Media is Using Women: Beijing Subway’s Media as an Embodiment of Persistent Discourses of Woman’s Value in Chinese Society

In a subway – the world’s busiest one, averaging 9.2786 million rides by passengers per day[1] – my attention is drawn by the posters displayed in the waiting area. I start comparing how men and women are portrayed in those posters. The first one that I spot on is a film advert for “I am not madame Bovary”[2]. A woman who is on the poster looks disappointed, seeking for help, she is portrayed in a way that her face looks dirty and her hair appears messy. I learn that this is a movie based on Liu Zhenyun’s novel[3] “I didn’t kill my husband”. The ironic novel tells a story of a woman pregnant with her second child. To avoid the fines for not adhering to China’s One Child Policy the main character  wants to divorce her husband and marry another man so that in the newly created family there was only this one baby registered. However, she finds out that her husband would marry another pregnant woman, too. The main character gets jealous and tries to convince a judge that he should declare the divorce a sham, this apparently does not work the way she plans it. The trailer of the movie introduces to this woman’s search for someone to kill her husband.


Poster advertising the film “Madam Bovary”. Taken in Beijing’s subway by A.R.

Although ironic and absurd, the movie reveals some deeply-rooted issues in a Chinese society. The One Child Policy has been enormously widely discussed within the nation and internationally. This movie invites to rethink real life experiences of the women behind the normative idealistic political ideas and programs. It also emphasizes the dead-ends that a woman faces when searching for help in this bureaucracy driven system which surrounds her.

The woman in a movie is represented as a woman with her story, with a strategic plan, a woman who is not afraid to confront her husband, a woman that is trying to prove something. Simultaneously, she appears to be desperate and left on her own. And she is a ‘bad girl’ who, in response to the ignorant behavior of the legal system representatives, is planning a murder, on the other hand. That is not a common way to represent Chinese women in movies.

Early Chinese films female characters lacked autonomous identity and were portrayed as sexual metaphors. Moreover, women characters were inferior to men in movies, the roles were very much gendered, and movies were full of various stereotypes about women[4]. Later on, during the Cultural Revolution, the gender-specific duties were taken away from female characters. Female identity was used as a tool to promote political ideas, to shape class consciousness, to strengthen dominant discourses. However, despite women appearing revolutionary in movies, the social norms regarding woman’s status in society didn’t change much. This is when feminist ideas started spreading across cinema industry. Women became more aware of how portraying woman as sexual objects or as de-gendered warriors contributes to maintaining gender bias within society. Unfortunately, Chinese Media faced many restrictions initiated by the Communist Party, and creating cinema production that would reshape views toward women in Chinese society became an uneasy task. Finally, not only did the communist party start understanding the value of films as an expressive form of artistic aspirations but at the same time, market forces started turning Chinese cinema into an industry governed by consumers’ demand. Soon, Chinese movie industry began following Western movie trends. There was no more room for societal issues to be solved through movies. In order to appeal to the Western audiences, Chinese movie industry invoked emphasized the beauty of Chinese woman as well as some cultural elements such as martial arts to make it more exotic.

No wonder Hollywood’s portrayal of Eastern women did not change much over time[5]. There are a lot of stereotypes that are reinforced within almost all movies depicting Asian women. Two most common ways to portray them is, first, something along the lines of mail-ordered Chinese bride; second, an emotionless warrior skilled in martial arts and who embodies the same male characteristics that so often are a tool of men to sustain oppression upon women.

Interestingly,  although the movie ” I am not madam Bovary” represents a woman with her unique story to tell and character traits to get familiar with, the poster in a subway tells another story. This might be due to the implicit theme that all these posters in the subway station create, or maybe due to the historically rooted image of a Chinese woman. Perhaps due both mentioned reasons this woman is not hard to see as cheap and miserable. Even when I asked my friend to tell me what this poster is about without telling him that I am interested in women’s representations in media, he explained to me that this is probably some bad (not bad as in quality, but rather as in morality) movie, since the lady in the picture looks of a bad reputation and madam Bowery is known for her bad reputation, too. I still don’t understand why an additional line is added to the original lines of the film title in this poster. When translated from Chinese, the first three lines are “I say: I am not madame Bovary”, and the last line would translate to something as “So, you say that?” – this brings a distrust towards the image of a woman character in the poster.


