gil Lê invite numerous readings as well. They could be queer, transgender or heterosexual. Their looks lead khổng lồ interview questions regarding their gender identities & sexualities using the termgiới tính. Both have sầu refused any specific label, instead embraced ambiguity. Vũ Cát Tường once said that her music cuts across gender và sexuality, likening it to wearing clothing that doesn"t reflect a person"s authentic self, while Gil Lê has also said that such labels don"t define a person.


Hot Boy Nổi Loạn"s portrayal of a gay relationship is one of the most real in recent history.

Despite an emphasis on the “feminine” characteristics of an igiảm giá khuyến mãi woman in Vietnam giới that persists today, the tomboys cá tính look exists in some of the country’s young adult TV shows and sitcoms, namely Sở Tứ đọng 10A8, which aired on VTV from 2008, and Thứ đọng Ba Học Trò, which came out four years later. These two series feature tomboys, Mai Lâm in Bộ Tứ đọng 10A8 & Bảo Nlỗi in Thứ đọng Ba Học Trò, who both play a class monitor. The characters can be viewed as either gender nonconformist or framed within the "narrative of blossoming womanhood,"in which certain restraints on femininity are needed in order for the tomboy lớn grow into a compliant khung of femininity. The unisex fashion movement brought about by Korean pop music might also make this look more acceptable in general, as many can read it as adopting a style, rather than a resistance against gender conformity.


Văn Châu (Ngọc Ngân, far right) in Kính Vạn Hoa. Photo via VnExpress.


While tomboyism can be seen as a way lớn resist adult femininity, some shows attempt lớn explain the look in other ways. Kính Vạn Hoa’s character Vnạp năng lượng Châu, depicted in a television show adapted from a popular young adult novel by Nguyễn Nhật Ánh, for example, is at first mistaken for a boy by her new friends. In that episode, Văn uống Châu"s grandfather explained to lớn the group of friends that her parent"s patriarchal desire to lớn have sầu a son leads khổng lồ her being raised as a boy. At the end, the grandfather reassures her friends that Châu will grow up khổng lồ be a “normal” woman, leaving the job of understanding what constitutes “normal” khổng lồ the viewers. Viewers can observe sầu this familiar trope in the 2014 TV series Vừa Đi Vừa Khócas well.

An example of the shifting understanding of the interplay between gender & sexuality can be seen in the 2015 movie Yêu. Directed by Việt Max, Yêu was considered one of the first contemporary feature films khổng lồ center on a romantic relationship between two women. The movie focus on Tú and Nhi, played by Gil Lê and Chi Pu. In the film, Tú’s appearance resembles the actress"s androgynous real-life look, with the explanation that Tú"s brother"s death caused his father great trauma và therefore, Tú has to lớn pretkết thúc to be her brother for the sake of her dad’s mental health. The justification also points to the patriarchal tradition of favoring the son. In Yêu,the daughter is more expendable than the son, as the father can bear with the "loss" of his daughter during the process.

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Yêu (2015).

However, in the kết thúc, the movie separates Gil Lê’s character"s masculine look và gender identity from her love sầu và attraction towards Nhi, và vice versa. This separation plays out via Tú"s mom"s eventual acceptance of the fact that their love sầu was not based on Tú being misgendered as a boy. This conclusion reflects the coexistence of two aforementioned systems of naming & defining. One relies on the automatic coupling of gender identity & sexual orientation, and one separates them.

Representations of butch-femme relationships are becoming more commonplace, most prominently in music videos, with the most recent examples including Vũ Cát Tường’s "Có Người," Nguyễn Trần Trung Quân’s "Màu Nước Mắt," Sơn Thạch’s "Sai Nắng," & Mai Tiến Dũng’s "Đừng Hỏi Anh Về Cô Ấy."Depictions of femme-femme dynamics, however, are still rare, và butch-butch relationships seem non-existent. Perhaps such a reality reflects the influence of binary thinking and the persistence of gender inversion because a butch-femme dynamic can pass, visually, as heteronormative, and hence less deviant in the eyes of a larger public.

