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China's "leftover women" and the left-out system

Can a skin brand “change your destiny” in a socially empowering way? A video titled ‘Marriage Market Takeover’ seems to have done a good job, but not without an underlying agenda. 

Cosmetic company’s advertisement video “Marriage Market Takeover”. Source: bbc.com

On 8 April, 2016, various social media beyond and behind China’s Great Fire Wall witnessed a wave of circulation of a video titled “Marriage Market Takeover”. It is a well-made documentary. With dark green coloured background, the whole narrative seems heavy-toned but sincere at heart. A young woman shares the pressure from her parents who keep pushing her to marry (‘I won’t die in peace unless you’re married’), and eventually, the well-known catchphrase: “you are a leftover woman”, despite the fact that she has a good career and a life that she enjoys. She shared with the audience all sorts of pressures she received, and eventually broke into tears with a moving statement “maybe I am being selfish, I want to say sorry to them [parents].” In the end, she eventually went to the marriage market, and her parents, showing understanding and support, nodded in tears, “our daughter is beautiful.”

This video is part of the “Change Destiny” campaign produced by high-end Japanese cosmetic company SK-II, which has a large market in China targeting well-off women, and is made by Swedish advertising company Strobel. It tells of the struggles and pressures of China’s “leftover women”, a social group that has received increasing attention internationally as well as domestically as an increasing number of highly educated - yet single! - urban female professionals pose a challenge to the social structure, the imbalanced urban development and sex ratio, and the “harmonious society” that the government has been advocating since the last leadership - with a particular  focus on birth control policy as a fundamental part of the economic reform.

Protagonist crying in the video. Source: bbc.com

“Heartbreaking”, “emotional”, “empowering”, “a skin brand bravely stood up for them”, “heart-wrenching”… Titles that spoke positively of this video appeared in major media reports including the BBC and The Washington Post. The following week this video went viral among netizens and was also widely reviewed by scholars of gender and Chinese studies. Female viewers who are in a similar position as portrayed in the video, including those from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia, shared this video online with great enthusiasm, commenting that it speaks directly to them too and they were touched and encouraged by the honest portrait of the reality for many single women in big cities.

Video narrative. Source: bbc.com

As the video narrates, “sheng nv” 剩女, which literally meansleftover women, refers to those who are over 25 and still aren’t married yet. And the age 25 is a largely accepted age upon which women are considered to have reached maturity and begun to decline in their biological compositions (and in particular, fertility in many Asian countries, hence there is a social consensus that women should marry and give birth before that. Indeed, women as such often are often a subject that people talk about among neighbours, relatives, and social relations… People might wonder what’s wrong with those single women, and would even consider their single lifestyle in some sense wrong, as it does not accord with the family-valuing tradition and the family-centered social structure. More importantly, as the government is campaigning for citizens with “better quality” (素質), well educated women share the responsibility to reproduce better citizens with the right men. Hence, being single over 25 in China is not only a personal or familial issue, but also social, moral, economic, and political as well. On this issue, Leta Hong Fincher’s book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014) most famously details a series of measures ranging from a media campaign to legal setbacks, all of which are ultimately aimed at deterring college-educated women from putting off marriage and family. By doing so, the Communist Party hopes to maintain social stability — weiwen — and raising the quality (suzhi) of its population. The prevalence of expressions such as “leftover women” in public discourses are not only demoralising, but also makes one wonder about their long-term damaging effects to Chinese women’s self-esteem and the country’s gender equality. 

Start your own journey of change… with facial essence?

Fincher, as the consultant for this video, commented that it is about single women labeled as 剩女(see above) finding a way to fight marriage pressure and celebrate their independence. However, as I was watching this highly praised video, I couldn’t ignore SK-II’s iconic red label that persists in every frame in the right corner, and couldn’t help but wonder: are women taking over the marriage market, or is a large cosmetic company taking over our perceptions and understandings of a social issue that has larger, deeper structural constitutions?

