In May 2020, a policy proposal titled “On Prevention of the Feminization of Teenage Boys” from Si Zefu, a committee member of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, made news headlines. The proposal stated the committee member’s observation that “teenage boys in China are increasingly prone to developing a weak character, low self-esteem and timidity, which I call the ‘feminization of boys’. The feminization of boys will imperil the survival of the nation if not cured.” In January 2021, the Ministry of Education published a formal reply to Si’s proposal, where it suggested propping up physical education and mental health classes in schools as measures to “promote masculinity” among boys.
On May 31, the Politburo announced a landmark policy shift that allowed couples to have a third child, followed by various media campaigns encouraging women to take up the offer. These seemingly disconnected policy pronouncements point to an ominous current in changing societal norms in China, which would potentially have a strong effect in undermining women’s rights.
In the reply from the Ministry of Education, there is an unwarranted dichotomy between strength and femininity, while the ideals of able-bodiedness, confidence, and mental rectitude are exclusively associated with boyhood. This dichotomy has worrying implications when accompanied by an all-sweeping call to motherhood. As we expect women’s reproductive burden to increase in the three-child era, there is a substantial risk that this burden would negatively impact women’s participation in the formal economy. It is hard to see how this could be helped by the state media doubling down on a gendered narrative of physical and mental strength, which stipulates women as the weaker sex.
If either sex needs more physical education today, evidence says it should be girls. In a time of heightened climate risk, women and girls today have higher vulnerability to disasters and emergencies than men because of inequality in physical skill development. For example, researchers found in a 2015 study that women in the Philippines are far less likely than men to be able to swim, which explains the far higher female mortality rates in tsunamis. Likewise, among the 140,000 victims killed in Cyclone Gorky in Bangladesh in 1991, the female to male ratio was 14:1. In China, rural women are also found to have lower levels of disaster preparedness than men. According to a U.N. Women survey across four Chinese provinces in 2016, 80 percent of women surveyed were unaware of the disaster emergency plan in their location, compared to 75 percent of men.
In contemporary China, gender equality has become almost a non-issue, since Chinese women have indeed enjoyed a relatively high labor participation rate compared to other countries in the last few decades. However, more nuanced forms of discrimination have become entrenched in China’s education system, labor market practices, and socialized notions of female beauty. As manifested by the gender gap in swimming skills, globally, girls and boys do not have equal access to sports participation. China is no exception – parents are inclined to enroll their girls in “socially acceptable” sports, which tend to be less combative, confined to indoor spaces, and unlikely to involve mingling with or leading boys. Even some sports that fit this bill, such as swimming and skating, are sometimes viewed as ill-suited for girls, since an intensive training schedule in these sports would likely lead to building up bulky muscles, which many view as a negative trait for the female physique. Although there are no inferior sports, both the masculinization of sport as a concept and the segregation of sports by sex in practice are impediments to girls’ ability to develop qualities of leadership and resilience on the same level as boys.
Apart from separating the societal concepts of femininity and physical strength, the entrenchment of the broader association of intellectual fragility with women in our collective unconscious is equally, if not more, concerning. Among the myriad of TV shows and entertainment media produced in China, it is difficult to identify strong female characters who achieve socially recognized success on their own merit.
While the last decade of “prestige TV” in the West has churned out characters such as Birgitte Nyborg from “Borgen,” Daenerys Targaryen from “Game of Thrones,” and Annelise Keating from “How to Get Away with Murder,” Chinese screens are filled with female protagonists who mostly fit the mold characterized by the popular Chinese idiom “白幼瘦” – light-skinned, childlike, and lithe. Even the few purportedly groundbreaking high-achieving female characters cannot escape narrative arcs rooted in patriarchy: Wei Yingluo, the maid-turned-noble consort in the popular show “Story of the Yanxi Palace,” is celebrated as much for winning over the heart of the Emperor and defeating other women in her way as for her mental toughness. Xiao Chuo, an empress of the Liao Dynasty who led men to war and defined some of the nation’s most important political legacies, was portrayed in the recent series “The Legend of Xiao Chuo” mainly through the lens of her love interests. Despite some social media backlash against the underlying misogyny of these shows, they received stellar viewership.
In short, there is an aesthetic dogma of fragility that has gained tacit acceptance across the majority of the population and dictates how we imagine the female ideal. This is not because Chinese women are less powerful or resilient, but rather such qualities are rarely documented or celebrated in women. Strength is seen as a male prerogative in the mainstream media narrative, while capitalizing on women’s fragility has shown high returns in the form of audience ratings.
The social indoctrination of women as fragile has a darker side. It leads to a reluctance to acknowledge sexual harassment, assaults, and domestic violence for what they are. The more we celebrate the norms of shyness and docility in women, the more girls are encouraged to internalize the narrative that it is okay to accept sex when their hearts say no, or to tolerate gender-based violence on the grounds of intimacy. In 2013, the All-China Women’s Federation reported that a quarter of Chinese women are victims of domestic abuse at some point in their lives. Very few of these have spoken out – as when they do speak out, they often find themselves in a victim-shaming culture, which stipulates the very exhibition of rational desire and assertiveness – themselves dimensions of strength – as un-female.
The three-child policy risks further disempowerment of women if it gives currency to the essentialist narrative that domesticity and fragility are biological givens for women. The policy is unlikely to achieve its demographic objectives if it relies on paternalistic arguments to pressure women to return to the home. Rather, it is imperative to reform our education and labor systems in order to engender and substantiate the belief in more girls that they are strong enough to become successful working mothers.
To do this is not easy. In view of the current hiring norm in enterprises where discrimination against women with maternity plans goes largely unsanctioned, the introduction of a third-child quota would only exacerbate this practice if the status quo remains. All actors must work to change the institutions that perpetuate systemic discrimination against women, including but not limited to lacking social protection for women and SME employers during staff maternity leave, unfair labor market practices, false media narratives of heroines, and gender typing of sports in the school curriculum.
In the three-child era, China needs more, not less anti-fragile education for girls for women to succeed as mothers. We can only sell the idea of motherhood by empowering women, not disempowering them. It is time to shift the discourse on the female ideal toward strength. But first of all, we must build the enabling policy environment to allow such shifts.