Catering to the male gaze, the misfortune suffered by women has become a metaphor for the unfortunate fate of the nation and its people in this epidemic.
— Qijiang Hou
Note from the Editors of unCoVer:
In the past three issues, we have been featuring personal narratives from individuals who are experiencing and affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. This issue will be somewhat different. For the first time, we are presenting you not a personal story but an opinion piece.
In this article, journalist and commentator Hou Qijiang analyzes how the mainstream media in China portray female medical workers in the current epidemic. In particular, she asks the following questions: How have women’s bodies been staged and misappropriated in the media coverage? How are they being used as a tool to direct public opinion? On the one hand, female medical workers’ physical traits and their “sacrifice” in the epidemic are highlighted. On the other hand, female workers are overlooked in terms of their needs, their professional values, and even their existence among the workforce. Analyzing the origin of gender discrimination in the media, Hou points out the inequality caused by the intersection between social status and gender, and the grand nationalist narrative that blurs the images of ordinary female workers.
On the evening of February 17th, a video spread throughout the Chinese Internet of female medical workers from Gansu province collectively having their heads shaved before departing to assist with COVID-19 treatment and containment efforts in Hubei province. In the video, 15 young female staff members sat under a spotlight, wearing masks, to have their heads shaved in order to “make work more convenient.” Many had reddened eyes and furrowed brows from holding back tears before their long locks fell to the ground.
In the media, they were called “the most beautiful warriors to go on undeterred by the dangers ahead.” Just a few days prior, a nine-months-pregnant medical worker and another who had recently suffered a miscarriage also went to the front line. The two were portrayed by the mainstream party newspaper as “heroines” who are “loyal to their posts,” aiming to evoke a touching and positive image.
Female medical workers make up the majority of the front lines.1 While women have become the protagonists in many media reports, the media narratives covering female medical workers are often patriarchal, and even sexually humiliating. The featured images of women as girlfriends and mothers cater to the male aesthetic. Meanwhile, the pressing reality of female medical workers not receiving proper physiological protection and care during this epidemic continues to be largely ignored.
The Misappropriation of the Female Body
Before the extreme event of head-shaving mentioned above, stories of female medical workers cutting off their hair had already been repeatedly told.
For example, in a January 31st news article by Chinanews.com2, 18 nurses from the Infection Division of Jianyang People’s Hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan province, cut their long hair for the convenience of work. The article described the women going home to have their hair cut by their husbands, and also emphasized that two of the young women had “no boyfriends yet.” In another piece on Chinanews.com3, a female nurse was reported to have postponed her engagement because of the epidemic, a decision which was supported by her boyfriend. Articles of a similar nature can also be found on other Chinese news sites.4
All of these articles pinpoint one theme: A woman’s sacrifice for work is a sacrifice of her appearance, which depreciates her value in the marriage market.
Negligence and absence from the family is also a popular theme in news articles about female workers fighting the virus. For example, in a video posted on January 28th by Chengdu Business Daily, the medical team from Guangyuan city were departing to assist in Wuhan. A husband shouted to his wife sitting by the window of the bus, “When you return home safely, I will cover all the housework for a year.” In the follow-up video, the female doctor shouted to her husband in response, “I will supervise your one year of housework after I get home.”
What lurks behind this conversation is the entrenched default rule in society: women should undertake all household chores. Doing housework, therefore, has become a husband’s reward to his wife.
Mothers are faced with a contradictory form of critique, as they are both criticized for neglecting maternal duties at home, yet celebrated for their loyalty to their work. For example, take guancha.cn’s story on February 12th5: a nurse at Wuhan Central Hospital named Huang Shan was going to be a mother. However, she unfortunately experienced a spontaneous miscarriage. Ten days later, she overcame the “pain of losing her baby,” wiped away her tears, “picked up her sword” and became an “epidemic warrior.”
In another article by cjn.cn, seven nursing mothers from the Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital in Jiangxia District took weaning medicine in order to make themselves more available to work at the front line.6 What’s particularly striking is that one nurse’s choice to wean received her entire family’s understanding and support. “After weaning, her breasts were often swollen, stiff, and painful. She had to wait until after her shift to take off the hazmat suit and go to the bathroom to empty the excess milk by hand. It was very tough for her.”
The deliberate focus and filter of the media cobbles together a group portrait of women working in the field during the epidemic. Their feminine traits are emphasized along with the gender-based violence and sacrifices they have experienced. The creators of these news articles fail to give proper attention to the women’s professional skills and qualifications. Instead, they focus on the women’s “body shape,” “looks,” “duty as a mother” and “duty as a wife.”
No matter how much it is the women’s initiative to work on the front line, the media never fails to mention that their efforts and sacrifices are approved by their boyfriends, husbands and family members. This dissolves women’s agency at the societal level and ignores their social value, merely defining them within the familial structure.
