“Leftover” and less empowered women

Back in April, a documentary-style cosmetics advertisement centred on China’s “leftover women” went viral, inspiring a fierce online debate around single women and gender equality. The video, titled Marriage Market Makeover, highlighted the social pressures faced by so-called leftover women, or shengnu 剩女, a disparaging term widely used to describe women who remain unmarried in their late 20s.

Produced by P&G-owned Japanese cosmetics company SK-II, the four-minute film, which concludes with the hashtag for the brand’s “change destiny” global campaign, is an emotional appeal to young women stigmatized for being single.

While the issue of leftover women has generated much public debate in China, it has also enjoyed a high profile in the West, primarily due to the pioneering research of Leta Hong Fincher, a visiting sociology professor at Columbia University.

The “leftover” discourse is designed to pressure women into marrying to mitigate the effects of an ageing population and gender imbalance – there were 116 boys born for every 100 girls in China in 2014. Unmarried men are often viewed as a potentially destabilizing force in Chinese society.

China’s quest for modernity is increasingly tied to the development of a middle class society and much is expected of the middle classes as a force for stability and the engine for upgrading the Chinese economic model.

The family unit is an integral part of this narrative, as the ubiquity of happy middle class families in television shows and advertising demonstrates. Single women who choose not to marry are a challenge to this norm, transgressing traditional Confucian-derived ideas about continuing the family line and contemporary narratives about family life as the binding agent of aspirational modernity and national progress.

The impassioned reaction to the SK-II advert showed the real value in highlighting what is an increasingly pernicious narrative in contemporary society, even if it does come wrapped up in an attempt to sell more beauty products.

However, we need to recognize that this is just one of many ways in which the lives of many Chinese women continue to be conditioned by traditional values.

Indeed, deplorable as the “leftover” description is, the urban, educated, independent women that it refers to are relatively empowered. Many such women are professional, networked and confident in their life choices, and have used these qualities to reclaim or subvert the label.

Many women wear their single status with pride and positive representations of single life are slowly beginning to appear in commercial media and online. Ultimately, the reason a purveyor of beauty products that a small proportion of China’s population can actually afford is targeting “leftover women” is because they have disposable income. But for all the buzz around issues of gender equality the SK-II advert created, it is important to acknowledge that it centres on a subset of women, primarily urban, middle class, heterosexual and Han.

Less amenable for appropriation into feel-good marketing campaigns, well intentioned or not, is the female suicide rate in the countryside, endemic domestic violence or the unprecedented gender imbalance caused by many instances of decades-long female infanticide and sex-selective abortions.

Lacking disposable income and chastised for being “uncivilized”, female migrant workers face precarious working conditions and widespread abuse. The disabled, lesbian and transwomen, and the large number of women living with HIV, face discrimination and extreme vulnerabilities.

The most marginal women in Chinese society are virtually invisible in mainstream online debates and media representations. Their stories tend not to go viral on social media. More amenable to viral success is the recent proliferation of “body challenges” focusing on the female form as an object of desire and aesthetic pleasure and supporting a culture of body policing and body shaming.

This year has seen Chinese women posing online for the “A4 challenge”, in which they prove their waists are narrower than the width of a sheet of A4 paper. This was quickly followed by the “iPhone 6 knee challenge”, in which young women had to hide their legs behind the six-inch screen and then by the “100 yuan challenge”, for which women photographed themselves wrapping the note around their wrist.

The preoccupation with female looks focuses attention on women’s bodies as an object for male consumption, pleasure and control. It is no coincidence that SK-II is a beauty product. Good intentions aside, what is it really saying? “It’s OK to be single, but you should look good while you’re at it?”

Another, deeply cynical and misogynist view that is pervasive in Chinese society sees women’s physical attractiveness as an economic instrument – for work, sexual or otherwise, finding a husband or becoming a mistress.

While market forces in the form of media and advertising play a crucial role in propagating ideal types that women are expected to adhere to, this “soft control” is less physically cruel than controls imposed on women’s reproductive rights.

The pressure to continue the male family line, a pervasive obligation in the countryside, falls to women who must give birth to a male heir, and are ostracized by their in-laws if they don’t, or have to endure successive pregnancies and terminations until a boy is born.

The recent relaxation of population controls is a welcome development for gender equality. It is one of a number of recent steps forward for women’s rights.

A law on domestic violence has been strengthened; women have thrived as entrepreneurs; and feminist social media, blogs and reporting have led to growing awareness of gender inequality and discrimination, with champions from blogger Han Han to comedian and internet sensation Papi Jiang.

Women’s rights activists are tackling gender discrimination in employment recruitment as well as gender-based admission policies across universities in China. These groups have also initiated campaigns against sexual harassment in public places, with slogans like: “What I wear has nothing to do with you.”

Chinese women are not passive victims whose lives are a succession of unspeakable horrors visited upon them. Millions of Chinese women have seized educational, economic and social opportunities and are thriving in different ways, including many “leftover women”.

However, it will take more than a hashtag to “change the destiny” of women deprived of equality, fair treatment and dignity. The feel-good narrative is incomplete without the women who are striving to achieve these goals rather than sell more beauty products.

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