Real, Unreal, and Whatever Else In-between
On Chinese gay dating apps, “fake profiles” are a constant concern: photos might have been altered or biometrics might have been fabricated. Offline, the person might barely resemble their profile. The lived experiences of Chinese gay men, however, show us that the fake is not always antithetical to the real. The fake, under certain circumstances, could enact material realities of its own. Gay socialites (同志名媛, tongzhi mingyuan) in urban China’s gay community are cases in point.
One aspect of my research among gay socialites focuses on the in-between zone of “real” and “unreal,” and how exactly the transformation from unreal to real can be achieved in a specific socio-technological context—contemporary urban China—in the digital age. I argue that we need to go beyond a binary of “real” and “unreal” to understand a social world where human actors are using digital technologies to create intermediate zones that are neither squarely real nor completely unreal, with the purpose of fulfilling their desires. These blurry, intermediate zones are liminal (Turner 1969), existing in the form of fantasies, constructed personas and lifestyles, and intoxicated states. It is through concrete human actions, and sometimes their unintended consequences, that liminal realities become full realities.
Fourteen years ago, in Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff (2008) argued that virtual worlds are in and of themselves cultural worlds distinct from the physical world, and that it is not only possible but suitable to study the culture of a virtual world with ethnography. Contesting the “false opposition” that fails to recognize that “the myriad ways that the online is real” and mistakenly assumes that “everything physical is real” (Boellstorff 2016, 387), Boellstorff states that “[c]hallenging the derealization of the digital is of pressing importance” (2016, 397). There have been consistent efforts in anthropology and related social sciences that echo or take up Boellstorff’s intervention. Anthropologists caution that design features and affordances of apps are deeply shaped by socio-cultural contexts, and that these new technologies bring about not only new possibilities, but also new risks and hierarchies in users’ lived realities (Batiste 2013; McGuire 2016; Edelman 2016). They pose a collective challenge to the misconception that the virtual and the actual are separated (McGuire 2016; Hu 2015). These pioneer studies have, from various perspectives and with meticulously constructed ethnographic details, highlighted the fact that the virtual and the actual are not only increasingly integrated, but on many occasions the virtual is real in every sense of the word.
Speaking more broadly, Lisa Messeri (2021) cogently points out that what she calls the “anthropologies of the unreal” have continuously expanded what counts as real in anthropological worldview by demonstrating how the seemingly “unreal,” such as illusions, dreams, digital technologies, intoxicated states of mind, and so on, are real or made real in specific socio-technological contexts (Boellstorff 2008; Mittermaier 2010; Messeri 2021; Zigon 2019; Pearce 2009).
In this case study, I use the term “liminal realities” to better conceptualize these in-between realities that were neither absolutely real nor undeniably fake. I draw on Victor Turner’s concept of liminality (1969) to highlight not only the transitional nature of these realities but also their uncertainty, malleability, and fluidity. Indeed, a gay socialite in China is not born; he is made.
The lives of the Chinese gay men I met during fieldwork provide a fruitful lens to understand the in-betweenness of life as a liminality between “real” and “unreal,” when boundaries, or thresholds, are not always clear or absolute. In this blog post, I will show how my interlocutors—mostly rural-to-urban migrant gay men—use digital technologies to create “fake” personas; that is, personas whose lifestyle, socio-economic status, and overall social status were different from their offline ones. In these urban Chinese men’s cases, however, “fake” is not the opposite of “real.” It was precisely through meticulously constructed “fakeness” that these men accumulate attention from China’s gay community, build a large fan base, and increase their social status. Eventually, this “fakeness” materialized and turned into tangible economic gains and social recognition. In other words, the fake became something undeniably real.
“Fake” Profiles, Classification, and Platform Economy
A “gay socialite” was one of the multiple identity categories created by urban Chinese gay men that placed gay men into an always changing hierarchical system according to their upbringing, education, class status, sexual practices, and more. My interlocutors described a gay socialite as someone who was young, good-looking, muscular, financially well-off, and fashionable. Most importantly, however, being a gay socialite was about enacting a particular lifestyle. Indeed, without a Louis Vuitton bag, or comparable luxury brand-name products, a good-looking, muscular, young gay man was considered a “wild chick” (乡下野鸡, xiang xia ye ji) ridiculed for their assumed rural, financially tight, and unsophisticated “nature” (本性, ben xing) despite their good looks. In contrast, hard labor was considered a foreign concept to gay socialites. A socialite must not work yet still have the financial means to travel around the world, stay in luxury hotels, and post their experiences on social media for fans to admire and/or evaluate.