With head-shaving and haircuts, the accounts of breast and vaginal pain, and the bruising facial imprints from wearing masks, the female body has become an ideal place for men to construct mainstream values in public opinion. This, in turn, can powerfully stimulate viewers, bringing out the maximum level of sympathy. Catering to the male gaze, the misfortune suffered by women has become a metaphor for the unfortunate fate of the nation and its people in this epidemic.During this discourse, the value of women has been surreptitiously substituted: a citizen who contributes professional values settles into the second sex under the patriarchal framework.
During this discourse, the value of women has been surreptitiously substituted: a citizen who contributes professional values settles into the second sex under the patriarchal framework.
The Neglected Needs
Female medical workers are subject to discrimination due to possible infection, and they shoulder another layer of discrimination due to their gender. According to Liang Yu (梁钰) who initiated a campaign collecting and donating supplies for female medical workers, many women on the front line could only temporarily cover their menstrual bleeding with plastic wrap. Sanitary napkins were not available during times when protective equipment was scarce. Some had period blood on their hazmat suits, and some even had “a mixture of blood and urine.” When Liang informed the leadership at Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital (the first designated hospital to treat COVID-19 patients in Wuhan) that she had arranged for donations of sanitary napkins and other supplies, she was rejected as the leadership did not consider the supplies to be “important protective equipment.”
This neglect shows a stark contrast to the outcry from female medical workers at the front line. According to Liang Yu’s posts on Weibo (a Chinese social media app), two days after her donations were rejected she received messages asking for help from women working in the same hospital. She learned that there were about 1,300 female medical workers there. After checking donation records in other regions, she also found that menstrual pads were not included in the Command Center’s procurement list of essential materials. Therefore, the items were not eligible for the dedicated green channel for transportation, and could not reach the front line in time. By that time, it had been more than two months since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Organizations and individuals with decision-making power have also shown blatant ignorance, indifference, and inaction towards women’s needs. The gaps in mainstream media coverage have closely matched these levels of ignorance.
On February 14th, People’s Daily posted a message on Weibo regarding the China Women’s Development Foundation’s targeted procurement of menstrual pads.7 Only then, after countless women’s outcries, did menstrual pads receive justification as an item meeting the requirements for collection during the outbreak instead of an item for special needs.
Due to underlying gender bias, the media have long since reported daily news stories with inaccurate and distorted representations of reality. Before they rebroadcast an interview of a female nurse on January 18th, CCTV news specifically cut out the words, “I am on my period.”
One of the simplest and most straightforward reasons for the negligence and ignorance of women’s needs is the absence of female voices in decision-making positions. The glass ceiling for doctors still exists, and gender imbalance in the workplace has impacted the media representation of women. For example, on Wuhan Tongji Hospital’s official website, only two of the twelve party and administrative leaders currently in office are women. All of the nine party and administrative leaders in Hubei Provincial People’s Hospital are male.
Given that 90% of nurses are women, one has to admit that in the medical system, the power of discourse is tilted towards the “minority group” in the gender ratio – men.
Gender, Social Class and the Grand Nationalist Narrative
It is, however, unjust to attribute the neglect of women’s interests solely to gender bias in the media.
If we introduce the perspective of social class, it is easy to notice that the media has, to a certain extent, created division and hierarchy within women as a group. Elite women, including experts and leaders, have significantly more power and influence in media discourse than women of lower social status, and therefore have received more positive coverage. Prominent examples during this outbreak include Li Lanjuan, an academic with the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a member of the high-level expert group of the National Health Commission, and Sun Chunlan, a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and Vice Premier of the State Council.
On the other hand, middle-level doctors and nurses are rarely reported in a positive light for their professional value. As discussed, their purpose in the media is mostly to evoke empathy by presenting a measured sense of suffering.
There is one case worth taking a closer look at. On February 7th, people.cn detailed the stories of four female staff members working at two temporary specialized hospitals in Wuhan.8 In one of these articles, they were praised as “Iron Ladies” and “[r]oses blooming at the construction site”.9 Their actual work titles are: Team Leader in Epidemic Prevention, Steel Structure Expert, Material Coordination Manager, and Head of Kitchen Staff. The article also noted that 18 women have participated in the work since the project began. If we set aside the description of their family and children, this could count as a decent news article on female workers.
However, if you zoom out just a little to see the bigger picture, you will find that the working women at the lowest level are not even qualified to be a footnote amidst this whirlwind of “Chinese speed.” In the grand nationalist narrative, the tiny figure of a woman is easily dissolved into thin air. For example, a media photo from the Huoshenshan temporary hospital site shows that many female construction workers were ignored in the media coverage. The workers appeared unkempt and didn’t mind lying down at the construction site to rest, their gender attributes largely obscured by their work clothes and hard hats. If it weren’t for the #SeeingFemaleWorkers (#看见女性劳动者) social media campaign, the women would disappear from public sight with the completion of the hospital construction.
In fact, these unnamed female workers were indeed among those cobbled together at the last minute by subcontractors. In the construction industry chain, they comprise the bottom group with lower wages than their male counterparts. As people.cn “poignantly” pointed out in the article, “[t]here are more female construction workers on-site that we don’t know the names of.” They don’t deserve to have names.
