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Sex & Love The unsubtle feminism in Subtle Asian Dating

Oct. 21, 2020
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It’s no secret that data-driven apps have taken the dating world by storm. Thanks to platforms like Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge, approximately 196 million users worldwide can now find their one true love or next one-night stand after just a few swipes and a couple dry conversations. But in a world where algorithms reign supreme and present more personalized recommendations than ever before, a unique and unpredictable way to enter relationships is on the rise. Enter: the Subtle Asian Dating (SAD) Facebook group. 

SAD, an offshoot of the wildly popular Subtle Asian Traits, was formed in fall 2018 when Hella Chen, a student at the University of Washington, noticed an increasing demand for a community of singles bound by a common culture. As of September 2020, the Facebook group has garnered over 600,000 members and inspired numerous localized iterations. For instance, I’m part of Unsubtle Syota Searching (USS)—”syota” being Filipino slang for significant other—and Subtle Atenean Dating, which caters to students from my university. 

Though the page is heavily saturated with memes that poke fun at dating disasters faced by diasporic young adults, SAD is mostly popular for its auction posts. Members advertise their single friends by posting a list of their pros and (pros disguised as) cons peppered with emojis and raunchy one-liners, along with a reel of candid shots. Internet users have noted the group’s striking similarity to marriage markets—matchmaking events popular in Beijing and Shanghai.

In China and a number of other Asian countries, marriage was once—and sometimes still is—viewed as a contract between two households for the purpose of procreation. First comes marriage, then the baby in a carriage, and love only becomes part of the equation if you’re favored by the forces of the universe. So it’s expected that parents slip into the role of the auctioneer and flock to public parks in the hopes of arranging dates for their children.

To attract the right kind of partner, parents create placards listing pertinent information about their kin, such as height, salary, educational background, and requirements for interested suitors. Much effort goes into presenting their child in a way that attracts enough positive attention—especially if it’s a daughter being auctioned off. In cultures that value filial piety, women are expected to submit to their families and refrain from overstepping any set boundaries.

SAD defies archaic societal expectations by liberating girls from their domineering elders. The group makes them the presiders of their own romantic endeavors, and permits them to choose who they like best from a wide variety of options. If a particular post stands out to them, they have the option of sliding into the person’s DMs to get to know them better. No need to flood his notifications and wait for him to get the hint! This levels the playing field for girls and guys who have the same goal at the end of the day: establishing human connection. 

Kayla Fung, a 23-year-old accountant, is no stranger to shooting her shot on Subtle Asian Dating, and thankfully her efforts led her to her current significant other. “I previously had a thing with someone else I met through SAD but it didn’t work out, so a month after ending things with that person, I began actively searching [the group] for a new partner,” she shares. “I reached out to two other people, but neither of them responded. Then one night, I came across [my boyfriend] Johnny’s post, and the rest was history. I felt so proud making the first move, because it’s always been seen as a ‘man’s job.’”

Should there be a shortage of men who meet their standards, women also have the option to auction themselves off in the hopes of attracting better prospects. They choose which personal details to disclose, which pictures to display, and ultimately how they are perceived by total strangers. Allowing oneself to be seen can be mortifying: 22-year-old art teacher El Tan says that she definitely had reservations, seeing as she had no social media presence besides LinkedIn. “To have the ability to frame yourself the way you would like it creates this huge shift in power dynamic. It basically says that I hold the power over my romantic future, not anyone else.”

Tan’s auction post features shots of her in stylish, provocative outfits that accentuate her best features—an act she deems groundbreaking in itself. “You’re able to display revealing photos of your body such as bikini pics. It normalizes the idea that women can show some skin, and wearing revealing clothing doesn’t make her floozy.” Once the post is approved and available for public consumption, all girls have to do is go through the list of men hitting them up in the DMs and see which ones are worth investing in.

Though we’ve collectively made great strides toward gender equality, the fact that what SAD offers women is considered revolutionary shows that total progress isn’t within our reach yet. Plus, some girls may still be hesitant to make the first move or ask for a better set of options. We don’t always come with the confidence needed to get the ball rolling. I personally don’t have it in me—not when I’ve been programmed to think I’m on the losing end if I’m the one who expresses overt interest.

Our ability to make decisions for ourselves has been a long-standing subject of debate: conservatives, elders, men, or a dangerous mix of all three have determined our access to fundamental human rights (such as suffrage and employment) and continue to control our bodies, personal preferences, and life choices on an individual and societal scale. Sadly, Asian traditions have only helped in perpetuating centuries-old sexist norms and preventing constructive dialogue from taking place. For instance, Northern India, China, and South Korea all have rigidly patrilineal kinship systems, which pass down productive assets through male descendants and prohibit women from receiving economic goods without being attached to a man. 

Sure, migrant families have become somewhat lenient in raising their kids. Kayla, a first-generation Chinese-American, says she wasn’t instilled with the belief that women are docile and submissive: “I was always taught to go after what I want, so I applied that to my love life as well.” But we still have a long way to go before all cultures reach a consensus and stop basing a woman’s worth on her ability to reel in a man and rear a child. 

Platforms like SAD can’t repair an issue as multi-layered as sexism, but one thing’s for sure: an online community that promotes these progressive ideals is a potential baby step toward the reforms we need. The autonomy SAD bestows upon young Asian women lets us chase after what brings us genuine satisfaction or joy and demand more if it fails to live up to our expectations. It’s an act of empowerment at its core—a subtle reminder that we now have a choice, and that for once in our lives, we are in control.