by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: China Airlines

IN THE PAST DAY, a debate has arisen about the China Airlines strike. In particular, given that the majority of striking workers are flight attendants, many are young, female, and considered attractive. Thus, some have deemed the protest, the “most fragrant protest” ever, apparently the “fragrance” (香) of the many female workers distinguishing the protest from stereotypically masculine and sweaty labor demonstrations.

Some have attempted to use the high amount of female participation in the protest to dismiss its seriousness as a labor demonstration on such grounds. Still others have claimed that heterosexual, male participants in the protest who are not part of China Airlines were baited in by the many female participants and in this way cast aspersions on their motivations for participating.

Much of this returns to sexist attitudes in Taiwanese society, particularly in the media regarding sexualization of women. Where activism and protest is concerned, this would also not be the first time the sexualization of female participants becomes highly problematic, or is used as a way to discredit protestors—suggesting that the apparently libidinal motivations of young people in protesting returns to the fact that young people are generally motivated by uncontrollable, youthful passions, with young women motivated by a desire to attract young men and young men motivated by a desire to attract young women. An example would be the controversy during the Sunflower Movement a CiTV television personality Peng Hua-Gan made lewd comments and gestures on a talk show regarding a picture of female protestor Johanne Liou and pointed to her as an example of the underlying sexual motivations of protestors, and then media later harping incessantly on Liou’s implication in a sex scandal in connection to her participating in the Sunflower Movement.

Such would be the vacuousness—and sexism—of Taiwan’s media culture. But this also points to broader attitudes in Taiwanese society in need of redress, regarding longstanding issues of social patriarchy. The controversy also raises issues concerning the unusually gendered nature of the profession of flight attendants—a strange holdover into the present from earlier eras in which patriarchal attitudes went much more unquestioned than in the present, regarding differences in uniforms between male and female workers, gendered stereotypes and fantasies regarding flight attendants, and the sexualization and fetishization of female uniforms. These are broader questions to think about reflecting upon the controversy and present labor demonstrations.