The difference in this instance is that there was no commercial imperative to relegate the authentic singer to the background of the event. While not “right”, it was understandable that pop music sold to teenagers had to come in an attractive package that could be featured in magazines, included on fold-out posters and salivated over in video clips. Now we are witness to a scenario where it is in the “national interest” for the child performer of a song to be perfectly attractive.
If China could have found its own Nicky Webster, who was considered to have the right combination of voice and appearance for the Sydney opening ceremony, we’d not be commenting on the need for beauty to accompany talent in another area. We could also think of other examples relating to the Olympics to confirm that this is not a peculiarity of Chinese attitudes toward girls and women. Remember the Australian swimmer Petria Thomas and how her endorsements paled in comparison with “more attractive” athletes such as Susie O’Neill, who was admittedly more successful when they were competitors, and Samantha Riley.
The specifics of the choice of the “right” girl in Beijing make some telling points about how we think of girls. Reports suggest that initially a ten-year-old girl had been chosen to perform the song. She was ditched for being “too old”. Yet at seven, our real singer, Yang was evidently too young. One of the key reasons she was not deemed attractive enough to sing in person was because of her “uneven” teeth. Most children go through the same process whereby their baby teeth fall out and adult teeth grow through at an uneven rate until they settle several years later. China did not want a “cute” child with endearing uneven pearly whites, but a child who had the features almost of a woman (in terms of adult teeth), but was still supremely youthful in appearance. Like girlish porridge, ten was too old, seven too young, but nine was just right.
The girl chosen for her appearance also necessarily had feminine long hair in comparison with Yang’s shorter but practical (and cute) bob. Lin also seems to have more of a wide-eyed look which may not only be about a marker of innocence but privileging of a slightly western visual aesthetic.
Intriguingly, we’ve not had a boy fulfil the role of singer and representative of national identity at an Olympic opening ceremony in recent times from what I can recall (although a boy springs to mind for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006). Would we value a boy for the qualities of his voice alone? Is it only girls who must look good while they excel at singing and swimming?