Poster depicting a few martial arts steps. Taken at Beijing’s subway by A.R.

Another poster that stands in contrast with this one is a poster about martial arts. A man is depicted in it. Strength, skillfulness, and self-confidence are what this poster’s story is.

If to compare the two following posters produced by the same promoting company, one will easily notice that the facial expression of a man is quite different than that of a woman. Man’s expression is wild, aggressive and even frightening in a way. Whereas woman’s face expresses rather positive emotions. It seems that her made up red lips being a center of the poster is the most emphasized elements. I guess the advert seeks to draw people’s attention through the sexual hints which are so pervasive in the latter.


How the same advert depicts men and women 2. Taken at Beijing’s subway by A.R.


How the same advert depicts men and women 1. Taken at Beijing’s subway by A.R.

Magazines, films, advertisements and similar forms of media do not only reflect the existing beliefs and social norms of a society. Media, through the representation of social actors, has the power to maintain prevailing discourses preventing the society’s learning  processes and slowing down the removal of rudimental beliefs, judgment and practices. An example of the pervasiveness of a discourse is Woman’s value discourse. If you look around you easily see how much attention is given as well as intended to be received by representing woman’s body as beautiful, sexually attractive and desirable. What story of a woman’s value do these posters tell?


Women’s representation (posture, naked body element, emphasis on the lips) in beauty products adverts. taken at Beijing’s subway by A.R.


Women’s representation (posture, naked bodies, emphasis on the lips) in beauty products adverts. taken at Beijing’s subway by A.R.


Women’s representation (posture, naked bodies, emphasis on the lips) in beauty products adverts. taken at Beijing’s subway by A.R.

Two posters bellow advertise a photo contest for children. Most of the adjectives describing “My Mommy” and ” My daddy” are same. However, there are two words that appear on ” My Daddy poster” and do not appear on “My Mommy” poster. These two words are “coach” and “strong”. And one adjective that appears only on “My Mommy” poster is “beautiful”.

Studies in representation seek to understand strategies and structural elements underpinning practices in which particular meanings are conveyed, communicated, created or reproduced. The constructionist approach in representation maintains that such thing as objective reality is non-existant – the only reality is the social reality which is perpetually being created. Stuart Hall argues that language systems (both linguistic and not) reproduce and sustain concepts and their systems that are a foundation for the social reality[6]. Therefore there can be no objective truth by which social processes in such society could be evaluated. Stuart Hall explains that what is acceptable and what is not as well as what is punishable and what is not are defined by the regime of truth which is a constituent part of a dominant discourse. In her work on interpretations of visual methodologies[7], Gillian Rose similarly argues that discourses reflected in visual materials in a society may reinforce certain ideologies and thus construct the knowledge base of a particular society. Many of the studies about discourses and what role they play in societal structures were inspired and informed by works[8] of Michel Foucault, famous French historian, philosopher and social theorist.


Advert on Children’s photography contest: words to describe ‘My daddy”. Beijing’s subway media, A.R.


Advert on Children’s photography contest: words to describe ‘My mommy”. Beijing’s subway media, A.R.

Representation of women as silent smiling beauties or exposing their bodies to emphasize their sexuality, I believe, is one of the elements that sustains a discourse allowing Chinese society to see women as inferior to men. Foreign and local press is full of articles reporting domestic violence[9] and sexual abuse[10] against women. It would be highly imprecise to claim that Chinese men alone should be blamed for such norms defining men’s and women’s relationships; it is rather the agency of representation, representational media forms as well as representational content that do not communicate newly proposed norms defining those relationships that are to be addressed. In not communicating a possibility to reshape those norms, media forms such as those images in subway or today’s film may hinder social changes.

