Last month, beauty brand SK-II released a powerful TV commercial about shèngnǚ (剩女), China’s 'leftover women'. Despite taking on an entrenched social norm, the ad went viral, receiving over 2 million views on YouTube and almost 3 million on Chinese video site Youku. (See the ad below, and Campaign's original coverage, China’s “leftover women” stand up to marriage pressure and #ChangeDestiny.)
Created by Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors, the ad begins with parents explaining why they think their daughters are still unmarried after age 25. They say things like “she’s stubborn”, “she’s too picky” and “she’s just average looking”, and describe their daughters’ ongoing single lives as an affront against them. One father tells his daughter “don’t be so cruel to me”, and the women themselves tearfully confess that they’re probably being selfish, disappointing and disrespectful toward their parents.
Having established the emotional stakes, the parents are taken to Shanghai’s People’s Square marriage market. There, instead of seeing the usual ads describing the age, height, salary and assets of single people, they encounter beautiful, dignified portraits of their daughters, along with quotes explaining why they haven’t yet married. For instance, because they’re waiting for true love. The parents see things from their daughters’ perspectives. Catharsis (and millions of audience clicks) achieved.
Months before SK-II launched its ad, we interviewed sex researcher Katrien Jacobs about the 'leftover women' phenomenon. She described it as an artificial construct: “I think it’s another desperate attempt at creating social harmony, based on the idea that domesticated women who breed children will help stabilise the nation-state.”
This perspective is supported by Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, who argues that as China as a nation rises, its female population is increasingly being knocked down, discouraged from trying out what are perceived by the government as "foreign lifestyles”. State-endorsed rhetoric including the concept of the leftover woman—when China actually has a large excess of males, or “leftover men”—hastens women to marry and reproduce despite marriage offering not only limited financial protection but limited physical protection.
Female employment in China has fallen sharply in the past two decades. Marital real estate now tends to revert to the husband after divorce, and there are still no meaningful laws protecting women from domestic violence or recognising rape within marriage. While the US gay-marriage ruling was widely celebrated by Chinese people online, five feminist activists were detained for over a month in the lead up to China’s Women’s Day holiday.
Nevertheless, Jacobs believes that in China “there is already a crack in the reactionary system of control, and sexuality cannot be engineered so easily. I think there is a feminist or feminine rebellion brewing right underneath the surface of official public culture, and this is not covered by state media.”
When “official” culture grows increasingly out of step with people’s beliefs and choices, brands have a huge opportunity to say things that individuals may feel too afraid or too alone to articulate. That’s where SK-II stepped in.
Of course, in China there are risks to such an approach. Shortly after receiving RMB12 million in funding, foul-mouthed internet celebrity Papi Jiang had all of her videos removed from Youku. TV shows exploring gay relationships, transgender identities and, in the case of The Empress, pushing the physical limits of push-up bras were all censored despite ample public demand.
Consequently, there are still large groups of Chinese people who are not being served or embraced by the national narrative. In some surveys, more than half of Chinese people interviewed identified themselves as diǎosī (屌絲), or losers—people lacking some combination of a house, car, savings, partner, or beneficial social networks. Given that they’re in the majority, essentially “a unique consumer group”, according to The Atlantic, it would seem that the market could find more ways to cater to such outcasts.
In contrast, the People’s Square marriage market, which features in the SK-II ad, is essentially materialist. The implicit goal is to secure a spot in the middle class by obtaining an apartment, a secondary income or a Shanghai hukou (regional ID), which grants access to public services. Fudan University’s Sun Peidon says this is partly a reaction to the older generation’s trauma of sudden downward mobility when the Chinese Communist Party seized property and sent educated people to the country.
“There was an unhinged quality just underneath the surface of the dating market,” Jacobs says. “I think it was caused by this huge materialistic fantasy projection that parents impose upon their offspring.”
Embracing the identify of a leftover woman or loser can be powerful and dangerous in several ways: it’s a rejection of state-defined success; it’s a critique of the availability of that success to many (maybe most) Chinese people; and it’s an expression of pessimism in a state whose legitimacy is contingent on popular optimism. State media have already come out against people celebrating themselves as diǎosī, and Xi Jinping continues to emphasise the importance of “positive energy”.
Given their social marginalisation, such groups are looking to popular culture to represent them. SK-II did so expertly.
|Sam Gaskin is cultural content editor at Flamingo Shanghai|