Chinese Government-Sponsored TV Show Receives Backlash Over its Depictions of Women

Following a 2.4/10 rating on the Chinese social networking platform Douban, Chinese TV show ‘Heroes in Harm’s Way’ received harsh criticisms from viewers, who are claiming the content is sexist, and blatantly neglects the contributions that female front line workers made during the country’s efforts in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

This show was made by China Media Group (CMG), a state-owned public broadcasting company that also oversees several prominent Chinese state media such as CGTN, China Radio International, and China Central Television. The 14-episode show features 7 stories complimenting China’s efforts to combat COVID-19. Yet for many viewers, it is easy to find out that many details presented by the program are false.

Viewers took their grievances online concerning the details presented by the show, including several problematic scenes in which the women are belittled. The show featured a scene claiming that women are less active in volunteering, and also claims that women should ‘stay behind and take care of the elderly and children’. Video clips of these scenes have attracted more than 150 million views, with tens of thousands of viewers demanding the show to stop airing on China’s major state-owned TV station CCTV.

There are no plans for CCTV to cancel the show. Following criticisms and low ratings, Chinese social media platforms Douban and Zhihu closed the rating function for the TV show ‘Heroes in Harm’s Way’. According to Chinese state media China Daily, the show will also be aired in North America and Europe and translated into more than seven languages for overseas viewers.

Female front line medical staff made up to two-thirds of the total front line workers. Prominent Chinese state media People’s Daily reported in March that out of 42,600 medical workers who participated in the efforts to assist Hubei Province in combating COVID-19, there were more than 28,000 female medical workers. Female front line medical workers also faced severe hardships while combating COVID-19 in Hubei. When demanding personal hygienic supplies such as tampons and pads, they were belittled by their supervisors as people who lacked “the spirit of devotion and discipline.“

However, these contributions and hardships were neglected by the show’s production team. The government-sponsored TV shows featured scenes presenting a male-dominant effort in the combat against COVID-19. Instead of having a true reflection of history, women in the show were presented as subtle, weak and worthless.

Efforts to belittle women are not rare in China. In February, a video from government-owned media Gansu Daily backfired on social media. The video featured female medical workers who are forced to shave off their hair before departing to Hubei to combat COVID-19. Attempting to propagate the narrative of portraying these women as ‘the most beautiful warriors’, the video was criticized with angry comments accusing this as using women’s bodies for propaganda purposes.

Gender inequality has been a long-term issue in Chinese society. The New York Times has pointed out that the Chinese government failed to appoint enough female leaders despite having a constitution that promotes gender equality. Women also face systemic discrimination in employment and property rights. In China, domestic violence against women is also a serious issue that Chinese authorities have yet to come up with a concrete solution.

In June 2020, Chinese legislators voted in favor of making major changes to the country’s civil code. The new civil code will add a one-month cool-off period before a person can file for divorce. This legislative change was interpreted by many as an erosion of women’s rights.

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The Chinese government is also focusing more on encouraging women to get married and have babies. These changes of tones came into place after the country witnessed low birth rates. It appears that the government is hoping to persuade its female citizens to settle in roles to take care of their children. Yet in 2020, those lines and messages have failed to resonate with the public.