Virtue’s Raksha Murali, Chloe Fair and Huiwen Tow say a less radical, and more nuanced, inclusive and even creative approach to feminism in Asia has the potential to ignite more sustained change and unlock opportunities for brands to shape and lead the conversation on gender in culture.

Inside Culture by Virtue is a mini-series that puts a spotlight on the emerging forces that are disrupting today and shaping tomorrow, championing a diverse range of case studies and opinions across Asia – the rising epicentre of global culture.

Feminism took a big step forward this year as a result of the Barbie effect. Instead of fighting the patriarchy by proving they can be equal to men, women are embracing hyper-femininity, subverting stereotypes in boldly creative and playfully rebellious ways.

This seismic shift in the conversation is reflective of the general sentiment around feminism being heavily polarised, alienating many from this important cause – 72% say the feminist movement today is more polarised than ever. There is a deep desire amongst young people for a more inclusive feminist movement that is driven by collective participation and a future where one gender doesn’t lead over another.

55% of youth believe the future is genderless; 51% for all gender identities; 53% say the main goal of feminism is ensuring equal rights and liberties for women and men

In a region where the patriarchy is the institution, aggressive feminist groups have been historically sidelined, e.g. the 4Bs and Megalian movements in Korea are not recognised as champions of gender equality but are often labelled as “destroyers of families” or “female supremacists”. Counter-movements, in the form of very vocal, anti-feminist, pro-men's rights movements, e.g. New Man on Solidarity, tend to further polarise opinion and ultimately result in destructive conversations that regress the cause, instead of driving it forward.

Where progress has been made is when a less radical and more inclusive approach is adopted to drive gradual collective change via the following dimensions:

  1. Broadening the feminist definition to encompass a wider spectrum of gender
  2. Creating space for men to participate, engage and advocate
  3. Driving joyful progress through creativity, play and fun

A more nuanced, inclusive and even creative perspective on the feminist conversation in Asia can unlock relevant opportunities for brands to shape and lead the gender narrative, creating a more equitable and representative future for all.

Femininity beyond biological identity

Young people are defined by their rejection of labels and their burning passion for diversity. Their insatiable desire for self-expression, or even self-exploration, has led them to gravitate towards brands and communities that embrace and enable their multi-dimensional selves, expanding the construct of identity beyond the biological and towards personal values and beliefs.

This is evident in the mainstreaming of drag culture in Asia. The first international version of the much-acclaimed reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race debuted in Thailand in 2018, bringing drag queens and the transgender community out of nightclubs and red light districts, and onto primetime television.

Drag race Thailand ad; Troye Sivan next to Angele Anang; Natalia Pliacam

Since its inception, the Thai show has become a champion for body positivity. The winner of season one, Natalia Pliacam, was the franchise’s first plus-size winner.

It is also a platform to elevate non-stereotypical representations of femininity to the international stage. Season two’s winner, Angele Anang, featured in Troye Sivan’s music video “Got Me Started” in 2023.

Brands like Johnnie Walker are intentionally broadening their equity associations beyond legacy masculine cues and actively adopting more modern and progressive dimensions of femininity to unlock new audiences and position their brands in step with culture. Across Singapore and India, they have collaborated with drag queens and the transgender community to drive collective progress in culture across gender, music and art.

Image: In Singapore, hip-hop rapper Yung Raja collaborated with drag queen Salome Blaque to create Drag Hop, blending two genres to bring a new dimension to the hip-hop and drag scenes to shine a spotlight on inclusivity and self-expression; in India, Johnnie Walker worked with the Aravani Art Project, a public art collective created to bring the transgender community into the forefront of public consciousness, dedicating prime billboard spaces to an art showcase and a public discourse on gender and inclusivity

Creating space for men to influence and advocate

High-profile male celebrities are pushing the feminist agenda in South Korea and India, using their influence and clout to boldly champion the feminist cause.

From OG advocates like veteran actor Kwon Hae-Hyo, who has been a proud feminist for over 15 years, to up-and-coming boy band members like San from Ateez, who publicly showed support for Olympic gold medalist An San when she was brutally attacked online by anti-feminist groups, men in positions of power and influence are stepping up to challenge the patriarchy with their personal platforms in Korea. Stand-up comics in India, like Vir Das and Karunesh Talwar, channel their passion for the cause through their wit and intellect, pushing the gender narrative with a lighter touch through entertainment.

Image: Clockwise from top left: Kwon Hae-Hyo holding a quote that says, “I want a world where I can be myself rather than womanly or manly.”; San from Ateez showing support for Olympic medalist San; Karunesh Talwar’s viral video “Women's Safety in India” provides a satirical insight into the plight of a male feminist in India; comedian Vir Das in his Netflix special, “Losing It”, uses humour to draw the ideal of feminism to be not about competition between the genders but collaboration of society

The conversation on feminism can often get into men-hating territory, encouraging defensive reactions from all genders instead of inviting more people into the conversation and empowering them to drive change. Creating space for 50% of the other population to influence and advocate on behalf of the other 50% can only lead to a win-win outcome and a world with equal opportunity for all.

Cadbury’s remake of its iconic 1994 Kuch Khaas Hai ad is a prime example of making space for men to support and advocate the feminist cause. While the original ad featured a woman in the stands cheering for her man as he plays cricket on the pitch, the remake switches the gender roles, with the man in the stands supporting his female partner playing for an all-female cricket team.

Image: 1994 (left) and 2021 (right)

Creative soft power trumps loud angry protests

Creativity is the superpower of the next generation of changemakers. They believe creativity and curiosity drive progress and change. Despite the general pessimistic sentiment around the world, more than 60% believe positive change in society will come from people or citizens (“The state of youth APAC”, Vice Media Group 2023).

Beyond protesting on the streets, women all over Asia are flying the feminist flag in novel, boldly creative and playfully rebellious ways. Thai female rappers, like Silvy and Pyra, are flexing their feminist creative chops, challenging the status quo and reclaiming their voice with their bold lyrics and dynamic videos. @women_at_leisure is an Instagram account dedicated to documenting #AuratonkaAaram (women in comfort) in India in a cultural context where women are socially inhibited from resting or partaking in simple pleasures.

Image: Silvy’s song “XL” challenges the conventional body standards; Pyra wrote “Yellow Anthem” to challenge the fetishisation of Asian women through her dystopian-pop style

Image: @women_at_leisure

The world’s first Nike Style store opened in Hongdae, Seoul. Nike describes its Hongdae store as a “style studio that encourages customers to create their own unique style”, independent of gender divisions that could potentially limit their creations, liberating Korean women to assert their feminist identity with freeform creativity.

Driving change with the soft power of creativity and collective participation

The gender conversation is moving at different speeds across a diverse region like Asia. This requires a nuanced approach that harnesses soft power and collective participation over aggressive and confrontational tactics that alienate and exclude. This represents an untapped opportunity for brands that want to contribute to culture but are, rightfully, nervous about how, where or when they engage.

Instead of taking on issues where they have no credibility to drive sustained change or even have a point of view on, brands can further the gender conversation by tapping into the universal appeal of creativity, humanity and joy. Exploring the soft power of feminism could be a worthy starting point to drive change and create sustained impact.