Sexual harassment, spinsters, and body shame -- all things China's most-watched show found hilarious.
- By Yiqin FuYiqin Fu is a regular contributor to FP's Tea Leaf Nation.
The world’s most-watched television show may be trying to broaden its appeal, but angering the female portion of its 690 million viewers probably isn’t what the directors had in mind. The Chinese New Year Gala, an annual variety show that this year aired on Feb. 18, featured four and a half hours of singing, dancing, and comedy acts. While not generally known for its quality or sophistication, the Gala has become a national tradition as families gather to celebrate the Lunar New Year, China’s biggest holiday. But amid increasing awareness of women’s issues in the country, this year’s production ignited online debate over what many saw as discriminatory and insensitive skits about “secondhand” and “leftover women,” as well as hints that female officials can get promoted by providing sexual favors.
Faced with a decline in ratings in recent years, Gala directors have sought to woo new viewers by incorporating youth-driven slang and topics, but their effort to do so this year went over like a lead balloon. Exhibit A: In one skit, a father was waiting to meet his daughter’s boyfriend for the first time, but also, it happened, was trying to pawn off an old coat at a thrift store. (A daughter who is good to her parents is known in one Chinese expression as a “thoughtful cotton coat.”) In a mix-up, the father mistook the thrift store employee for his future son-in-law. The employee proposed a price of around $5, declaring his offer fair because the object of discussion was “used” and “secondhand.” Later, when the father met the boyfriend, who the father thought was the thrift store employee, he said he intended to “donate” the coat (or was that his daughter?) to college students. Both jokes drew loud cheers and applause from the live in-studio audience. But web users were irate. In a widely shared Feb. 19 post on China’s massive microblogging platform, Weibo, one user wrote that the skit reinforced the notion that “women are the property of men,” sold by the father to the husband.
Then there’s the topic of sheng nu, or so-called “leftover women” who’ve missed the window for matrimony. Women in China face tremendous pressure to wed before age 27; but as Chinese women become more educated, they have tended to marry later, and sometimes not at all. The topic of marriage is especially sensitive during the New Year, when daughters visit their parents back home and often have to defend their love life (or lack thereof). That provided grist for another Gala skit, in which a woman in her late 20s complained to her brothers about not having a job or a boyfriend. The brothers called upon a model to help their beleaguered sister; the model and the daughter then did a dance called “the ‘manly lady’ and the ‘goddess,'” referring to Internet slang terms that describe an unladylike woman and a pretty woman, respectively. The model (“the goddess”) chanted, “I have big eyes, small lips, and a tall nose. I have thin arms and thin legs.” The “manly lady” responded with self-deprecating jokes about her own body and her lack of male suitors. To single women between the ages of 25 or 35, it felt an awful lot like they were the butt of the joke.
And then there’s corruption: long taboo, but given official blessing this year as a Gala topic amid a nation-wide anti-corruption campaign. In a particularly egregious skit, a female official instructed a subordinate in how to ingratiate herself to the new male boss. “Let me show you how I climbed my way up,” the woman said, pointing to a chart on her laptop detailing all her previous bosses’ penchants. “This boss liked fishing, so I dived into the water and put the bait on the fishhook. This boss liked to play mahjong, so I sacrificed my good tiles to let him win. This one liked me.” She paused and added, “Now you know how I got my position.” The insinuation was clear – that the woman had risen through the ranks by sleeping with her boss. Many believed that the skits stigmatized single women in their late 20s and reinforced a stereotype that female government and corporate leaders in China are more likely to climb the career ladder through sex. “The Gala shamelessly discriminated against and made fun of women,” one user wrote on Weibo. “Are the directors taking us back to imperial times when women had to bind their feet?”
Some defended the skits in language that feminists the world over might recognize. Netizens accused “overzealous feminists” of being too sensitive, too serious, or incapable of taking a joke. Others seemed perplexed at the online backlash. “Didn’t we all laugh when we were watching?” a Weibo user wrote of one skit. “The show’s creator didn’t mean to [offend women], but some chose to interpret the jokes as discriminatory.”
To be sure, the Gala has historically been something of an equal-opportunity offender. Past skits have repeatedly mocked people for their height, weight, looks, and regional accents. But in the past few years, numerous public debates both online and offline have questioned the place of women in Chinese society. Online outrage over this year’s gala partly reflects increasing public awareness of gender inequality in China. In November 2013, students at Beijing Foreign Studies University were forced to defend themselves when, to promote a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, they posted photos of themselves holding up messages such as, “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom.” NGOs such as Women’s Media Monitor Watch have gained a sizable following online, recently engaging issues like gender discrimination in college admissions in an October 2014 report.
Interest in women’s issues is increasing, but China has a long way to go to achieve gender parity. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Report, China ranks 87th worldwide in terms of gender equality, with a particularly poor performance on the Health and Survival Index due to its lopsided sex ratio. (Chinese officials have attributed the imbalance to “traditional preference for sons, the practice of arranging for sons to take care of elderly parents, and illegal sex-selective abortions.”) For advocates of gender equality, the online debate about the Gala’s gender stereotypes was at least a hopeful sign. “The fact that there is awareness and debate of this issue means that we are making progress,” one Weibo user wrote. Others urged for the discussion to translate into action. “[Gender inequality] is an enduring, entrenched problem society faces,” another wrote. “I hope the online debate doesn’t end here.”