“Women hold up half the sky” – what better way to start an article on China’s first female astronaut than with Mao’s famous line on sexual equality?
But as journalists lined up to cite the famous quote last week, WiC detected just the faintest whiff of sexism.
Of course, the official line was that 33 year-old Liu Yang’s inclusion on the Shenzhou-9 space craft was incontrovertible evidence of China’s gender-neutral approach to space travel. But it was the comments in between that got hackles up.
Almost as soon as Liu was named as the third and only female member of the Shenzhou’s crew, she began to be referred to as “little sister”, while the two male astronauts were called her “big brothers”.
The official profiles of Liu – good, old-school propaganda pieces – were also careful to depict her as dutiful wife and daughter, as if people might respect her less if she was seen to have lost any of her femininity in her work.
Even Liu’s own comments sometimes played up her girly side: “I still remember the first time I ran 10 kilometres, it was like I could not breathe anymore,” she told the People’s Daily, playing to stereotypes of feminine frailty.
Articles on how she was selected also showed bias. Female astronauts have to be married “to ensure that they are physically and emotionally more mature,” Zhang Jianqi, a former deputy commander-in-chief of the China Manned Space Programme told the Yangcheng Evening News.
Although it was not clear if male astronauts were subject to the same strictures, females are also required to have “flawless white teeth, fresh breath, callous-free feet and no body odour,” readers of the Qilu Evening News were told.
Xinhua also made clear that Liu wouldn’t be doing any of the navigating. “Jign Haipeng and Liu Wang will be in charge of the thrusters that manoeuvre the craft while Ms Liu will be in charge of medical experiments,” it said.
Once Shenzhou reached orbit the suggestion remained that Ms Liu was somehow a bit more delicate – or less capable – than her colleagues.
“Look at Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang holding Liu Yang! It’s as if they are teaching a little sister to walk,” a CCTV commentator cooed, after the Shenzhou docked with the Tiangong module and the astronauts crossed into the second vessel.
Some netizens quipped that it occasionally sounded as if Liu had been selected to represent China in the Miss Universe competition rather than carry out such dangerous work in space.
Meanwhile the Beijing Morning Post maintained focus on the practicalities. It pointed out that the craft was equipped with a special toilet for women, and that Liu had been given a separate bedroom. And naturally, she’d also been granted permission to bring a few basic cosmetic items with her into space.
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