This week my social media feeds have been flooded with updates from White friends who have just discovered 美图绣绣 (mei3 tu2 xiu4 xiu4), or “meitu” as it is popularly known in the English-speaking world. Among Influencers and everyday users in Singapore, and in the vein of nationalist acronymic efficiency, the app is more commonly abbreviated as “mtxx”.
MeituXiuxiu has been a vital part of the Influencer ecology in Singapore since 2013, where the tasteful editing or “shopping” of selfies is neither shamed nor scorned but celebrated and rewarded. I have written about the monetizing of such selfie skills as a form of “subversive frivolity“. While mobile phone-editing apps are proliferate in Singapore, as is elsewhere in East Asia, MeituXiuxiu was one of the earliest players in the app industry with built-in single-button functions that “augmented” or “corrected” bodies according to dominant standards of Chinese beauty in the region.
Guided by context from my fieldwork among Influencers and their use of MeituXiuxiu, in this post I try to make sense of the recent uptake of MeituXiuxiu among English-speaking White folk. Screengrabs were taken from the Apple app store, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter on 19 January 2017, 1000-1030hrs, GMT+8.
Under the dominance of visual apps such as Instagram and Snapchat, today we usually think of filters as an overlay of designs that augment an original image. On Instagram, an image treated under a filter can be edited for exposure, saturation, colouration, focus, dimensions and the like. On Snapchat, the camera captures the focal points of a face – eyes, nose, mouth, chin – and filters are able to distort the proportions and dimensions of facial features alongside an overlay of designs.
Early MeituXiuxiu was a concise and precise photo-editor that enabled users to tweak the very minute details of their facial features and overall body image, from the arch of your eyebrow to your height. These augmentations were not perceived as camp, but were known as “beauty features” – minor edits that enhanced one’s overall appearance. While the description on the MeituXiuxiu app store lists five of its most popular features, among Influencers in Singapore the most popular features were
1) leg elongation, where users could literally stretch their legs with a pinch or flick on the screen;
2) eye brightening, where users could overlay a glint or gloss over their eyes for a dewy look;
3) eye enlargement, where users could widen the length of their eyes, darken and make rounder their corneas, introduce the illusion of double eye-lids;
4) retouching, where users could remove blemishes, smoothen their skin, and sharpen their chins; and
5) make up, where users could manually apply digital makeup on their bare faces.
When MeituXiuxiu was first launched, the default in-app language was Mandarin. In the Chinese-speaking market, it was among the most popular mobile photo-editing apps, and eventually inspired clones. Some off-shoots allowed users to produce collages, moving image posters a la gifs, or use filters that are reminiscent of neoprint machines that were popular in Japan and East Asia since the late 1990s.
(PS: I miss the sociality of neoprint machines. I remember these being a group bonding activity where a bunch of young people could sandwich ourselves between two drapes or inside a photobooth, let our guard down with the most hilarious and impossible poses, and then spend up to ten minutes choosing filters, pasting digital stickers, and writing text over our photos. I still have a box full of neoprint stickers and cards. Has any one written about neoprint machines as a historical predecessor to selfies? I would love to research this some day.)
While the press and popular media are now churning out a spate of articles on MeituXiuxiu, the sudden popularity of the app in the “White world” hasn’t yet been explained. Digital Trends reports that MeituXiuxiu is “just now crossing international borders” but does not say why, and Buzzfeed says the app is trending “for some reason”. The Independent.co reports that it is “taking over people’s phones and feeds”, but wrongly reports that it is the beauty retouch function that may have “led it to take off in popularity in recent days”. Perhaps the IBTimes is most on par with their reporting, attributing the cross-cultural popularity as “thanks to a new ‘hand-drawn’ feature introduced in a recent update”.
Indeed on 13 January 2017, MeituXiuxiu updated the app with a new “dreamy hand-drawn selfies” feature with six filters, thus gifting new users with the capability of using the app with much ease a la Instagram and Snapchat filters. This new feature enabled users who did not possess the cultural literacies and norms of the app’s dominant use to participate in the ecology. Social media posts from popular Influencers such as @AmazingPhil and @danisnotonfire (above) have also given MeituXiuxiu a boost among young users. Perhaps it is for this reason that the trending impression of MeituXiuxiu at present is one of ironic selfie production shrouded in self-mockery and misunderstood Asia exotica.
