Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 32, July 2013

Fran Martin

Backward Glances:
Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary

Durham and London: Duke University Press, Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics and Society Series, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4680-7 (pbk): 290 pp.

reviewed by Maud Lavin

  1. I love the broad reach of this book which addresses cultural impact on minoritarian as well as mainstream sexuality and gender knowledges. In Backward Glances, Fran Martin creatively examines how homoerotic culture in Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan functions for female viewers with a range of sexual self-definitions; her approach is usefully non-dichotomous in its consideration of varied female reception positions. She refuses to rigidly separate homosexual and heterosexual imaginaries; to the contrary she persuasively argues for their intertwining in some experiences of female-inflected Chinese and Taiwanese mass culture. At the same time Martin's delving into the uses of temporality in what are frequently memorialising stories of youthful same-gender romances—and more recent filmic disruptions of this temporality—contributes to Chinese and Taiwanese lesbian scholarship.
  2. Through case studies, Martin analyses representations of homoerotically relational femininities in Hong Kong, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese books, TV and film from the 1910s to the present. In discussing the modernist recurrence of schoolgirl same-gender romance stories, Martin explores the prevalence of youthful romance stories that invite identification with a more-or-less traditionally feminine protagonist as she desires another woman, usually a tomboy. Instead of questions of lesbian visibility and invisibility, though, Martin asks what these repeating schoolgirl romance stories do for diverse Chinese and Taiwanese female readers and viewers and why temporally they tend to be told as if remembering fondly a youthful past. In recent films, Martin finds a complex embrace of presentism that opens a door for an acceptance of homosexual relations and desires among Chinese and Taiwanese women that if not yet widely occurring at least exists in certain cultural moments, as well as a continuing critique of hetero-marital imperatives.
  3. Chapter 1 addresses what Martin ironically terms as the 'going in' literature of Republican China in which student girl-girl romance narratives invariably end with family-enforced and societally proscribed heterosexual marriage for at least one of the girls. The story is often told from the adult point of view of the married woman who mournfully remembers her youthful love, one the marital relationship cannot live up to. Martin points out that these repeating stories function to critique the hetero-marital demand but at the same time enact the impossibility of adult, sanctioned lesbian relationships. Of note in terms of East Asian cultural history is that Martin in this chapter recognises the influence of Japanese culture on Sinophone ones in these homoerotic threads, but later in the book when she moves to the present does not; I'd argue the book could have benefitted, particularly in these digital culture circulating times, from an acknowledgement in later chapters of the continuity and evolution of such stories in contemporary Japanese and Korean cultures as well, for example, in manga and online slash fiction forms.
  4. In chapter 2, this cultural retelling of same-gender schoolgirl romance is, however, picked up in late-twentieth-century tragic homoerotic tales in fiction created in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. Chapter 3 focuses on the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.) in the 1980s, and here Martin deals well with western influences and eastern differentiations, emphasising the attention to temporal issues in the Chinese homoerotic productions. In chapter 4, Martin faces the complexities of the tragic renderings of the tomboy's impossible future (as opposed to that of her usually more feminised partner) in the repeating cultural homoerotic stories. Specifically she examines melodrama as manifesting societal alarm about the 'masculine woman,' delving into difficult areas of metaphoric representations of negative prejudice and wounding, as, for example, through repeated scenes of a tomboy's early death. And yet, primarily in chapter 5, Martin also emphasises in media productions the recuperative gaze of the feminised 'everywoman' who is shown, again and again in these stories, from the point of view of loving and desiring the tomboy. Martin's writing style is one of passionate engagement combined with thoughtful analysis, and it works well in dealing with contradictions that seem to circle the cultural figure of the tomboy. Again, Martin's analysis stands out in its ability to involve the reader in minoritarian discourse—here, that around representation of the tomboy—and consideration of mainstream effects as well. As she argues about Taiwanese and Chinese representations of certain homoerotic sexual imaginaries, 'The most useful framework for considering the remarkably pervasive narrative of schoolgirl romance may be in terms of the distinctively inflected form of modern sexual culture that it implies: a sexual culture that incorporates an enduring critique of its own regulation of feminine sexuality' (p. 145).
  5. In the book's last chapter, Martin gives contemporary case studies of films about homoerotic relationships by independent women directors, lesbian and heterosexual. She selects ones that show an awareness of the memorialising tradition of teenage same-gender romance, but also, she argues, respond to it by displaying a presentism of lesbian love between adult women. These examples come as something of a relief to the reader who has by now travelled with Martin through numerous examples of stories where protagonists mourn same-gender adolescent love while the plot trajectories also close off the possibility of such love in adulthood. However in reading this chapter's close analyses it also occurs to the reader that perhaps the desire to celebrate these recent films such as Li Yu's Fish and Elephant, 2001, means that their own inclusion of sadnesses are given relatively little consideration. Still and usefully Martin continues to persuade that these cultural productions contribute to lesbian history and potentially the slow-growing acceptance of lesbianism while also functioning as a broad-reaching critique, one appealing to female viewers of different sexual stripes, through the imaginings of alternatives to a rigidly realised and narrowly defined hetero-marital tradition.
  6. Thus the major contributions of Backward Glances are two-fold: 1. the analysis of temporal issues, particularly the mournful looking into the past at youthful homoerotic desire, in repeating cultural representations and how this emphasis figures in a larger, different and more mainstream way in China and Taiwan than in western cultures; and 2. the persuasive examination of how these repeating homoerotic tales might function for women of a range of sexual self-identifications within the P.R.C. and Taiwan.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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