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How Vietnam's Pop Culture Leaves Behind Past Stigmas to Embrace Queerness

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

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

Elsewhere in cinema, films such as Song Lang, Thưa Mẹ Con Đi and Yêu have gained praise for their honest treatment of same-sex love. TV talk shows and game shows such as Người Ấy Là Ai and Bước Ra Ánh Sáng have also offered a space where queer people can share their stories and experiences.

Vietnam’s Cultural Construction of Gender

Scholar Richard Quang-Anh Tran argues in his thesis that contemporary Vietnamese conceptualizations of gender and sexuality are different compared to global and 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 Vietnam. This mode of thinking is a 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. Photo via AFamily.

Tran found that the country's post-reform pathologization of same-sex identities was influenced by medical discourses that rested on the 19th-century European theory of sexual inversion, which posits that homosexuality is a form of reversal of gender traits, and hence male inverts have a female soul and female inverts have a male soul. This mode of thinking, coupled with the state's call to refocus on the nuclear family unit and for women to return to their “feminine attributes,” led to 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 that the term can refer to biological sex, social gender, sexuality (as in sex education) and the lesbian gender system, normally comprised of three distinct "genders" including butch, soft-butch and fem. Thus, the media and pop culture often use the term giới tính thứ ba (third gender) to refer to 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 and human rights. These organizations introduced language through translations (literal and metaphorical) that separated sexual orientation (xu hướng tính dục) and gender identities (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 Sống aired on TV. Its premise involved finding the talent that would form a girl group, X5 Girls, dubbed the first female idol group in Vietnam built and managed using a “K-pop formula.” The group broke up two years later, but one of the members, Lê Thanh 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 and hip bomber jackets and snapbacks, Gil Lê's androgynous appeal has helped her gain a large fan base across the country via online platforms.

A slightly similar icon 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' and '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 and sneakers to one that embraces more feminine items. On YouTube, fans leave comments swooning over the two singers' appearances.

Gil Lê. Photo via Viet Giai Tri.

Vũ Cát Tường. Photo 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 romantic songs. This usage of male pronouns is also employed by songwriters like Tiên Cookie, who sports a similar boyish look, and opens a plethora of different readings of their songs. They can be interpreted as a female singer assuming a male perspective to 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 to a masculine identity that doesn’t link to maleness or a male body.

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 and assumed a feminine identity. Female poets, however, were denied this privilege of speaking from another gender perspective.

The personas and appearances of Vũ Cát Tường and Gil Lê invite numerous readings as well. They could be queer, transgender or heterosexual. Their looks lead to interview questions regarding their gender identities and sexualities using the term giới tính. Both have refused any specific label, instead embraced ambiguity. Vũ Cát Tường once said that her music cuts across gender and 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 ideal woman in Vietnam that persists today, the tomboy look exists in some of the country’s young adult TV shows and sitcoms, namely Bộ Tứ 10A8, which aired on VTV from 2008, and Thứ Ba Học Trò, which came out four years later. These two series feature tomboys, Mai Lâm in Bộ Tứ 10A8 and Bảo Như in Thứ 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 to grow into a compliant form 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 to resist adult femininity, some shows attempt to explain the look in other ways. Kính Vạn Hoa’s character Văn 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 Châu's grandfather explained to the group of friends that her parent's patriarchal desire to have a son leads to her being raised as a boy. At the end, the grandfather reassures her friends that Châu will grow up to be a “normal” woman, leaving the job of understanding what constitutes “normal” to the viewers. Viewers can observe this familiar trope in the 2014 TV series Vừa Đi Vừa Khóc as well.

An example of the shifting understanding of the interplay between gender and sexuality can be seen in the 2015 movie Yêu. Directed by Việt Max, Yêu was considered one of the first contemporary feature films to 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 and therefore, Tú has to pretend 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.

Yêu (2015).

However, in the end, the movie separates Gil Lê’s character's masculine look and gender identity from her love and attraction towards Nhi, and vice versa. This separation plays out via Tú's mom's eventual acceptance of the fact that their love was not based on Tú being misgendered as a boy. This conclusion reflects the coexistence of two aforementioned systems of naming and defining. One relies on the automatic coupling of gender identity and 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,' and Mai Tiến Dũng’s 'Đừng Hỏi Anh Về Cô Ấy.' Depictions of femme-femme dynamics, however, are still rare, and 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 do exist in Vietnamese pop culture, however — recent examples include Văn Mai Hương’s music video 'Nghe Nói Anh Sắp Kết Hôn' and the film Mỹ Nhân Kế in 2013, which hides the chemistry between the two main female protagonists beneath subtexts.  