Intrigued by the sudden cross-cultural uptake of MeituXiuxiu, I collected the “Top posts” and “Most recent” posts under a variety of related hashtags. In English, #meitu had the highest number of posts at 111,425, followed by #meituxiuxiu with 2328, and #mtxx with 2280. In Mandarin, #美图 brought up 3652 posts and #美图绣绣 recorded 3323 posts.
As expected, #meitu featured more White users than on the other hashtags.
Users who know of the app’s original name use the hashtag #meituxiuxiu. There are more East Asians featured in this stream, and some selfie collages from other in-app features, apart from the trending “hand-drawn selfie” function.
In the Mandarin hashtags users are predominantly Chinese. The low number of posts in the app’s original language could be attributed to the fact that Instagram is blocked in China, which boasts the largest population of Chinese-speaking users on the platform.
While many Chinese-speaking users are also partaking in the “hand-drawn selfie” meme, a further scroll down will reveal the earlier and original uses of MeituXiuxiu as a photo-editor rather than an ironic selfie filter.
In Singapore, where MeituXiuxiu is more commonly known as #mtxx, users are also partaking in the “hand-drawn selfie” meme. However, a quick scroll to earlier posts show a wide array of in-app editing functions, where users augment their facial features and improve their scenery and landscape shots.
On Meitu Technology’s (parent company of MeituXiuxiu) corporate social media pages, the branding stream is still Business As Usual. Users are introduced to various photo-editor features and the Meitu 2 smartphone with functions tailored towards optimal photo-taking. Only Meitu Technology’s Twitter page has acknowledged the recent “hand-drawn selfie” virality with a shout-out to Buzzfeed for its coverage.
Most of Meitu’s photo app and smartphone branding features highly stylized images of beautiful scenery or photogenic people whose images can be enhanced with a combination of a good camera/smartphone and MeituXiuxiu literacies.
Sadly, despite its various functions and wide array of users within Chinese-speaking communities, Meitu is primarily known in English-language as a company “built on the selfie“, a “selfie app“, and “China’s selfie-editing app maker“. Such is press reportage at the confluence of selfie populism, Asian exotica, and headline clickbaiting.
Post-PPAP virality of September 2016, MeituXiuxiu is probably the next East Asian export to stir up viral interest in the English-speaking world. Like PPAP, press coverage on MeituXiuxiu is still shrouded in the language of exotica. I’ve previously written about cultural othering, norms and virality, and core and peripheries of East Asian virality in my analysis of PPAP here.
Not much has changed in the coverage of MeituXiuxiu. It has been touted as a “wonderfully weird world” and a “weird glamour shot selfie app“. One report even went so far as to put out that “The bizarre, pink-soaked realms of Chinese mobile app stores are strange, seemingly alien places“.
Despite being a Chinese product and primarily Chinese(-diasporic) cultural phenomenon, MeituXiuxiu is described in the language of Japanese culture, in the vein of “anime” and with the ability to “kawaii-fy“. And since lazy news reports are just tossing out any relevant East Asian vernacular they know, articles are ending with confusing punchlines as such: “The feature works much better on high-resolution photos, but presumably you already have plenty of senpai“.
How does one have plenty of senpai? A Japanese language colloquial term for upperclassmen, seniors, or a person one admires and respects?
That said, perhaps some of this exoticism is championed by the odd case of virality in which someone from very far away does something very odd and comes to be taken as representative of their entire “community”. 刘梓晨的唯一私人小号, or “snake boy” as he is more commonly known on the English-speaking internet, is a Chinese Influencer who is controversial for his badly photo-shopped images. If you’re interested, here are his Facebook page, coverage on his controversy in Singapore, and his group of photo-edited friends.
Older posts about MeituXiuxiu on Twitter give us an impression of the app’s uptake in Chinese-speaking contexts. These three are typical of the common criticisms or humourous anecdotes that I witnessed among everyday users as well.