This preference is particularly interesting considering how most popular culture products coming out of the west with lesbian couples mostly feature beautiful, feminine women. The 2004-2009 American drama the L Word, for example, received criticism for the sexualization of queer women.Femme-femme dynamics vày exist in Vietnamese pop culture, however — recent examples include Văn uống Mai Hương’s music Clip "Nghe Nói Anh Sắp Kết Hôn" và the filmMỹ Nhân Kếin 2013, which hides the chemistry between the two main female protagonists beneath subtexts.

Camp và Gay Love on Screen

It’s not an overstatement lớn clalặng that Sơn Tùng M-TPhường is currently the most famous singer-songwriter in Vietnam giới. Rising to lớn popularity in 2011 when his tuy nhiên "Cơn Mưa Ngang Qua" went viral, the singer has since put out hit after hit. Besides his musical success, Ca Sỹ Sơn Tùng M-TP is also considered a fashion icon. In 2019, Tùng was named Most Stycác mục Artist of the Year by Elle Vietnam. Tùng"s public image is unapologetically androgynous & fluid, và he doesn"t shy away from items considered feminine, such as long earrings or makeup. Tùng is not the only male artist who"s embracing androgyny. Such co-opting of femininity can also be seen amongst the younger cohorts of male singers such as ERIK, Châu Đăng Khoa, Đức Phúc & Đào Bá Lộc.

Ca Sỹ Sơn Tùng M-TP in "Lạc Trôi." Phokhổng lồ via Vietnammoi.

Male comedians and artists cross-dressing as female is also a long-running tradition in Vietnam’s television culture. The country"s most famous comedian, Hoài Linch, is known for his spectacular cross-dressing performances on national & diasporic variety shows. In an interview, Linch explained that he first started lớn cross-dress due lớn the lack of female performers baông chồng then. Today, it"s not hard khổng lồ find cross-dressers on TV. In fact, there are young artists such as Duy Khánh, who played gia sư Khánh (teacher Khánh), a female teacher character in a school life online sitcom, as well as BB Trần, Hải Triều và Quang Trung, who built their entire careers on cross-dressing.

Men expressing femininity or transvestism carries drastically different meanings compared lớn masculine women. In religious realms,đồng bóngrefers lớn the practice of having a spiritual medium dress as a woman lớn conjure a feminine spirit. The term đồng trơn,or bóngfor short, is thus now used as slang for gay men.

Studying gender constructions under colonialism,Frank Proschanfound that the French framed Vietnamese men as effeminate, androgynous & impotent, while sexualizing Vietnamese women. A popular slang term,pê đê,used for gay men & sometimes transgender women, takes its root frompederasty, which means sexual activity between a man & a boy. In the late 1800s, there was a moral panic ahy vọng Frenchmen worried that they were catching syphilis through pederasty at Vietnamese opium dens because some of the women with traditionally blackened teeth were considered so unattractive sầu that the men took to having sex with other men. After đổi mới, the termpê đêcarried negative & homophobic connotations và was often coupled with the tired truyền thông media trope of casting effeminacy as a symptom of the homosexuality "disease." However, in recent years, it has lost its homophobic subtext and even become endearing in some communities.


Đào Bá Lộc. Pholớn via YAN.


When effeminate men are not classified as having a medical condition, their behavior is used for jokes. One example is chị Hội, acharacter in the 2010 movie Để Mai Tính. Heis a gay man whose attire & manner are colorful & extremely feminine. Albeit framed as a loveable character, Hội"s hyper-feminine mannerisms are often used for laughs. While this usage perpetuated femme-phobia and homophobia, new, openly queer artists such as Đào Bá Lộc and Adam Lâm are turning the trope on its head, embracing the posh, makeup-adorned look. Singer Loc has also gained fans & viewers through makeup tutorial videos published on his YouTube channel, while Adam Lâm straddles the line between a conventional masculine style và signature blachồng eyeliner and leather-heavy glam aesthetics in his photoshoots and music videos.

