Translation by Wv of a detailed account of last month’s debate and ensuing campaign to cancel CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala, followed by the previously unpublished original in Chinese:《女权反春晚之舆论战盘点》(“A blow-by-blow account of the feminist war of words against the Spring Festival Gala”), by a writer using the pen-name Spacecraft (宇舸). As discussed in our interview with a friend of the Women’s Day Five, this debate was another key moment in China’s unfolding “gender war” that occasioned their arrests. A couple of the skits mentioned in the article are linked below for reference.
Update: On Tuesday, 20 police raided the Beijing offices of Yirenping, the NGO for which three of the Women’s Day Five worked, confiscating their computers and financial documents and temporarily detaining yet another NGO employee, in apparent retaliation for Yirenping’s prominent role in the campaign to release the prisoners (see Washington Post for details). Friends and associates are debating whether this affirms the analysis that the arrests were specifically targeted at feminism and the troubling of gender roles in China (exemplified in the Spring Gala debate recounted below), or on the contrary, that the primary aim was to destroy this prominent NGO as part of the Xi regime’s crackdown on civil society in general. (A problem with the latter position is that two of the five prisoners did not work for Yirenping.) In the future we hope to analyze this question, along with the ambiguous position of NGOs and “civil society” in providing spaces of dissent that regimes such as this find threatening at times, but also in redirecting social antagonisms in often recuperative ways.
At around six in the evening during Chinese New Year’s Eve, Lü Pin, director of the women’s media monitoring network “Feminist Voices” [女权之声], created a WeChat group for “Feminist Critique [吐槽)] of the Spring Festival Gala.” It rapidly attracted over 160 members, consisting mostly of gender allies and feminist activists, as well as onlookers interested in gender issues. During the night, feminists from all over the country expressed disappointment and anger at [Chinese Central Television’s annual] Spring Festival Gala [variety programme].
The language-related skits [in the Gala] were a disaster. The opening skit Happy Street [喜乐街] contrasted “goddesses” with “manly women” [女汉子]. Another skit called Little Cotton Coat [小棉袄] unabashedly mocked re-married women as “second-hand goods” , “married-off daughters are like poured away water” and so on. Netizen Anon-Guy-in-a-Acorn-Pile [埋在橡子堆里的a君] criticised Happy Street thusly: “Women are either goddesses or manly women. Patriarchy sets the standard for women and effortlessly lets women tear themselves apart to meet it”.
The morning of the first day of New Year, WeChat was flooded with reposts of two articles. One was “Feminist Voices Exclusive: Spring Festival Gala is a sexist disaster, and it’s not because of overthinking,” crafted overnight by Guangzhou-based NGO Women Awakening. The other was a question posed on Q&A site Zhihu by Lu Mou, a sociology PhD student at Cornell University: “Was CCTV Spring Festival Gala 2015 discriminatory against women and other groups? How do you evaluate it?” The former racked up over 250,000 views, while the latter prompted 738 replies and garnered over 7,000 follows.
Overnight, the use of discrimination and prejudice against women as comedy punchlines saw controversy explode online. At a tension-filled time such as the New Year that sees wandering souls return home for reunion, where people of different age groups, places and lifestyles come together and worldviews collide, for cheap laughs the gala shamelessly exploited the pressure to get married that older women already face from “mainstream society” (who gets to define what’s mainstream?). The target of their fury expanded beyond a lone TV programme to the brazen discrimination and smearing minority groups face from ‘mainstream society’ that the programme has come to represent.
Lü Xinyu, professor at Fudan University’s School of Journalism, wrote: “The bizarre thing about this year’s Spring Festival gala is the complete degeneracy of the sketches, its blatant disregard for our basic intelligence. Satire became brazen discrimination, unfunny punchlines, [段子不烈 ], no laughing points, no forgettable points, utter nonsense, a historic new low for the programme.” The professor pointed fingers directly at the government for not facing up to extant social tensions and problems, trying instead to exploit popular morality [底层人民道德] to preserve [拯救] class differentiation and social fragmentation.
Lü Pin’s WeChat group became the base camp for protesting Spring Festival Gala’s gender discriminatory content. Feminist Voices immediately decided to launch a protest campaign against the programme. They set up a new WeChat group called “Stop the Spring Festival Gala,” and one third of the members of the original group joined.