During my fieldwork, however, I found out that most gay socialites actually came from humble backgrounds and that their financial position was not exactly as their social media posts suggested. Their luxurious lifestyle was, in fact, performed. It was common for gay socialites to rent a hotel room together. They took turns taking individual photos in each corner of the room and planned to post their pictures on social media at different times. During my fieldwork, I also learned that these gay men often borrowed brand-name products from others—from either individual people or companies specializing in brand-name rentals—to enhance their upscale persona on social media.
What’s the point, one might ask? Many socialites are looking for “gold masters” to look after them. In the gay lexicon, a “gold master” (金主, jin zhu) referred to a wealthy and usually older gay man who took care of younger and less monied gay men. However, in this gay social hierarchy, gold masters were not just looking to take care of any physically appealing gay men. Due to the equally intense hierarchical thinking among gold masters, and a social environment that measured a person’s social worth partly through the identity of their intimate partners, gold masters were looking for “worthy” (配得上，pei de shang) gay men—a position well fit by gay socialites. If a gold master ended up with a “nobody” (谁也不是, shei ye bu shi, translated literally as “who is nobody”) the reputation or social worth of the gold master would deteriorate as well. After all, the number of wealthy people in China grew to such an extent that some felt the pressure to differentiate themselves even further, pursuing a form of distinction from the so-called “vulgar new rich” (暴发户, bao fa hu, translated literally as “people who got rich as quickly as an explosion”) (Osburg 2020). During my fieldwork, gold masters and gay socialites were common couples. While the former gained face by having an attractive intimate partner, the latter eventually lived a material life that used to exist only in the virtual sphere.
There was more than one way the “fakeness” on social media could turn into material and financial realities. Not every gay socialite could find a gold master. Some took advantage of China’s vast “sunken market,” referring to the vast number of consumers who purchased cheaper products with their more meager incomes. Numbering in the billions, these individuals form the biggest market with the strongest potential one could hope for. By creating a fake persona, gay socialites accumulated a large number of followers from this market, many of whom could never keep a socialite like a gold master could or afford the socialite’s lifestyle for themselves. This is beside the point, however: most fans knew that the social media gay socialite life was often staged. Rather, these virtually mediated personas and lifestyles served not as truthful representation of another person’s reality, but snapshots of the fantasy of a good life, of an otherwise, of an alternative of a life (hopefully) yet to come. The power of fantasy was strong, leading to loyal fanfare, who would click the link and purchase whatever their idols recommend to them.
Brian, for example, was one of the most well-known gay socialites in China. Brian started his entrepreneurship and accumulated his fortune by selling affordable protein power on his social media accounts back in 2010s. When I returned to China for my dissertation fieldwork in 2019, Brian already owned a couple companies, multiple properties in China and Thailand, and was a major sponsor for one of Asia’s biggest dance parties in Bangkok. Even though Brian is still ridiculed by other gays for his highly photoshopped, “fake” pictures on social media, it would be hard to deny that the real and tangible changes in his life originated from purposefully constructed fakeness.
Indeed, the persona and lifestyle put on social media by these socialites might be “fake.” But “fakeness” is not always the opposite of realness. Mediated by virtuality, fakeness—understood in this context as a form of purposefully constructed liminal reality with the intention to craft a better life—is generative, productive, and performative; it brings new realities into existence. For Chinese gay socialites, many of whom migrated from rural China or lower-tier cities to the metropolis such as Shanghai, virtually mediated fakeness was their attempt—sometimes a very convenient and efficient one—to “make it” in China’s urban centers. In their cases, the fake, instead of standing in sharp opposition to the real, stood right beside the real. Here, the differences between the fake and the real were not quite ontological but temporal and conditional. The fake, in this sense, bears the potential to transition and transform into tangible and material realities that are no longer constrained in the virtual world. The fake, then, can be seen as a specific kind of real—the liminal real.
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