The Fandom of “Inferior” Diva: Gay Men’s Identity Politics through the Engagement with Non-mainstream Popular Texts in the Aesthetic Public Sphere of China


This study explores how the Chinese gay community re-articulate non-mainstream entertainment texts through fandom engagement to perform identity politics. Past studies on diva worshiping indicate that, in Western society, gay males’ veneration for public-reputable female celebrities empowers them to challenge heteronormativity (Babuscio, 1993). Surprisingly, the indigenous Chinese “diva” worshipped by gay men in China is poles apart from that in the Western context, which is confident, talented, and successful. For instance, the Chinses “diva” named Cindy was once the target of public mockery for her obese figure and poor showmanship. Nevertheless, she enjoys great popularity in the gay community. Thus, this study explores the logic behind gay men’s fandom engagement with non-mainstream divas, and its cultural-political meanings.

My study is based on the framework of the aesthetic public sphere (APS), which emphasizes the political significance of entertainment media. Traditionally, ideal citizens are expected to rationally and critically participate in public deliberation (Habermas, 1968). Hence, entertainment media are seen as the opposite side of politics and democracy. On the contrary, APS emphasizes the semiotic and intertextual convergence of popular culture and political discourses, as well as the political significance of affection, media representation, and aesthetic experiences (Jacobs, 2007). Specifically, APS provides inspiring routes to investigate how popular texts enable audiences to construct their identities and reproduce symbolic discourses that have political implications (Buckingham, 2000). Besides, this study tries to broaden the current framework of APS by incorporating the queer theory and the subculture theory (Jagoes, 1996; Hall & Jefferson, 1993).

With a qualitative but triangulate research design, I have conducted a 6-month digital ethnography guided by Hine’s (2015) multi-sited approach in the Chinese fandom of several gay icons, utilized Fairclough’s (1995) model of critical discourse analysis to dissect gender representations and power struggles rooted in typical fan art collected in ethnography, and interviewed so far 15 self-identified gay men with diverse backgrounds to understand their interpretations on non-mainstream texts and their engagement with them.

Preliminarily, a four-stage process of gay males’ engagement with marginalized diva is showed: affective empathy, collective engagement, discourse reconfiguration, and alternative mobility. Firstly, gay men’s affective empathy on the marginalized identity of non-mainstream diva lays the foundation for the fandom. In this process, fans superimpose attributes and struggles of themselves on the object of fandom (Sandvoss, 2005). Secondly, through collective engagement like voting and canvassing, gay male fans help their idols to win attention and acceptance from the social majority, through which gay men envision a future with collected mobility and gender equality. It also confirms that the meanings of fandom are located, not only in the objects of fandom, but also in fans’ proactive interaction with them (Peraino, 2006). Thirdly, such engagements rearticulate the symbolic meaning of popular texts and produce counter-discourses against the current homophobic culture (Fraser, 1992). Lastly, when the ideal public sphere is unavailable in a society of authoritarianism and patriarchy, entertainment-oriented texts provide sexual minorities an alternative and safe path to overcome identity inferiority, encourage cultural-political engagement, and facilitate social equality.