(Picture: Ian Cook et al, Flickr)
The words “we want sex” accidentally became the slogan of the 1968 Ford women sewing machinist strike. This is often the case, as spectators tend to be drawn to discourse and slogans with which they already have an affinity or which they regard as taboo or forbidden. The coverage and treatment of the recent event in Beijing Foreign Studies University fits perfectly into both these scenarios.
Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), renowned for its specialized teaching and research in foreign languages and cultures, is normally considered to be a relatively liberal place where scholars and students can freely debate controversial issues. It is not the case that Chinese people don’t share some internationally practiced ethics or principles, but the gap does exist in places and needs to be addressed and bridged where necessary. The BFSU Gender Studies Group, although only founded earlier this year and not fully developed yet, was established as a bold attempt to bridge this gap. On November 7, this group’s efforts were brought into the spotlight by 17 photos posted on Renren.com.
In each of these 17 photos, a female student from BFSU is holding a whiteboard with a message that represents the ‘voice of their vaginas’. This was part of the promotion for the group’s upcoming campus performance of the drama The Vagina’s Way. The message considered by online commentators to be the most outrageous was “Damn the first time”, while others used a milder tone, such as “I need to be listened to” or “I need respect”. These simple sentences have been criticized for being “humiliating”, “aggravating”, and “shameless”, and have sparked a huge wave of condemnation and criticism against these university students. Some self-assumed educationists even expressed their grave concerns regarding the quality of education students receive at BFSU and the degradation of general morality. Among the various online comments and condemnations, there were scores of indecent remarks about the students’ appearance, representing an evidently male chauvinistic view of the value of women as related to their physical appearance. Netizens and Internet users violently attacked these students, relishing the distraction at a time of celebrities’ divorces (between Wang Fei and Li Yapeng) and political sessions (Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of CCP).
The drama, adapted from the controversial play The Vagina Monologues, by American playwright Eve Ensler, aimed to draw students’ attention to the role of women in society and reflect upon the gender inequality they are subject to in both family and society. Nonetheless, the biggest controversy lies in the female students’ treatment and interpretation of the concept of sex. Given that women are often silenced in discussions about their sensual desires and sexual roles, feminist movements target sex as one of the main points of debate and contestation.
In China, although women have long been included in the workforce and they are playing an increasingly important role in various fields, they are still fettered by inequality and patriarchal values. On the one hand, in society, women generally have to outperform males in order to obtain a place at university or a good job. And on the other hand, women’s assigned role as the main family caretaker largely prevents them from putting their talents and skills into full play. Besides, while in the public space women are regularly subject to judgments over their appearance, clothes and behavior, in the private sphere, sex continues to be a taboo for women.
This student feminist activism can be seen as an outcry against the restrictions they face in society, rather than a genuine battle for sexual freedom. Reclaiming sex is a classic feminist approach, based on the idea that, in order to draw attention to issues of inequality and discrimination, women have no alternative but to touch the nerve of patriarchal society, where males make every effort to take possession of female sexuality.
Interestingly, it is not the first time that The Vagina Monologues has been performed at BFSU, but why did it end up in the spotlight this time? How did these 17 photos, which could only be seen on Renren.com, a social networking site especially popular among students, move to occupy media headlines?
In most mainstream media reports of this issue, the photos had no accompanying annotations or clarifications regarding their source, context and purpose. Several websites singled out some photos to deliberately portray the students as sexually loose. On the part of the audience, eye-catching titles and lack of proper consideration contributed to the blind frenzy and reinforced the impression of the students as degenerate. This led some people to viciously attack the students, while others posted comments arguing that
the concept of sexual freedom is being promulgated by the evil West as a means to corrupt Chinese people.
The Internet allows for better and faster communication and spread of information, and helps decentralize information exchanges. But, disappointingly, some media outlets and Internet users have turned the Internet into a fighting arena. The collective misconduct of the media and the smothering force of the users’ irrational reactions reveal that the Chinese online media environment is still far from being open, collaborative, and critical, let alone able to create opportunities for digital democracy. It is true that students used provocative discourse, and some people might consider it to be inappropriate, but the media chose to ignore the whole picture in order to profiteer from the situation, and the audience didn’t even bother to look into the context behind the story. Who is to blame then?
We at China Policy are exhilarated to see that feminist voices can be heard in the BFSU campus and hope that more outlets can be provided for this group of young people and other similar groups to raise their voice and express their views on this or other controversial issues. We firmly believe that in today’s society, everyone should be allowed a say on issues that concern them, and new ideas challenging the existing order should be treated with tolerance and respect.by