Why Today’s Chinese TV Dramas Are Insulting to Women

Why Today’s Chinese TV Dramas Are Insulting to Women

What you need to know

Screenwriters are swapping complex characters for bland objects of male desire.

Recently, the TV drama “In the Name of the People” has drawn positive responses from viewers and critics alike. However, the show is not immune to criticism. In fact, the program’s depictions of women are much narrower than their fully formed, three-dimensional male counterparts.

In the show, female Party cadres are promoted because they sleep with their male superiors, while high-ranking female officials concentrate on their careers because they are unable to find a suitable man. The way that “In the Name of the People” denies women the respect and dignity they deserve lies in stark contrast to the breakthroughs it makes in other areas, such as its nuanced portrayal of official corruption.

Women weren’t always portrayed so simplistically on the air. If we look at the development of Chinese TV dramas over the past few decades, screenwriters have slowly moved away from depicting interesting, complex characters and toward the objectified, stereotypical women whom we see today.

Back in the spring of 1990, when I was just 10 years old, I remember watching the wildly popular “Ke Wang (渴望).” Set in an old “hutong” neighborhood in Beijing, the visually stunning show recounted the joys and sorrows of workers, intellectuals, and families during the early 1980s, a time when China had just started opening up to the world.

The lead character in “Ke Wang,” Liu Huifang (劉慧芳), became a spokesperson for traditional Chinese female virtues. This was important, given that the story was set relatively soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution, a period when traditional values had come under ferocious attack. The first time I saw her, I thought Liu had paid the price for her constant self-control and patience, as her story plunges her into destitution. But when I watched it again as an adult, I saw that her kindheartedness, empathy, and strong moral principles set her apart from other people during those rapidly changing times.

A few years later came “Beijinger in New York (北京人在紐約),” which portrayed the story of Wang Qiming (王啟明), a Chinese artist struggling to assimilate into American society. With every setback, Wang’s female boss, Ah Chun (阿春), teaches him how to fight for his ambitions. The two of them begin a romantic relationship, one that ebbs and flows along with the development of Wang’s career as a cunning, slippery businessman. In the end, Wang lives out his days apart from Ah Chun, who is seen as the Chinese embodiment of the so-called American spirit — a liberated, freewheeling character who nonetheless always feels an ocean away from Wang.

But toward the end of the 1990s, China’s stereotype-challenging female TV personalities were accompanied by a much more problematic stock character: the mistress. Characters like Wang Chun (王純) in 1999’s “Holding Hands (牽手),” Jian Jia (簡佳) in 2006’s “An Era of New Marriage (新結婚時代),” and Li Tianjiao in 2006’s “Golden Wedding (金婚風雨情)” all unwittingly act as the mistresses of married men, even if each relationship is still founded on love, and the women are not overtly objectified.

The change in style had already taken hold by the time “Dwelling Narrowness (蝸居)” was first broadcast in 2009. This drama directly addressed a hot social topic of the time by depicting the challenges experienced by Guo Haizao (郭海藻), a small-town girl who moves to the big city. Given the choice between material comfort and young love, she chooses the former, abandoning her first love to become the mistress of a government official. “Ode to Joy (歡樂頌),” which premiered last year, pushed the mistress theme to its extreme: Female love and companionship becomes transactional, a commodity to be possessed by frustrated men whose unfulfilled lives have caused them to lose touch with their ideals.

Dramas like today’s “In the Name of the People” do not portray women with even the most basic human respect. I believe there are two reasons why our standards have dropped so low.

First, even if modern China presents a multitude of opportunities for social mobility, an undercurrent of objectification runs through the way we judge individual people. Measurable criteria occupy an ever-greater position during this process; money, power, and appearance have become quantifiable, transactional capital, and only that which is useful or that which brings material benefit to oneself is valuable. Self-respect, independence, warmth, honor, and love are seen as lacking practical use and are thus marginalized in people’s value judgments.

Within this notion of value, Chinese men — who are more likely than women to occupy powerful positions, earn lots of money, and so on — tend to possess relatively more resources that they are able to “trade” with and “allocate” to others, naturally putting them in a superior position. Meanwhile, youth and physical appearance have become women’s only currency, and higher, subjective values are held in contempt by society at large. Sincerity or devotion to others is seen as silly and naive, and the only reliable way to make a life for oneself is to make cunning material demands of those around us.

Second, viewers’ relationships to what they watch on TV are changing. In the past, fewer dramas meant that the public was more aware of high-quality programming. At the same time, creativity was seen as a way to stay one step ahead of the competition, and TV shows reveled in their role as shapers of public opinion.

Current dramas, however, only seek to draw viewers away from the competition. Instead of trying something new, they pander to what the public thinks makes for “good TV.” Producers are more concerned with making sure the story takes people on an emotional roller coaster, and they ignore the fact that outstanding works of art should strive toward more complex portrayals of the human condition, especially when it comes to women.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

Editor: Olivia Yang