Naomi Wu is a “maker” — a catch-all term for tech-focused tinkerers — who tackles projects that vary from glowing LED eyelashes to a “blinkini” top bedazzled with LCD screens that can turn transparent. Sparks fly as Wu talks tech sexism, online bigotry and gender equal engineering. Julia Hollingsworth writes for Sixth Tone.
Temper Magazine’s Trending segment casts a net upon all that is throwing tantrums within the world of China Fashion across a variety of global sources. This very necessary segment makes for a collection of largely non-Temper Magazine-original content dipping its toe into the deep indigo-dyed pool that is the ocean of Middle Kingdom fashionable astonishment.
This time around, we tune into Shenzhen-based “Sexy Cyborg” Naomi Wu as she discusses the double-edged sword of visibility, fine-tuning future robotics and harvesting both beauty and hostility in a world still predominantly owned by men. Julia Hollingsworth reports for Sixth Tone.
“For girls in tech, it’s very difficult for us to stand out. [My style is] a way of expressing my gender and a way to express what I’m doing.” Naomi Wu, Shenzhen maker
Faking It And Making It
With her ultra-short light-up miniskirt and 3-D-printed bikini top, 23-year-old Naomi Wu doesn’t look like your average tech guru. And that’s all part of the plan.
“Everyone wants a little bit of attention,” says Wu — also known as “SexyCyborg” — from her studio in the southern city of Shenzhen, China’s tech hub. “For girls in tech, it’s very difficult for us to stand out. [My style is] a way of expressing my gender and a way to express what I’m doing.”
Wu is a maker — a catch-all term for tech-focused tinkerers — who posts YouTube videos of herself tackling projects ranging from glowing LED eyelashes to a “blinkini” top with LCD screens that can turn transparent for a more NSFW look. She has over 44,000 followers on Twitter; her videos — some of which have over a million views — attract numerous comments on her appearance; and she’s been labeled the “goddess of geeks” and the “world’s sexiest hacker” by international media. In the future, she hopes to turn herself into a real cyborg by replacing some of her body parts with robotic limbs. “I don’t want to live a boring life,” she tells Sixth Tone.
But not everyone’s a fan of her style. Netizens have shared a conspiracy theory that there’s a man behind her magic — and last month, Dale Dougherty, founder of Make:, an influential magazine for the maker community, added his voice to the mix.
“I am questioning who she really is. Naomi is a persona, not a real person. She is several or many people,” he wrote in a since-deleted tweet to his almost 26,000 followers.
“A Chinese person would think that if you’re attractive, you can be lazy. A foreigner thinks if you’re attractive, you are incompetent.” Naomi Wu, Shenzhen maker
About Anger And Slander
Soon, techies from both sides were weighing in, mostly in support of Wu. “How amazing that we have Naomi Wu Truthers [because] she can’t possibly be capable of what she’s shown herself doing,” wrote one coder on Twitter. “Naomi Wu still facing pretty much endless garbage over being a woman doing tech stuff not conforming to male demands,” read another comment.
The online controversy prompted Dougherty to apologize in an open letter on the Makezine website, admitting he had failed to create an open and supportive community.
Nevertheless, Wu is still angry. “His slander is that I must have a white male helping me with stuff,” Wu says. “That sentence does not only denigrate my identity but also my country, China. It means China has no creativity at all; I must have help from some random white person.”
His comments stemmed from “bigotry,” she says, adding that they initially made people wary of working with her on projects.
To Wu, Dougherty’s remarks aren’t just a storm in a tea cup: They reflect serious gender issues in the maker community, which is still heavily male-dominated. Although in some ways, China’s tech field is ahead of the U.S.’s in terms of gender equality — with women holding 40 percent of the country’s science, technology, engineering, and math jobs compared with 25 percent in the U.S. — there is still progress to be made. According to the World Economic Forum, 85 percent of female Chinese science, engineering, and tech workers aspire to top management positions, but 47 percent feel a woman would never get promoted to such a role within their company, no matter how able or skilled she was.
Wu says there’s still a widely held belief that women are not as competent as men at tech. Her look is her brand in the maker community, but when it comes to her primary source of income — coding — Wu conceals her identity.
“Holy sh*t, think about it,” she exclaims, explaining why she’s not willing to risk revealing her gender when coding. “My appearance in the maker community already gets me in this position,” she says, referring to the controversy involving Dougherty. “I don’t want those things happening [to my coding business]. That’s how I pay my rent, how I pay for electricity, how I pay the bills.”
“I don’t feel I get enough respect compared to an international maker. It’s the most difficult thing to be female and Chinese.” Lit Liao, Shenzhen maker
About Cutting Both Ways
Even in the maker community, her visibility is a double-edged sword: It has gained her a lot of attention but has also made people question her abilities. “A Chinese person would think that if you’re attractive, you can be lazy,” Wu says. “A foreigner thinks if you’re attractive, you are incompetent.”
Fellow Shenzhen maker Lit Liao — who like Wu, prefers not to use her given Chinese name — founded a makerspace and now runs tech education business Litchee Lab. She’s also witnessed firsthand the hostility directed at women in the community. She has seen men being verbally aggressive toward women and says that many makers don’t take Chinese or female peers seriously — so being in both categories is especially challenging.
“I don’t feel I get enough respect compared to an international maker,” she tells Sixth Tone. “It’s the most difficult thing to be female and Chinese.”
One solution, says Liao, is to bring more women into the tech community; she tries to encourage girls to enter the field through her project-based maker classes, which she holds in cooperation with local schools. But it’s often difficult to convince the 8- to 18-year-old girls who participate that tech doesn’t have to be a “cold robotics project.”
“They think tech is a scary thing, and that’s a total misunderstanding,” she says. “You can use it to create a lot of beautiful things. I don’t want [this misconception] to stop talented girls from knowing about tech and feeling the power that tech brings to everyone.”
“Men and women are interested in different things. You have the option to choose what you’re interested in.” Guan Chunlin, Shenzhen maker
In its first few years, her makerspace had an unusually high proportion of female paying members — three out of a total of 10 to 15 — which Liao attributes to the space being run by a woman. Once it was taken over by male management, the number of female members quickly dropped to zero. “I think more girls in these communities can make a change, can make it more diverse,” she says. “I don’t want any more stories like me and Naomi.”
Yet not every female maker believes the community is rife with gender discrimination. Maker Faire Shenzhen operations director Monica Shen believes that while people should be more conscious of female makers in the city, her own festival has done a good job of representing women — even though the Shenzhen arm of the international makers festival copped criticism from Wu in regard to female representation. “I don’t really feel like gender is an issue,” Shen tells Sixth Tone. “I think making is really about sharing and collaborating.”
To come full-circuit, read the Wu interview right here on Sixth Tone!
This trending topic was originally written by Julia Hollingsworth for Sixth Tone 2017 All rights reserved
Additional editing and introduction by Elsbeth van Paridon for Temper Magazine
About Sixth Tone: There are five tones in Mandarin Chinese. When it comes to coverage of China, Sixth Tone believes there is room for other voices that go beyond buzzwords and headlines to tell the uncommon stories of common people. Through fresh takes on trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating contributions, Sixth Tone covers issues from the perspectives of those most intimately involved to highlight the nuances and complexities of today’s China.
Featured Image: Naomi Wu at the Bangkok Mini Maker Faire in Thailand, January 2017. Courtesy of Naomi Wu and Sixth Tone.
Images: Courtesy of Sixth Tone.
Temper Magazine does not own any of the above English content. All featured English content belongs to Julia Hollingsworth for Sixth Tone 2017. All rights reserved.