18 May 2020
It has been over ten days without any cases of COVID-19 being reported, and over thirty-five days without a single locally transmitted case being confirmed. As the pandemic winds down, perhaps it is time to look back on the issues we have gone through, so as to contemplate their lessons and significance to us.
After the outbreak of COVID-19, Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC) established the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) on January 20th, and CECC has been holding a press conference every day since January 22nd till now. From then on, watching the press conference had gradually become a part of daily life for people living in Taiwan during the epidemic. The crew of CECC, led by Minister of Health and Welfare CHEN Shih-Chung (陳時中), replies to various kinds of questions during each press conference. One of the most widely discussed questions has been about “pink masks.” On April 12th, Chen was asked whether he and his colleagues had taken into consideration the colors of the masks distributed by CDC—parents were complaining about how they couldn’t choose the color of the masks they received. More specifically, when their children—especially boys—received pink masks from the government, they were reluctant to wear them to school because the pink color would get them teased by their peers. This question reveals how gender equality education in Taiwan still has a long way to go. Society has instilled an understanding of pink as a gendered cultural signifier into both children and parents—pink is considered so “feminine” that a boy should not wear anything pink.
On the following day, April 13th, Chen and the other four CECC members entered the venue and went onto the stage of the press conference, but they didn’t sit down immediately to begin reporting on the pandemic. Instead, they stood still so as to let the media take photos: the five male presenters all wore pink masks. As the press conference began, Chen first clarified that by wearing pink masks, they wanted to let children know that colors make no difference. Both boys and girls can wear pink masks. Chen also spoke of his childhood: “Pink is good. When I was a child, I liked Pink Panther. Pink was a very popular color during my childhood.”
What Chen and CECC members did was hugely lauded by the general public. On social media, people posted photos of themselves wearing pink clothes or masks and showing off their own “pink collections” (e.g., books with pink covers) to suggest that one does not have to be ashamed of wearing or using anything pink. People participating in this trend on social media recognized that if we look down on the color pink as feminine, we are reproducing gender stereotypes: we impose oppressive gender norms that encourage men to be “masculine” and women to be “feminine.” This negative judgment is problematic not only because we restrict “femininity” only to women, but also because the color pink is viewed in a derogatory light exactly because of its association with women under the sexism of a hierarchical opposition favoring “masculinity.” Although trends on social media rise and fall in the blink of an eye, and we can’t really assess the actual extent to which the actions of Chen and the other CECC members raised awareness of gender issues, the image of them wearing pink masks sets a good example of how to reply to such questions with a firm, politically correct standpoint.
Pink masks on the news remind me of my own childhood. Despite being a girl, I liked playing with boys when I was a child. For me, their games were more exciting, full of battles, balls, and competitions—that is, more “masculine.” Therefore, when I got a new Pikachu T-shirt that was pink, I hesitated to wear it. I thought it was too girlish, and my male playmates would mock me for being feminine, ironically notwithstanding the fact that I was indeed a girl and therefore should have “naturally” acted and dressed like a girl. That moment of hesitation from my childhood is still vivid to me now, and when the discussion about pink masks happened, I felt like it was a message from the present to the past, to the little Hsin-Hui, telling her, “Don’t be afraid. You should be proud of wearing that pink shirt. Uncle Chen and his team wear pink masks, and they’re winning the battle with the virus.”
I’m guessing that most of us wouldn’t have expected that the virus would teach us a lesson about gender. Despite the negative impact of a pandemic causing numerous deaths and suffering, economic recession and the breakdown of medical systems, we can apparently still learn something positive from the virus. In this case, we can learn to eliminate the rigid boundary that differentiates between men and women, blue and pink. Furthermore, since I am someone who has been delving into theoretical discourses in the ivory tower for such a long time, the issue of pink masks was a blunt challenge to me. One of my friends, who is not an academic, said to me: “Taking action means more than a thousand words. People can hardly understand those complex gender theories that you are always getting into, but what Chen has done will reach them directly.”
Hsin-Hui Lin is a Ph.D. student at the National Chengchi University Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature. Her research concerns the relationship between literary texts and ecological and technological humanities. Hsin-Hui’s MA thesis The Cyborg Reading of Contemporary Taiwanese Literature received the 2017 Annual MA Thesis Award of the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature. She once worked as editor at Unitas Literary, one of the major literary magazines in Taiwan. As a fiction writer, she has won several literary awards in Taiwan for her short stories. Her short story collection Human Glitches《瑕疵人型》was published in Chinese in June 2020.
The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.