However, with this number of NGOs, social initiatives, organizations and foundations – for instance, Women’s Rights Without Frontiers that aim to raise awareness about forced abortion in China, Media Watch Network that addresses stereotypes of Chinese women in media, The Center for Women’s Law Studies & Legal Services that assist women when they face misconduct related to their gender – how can this women’s value discourse stay so impregnable? With this incentive after the Fourth World Conference on Women in the local level and being an inseparable part of global development of Women’s rights[11] and with the rapidly growing accessibility of technology and information through websites, blogs and social networks, it is almost incomprehensible that it took China’s women two decades to finally see domestic violence being prohibited by law[12].

One possible explanation of it could be the inaptitude of social media and blogging produced by NGOs and other related bodies to influence decisions made at higher levels of governance. In their study of to what degree global participation through social media could influence action plans and agendas during and following global conferences[13], Tobias Denskus and Daniel E. Esser found that social media could not make any significant influence towards agendas set at global development meetings. They also explained that Global Development conferences can be seen as powerful ritual spaces with its certain discursive elements that regulate what and how should be said. Blog posts and social media messages, therefore, become symbols of democratic participation that never seriously affects how the works and ideas are organized within agenda or further on when implementing initiatives and programs. Likewise, although the Beijing conference generated plenty of discussions on Women’s right and was a momentous ground on which many NGOs and various activist societies were founded, their impact towards an action plan is scarce. Their work can also be seen as a combination of various rituals that, instead of re-shaping local and international agendas in unhesitatingly confronting policies that appear to sustain gender-divide, they rather define the power of those authorities. Using NGO websites and freelance blogs to communicate social issues is just another way of spreading ideas about development. After looking for any reference between international development blogging and formation of development policy processes, Tobias Denskus and Andrea S. Papan[14] concluded that such practices, despite their potential to upgrade learning within individuals and a society, are barely able to influence upper structures that create policies and execute legal actions against certain societal practices. Apparently, not only on the national level but internationally too, post-conference excitement, NGO-based and other sorts of initiatives, blogs are not potent enough to influence macro policy makers in China for rapid alterations in a system which tolerates existence of gender disadvantage.

Another way to explain the sluggishness of social change is through assessing the relationships among media, technology, NGOs and authorities. I have mentioned above that Chinese government started approving the artistic value of films just right before the industrialization of film production.  I also emphasized a couple of studies that presented how an image of Chinese women in Chinese and Western movies has not changed over time. Moreover, I shared photographies of some posters that I encountered in Beijing subway. Conventional forms of media such as images and films do not attract that much attention from the authorities like they did in the past. Their content is mostly shaped by market forces (unless they are used as a medium to raise awareness on particular topics intentionally). This probably due to new forms of communication and technology that created new spaces for transmission of contemporary ideas, for participation in dialogues among communities and  for learning about one‘s own role and rights in a society. Roisin Read, Bertrand Taithe and Roger Mac Ginty ask whether new technology applied to humanitarian sector plays any significant role in the emancipation of open, knowledge-based and politics-free dialogue[15]. They assent that data technology, in case they are neutralized and uninforedly accepted without questioning their ideological or theoretical grounds may reinforce existing power holders. However, they see data technology‘s potential through power shift from those who hold the information about the crisis to anyone who is willing to participate in the process. If such framework of power location is employed for assessing communication of women‘s issues in general and cases of violence against women in particular in China, the potential of technological communication tools is unmistakable. Although authorities are using technologies akin to just mentioned ones to limit access to the international knowledge base and certain subject-matter inside the country, Chinese twitter-like social networks[16] and super apps[17] are creating unprecedented spaces for sharing information, chunking it according to interests of groups in society, and concentrating ideas for collective action.

With the advent of new media and incomputable daily interactions, sharings of ideas and transfers of information clumps, whether they be personal stories, personal stories echoing development ideas or just development ideas on their own, it must have become exceedingly difficult for power holders to control or track this flow. Unsurprisingly, unwilling to lose control over society and with an apprehension of a possibility to become an object of criticism within such context, the authority actors get a stronger hold of more conventional mediums of communicating development ideas. Just in the dawn of the year 2016 an NGO, founded by country’s most prominent women’s rights advocate and activist Guo Jiangmei, was closed[18] due to the pressure from the authorities which have been lately observed to tighten restrictions on China’s civic society. Many other civic society activists have been detained in last few years for challenging established norms and thus perceived as enemies of governing bodies. NGOs and activist groups are inconvenient for the authorities as to building intellectual resources for development ideas that can later be backed by layers of society that do not normally hold the power and the knowledge. However, with the arrival of new media, an ‘online congress‘ of the former and the latter may have rampant consequences.


