Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Last month I posted “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong”, and Siggy replied with a comment about Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’. This led to me thinking about whether or not Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’ applies to Jin Yong fiction. Since the answer is complex, I’m breaking this up into multiple posts. This post, obviously, is going to be about exploiting female characters for sexy looks.

As I said in the first post of what seems to becoming a series, most Jin Yong non-elderly female characters are described as being physically beautiful. If they are too young to be sexually mature, then they are phenomenally cute (which, to be fair, is not being exploited for sexy looks). In fact, it is remarkable when a non-elderly female character is not pretty because that is uncommon in Jin Yong stories. Off the top of my head, I think Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) is the most prominent non-pretty young female character in the Jin Yong stories.

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

By contrast, most young men in Jin Yong stories are described as being plain looking, and if they are described as being handsome, they are probably a villain. IIRC, the only male Jin Yong protagonist who is described as being handsome is Yang Guo (he is so handsome that he starts wearing a mask so that girls will stop falling in love with him as soon as they see his face).

Yang Guo is hiding his handsome face.

So … tons of pretty young women with few plain-looking women, and tons of plain-looking young men with a few handsome young men, mostly villains. I hope that the double standard here is so obvious that I do not have to explain it.

Did I mention that the plain-looking male protagonists of most Jin Yong stories have three or more pretty young women pining after him? (okay, to be fair, a few of them have only TWO pretty young women pining after him – for example, the male protagonist that Cheng Lingsu falls in love with has only two pretty women in love with him) (but hey that means that all Jin Yong stories have at least two female characters, which means they are automatically one third of the way to passing the very low bar set by the Bechdel test)

This is also a common problem in Anglophone geek pop culture. It can even be a problem in ‘feminist’ geek media. For example, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is often described as being ‘feminist’, yet some readers have critiqued it because most of the prominent female characters are gorgeous while most of the prominent male characters do not have handsome looks (the notable exceptions are Cordelia Naismith, Ivan Vorpatril, and in the most recent novel, Oliver Jole).

So far, I have only been talking about Jin Yong novels. When his stories are adapted to screen, his male protagonists experience a bout of adaptational attractiveness. The most notorious example of this is casting Hu Ge to play Guo Jing, a male protagonist who is repeatedly described in the novel as being plain looking.

In case you don’t know what Hu Ge looks like, here is a picture of him playing the allegedly non-handsome Guo Jing.

This, however, is also not particularly different from Anglophone media. I will say this in defence of the Jin Yong adaptations – in the only adaptation I saw with Cheng Lingsu, they did not cast a particularly pretty actress to play her (though, looking at photos of other adaptations, it seems that Cheng Lingsu can suffer from adaptational attractiveness).

What do I want? First of all, unless there is a good and specific reason not to have it, I want there to be gender parity for the level of physical attractiveness of male and female characters (i.e. I want it to be just as likely for a dude to be handsome as a lady to be beautiful).

Second, I want characters to have a diversity of appearances, including those which are not conventionally attractive. I like eye candy too, and I do not mind at all having *some* conventionally attractive characters, but I do not want it to go so far as to exclude everyone else. Only telling stories about conventionally attractive characters (and making all of your major female characters conventionally attractive) sends the message that people who are not conventionally attractive (including women who are not conventionally attractive) do not matter, and that’s not cool.


So far, I’ve been saying that Jin Yong stories are just like Anglophone geek pop media. This was the point at which I was going to start talking about how Jin Yong stories (and wuxia in general) are DIFFERENT from Anglophone geek pop media, until I decided to split this post into two parts. So, that will be discussed in Part 2!

7 thoughts on “Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2) | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Actually, Zhang Wuji is also very handsome. In the novel, he is described as looking like his late mother (who is beautiful and elegant). When he was born, the Golden Lion said that he would encounter a lot of problems if he looked like his mother, because he was gonna be too handsome. And the novel also mentioned him as a handsome young man several times.

    Of course, I dont think that he is as handsome as Yang Guo, though. Yang Guo is supposed to be insanely handsome :p

    IIRC, Linghu Chong is also not that plain-looking. The novel mentioned him being handsome, but only once *lol – the most handsome guy there is Lin Phingzi). Guo Jing is described as being ‘attractive’ once, but I dont remember the novel mentioning him as a handsome one.

    • Huh, I don’t remember those descriptions of Zhang Wuji. Interesting, if Zhang Wuji looks like his mother, than implies that he ~also~ looks like Zhu’er.

      • Yeah, that’s what I read in the translations on the internet. Regarding Zhu er, I dont remember her physical description. I only remember that she has similar characters as Susu. In term of physical appearence, her face was ugly and swollen because of the poison..and after the poison was out, it was full of slash wounds.

      • I suppose you don’t know what edition the translations are based on. I’ve only read the second edition of The Heaven Sword & Dragon Saber, and these are exactly the kinds of details Jin Yong sometimes changes between editions. Heck, he has even changed much bigger details (for example, in the first edition, Yang Guo is Qin Nanqin’s son, but Jin Yong decided to get rid of that character in the second edition, so he had to give Yang Guo a different mother, which puts Yang Guo in the interesting position of having two biological mothers). I’ve read that Guo Jing is much smarter in the first edition than the second or third editions and had even more girls falling in love with him, so maybe he was more good-looking in the first edition too.

      • Regarding Wuji’s looking like his Mom, I read the latest revision..but I read the same thing many years ago from a different source (which, too bad, I couldnt confirm from which revision that was).

        And you’re right regarding the differences between revisions. Another things that I noticed was Xiao Long Nu and Yang Guo became more ‘daring’ in the relationship. There were kiss(es?)in the newest revision, while there wasnt in the 1st one *sigh*.I guess that ROCH 2005 should follow the newest revision.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.