Experts say it implies revenge by modern, independent women toward male chauvinism
○ Older Chinese women are feeding the fad of pursuing a new type of young, good-looking men who are obedient and tender
○ Some people say this trend represents progress in China's feminism development, as women can now control men like men used to control women
○ Feminists believe xiaonaigou are reflective of the gender inequality women still feel in China
After Fan Chengcheng, a 17-year-old popular idol posted a "pay-to-see" photo on China's twitter-like Sina Weibo, within just 10 hours he had raked in 4.8 million yuan ($753,000).
To see the photo, each visitor paid 60 yuan and was given a six-month access to his other paid photos.
"Baby, paying for you is my pleasure. It's not expensive," read many similar comments made by his fans, a majority of whom are adult women.
Fan gained fame in a recent popular entertainment show, Idol Producer, produced by online video platform iQiyi that "empowers" viewers, mostly women, to vote for future male idols, a majority of whom are teenagers or in the early 20s.
Fan, who garnered tens of millions of votes, is widely recognized as a "xiaonaigou," a newly coined internet buzzword literally meaning "little milk dog."
Different from the previous buzzword "little fresh meat," a general term referring to young and handsome men, a xiaonaigou not only has all the qualities of little fresh meat, but also implies a submissive relationship with women, being obedient, tender and loyal to their girlfriends.
Most xiaonaigou are single; their overzealous female fans who are much older like to treat them as "boyfriends," and thus are willing to spend large sums of their disposable incomes on them.
Some say that the popularity of xiaonaigou represents "progress in China's feminism development, as women can now control men just like men used to control women." But others criticized that this is an ideology influenced by feminists and that the term offensively "objectifies men."
"Those who criticize xiaonaigou are men who failed to meet modern women's requirements, so they have a sour grape mentality," Xiong Jing, a Chinese feminist and managing director of Beijing-based NGO Media Monitor for Women Network, told the Global Times.
Xiong added that the appearance of xiaonaigou is related to the elevation of women's social status and economic situations, and that urban Chinese women now have a stronger consumption power to help "forge" their ideal male.
The 'her' economy
The craze for xiaonaigou spread to China after several South Korean and Japanese soap operas appeared on domestic video websites.
Linda (pseudonym), a producer at iQiyi, told the Global Times that they imported such entertainment because they "needed to take the growing number of female audiences into consideration." She added that xiaonaigou bring in more views and more platform membership registrations.
She stated that Chinese female viewers are no longer satisfied with so-called "Mary Sue plots," which generally follow an ordinary woman's unrealistic romance with a powerful, rich and handsome man.
"The frenzy for xiaonaigou isn't an accidental phenomenon, but rooted in the entertainment culture that intends to exploit women's strong consumption power," wrote a self-media account on news portal ifeng.com.
Most female fans are in the 20s and 30s, and those who have been married for at least 5 years are also attracted to these good-looking young idols. The women generally have a strong economic power and manage their families' finances, Qianjiang Evening News reported.
These female fans believe that if you love an idol, you must spend money on him. Liu Na, who never spends more than 15 yuan on her own meals, recently dropped 30,000 yuan to buy a new camera for Wang Yuan, a teenager xiaonaigou member of popular boy band TFboys.
Crammed in a 10-square-meter room with her colleague, Liu told the Beijing Youth Daily that "Personally, I don't have any demands on material life. Idol chasing makes me feel fulfilled and happy and gives me a personal space that I can totally control."
Fans also use crowd-funding to support idols. Cai Xukun, one of the hottest xiaonaigou and the champion of Idol Producer, tried to end his relationship with his former talent agency, but was ordered to pay 300 million yuan for breach of contract. Millions of fans rallied behind him in an attempt to collectively pool their money to pay Cai's fine.
Seeing these men's commercial potential, international brands now hire them as brand spokespersons, which was rare years ago when the same brands preferred award-winning actors and actresses. Cai was recently reported to have been chosen as an ambassador for Lancome.
Mirror of women's desire
"As women now have more say, men need to make some changes to cater to women's needs," Xiong said.
Different from the male superstars popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, who were cool, rugged and masculine, today's young idols appear to be "unisex," wearing heavy makeup and looking "cute and even more beautiful than women."
In real life, there are also an increasing number of ordinary Chinese men who use makeup in their daily lives. News portal sohu.com reported that Chinese men aged between 18 and 26 living in big cities have significantly contributed to the growth momentum of China's makeup market.
Consulting company Euromonitor International estimated that the growth rate of makeup consumption among Chinese men will reach 13.5 percent in 2019, which is far above the 5.8 percent of the global growth rate.
Beijing office worker Lillian, 28, who works in the IT industry, calls herself a "feminist" and is now dating a xiaonaigou five years younger. Lillian admitted that her boyfriend uses cosmetics and followed her instructions in dressing himself. When the two are together, she pays for their dates. "I earn more money and I'm willing to spend it on him. I enjoy the feeling that he is obedient to me," she said, adding that she previously dated some older men who were "greasy and disrespectful" of her opinions.
"Our unique combination challenges the traditional relationship mode. And this is progress in women's rights," she told the Global Times.
Xiong said that as more Chinese women are now earning bigger salaries in China's urban workplace, their newfound economic strength has enabled them to be highly selective of the men they date.
"This isn't a revolutionary progress in feminism development, but it carries some weight," she said.
Figures from the National Bureau of Statistics revealed that, in 2016, women accounted for 43.1 percent of the total number of employees nationwide.
However, Chinese feminist Lü Pin said that women who are passionate about xiaonaigou are reflective of the gender inequality they still feel in China's workplace and society.
"While women work, they still have to battle unfairness and a lower career development ceiling in the workplace. So they turn their dissatisfaction into a "xiaonaigou complex," who they can manipulate and control," she told the Global Times.
She said that xiaonaigou is a unique new phenomenon among East Asian countries, where women generally feel a similar plight and have long suffered from suppression throughout history. Xiong added that, different from the West, in East Asian culture there is a preference toward youthful cuteness. "For men, this is called a Lolita Complex. Now for women, Young Milk Dogs," she said.
But many male netizens are voicing their strong disapproval of the xiaonaigou trend, attributing it to the narrow-mindedness of feminism.
"How can they use the description 'discipline xiaonaigou,' which makes men sound like a pet? What they do now isn't for gender equality; they are directly copying the patriarchal culture," read a netizen's post.
Lü said that xiaonaigou can not be directly linked to any actual improvement in women's rights, which is a more serious matter. "But it can serve as a way to let men reflect on the traditional gender relationship."
Xiong is optimistic that xiaonaigou will become more mainstream in China's marriage market, as it will solve the growing problem of "leftover women."
But she stressed that women's preference toward xiaonaigou isn't a breakthrough in gender equality, as standards such as loyalty are still the patriarchal society's requirement on an "ideal husband."
"Only when the institution of marriage dies out and both women and men won't choose their partners based on marriage requirements can they freely and equally be themselves."