Brand identities are complicated things made up of many interwoven components, one of which is their country of origin. A company’s nationality can bring with it very different connotations in different markets. The United Kingdom’s colonial past, for instance, may still affect consumers’ perceptions of British brands abroad in ways completely unanticipated by the modern Brit.
Contemporary culture can be just as influential. For example, the UK has become known by another name among young people in China: “The Rotten Kingdom” (腐国). The term derives from China’s self-described “rotten women” (腐女), who enjoy male homoeroticism as depicted in boy love (BL) manga and implied in Western films and TV series.
'Rotten women' often explore their fantasies in 'slash', a subgenre of fan fiction wherein writers realise gay relationships between their favourite male characters. Some commentators say the fascination comes from women feeling too guilty to identify with female characters’ enjoyment of sex. Others see it as women seizing the opportunity, free from the dominant patriarchal gaze, to express more fluid sexual interests and identities.
Several different cultural outputs have contributed to Britain’s rise as the Rotten Kingdom. One of the earliest examples was the androgynous styling of indie band The Libertines and its various imitators. One of the most successful British TV series of the last few years is Sherlock, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the detective and Martin Freeman as his assistant, Watson. A highlight of the show for some of China’s post-90s generation is the innuendo between the two male leads, and between Sherlock and his nemesis, Moriarty. This excitement has helped make Cumberbatch one of the most sought-after Brits in China. He recently starred in a “Sherlock-ish” ad for MG, a formerly British company now owned by China’s Nanjing Automotive Group.
Another British star that has become a prince of the Rotten Kingdom is actor Tom Hiddlestone. The villain in Marvel’s Thor franchise looks not unlike Cumberbatch: slim, pale and brooding. His appeal to 'rotten women' is exemplified by this Photoshopped ‘Thor: The Dark World’ poster that appeared outside some Shanghai cinemas.
Entertainers have long catered to queer audiences. Kylie Minogue and Madonna enjoyed huge gay followings, and mainstream TV series such as Game of Thrones and House of Cards have begun to include more gay relationships, which appeal to gay and straight viewers alike. Brands too, are increasingly including gay relationships in their communications, with Tiffany’s featuring a gay couple in a TV commercial and Nike releasing its rainbow-coloured Be True collection. When same-sex marriage became legal in Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s changed the name of its Chubby Hubby ice cream to Hubby Hubby.
In China, a subtle approach may be required. Though homosexuality is not particularly stigmatised here, LGBT rights are very limited, and, as the self-deprecating name implies, 'rotten women' occupy a fraught position here. While British author Virginia Wade was enjoying a moment with her cryptozoological erotica, Chinese authors described in an Anhui TV report as introverted and polite young women were being arrested for writing slash. Websites have been expunged of slash content or shut down by Chinese authorities.
Many post-80s and post-90s Chinese now strongly associate Britain with homoeroticism and queer lifestyles, and, even if a British brand or individual doesn’t feel like it’s relevant to them, it is one of the lenses through which many young Chinese are going to see them. That may present real opportunities for British companies savvy enough to engage in some fresh, rotten innuendo.
Carwyn Morris is research executive with Flamingo