Feminist Chinese comedian poses for sexy photo shoot, prompting debate among fans

Society & Culture

Fans of the comedian Li Xueqin had mixed feelings about her appearance in a For Him magazine photo shoot — especially after she rose to fame by skewering the expectations society places on celebrity women.

li xueqing

The Chinese edition of For Him magazine 男人装, a British men’s lifestyle magazine, has always been a fan of photo shoots that depict scantily clad women in provocative poses. In 2018, it was actress Zhào Lìyǐng 赵丽颖 appearing on its cover with a pair of scissors seemingly about to cut off her bra’s strap. Last year, it was model Xú Dōngdōng 徐冬冬 in her underwear seductively holding a giant lobster. 

So perhaps a recent photo shoot for the magazine’s June issue — featuring popular stand-up comedian Lǐ Xuěqín 李雪琴 in sexy outfits with low-cut necklines — shouldn’t be shocking for its readers. But it ruffled feathers among her long-time fans, who suggested the revealing looks were “hypocritical,” as Li is known as a feminist advocate for her men-bashing, patriarchy-challenging jokes. 

Here are the photographs in question.

li xueqingli xueqingli xueqingWhile the clothes she donned weren’t outrageous, the fashion shoot was surprisingly risqué by Li’s standards, given that she rarely shows skin in her selfies or in public appearances. According to the magazine, discovering this “new, sexy side” of her was the purported goal of the shoot. 

“There’s a special type of charm buried in her seemingly average looks and simple language,” the magazine wrote in a Weibo post (in Chinese) on June 22. “You might ask: ‘Does Li have anything to do with sexiness? This time, we can firmly tell you that Li is sexy.”

The photo shoot immediately sparked debate on social media about whether or not the images, which cast Li either as an object of the male gaze or a woman embracing her sexuality — depending on your point of view — runs counter to her reputation as an outspoken comedian who has made calling out sexism or patriarchal ideologies part of her brand.

“This is so disappointing. What drew me to Li in the first place was her intelligence and her way of thinking, but this is the complete opposite of what I thought she stood for,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Another person remarked (in Chinese), “She was beautiful in her unique way. She didn’t have to pander to the male gaze.”

Others argued otherwise, saying that feminism and displays of sexiness are in no way mutually exclusive. Wrote one (in Chinese), “Feminism is all about giving women free choice. They can cover up or expose their bodies as they want. The critics have missed the point.” A second said (in Chinese), “I would assume she wasn’t coerced into it, and probably contractually had approval of the photos. Sounds like feminism to me.”

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A graduate from the prestigious Peking University, Li first started to amass a devoted following in 2018 when she started to create content on ByteDance’s short video platform Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Last year, she shot to mainstream fame as a contestant on the third season of hit stand-up comedy series Rock & Roast (脱口秀大会 tuō kǒu xiù dà huì). 

In many of her jokes, Li riffs on the ridiculous expectations that are put on women, especially celebrity women. It’s part of what has made her own rise to fame so admirable for her fans: She’s criticizing the sexism in China’s entertainment industry as she works her way through it.

Feminism aside, some internet users said that their main issue with the photo shoot was how unflattering and cheap-looking the outfits were, as well as the magazine’s choice to photograph Li in a way that didn’t suit her personality. “I’m all for her trying new styles and pushing her boundaries. But these images don’t strike me as pretty or stylish,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese). 

There were also a number of social media users who opined that the bigger issue here was the existence of For Him magazine in the year of 2021, when feminism is having a moment on the Chinese internet and objectification of women is being called out more often than ever. Many questioned why female celebrities were still asked to pose in various states of undress for men’s magazines, saying that Li’s photo shoot was a reminder that no matter how far a woman comes — even if she’s a noted feminist — there’s always someone waiting to convince her to undress for the cameras. “I’m completely done with For Him at this point. It’s beyond disgusting,” a Weibo user wrote.

Li has yet to address the backlash.