Camp and Gay Love on Screen

It’s not an overstatement to claim that Sơn Tùng M-TP is currently the most famous singer-songwriter in Vietnam. Rising to popularity in 2011 when his song 'Cơn Mưa Ngang Qua' went viral, the singer has since put out hit after hit. Besides his musical success, Sơn Tùng M-TP is also considered a fashion icon. In 2019, Tùng was named Most Stylist Artist of the Year by Elle Vietnam. Tùng's public image is unapologetically androgynous and fluid, and 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 and Đào Bá Lộc.

Sơn Tùng M-TP in 'Lạc Trôi.' Photo 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 Linh, is known for his spectacular cross-dressing performances on national and diasporic variety shows. In an interview, Linh explained that he first started to cross-dress due to the lack of female performers back then. Today, it's not hard to find cross-dressers on TV. In fact, there are young artists such as Duy Khánh, who played cô giáo Khánh (teacher Khánh), a female teacher character in a school life online sitcom, as well as BB Trần, Hải Triều and Quang Trung, who built their entire careers on cross-dressing.

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

Studying gender constructions under colonialism, Frank Proschan found that the French framed Vietnamese men as effeminate, androgynous and impotent, while sexualizing Vietnamese women. A popular slang term, pê đê, used for gay men and sometimes transgender women, takes its root from pederasty, which means sexual activity between a man and a boy. In the late 1800s, there was a moral panic among 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 that the men took to having sex with other men. After đổi mới, the term pê đê carried negative and homophobic connotations and was often coupled with the tired 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. Photo via YAN.

When effeminate men are not classified as having a medical condition, their behavior is used for jokes. One example is chị Hội, a character in the 2010 movie Để Mai Tính. He is a gay man whose attire and manner are colorful and 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 and viewers through makeup tutorial videos published on his YouTube channel, while Adam Lâm straddles the line between a conventional masculine style and signature black 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 and Huỳnh Lập, some of whom are openly gay, are also moving away from the transvestism-as-joke device to framing cross-dressing as an aesthetic. This opens more possibilities for transgression, as these images can deconstruct gender in ways that are celebrated and not laughed at. Quang Trung, in an interview, emphasized that, in his craft, "Humor has to come from personality, rather than gender or sexuality." The appeal of the duo of BB Trần and Hải Triều, who have 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 quality of their makeup. 

Hải Triều (left) and BB Trần (right). Photo via VnExpress.

Contemporary re-articulating and re-purposing of the male acting out femininity trope might signify a shift towards an embrace of camp sensibilities, which, according to Susan Sontag, theatricality exaggerates the distinction between high and low culture, of the elite and 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 and streetwear. 

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

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

Song Lang. Photo via Sao Star.

Adam Lâm’s music video 'Đừng Yêu Quá Nhiều' also co-opts cải lương in a similar way, queering the seemingly "normal" (and hence cisgender and heterosexual) realm of history. Others, such as Sơn Tùng’s music video 'Lạc Trôi' or Nguyễn Trần Trung Quân's recent hit 'Tự Tâm,' both filmed by V-pop's "golden director," Đinh Hà Uyên Thư, attempt to engage with history while bringing in fictive and imaginary aesthetics. Both Sơn Tùng and Nguyễn Trần Trung Quân adopt pre-Qing dynasty long hair and robes, although the stylization isn't necessarily historically or geographically correct. Otherworldly elements such as magic or world-building fantasies have 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 for ERIK and Min’s music video '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 and homosexuality aren't an issue. This deviation from real-life politics is one of the defining features of online homoerotic literature known as đam mỹ or bách hợp. Beginning as a subculture among 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 and the production of alternative histories might offer utopia-like settings removed from modernity's attempts to discipline, optimize and manage the human body, in which gender non-conformity and non-heterosexual love 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 be part of what it means to be human, regardless of one's identity.

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