I noticed that not many heterosexual cisgender individuals have made their opinions on gender public. As a cisgender woman, I must admit that the concept of gender fluidity is a realm of experience that is very much separated from my own. However, I believe that all people should be respected and accepted regardless of their gender identities and sexualities. “There’s no point in being stubborn about this,” says Lunzhi. What do other cisgender individuals have to say about this? In this interview, I ask Lunzhi Shi, one of the models for the ‘Untitled’ project by Yiwen Zhang, which I wrote about in my previous article, about his experience as a cisgender male model for the photoshoot which discusses genderfluidity. I also explore his personal outlook on gender and gender norms in general which is a discourse that is deeply embedded within the genre of music which his metal band, Xanshi, performs.
As an audience, viewer, and one of the models of Yiwen’s ‘Untitled’ project, how would you describe the process and the concept behind it?
A: Yiwen was really professional, the project was very well done and very well thought-through, I think. She compared gender with water, as something that flows and existing in fluidity. She really tried to break free from the concepts of gender and norms as we traditionally think about them and practice them. At the end of the day, she imagines a social space in which we are allowed to choose what or who we want to be and one thing to note though, is that she is trying to be neutral and natural. She wishes to take away certain boundaries within a social construct that limit what people can do and how they wish to express themselves: breaking through a set of rules and constraints. It was more a middle-ground of neutrality and balance than trying to tear down one set of rules and replacing it with another. Just letting the water flow instead of freezing it again. Which is great. It’s a very open-minded way of thinking and I really respect her philosophy and motivation behind the project.
How did you approach the project as one of the models?
A: The way I thought about it was, well, I’m a straight Asian male haha but I found it easy for me to think neutrally, just being a blank canvas than being myself really.
That’s interesting because when you told me that you were going to do this photoshoot, I was expecting that you would be asked to ‘perform’ something that you are not, like being feminine and things like that. But that wasn’t the case, I guess?
A: Well there was a bit of that, I was wearing quite feminine clothing, but I was really comfortable with it. I was just helping out. I don’t mind. I still am who I am and I wasn’t too bothered by it. The concept of the project required us to reflect tropes of the opposite sex to represent the water-like fluidity of gender. With regards to that, I guess there was that trying to be feminine but that’s different from me acting like a woman.
What motivated you to contribute to this project, which explores genderfluidity, as a cisgender male?
A: Well when I was put in touch with Yiwen through a mutual friend, the role required a male model with long hair and it specified that the photoshoot was about genderfluidity. I thought now we’re talking! I wanted to show off my long hair really haha! Deep down though, my motivation stemmed from the fact that I simply wanted to try it out. That simple. I don’t mind experiencing things that I haven’t done before. Within the boundary of what I deem as acceptable of course. Just because I’m a heterosexual male model, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to engage in new experiences that involve the discussion of gender and sexuality. I am but a medium for her studies, vision, and her project. It wasn’t about who I am, it’s about presentation. I was just doing my job and it was rewarding! If you think about it, I’m participating in a project that can promote an important message to society and of course, you are amplifying it through your interviews.
Genderfluidity is not a debate that directly concerns you, right? Has this perspective changed with the project? You are free to say no, really. You were simply a medium, a model.
A: I think normal day to day life I guess it doesn’t because I’m not gender fluid. I’d say this is more about me learning and experimenting. It hasn’t changed what I believe in but I have more perspective and insight regarding this discourse of gender.
I’m curious what your views on gender, gender norms, and genderfluidity is. Please share with us!
A: Well I’m not always consciously engaged with it. I am more used to formulating things as being defined either or, as they are. It’s difficult for me to understand what it’s like being gender fluid or being non-binary, or what it’s like to struggle with gender identity. It’s just not a realm of experience that concerns me as a cisgender male. As someone who’s been brought up to think about gender as a binary and biological concept, it’s difficult to wrap my head around it. There’s no point in me trying to understand what that’s like and failing. However, people who struggle with their gender identities exist. People exist who feel lost in society because they don’t fit into the traditional categories of gender and sexuality. And whether people like it or not, we coexist in this society with them as a collective. I think this fact alone justifies why people should be open to learn about these debates, concerns, and opinions. There’s really no point being stubborn about this. I also think that the main focus should just simply be mutual respect and kindness.
Did you feel that the medium of photography was effective in addressing the topic of genderfluidity?
A: For sure. I think photography and videography, when done right, can have a huge impact on the audience. They resonate with the audience very well. There are different mediums that are more suitable for certain concepts and in this case of gender fluidity, it’s a lot about expression. It’s about expressing yourself and I think photography does just that. It captures your expression and fixes it in time. Like how certain leaders were good orators because they resonated with the audience, Yiwen’s photography works really well with gender fluidity. I am also a musician, right? And if I were to be asked to sing about gender fluidity then I don’t think that would be as effective. Photography captures a moment that conveys a subtle power that cannot be seen in many other mediums. It makes you appreciate that specific moment in time and how Yiwen visualized gender fluidity through photography was great, too. I don’t necessarily need to know why something is happening and or what is happening in photography to appreciate it and it’s great!
You said that if you were to talk about gender fluidity through music that would be odd.
A: Yeah, it just wouldn’t come out the same way, you know? (laughs)
Yeah, well that gives us a good segue into talking about your music then! Tell us about your band, Xanshi!
A: My current death metal band, Xanshi, formed during lockdown with two fellow mathematicians. Both incredibly talented and also charming friends. We are still at the song-writing stage and due to the lockdown, we can’t really jam together. It’s a pain in the ass. We’ve been working on our first demo and I’m in charge of mixing and mastering the track. Looking forward to that and we hope that after lockdown ends we can get some actual practice down. It would be great to play some original material and get more publicity. We are still at an early stage but progressive death metal is also one of the things we are considering.
What is so appealing about death metal?
A: It’s fast, heavy, it’s angry, it’s brutal. It’s the devil’s music. I get that not everyone enjoys this kind of music but I love it. We enjoy it. It’s good. Playing it is also a different experience from listening to it and it’s amazing.
I feel like there is a stereotype regarding death metal- that it’s a very masculine genre. What is your opinion on this?
A: I guess it’s because of how heavy and brutal it is that it’s often associated with masculinity. That is not to say that it’s incompatible with femininity or that it’s exclusive to the masculine. The metal community is incredibly diverse and accepting and we have female-fronted death metal bands that are hugely popular!
So it’s not even about whether it’s masculine or feminine, it’s just absolute chaos where it doesn’t matter haha!
A: I always separate music from social and political things- it doesn’t sit well with me.
Lunzhi provides a perspective on gender that is very rarely found on media platforms nowadays. He thinks that the problem is rather simple. We should all be kind and respectful to one another when it comes to self-expression. Everyone is entitled to have freedom in gender identity, sexuality, and individuality. This message is very well conveyed through his collaboration with the photojournalist Yiwen Zhang. An article on her project, ‘Untitled’, can be found on Mess Magazine.
Images: Courtesy of Yiwen Zhang (@evenzzzhang) and Lunzhi Shi (@extremophile014)