During the “Make Fashion” event at the 2016 Shenzhen Maker Faire, a woman in the audience stole the show. She was neither one of the models strutting on stage, nor was she an invited speaker. Instead, nestled in the crowd of onlookers, she created a stage all her own. With hair tied into ponytails encircled by LEDs, large breasts embellished by a chain of LCD shatter glass, a mini-skirt, and black platform boots, she appeared like a fleshly manifestation of the hyper-sexualized machine-woman perfected for the male gaze: @RealSexyCyborg, also known as Naomi Wu. As she posed, a crowd of mostly men encircled her, gawking, grinning, and pointing their cameras her way.
Staring at the men as they stared at Wu, I could not help but wonder whether she had just masterfully pulled off a feminist intervention; by exaggerating what happened on stage, she made visible the sexism pervasive in engineering and tech circles: women relegated to the sidelines, their bodies objectified, their voices excluded, their abilities rendered less technical. Her intervention struck me as a parody of the events unfolding on the runway: women were allowed on stage, but they were not there to speak—a point made by Wu herself later. “In… 2016 there was a Maker Faire held here in my home city of Shenzhen. Not a single Chinese female Maker was invited. In order to protest this, and Maker Media’s ongoing exclusion problem in the most visible possible way, I built a ‘Blinkini,’” explained Wu. “While the wearable is risqué, a more low profile project would not have made an effective protest since it would simply have been ignored.”
What I had witnessed at the Faire was only the first in a series of performances Wu would broadcast using her Youtube channel and Twitter account. While both platforms are blocked in China, her broadcasts (made possible using a VPN) earned her a legion of devoted fans in the English-speaking internet. @RealSexyCyborg became known for calling out maker organizations for their exclusions. When the founder of Maker Media, Dale Dougherty, tweeted in 2017 that Naomi Wu was “a persona, and not a real person,” he provided fuel for her critique. Her followers revolted, and Dougherty officially apologized and featured Wu on a cover of Make: Magazine.
Still, it remains a question: why was @RealSexyCyborg able to grow such an influential and international following so quickly? Many of her English-speaking followers seem to have taken note of Wu because her countercultural, anti-establishment style of politics resonated with them. @RealSexyCyborg adopted conventional, countercultural ideals of resistance typically associated with the belligerent—and often male—countercultural hero. It is likely that this form of protest—familiar, legible, and appealing to Western audiences — is responsible for much of Wu’s success. Yet while @RealSexyCyborg gained notoriety and offered an important critique, many other women from Shenzhen fighting gendered and racialized exclusions in less sensational ways remain unseen. These women’s struggles with discrimination in Shenzhen’s thriving incubator spaces and hackerspaces are unseen exactly because these sites are celebrated as being democratized — as hubs of innovation and peer production. Or, they remain unseen because they perform the crucial emotional labor to make Western hackers, designers, and engineers feel at ease in their encounters with Chinese factory bosses and engineers. What if we noticed their labor and their struggles rather than attaching ourselves so readily to the already familiar figure of the countercultural hero?