In the first tweet, the user is calling out women who frequently take selfies, excessively edit them with MeituXiuxiu, and proclaim that their beauty is natural. The implicit cultural norm is that it is perfectly fine to edit your photos with MeituXiuxiu, but shameful if you deny your use of digital artifice and attempt to pass off edited photos as natural beauty. There is no shame in full disclosure.
In the second tweet, the user recounts a scene they had witnessed, in which a woman instructs her partner to take a photo of her and to hold the camera in an angle such that her legs will appear longer in the frame. She waits for some time as her partner makes a few unsuccessful attempts, after which he secretly uses the leg elongation feature on MeituXiuxiu to save himself the trouble. This captures the culture of “Instagram husbands” or women who make their male partners take #OOTDs (outfit of the day) photos of them in public places. It is often joked that these are elaborate processes dreaded by male partners because the women dish out several requests for the frame to capture something specific in the background, while highlighting her body in favourable light over several different poses. For instance, a common practice is for male partners to bend down or squat while capturing a photo from waist or knee height such that the woman photographed will appear taller.
In the third tweet, a user asks how Indian actresses can boast of large breasts, fair skin, and a good figure overall. A second user responds humorously that it is probably MeituXiuxiu at play/work. The message? Nobody is perfect. If they look perfect, they’ve probably been “shopped”.
I have been scrolling through public posts on MeituXiuxiu related hashtags on Instagram and Twitter all morning. One sentiment that has surfaced a few times and bothered me is when White users assume “Asians” who use the app are “trying to be more White”.
Firstly, the discourse of a Chinese cultural phenomenon as mere “Asian” obscures the diversity of Asia as a continent and population. To be fair, MeituXiuxiu is mostly popular among Chinese populations, even in multi-racial Singapore comprising Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians. Some of the app’s built-in single-button functions such as skin lightening promotes and celebrates a particular ideal of beauty over others.
Secondly, the association of “white” skin or fair skin as an Anglo-saxon cultural norm of Victorian historical precedent erases the rich cultural history of Asia in general. I once gave a talk to a group of people in Europe on how adult women Influencers perform visual cuteness by borrowing from cultural cues in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China. You can read the paper on Agentic Cuteness here. Even though I had contextualized the politics of fair skin in East Asia to historical precedents, a White person in the audience chastised me for poor research because I failed to make the link to the politics of white skin in the Victorian era. But you know, the English-speaking White world isn’t always the centre of everything. East Asians are not just pursuing fair skin to look more Caucasian.
Historically, in societies where outdoor work such as farming or crop planting was the norm, having fair skin is a mark of aristocracy, that one did not need to toil under the sun. And in societies where working in an air-conditioned office is the norm, having tanned skin is a mark of class and leisure, where one could afford the time and costs to pursue outdoor activities or just laze on the beach. This is an over-simplified illustration, but the point is skin tones may not always be about racial envy. In this instance it sits at the intersection of class and race privilege.
Anyway, back to the topic.
Despite these origins and normative uses of MeituXiuxiu, between the virality of the “hand-drawn selfie” feature and recent (anti-)populism of a certain Public Figure, these are the images taking over social media right now:
No comment except we need to stop Trump memes.
Chinese-speaking users with more cultural literacies on MeituXiuxiu are beginning to respond to the onslaught of White users.
One tweet laments and ponders how users who have been using the iPhone for over eight years have never installed and used MeituXiuxiu. Another tweet observes (and celebrates in exaggerated laughter) that the Chinese culture of MeituXiuxiu is diffusing into and taking over “the world”, so to speak.
But it seems that the recent uptake of MeituXiuxiu is not a simple cultural export. Not only is a very minute feature of the app receiving excessive attention such that the dominant and original uses of MeituXiuxiu are now lost in translation, the exotic franca propagated by the press over “yet another East Asian viral meme” sullies the cross-cultural enjoyment of internet play that would otherwise be appreciated and valued equally by all.
Special thanks to my friends Hongming, Jieying, Kailing, Vanessa, Yeekai, and Yiting for brainstorming context-specific translations of colloquial Mandarin with me. 我会复习我的华语！可是繁体字很难啊。