From a historical perspective, it is not difficult to find that the Chinese media’s portrayal of working women has undergone a thorough rewrite under state capitalism. The media moved on from the early Party-centric theme, in which Chinese women preferred “to face the [gun]powder rather than to powder the face”.10 Most media outlets also have an aesthetic filter for consumerism. The media image of working women is immaculately impractical and pleasing. After these images were polished by capital and combined with the “achievements of a great nation,” they constituted the landscape unique to Chinese politics. The workers at the bottom of the social ladder who make a living through manual labor were abandoned right after being exploited, their narratives left blank.
The media selects women to be the object of propaganda to construct a grand narrative of nationwide resilience and soothe the widespread concern during this epidemic. If, however, an individual story brews imminent negativity in the news, female workers are then quickly objectified, dwarfed and exploited. On February 15th, a nurse by the name of Liu Fan from Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan died from COVID-19. While some spoke out on social media, suspecting that the infection was due to insufficient protective supplies, the hospital’s public relations director tried eagerly in an interview to shirk the hospital’s responsibilities. They claimed the nurse in question had voluntarily delayed her retirement, and the hospital did not arrange for her to be on the front line working at the consultation desk in the fever clinic. Instead, she was “just a nurse giving injections.”
The narratives of many women have been deliberately buried and ignored by mainstream media: the female farmers who suffered financial loss because they couldn’t sell groceries in virus-stricken areas; the women working on farms who were forced to kill livestock rather than have them starve to death due to lack of fodder; the female factory workers who could not return to work; the female workers in cleaning and housekeeping services; and the female workers who dealt with trash sorting, etc. These women only appeared in sporadic pleas for help on social media. They don’t even qualify to be misappropriated simply because they would jeopardize the image of a powerful nation.
During an epidemic, when a woman has been placed on an altar, how does she simply be a normal person? How does she fight for her basic rights? In ordinary times, taking one step forward would expose her to a conundrum where she is forced to keep moving forward with no turning back. In these special times, she would need to run or even fly to catch up with the expectations set for her.
She may be ready and willing to do so, but at the same time, she is also presented with no other choice.
1: According to the estimates of gongyi.ifeng.com, the charity website of Phoenix New Media, on February 14th, the number of female medical workers in Hubei province had exceeded 100,000, accounting for over 60% of the total workforce. According to China Women’s News, as of February 14th, a total of 217 medical teams were dispatched from across China, and 25,633 medical team members went to support Hubei. Among them were 14,000 nurses, 90% of whom were female.
2: Chinanews.com is the site of the China News Service, the second-largest state-owned news agency in China. This article is titled “18 Nurses in Jianyang, Sichuan, cut off their long hair in tears for convenience in the fight against the epidemic.” from http://www.chinanews.com/sh/2020/01-31/9074541.shtml
3: “Frontline female nurse’s shout-out to her boyfriend: let’s get engaged when I get back.” from http://www.shx.chinanews.com/news/2020/0213/77189.html
4: For example, “Cutting long hair for the fight against epidemic: will you marry me when my hair is back at waist length” from http://news.ycwb.com/2020-02/14/content_30580369.htm
5: guancha.cn is a Shanghai-based private online news media site that focuses on aggregating news and comments. This article is titled “10 Days after her miscarriage, a female nurse in her 20’s in Wuhan returned to the front line: those who insist on going back to war” from https://www.guancha.cn/politics/2020_02_12_535828.shtml
6: cjn.cn is the general interest news site local to Wuhan. This article is titled “Nursing mothers who weaned to fight against the epidemic stood outside the apartment building just to look at their babies” from http://m.cjrbapp.cjn.cn/p/158158.html
7: People’s Daily is an official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China that provides direct information on the policies and viewpoints of the Party.
8: Leishenshan Hospital and Huoshenshan Hospital are both temporary specialized hospitals modeled on Beijing’s Xiaotangshan Hospital, a facility built in just seven days during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Huoshenshan Hospital has a total construction area of 33,900 square meters with a capacity of 1,000 beds, and began admitting COVID-19 patients on February 3rd. Both hospitals were completed and delivered within eight days, and China being dubbed the “infrastructure maniac” went viral on the Internet.
9: This article appeared in people.cn, the website of People’s Daily. The article is titled “The Iron Ladies on the construction site of Huoshenshan Hospital” from http://society.people.com.cn/n1/2020/0207/c1008-31576217.html
10: This line was translated from a 1961 poem of Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao), the founder of the People’s Republic of China. The poem is titled “Militia Woman” and was written after he saw a photo of a female soldier holding a gun during her training. The line was later on quoted often to promote a more “manly” female figure in times of difficulty. Some might also find the frequent media mentions of this line coercive since it forms a general gender profile with no individuality.
This article first appeared in Initium Media (端傳媒), a digital media outlet headquartered in Hong Kong that provides news, opinions and lifestyle
content to Chinese-speaking readers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland
China and beyond. The original text has been edited. To view the original
text in Chinese, please click here.
About the Author
Qijiang Hou is a journalist and commentator.