Iron ladies

China’s hottest TV drama is questioning the nation’s gender stereotypes

Iron ladies

Girls on top: stars of China’s latest hit show

Traditional Confucian thinking was highly patriarchal. Having a woman in authority was said to be about as natural as “having a hen crow like a rooster at daybreak”. Only one woman, Wu Zetian, has ever been anointed emperor in Chinese history. She ruled between 690-705AD.

Wu tried her best to counter Confucian prejudice by commissioning biographies of eminent women and surrounding herself with female talent. According to the historian John Keay, she operated “something of a petticoat government”.

Were she alive today Wu would probably love Fight for this Marriage, China’s biggest drama of the moment. It follows the fortunes of three couples in Beijing. In each case the men become stay-at-home dads while their high-powered wives pursue successful careers.

Since first airing, the show has dominated the prime-time rankings. Internet message boards are devoted to intricate analysis of each episode, with some viewers saying that the series is tapping into a wider transition in female roles in a traditionally male-dominated society.

Women on the show are portrayed as decisive and driven. Unlike earlier generations, they have few reservations about becoming the primary breadwinner in the household. One of the characters is Lan Xin, an alpha businesswoman and even more controlling wife. Gender roles are deliberately inverted as she keeps her henpecked husband firmly in line, reminding him that she works hard at the office “so that you can do what you do best, which is to take care of our daughter and make dinner.”

The couple next door are also involved in a power struggle. On the surface, the relationship seems to have a recognisable dynamic. She’s young and beautiful; he’s twice her weight and double her age.

But when the husband falls ill, his wife steps in to run his car dealership. She proves to be talented and capable, and quickly wins over the staff. The show climaxes when the workers vote that she takes over from her husband as boss. Emasculated and dejected, he spends his days on recipes and gossip.

Certainly parts of the show are exaggerated for effect. But critics say it still contains elements of truth about shifting gender roles. In particular, the gender imbalance may be starting to have an impact. Men are expected to outnumber women by 24 million in a decade – creating what economists might call female scarcity value.

“I do think that to some extent this shortage of women will play a positive role in improving their status,” says Guo Daofu, a senior economist for the National Bureau of Statistics. “Men will have to become more open-minded.”

Mao has also been given some of the credit for raising female expectations. His assault on China’s social norms was a great destabilising force, including gender roles. And decades after he declared that “women hold up half the sky”, one of his more positive legacies seems to be a growing number of Chinese women with ambitions to reach the top. When the New York–based Center for Work-Life Policy surveyed a female Chinese audience, close to two thirds deemed themselves as ‘very ambitious’. Just over a third of college-educated American women gave the same answer. Also from the same survey: over 75% of women in China aspire to hold a top corporate job, compared with just over half in the US. As Newsweek pointed out last week, half of the 14 female billionaires on Forbes’s 2010 list of the world’s wealthiest people were from mainland China.

Indeed, it seems like more and more Chinese women are now questioning gender stereotypes. Xinhuanet reported last week that a couple in Guangxi got into a dispute when the two could not agree on whose last name their newborn child should follow. The post-80s generation couple fought for 10 days, until the father reluctantly consented to giving the child his wife’s surname.

Their decision quickly became a controversial subject on Chinese cyberspace. On Sohu.com, a popular internet portal, netizens are split about the couple’s decision. Some say that it is only is only “natural” to name a child after the father’s surname. Others argue that women work just as hard as men today so why shouldn’t a child go by the mother’s last name?

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.