On the first day of New Year (19 February), Feminist Voices tabled a series of online and offline activities that included signature gathering and letter writing. At noon the next day, a petition signed by core members was released onto AskForm.cn to gather further signatures. Later at around eleven, the petition was then posted on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo “Feminist Voices” under the title “Spring Festival Gala is toxic, thousands jointly demand a stop to broadcast – against discrimination, speaking for the right to a free and diverse life”. Four hours after publication, over a thousand people signed. The same petition was also released on Feminist Voices’ WeChat feed and read over 30,000 times.
Less than 8 hours after publication, the WeChat friend circle was banned from visiting the AskForm page. An hour later, the petition on Sina Weibo was also removed. By this time, it had been reposted over 4,000 times, with over 3,000 responses. The letter said: “Behind the brazen discrimination of gender, region, body, lifestyle, etc. is the use of national “harmony” to erase the rights of people to live differently. It smugly shames not only women, singles, fat people, short people, southern people and disabled people but everyone, so long as one values independent thought and free choice.” The letter also raised two demands: “One, we demand the [producers of the] 2015 Spring Festival Gala to own up to its discriminatory content, issue a public apology, curb its negative effects and accept punishment; Two, we demand the termination of the gala, with its monopoly [on TV broadcasting during Spring Festival Eve]”.
On the opposite side, responses that considered feminists to be “overthinking” also attracted a following. Many commentators thought that the gala was mindless family entertainment, and that the feminists were “overthinking” it. In a post titled “Did Spring Festival Gala discriminate against women”, Tencent featured commentator Zhang Hailü wrote: “If one didn’t pay close attention to the post on Zhihu [Q&A site], a sufferer of “Straight Male Disease” [直男癌] like me could not see any problems with the programme. Neither did my friends and family. So, are the women I know used to being discriminated against in this way, or are the enquirer and respondents overreactive, making much ado about nothing?”
Columnist Hou Hongbin shot back on Tencent Dajia: “This gala is no ordinary entertainment, it disseminates and guides societal values …… It is representative of the mainstream values of a large segment of Chinese society. So, stop saying that this programme was ‘all in good fun, don’t take it too seriously’. The gala is not for ‘mindless entertainment’, the organisers would be very sad to hear that no one learned from it.”
A Beijing Times piece called the allegations of gender discrimination overblown: “As an ordinary viewer, I feel that the sceptics are making a mountain out of a molehill. If they weren’t emotionally delicate, weak-minded or overly sensitive, I would think they were targeting the gala on purpose and creating problems.” The author argued from the standpoint of artistic expression that “everyone has the right to be emotionally delicate, but if every group shouts boycott, I fear that there will be no way of creating artistic images, and works of art cannot exist”.
A post on Tencent Today titled “Please do not be too hard on feminism”, summarised viewpoints similar to those expressed by the Beijing Times piece, which is that many consider women to have received enough respect, that a segment of male netizens feel that Chinese feminists are not only hypersensitive but altogether loathsome, and that many Chinese feminists are “false feminists”1 in disguise. Responding to these accusations, the article considered the criticism unjust, the respect shown towards women superficial and that public opinion contains deep-seated prejudices, all of which is reflected in workplaces, leadership positions, domestic violence, the rise of ‘lady-training classes’ and many other areas.” Advocacy for the status of women must continue. Despite being a piece clarifying feminism, in the opinion poll that followed asking “How do you view the status of Chinese women?”, a regrettable 75% of 10,000 respondents continued to choose “They have enough respect”, whilst a mere 25% chose “still not enough respect”. However, people’s attitude appeared ambiguous when the hot topic words “Spring Festival Gala Discriminatory” were included. In another online poll conducted on Sina Weibo titled “Do you feel that the 2015 Spring Festival Gala discriminated against women?”, 30,000 users voted, with an overwhelming 85% choosing “Discriminatory, what a bummer for the New Year”. A mere 15% chose “It is meant to be fun, why so serious?”
In her article “Did the Spring Festival Gala discriminate against women?” Lü Pin wrote that “between exercising restraint and running out of patience [在这种厌烦与忍耐之间], the overly self-important Spring Festival Gala seems to have touched a raw nerve. Its ridicule of fat women, ‘manly women’ and singles cuts in every way. The discrimination on display caricatures and reminds us of those relatives and neighbours who would reprimand women for having too much self-esteem. We may not be able to rebel against our parents or offend friends and relatives, but at least we can rage against CCTV!”
