Hoping gender equality would boost the nation’s economic revival, Mao declared that “women hold up half the sky” back in the 1950s. Propaganda art that followed depicted muscular women working alongside men in all kinds of professions, encouraging society to see them as equals. Today, a higher proportion of Chinese women occupy positions of professional power than in other, more developed, East Asian nations.
Yet in a traditionally Confucian society, women are also expected to be good wives, mothers and daughters. They face the difficult task of fulfilling the dual roles established by divergent cultural and political values. This is not only a challenge for individual women, but for Chinese media, whose characters rarely exhibit both professional competence and strong commitments to their partners and families.
In fact, the most common female archetypes either revert back to antiquated notions of beauty—women who are demure and delicate—or borrow from Western ideas of total independence and sexual liberation, as evidenced in Chinese imitations of Sex and the City. Neither approach deals with the more complex, negotiated identities of modern Chinese women.
Technology giants Baidu and Youku both came under fire for their sites’ International Women’s Day doodles this year, which landed heavily on the demure and delicate side of the ledger. Baidu featured a young girl on top of a music box, who, when wound up, transformed into a princess, while Youku showed a woman drinking tea in a rocking chair, nestled in a frame of flowers.
On the flip side, the immensely popular Tiny Times movie franchise, which is due to release its fourth episode this year, gives a spectacularly superficial account of Chinese career women. Beauties draped head to toe in designer clothing have affairs with handsome metrosexual men and engage in workplace conflicts with equally good-looking male bosses.
More promising is a new direction led by sports brands. This may be unsurprising to readers in the West, where the category has historically promoted female empowerment, as evidenced in Nike’s 1980s 'Be as tough as she is' ads. But in China, where there’s minimal support for athletics, it’s astounding to see sports communications leading this shift.
Initially sports brands continued to cast Chinese women in a feminine light. In Li Ning’s 2009 'Inner shine' campaign, women were shown as slim, peaceful and pristine. But in 2012, Nike broke away from these images with its ‘Be amazing’ campaign, which featured a sweaty, frazzled Ella, the singer from Taiwanese girl band S.H.E, after a workout. Nike was also one of the first brands in any category to address familial and societal pressures young girls commonly face in China, including a love/hate relationship with the mirror and pressure to conceal their curves.
Meanwhile, Adidas has been pushing its 'All in for #mygirls' message, which celebrates the sisterhood of sports. The campaign, which has run since 2013, hopes to encourage women to break personal bests through the support of their 姐妹 (sisters). While Adidas concentrates on the lifestyle and social bonding aspects of sports, its women’s campaigns still endeavour to break with feminine norms by, for instance, showing female traceurs running off course instead of running ‘properly’ on a defined track.
Outside of sports, however, few brands are celebrating female intelligence, creativity and effort, despite a number of excellent real-world role models: Chai Jing for her self-financed documentary Under the Dome, Cao Fei for her significant contribution to Chinese contemporary art, or Ma Jiajia as an inspirational post-90s entrepreneur who opened a sex shop after graduating.
So the question remains, when will advertisers catch up? Dove’s 'Real beauty' campaign has been around since 2004, but there’s only been one major adaptation for the China market—the 2013 'Real beauty sketches'. Car ads still put women outside the car or in the passenger seat, even though the number of female drivers has risen more than 11 times in the past 10 years, compared to just 7.4 times for men.
Returning to Mao, Scholars Tina Mai Chen and Harriet Evans argue that propaganda poster depictions of women were not as radically feminist as some have imagined. Those women’s hard, muscular bodies were merely clones of male bodies, and in images that showed women working side-by-side with men they were almost always put in a subordinate role. Perhaps contemporary media portrayals of women are not regressive, but neither are they progressive. That leaves real opportunities for brands that can find ways to resonate with the complex lived realities of contemporary Chinese women.
Cheryl Hung is senior research executive with Flamingo Shanghai