Newer cross-dressing performances employed by comedians such as BB Trần, Quang Trung, Hải Triều & Huỳnh Lập, some of whom are openly gay, are also moving away from the transvestism-as-joke device to lớn framing cross-dressing as an aesthetic. This opens more possibilities for transgression, as these imagescan deconstruct gender in ways that are celebrated & not laughed at. Quang Trung, in an interview, emphasized that, in his craft, "Humor has khổng lồ come from personality, rather than gender or sexuality." The appeal of the duo of BB Trần & Hải Triều, who have sầu made a career out of parody music videos in which they play both male and female characters, relies on both their personalities and the aesthetic unique of their makeup.


Contemporary re-articulating & re-purposing of the male acting out femininity trope might signify a shift towards an embrace of camp sensibilities, which, according khổng lồ Susan Sontag, theatricality exaggerates the distinction between high và low culture, of the elite và the masses. "Camp," writes Sontag, "is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world, it incarnates a victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality, of irony over tragedy." The camp sensibility might partially explain the popularity of Sơn Tùng M-TP"s fashion style as well, which intermingles luxury items và streetwear.

In Vietphái nam, the tendency to lớn equate femininity in men with homosexuality seems to lớn have waned. In 2011, Vũ Ngọc Đãng"s movie Hot Boy Nổi Loạn famously became one of the first films khổng lồ portray a more accurate depiction of relationships between gay men. Bộ Ba Đĩ Thõa (My Best Gay Friends), a low-budget website sitcom started in 2012, is also aý muốn the pioneering works that feature queer life from a genuine and honest perspective sầu.

In the latter half of the 2010s, some visual pop culture products have started toplace gender non-conformity and same-sex love into lớn different settings. Leon Lê"s film Song Lang, which was released in 2018, employs Vietnam’s theatrical folk operacải lương và a pre-thay đổi mới setting khổng lồ tell the tale of love và loss between the two main male characters. Adopting a metaphorical frame-within-a-frame narrative sầu device, Lê presents a relationship in real life that mirrors the one on the stage.

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Song Lang. Pholớn via Sao Star.

Adam Lâm’s music video clip "Đừng Yêu Quá Nhiều" alsoco-optscải lươngin a similar way, queering the seemingly "normal" (and hence cisgender và heterosexual) realm of history. Others, such as Sơn Tùng’s music video clip "Lạc Trôi" or Nguyễn Trần Trung Quân"s recent hit "Tự Tâm,"both filmed by V-pop"s "golden director," Đinch Hà Uyên Thỏng, attempt lớn engage with history while bringing in fictive and imaginary aesthetics. Both Sơn Tùng MTP and Nguyễn Trần Trung Quân adopt pre-Qing dynasty long hair & robes, although the stylization isn"t necessarily historically or geographically correct. Otherworldly elements such as magic or world-building fantasies have sầu also appeared in recent pop culture products, some of which are the brainchild of creative director and actor Denis Dang, who came up with the storyboard forERIK và Min’s music đoạn Clip "Ghen,"all of Nguyễn Trần Trung Quân"s music videos, Bích Phương"s "Chị Ngả Em Nâng," and a plethora of others.


These music videos, which often double as short films, portray either a generic pre-modern aesthetic or a fantastical world in which beautiful feminine men & homosexuality aren"t an issue. This deviation from real-life politics is one of the defining features of online homoerotic literature known asđam mỹorbách hợp. Beginning as a subcultureamong muốn female fans on internet forums and translations of online Chinese, Japanese, Korean "boys" love" (BL) literature, the lingo of đam mỹ and bách hợp has since entered public culture as slang terms for cultural products that feature non-heterosexual relationships.

The surge of interest in historical material & the production of alternative sầu histories might offer utopia-lượt thích settings removed from modernity"s attempts to lớn discipline, optimize & manage the human body toàn thân, in which gender non-conformity and non-heterosexual love sầu can easily fit. These books, films, music videos and images still allow for happiness and heartache, love and loss, loneliness and harmony: conditions that continue to lớn be part of what it means khổng lồ be human, regardless of one"s identity.