There seems to be common agreement that the Spring Festival Gala did indeed discriminate against women. When it comes to the status of women in real life, however, people still felt that most feminists in China are calling for “fake feminism” – supporting gender equality on the surface, but in reality caring only to ”gain a leg up”, to “reap without sowing” and to “receive more rights without sharing responsibilities.”
This helps explain the popularity of a post on social networking site Douban titled, “You saw wrong. There are no feminists in China”. The article was the perfect clickbait, with a title that appeared to pander to the common accusations of “fake feminism”. Instead, it held up Sweden as an example to demonstrate the severity of gender discrimination in China. The feminist movement in China, according to the article, is not only not radical, there is also not enough of it.
Mainstream state media tried to salvage the situation. On 20 February, Youth.cn published the article “’It was ‘imperfection’ that saved the Spring Festival Gala”, writing that “imperfection does not equate to failure”. The article trivialised the controversy over the sketches, itemising problems from Andy Lau’s off-tune singing to the skits’ plagiarism, while entirely avoiding the issue of gender discrimination. The article even wrote that “a Spring Festival Gala without issue or heat is hard to imagine. Fortunately, the ‘imperfections’ of this year’s gala avoided criticisms of being dull and boring”.
Feminists could not take this lying down. Following suit, they did a blow-by-blow dissection of the programme, listing 44 cases of discrimination, each ranked by degree. Under the post published by Feminist Voices, “The Worst Offenders of Spring Festival Gala, Netizens release discrimination rankings”, netizens created a “2015 CCTV Spring Festival Gala Discrimination Rankings” appraising the sketches mired in the controversy: Happy Street, Little Cotton Coat, Chance Encounter at the Bus Stop and Great Son of China. Among them, Happy Street and Little Cotton Coat were rated “Off-the-charts toxic”.
As the controversy grew, foreign media too began to cover the protest. CNN reported on the matter in “Anger after China’s Lunar New Year Gala mocks ‘manly’ women” and Washington Post in “China’s feminists stand up against ‘misogynistic’ TV gala”. Washington Post’s piece began with: “If this year’s Oscars ceremony was marked by a rousing call for wage equality for women, a far more widely watched television show on the other side of the world sent out a very different message.”
22 February, a letter released by Feminist Voices “Submission to State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) to recommend terminating the broadcast of the CCTV Spring Festival Gala and other discriminatory programmes” was sent to the SAPPRFT by 18 viewers from 11 provinces in the country. The letter demanded that CCTV stop the broadcast, for gala director Ha Wen and CCTV station chief Hu Zhanfan to apologise for its discriminatory content, and for the government agency to accept public supervision, so as to tackle the problem of discriminatory and humiliating content in entertainment programmes in the country.
On the evening of 23 February, after the Feminist Voices post had been removed, “Breaking News”, a Sina News Centre account doing round-the-clock reportage of major global news covered the Spring Festival Gala protest. The account had a following of 38 million fans. On 25 February, the report was removed.
Special mention goes to China Daily’s rare statement in support of the feminists: “Unpopular as they may be, the naysayers have brought up a topic that should not be swept under the carpet in a country that calls itself civilised and which aspires to exert its soft power globally”.
Feminists continue to organise: “Women’s Film Festival” is planning to write a ‘manly women’-praising and feminist version of “Goddesses and Manly Women” featuring gender-empowering lyrics, to be performed live in women’s film collectives in all major cities on International Women’s Day (8 March). During the “Two Sessions” [annual meetings of the NPC and CPPCC], feminists will protest against sexual harassment and domestic violence.
This Spring Festival Gala took place at the end of the Year of the Horse, and the protests against gender discrimination protest began when it ended, on the first day of the Year of the Ram. It is time for hateful and unfunny gender discrimination to retire from history, and the feminist movement has opened a new page in this process. As Lü Pin declared, “The gender revolution is on the horizon. It has arrived not because of some artificial transgression [人为的攒越] but because there is no other choice.”
Two controversial skits mentioned above (Chinese only)
“Little Cotton Coat”: