As I watched the women on stage dance to the upbeat song while kicking their heels into a cartwheel, I thought, has female empowerment progressed in China? Or has it left a bandaid over a gashing wound?
This past year, a reality TV show took China by storm. The show is roughly translated to “Older Sisters Braving Waves and Winds,” and it features thirty female celebrities, “older sisters,” over the age of thirty. In Chinese, “older sister” is a designated word, and culturally, calling someone an older sister shows veneration for her but also implies her older age. These sisters are to compete in a series of dancing and singing sequences, and through rigorous voting rounds and selection processes, five of them prevail to become a girl-group. The idea of the show imitates classic competitive reality TV shows in Asia, where girls, usually in their early twenties, compete to become the next up-and-coming girl-group.
The twist, of course, is that the contestants are not girls, they are women. Unlike the usual girl-group contestants who are blank slate dream chasers, these sisters are successful singers, dancers and actresses; some of them are also mothers and wives.
One of the sisters, Liu Yun, who is an actress, said in her introduction, “I’m an actress, and this past year, I renovated a house, organized a concert for my husband, and took care of my child.”
The show highlights the plethora of roles and responsibilities of women over thirty, but despite their predetermined labels, these sisters are starting anew as girl-group contestants. The metaphor in the title, “braving waves and winds,” is symbolic of the sisters’ fearlessness to drop everything in their lives and brace the new challenges ahead. In their initial interviews, many revealed that being in a girl-group has always been a dream, but they have never imagined that in their thirties, they would reignite a girlhood fantasy.
In typical girl-group reality TV shows, the audience revels at the drama between the girls.
Yes, she can dance and hit every beat perfectly, but she is such a bitch for not telling the other girls’ about rehearsal times; she’s sneakily getting ahead. H air pulling, name calling, tears-flying-off-the-corners-of-her-eyes crying, these are the characteristics associated with girl-group contestants.
Instead, the sisters are supportive of each other, and they seem to form genuine, ordinary people friendships. After a day of tiring rehearsals, the sisters are filmed gathering around a table of steaming hotpot, telling funny stories as one sister pulls out a ukulele to sing, and at the end of the night, a sister would usually begin tearing up at how grateful and loved she feels for being amongst the sisters.
It’s impossible not to be enchanted by the sisters’ uplifting spirit and jovial competition. Sometimes they are defiant in a way that only seems possible for an older sister: she is no longer apologetic of her talents, and she commands the room in a fashion that is calm but assuring, while exerting her unique personal style. They are strong, they are confident, they are warm, they are hardworking, and they are at ease with the professionalism and experience that comes with maturing as a woman. They have infinite possibilities, the show claims.
However, do these sisters portray the reality of female insecurity in China?
At the most surface level, the show addresses Chinese women’s insecurities of age. In a society where it is taboo to ask for a woman’s age, these sisters proudly identify with the number marking their maturity but also the concerns associated with it. Wan Qian and Bai Bing reveal that there are less movie opportunities for older actresses, who can no longer play the lead female in a high school romcom. The cultural obsession over preserving women’s youthfulness led to few movies made about older women. Wang Feifei and Meng Jia used to be in a girl group, but since turning thirty, they have been labeled “washed-up” and “once upon a time.” Singer song-writer Yuan Yonglin is one of the few c-list celebrities on the show, and at thirty-four, is it too late to still pursue a music dream and wait for a shot to fame? Actress Jin Sha’s father wants her to start a family, but she is looking for Prince Charming at thirty-eight. These sisters continue to question their boundaries as women over thirty, and by singing and dancing on stage, they seem to defy the definitions set by their age and their previous roles.
This is female power, the state-owned media echoed, these are beautiful portrayals of women who can do anything, at any age.
Ironically, these women do not look their age at all. Perhaps a result of excessive plastic surgery or expensive skin care products; the sisters’ have masterful disguises of a twenty-something. However, these make-up heavy, permanently smiling, underweight figures have not always been the faces of female empowerment in China.
About eight years ago, the face of female empowerment was an independent female publication and social media account, Feminist Voices. In 2012, they had a large presence both online and advocating to universities and communities, while collaborating with female government officials on regulations related to gender equality. The group led provocative protests on the streets, and aimed to educate on sexual violence and gender discrimination.
The movement made splashes here and there, but only a few years later, the Chinese government cracked down on the social media account and the women behind it. Known as “The Feminist Five,” the key activists were arrested, and many more lost their jobs.
The reasons behind the censorship are unclear, but the timing coincides with Chairman Xi’s rise to presidency in 2013. Since then, many other movements on the internet have been thwarted, and activists are constantly at risk to unforeseen consequences.
Just as gender related movements began to wane in China, #MeToo started to spread across the rest of the world, drawing attention to sexual harrassment and discrimination. In “Thwarted at Home, Can China’s Feminists Rebuild a Movement Abroad?” published on China File, the #MeToo movement attracted considerable presence in China, where dozens of women stepped up to accuse professors, intellectuals, celebrities, activists, and Buddhist monks of sexual misconduct. On Weibo, a prominent Chinese social media platform, #MeToo accumulated 4.5 million clicks before it was taken down.
Soon, as expected, the movement began fading from the public eye as activists were silenced and keywords triggered immediate censorship. This time, it left behind social traction. Sexual assault claims continued at universities and workplaces, grassroot accounts sprouted under discreet names, and conversations surrounding gender equality continued. Opposition
persisted as well. “Nv quan zhu yi,” directly translated to “female rights ideals,” received negative political connotations and more commonly associated with “men-hating.” Despite these powerful challenges, in Shanghai, arguably the most socially progressive city in China, many artists and scholars are directing their creativity towards the fringes of the issue—cartoons of boobs, slogans with sex puns, images of girls with gigantic biceps.
Then came 2020, “the year of female television,” as claimed by the state-owned channel. This time, 30 women were presented as the fronts of the female movement. Almost immediately, attention flocked to the sisters. They are women who fit the traditional beauty standards, plus each of them have excelled in their professional fields. However, as public figures, they exist within the system controlled by government leadership, and comfortably bound by the expectations of Chinese society. The issues they address are trivial at best.
This is the cover up, the creation of an idealized image to divert attention to the non-threatening, controlled, docile social progress. From the beginning, Chinese women have been deceived by the facade of gender equality. At the onset of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, 90% of women were employed in the workforce when the government realized the economic potential of non-gendered career roles. Women under communist and Confucian influences were propagated as non-gendered pawns of the greater structure. However, beneath lies the real social discrepancies of men and women. Most tellingly, the preference of boys over girls, a manifestation of the patriarchal cultural values that still lingered to favor male dominance.
With the rise of consumerism in 1978 due to drastic economic reforms, images of feminized women were cherished as associations of modernization. To combat the renewed image of women, Confucian values of family and the essentialism of womanhood regained center-stage. More mothers stayed home to look after their children, more girls catered to the needs of their brothers, and more women forfeited careers for marriage. To this day, women face the pressure to be married to a man, as it is both an economic proposition of stability and a defining societal milestone in a woman’s life.
Writer Louisa Lim termed “The People’s Republic of Amnesia” to describe China’s rewriting of history post the Tiananmen Square massacre. Forgetting is a powerful authoritarian tool employed frequently by the Chinese government, and propaganda is the pacifier forcibly placed in the people’s mouths.
Today we see the sisters dancing on stage and we think: oh how brave of her. Today we see the female executive in a TV show and we think: women can do anything. Today we see the mother in the advertisement sending her child to the best university and we think: she must be so proud.
Today we choose to unsee, choose to ignore, choose to forget.