I was left curious as to how should a woman, then, change her destiny? As in the video the protagonist still ended up in the marriage market. So I went to SK-II website and searched for those magic keywords: #changedestiny. And the website tells me: Start your own journey to change, begin today: SKI-II facial essence. The website states: “the SK-II #ChangeDestiny campaign is inspired by the brand’s commitment to empowering women with the promise of ageless skin and the confidence to shape their best destiny.”

Femvertising: selling empowerment and equality?

Since last year, SKII has invited various celebrities around the world to talk about what it takes to be an independent woman. Their global Brand Ambassador, Cate Blanchett, launched the SK-II #ChangeDestiny campaign in New York City with the global premiere of the new short video, “#ChangeDestiny – Conversations with Cate Blanchett.” 

It’s not a new practice. As Nosheen Iqbal pointed out in her article for The Guardian, the advertising industry, once bent on selling us sex is now selling us its disgust with sexism. Dove’s decade-old Real Beauty campaign was then considered revolutionary for selling body moisturiser to all women. Later on, wising up to feminism “trending”, as it were, on social media, came cosmetic brand CoverGirl with #GirlsCan in February 2014. This campaign, said the company, was “about discovering, encouraging whatever it is that makes a girl take up the challenge; break those barriers and turn ‘can’t’ into ‘can’”. It was fronted, credibly, by Pink, Ellen DeGeneres and Janelle Monae. Which was almost enough to make you forget that CoverGirl spent 50 years telling young women “your personality needs layers, your face doesn’t”. However, the big success story of femvertising, and winner of shelves of awards, remains #LikeAGirl from Always, makers of maxi-pads and the like.

Part of the #ChangeDestiny campaign, actress Tang Wei. Source: sk-ii.com

There is a commercial drive to sell young women empowerment through individual brands or projects. Likely ones with catchy slogans that can take off on Twitter and ignore any boring analysis of gender inequality in favour of feeling good. The idea that confidence and self-belief is what the debate and struggle is missing is seductive: it encourages sisterly encouragement – likes, shares and stories told in 140 characters are easily digestible, and a soft way to get adolescents, in particular, hooked on the movement – and, of course, your brand. Furthermore, as both women presented in the video and those who are targeted viewers of this video, they are all consumers in for this brand and consumers caught up in a larger global market of capitalism. As British sociologist Zigman Bauman, author of Consuming Life, most famously pointed out, being individuals in the liquid society does not simply mean being good consumers, but also being competitive goods in the global market. 

“Blame yourself, not the system!”

More crucially, by asking women to take initiative to “make the change”, the responsibility falls onto women’s own shoulders, rather than the societal situations that they are situated within. It is true women should realise their own agency, however, as Cate Blanchette mentioned in her video, the kind of “change” depends where the woman is born, as there are different social constraints. In other words, this campaign’s own ambassador tacitly acknowledged the fact that this video presents the symptom of gender issues around the globe, such as the leftover women in China; at the same time, this campaign and this video do not provide us and those women with a truly empowering solution that does not merely tell a beatified story.

That is because many of these gender issues are structural; by placing the choice in individual women’s hands, videos as such evade the responsibility of the system which produces those symptoms. Societal differences behind those stories presented by SK-II are skillfully ignored. Women are encouraged to use the slogan “#changedestiny” and think that it is their attitude that can make the change, ignoring the need for systematic reform that could solve the disheartening issues faced by themselves and many other people who are not selected to be featured in those videos. (Not to mention other ethical dilemmas that SK II is one the companies that run tests on animals, which is an enduring debate concerning the unintended consequences for involving celebrities in activist campaigns.)

In all, it is definitely a much welcomed gesture from a cosmetic brand to show the independent spirit of morally-criticised single women (and any other misunderstood or marginalised groups of people who feel stressed by society) and to achieve the much needed reconciliation between different parts of society. However, we should always remember that this is not the priority of a commercial whose success relies on people’s affective response and ultimately, governmental support. The systematic responsibility to push forward structural changes should not be ignored, and that goes beyond consuming and sharing emotions.

About the author

Ting Guo received her PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh and has worked for the European Studies Centre, University of Oxford and the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University. She writes bilingually and is the feature editor for sobooks.tw and contributor for Los Angeles Review of Books. She can be reached at @tingguowrites and https://ting902.com/.


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