Seeing women as powerful and able. Retrieved from

The final insight into and the closure of this writing is the discussion of reciprocal relationship between conventional forms of media and the discourse which is advantageous to those who create social policies. Karin G. Wilkins describes how development sector is turning into an industry while neoliberal principles define development practices in the globalizing world[19]. When defined by neoliberal principles NGOs turn into companies that seek to attract more ‘customers‘. However, in China‘s development sphere, it is not the case. Women‘s NGOs that I encountered in this mini research seem to be focussed on the strategic and straightaway assistance to women and, instead of using sensitive imaginaries or promotive wording to attract donors or better their image as a company, they engage in communication with women whose rights were violated or address their communication to the wider society to promote learning in it. Moreover, they pay attention to and put forward ideas and imaginaries that challenge the dominant discourse of woman‘s role and value in Chinese society. For instance, showing that women are just as able to fly a plane or explore the space as men are[20]. The struggle with women‘s NGO in China is not a lack of donors‘ investment or satisfying company-like features of it; it is rather the defense by authorities of the discourse which helps to sustain inadequate social policies and against which those NGOs are working that threatens with a shutdown. Interestingly, conventional media forms, that used to be watched intensely by the authorities, now were given relatively quite unexpected freedom. And this turned into the neoliberal principles-led sphere. Films, public adverts, organizational representations tend to accommodate the needs of the customers and interested groups. Previously seen as doubtful and unreliable by the governing bodies, the industrialized media empowers discourses that perfectly accord with autorities‘ resistance to address poignant women‘s issues expeditiously in China. Hence, a series of Beijing subway posters portraying women and men or implicitly representing how the two genders are seen in society is an instance of how media without any imposed pressure is sustaining a discourse which is convenient to the authorities and which is slowing down social change regarding women‘s issues in China.



[1] As of 2014, .

[2] See .

[3] .

[4] Cui, Shuqin. 2003. Women through the lens: gender and nation in a century of Chinese cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

[5] Wang, Hanying (2012). Portrayals of Chinese Women’s Images in Hollywood Mainstream Films – An Analysis of Four Representative Films of Different Periods. Intercultural Communication Studies, XXI (3).

[6] Hall, S. (2013). The Work of Representation. In Hall, S., Evans, J. And S. Nixon (Eds.), Representation (pp. 1-47). London: Sage.

[7] Rose, G. (2001). Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. London: Sage.

[8] Gutting, G. (2014)[winter]. Michel Foucault. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), retrieved from: .

[9] See .

[10] See .

[11] Zhang, Lu (2009). Chinese Women Protesting Domestic Violence: The Beijing Conference, International Donor Agencies, and the Making of a Chinese Women’s NGO. Meridians, Vol. 9, No. 2 (2009), pp. 66-99 .

[12] .

[13] Denskus, T. & Esser, D. E. (2013). Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 mdg Summit. Third World Quarterly, 34 (3), 405-422.

[14] Denskus, T.& Papan, A. S. (2013). Reflective engagements: the international development blogging evolution and its challenges. Development in Practice, 23(4), 455-467.

[15] Read, R., Taithe, B. And R.M. Ginty (2016). Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology. Third World Quarterly, retrieved from: .

[16] Huang, R. & Sun, X. (2014). Weibo network, information diffusion and implications for Collective action in China. Information, Communication & Society, 17(1). Retrieved from: .

[17] .

[18] .

[19] Wilkins, K.G. (2014). Advocacy communication. In K.G. Wilkins, Tufte, T. & R. Obregon (Eds.), the Handbook of Development Communication and Social Change (pp. 57-71). Oxford: Willey-Blackwell.

[20] .



One Comment:

  1. Very interesting post which highlights a certain dominant discourse reinforced by representational media in China. It made me think of the Chinese female swimmer who recently broke a sporting taboo during the Rio Olympics and was hailed as a hero on social media in China.

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