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Rachel Lu

Chinese Women Defending ‘Vagina Monologues’ Encounter Ferocious Response

(Via Renren/Fair Use)
(Via Renren/Fair Use)

When 17 female students at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), one of China’s most prestigious colleges, posted photographs of themselves holding up messages like “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom,” they probably didn’t expect to cause such a stir on Chinese social media. The women posted the photos on Nov. 7 on Renren, an online community website popular with university students, to promote an upcoming campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, U.S. playwright Eve Ensler’s controversial 1996 play. Each woman was photographed holding up a whiteboard with messages such as, “My Vagina Says: Don’t Treat Me as a Sensitive Word,” “My Vagina Says: ‘I Can Be Sexy, But You Can’t Harass Me,’” and “My Vagina Says: Someone Can Enter If I Say So.” The photos quickly found their way to many other social media websites, including Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, and generated thousands of comments — most evincing an ugly strain of misogyny.

Many male Internet users made comments passing judgment on the women’s looks and supposedly loose sexual mores. A significant number of commentators compared the students to prostitutes. One Weibo user commented, “If no one told me they are from BFSU, I would think they are whores.” Another commented, “What are we teaching in our schools? Are they the future of our country? They are a bunch of sluts. I feel so much pain for how far the Chinese civilization has fallen.”

Over the past three decades, China’s reforms have transformed the country’s economic and social landscape, with women’s sexuality increasingly advertised, commoditized, and monetized in the process. Prostitution is rampant and pictures of scantily-clad girls saturate China’s Internet. While a minority spoke up in support of the girls, the photos still offended a surprisingly large number of Chinese Internet users, who viewed the students’ open discussion of sex as another sign China’s traditional values were going by the wayside.

The commoditization of sex seems to have cultivated the widely held view that relationships between men and women, including marriage, are an implicit exchange of sex for money. One online commenter on the photos complained, “The reality is that some women can’t control their lower halves and open up their legs. But when it comes time to find a husband, they ask the guy to have a car and an apartment and also provide for the family.”

Given strident online reaction, one could be forgiven for thinking China had never encountered The Vagina Monologues before. In fact, despite a brief ban on public performances of The Vagina Monologues in Beijing and Shanghai in 2004, the play was publicly staged from 2009 to 2011 in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen to sold-out audiences, although producers sometimes had to omitthe word “vagina” from the title in publicity campaigns.

The disconnect between the elite, educated women at BFSU who take a feminist view of their sexuality and the Chinese public that insists on objectifying it is real and troubling. Then again, performances ofThe Vagina Monologues around the world have often provoked uncomfortable conversations — and this incident may be an opportunity for the Chinese society to tackle issues of feminism, sex, and violence against women in an increasingly patriarchal society.

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
  • Matthew Cooper

    ‘Increasingly patriarchal’? A highly interesting choice of words, to say the least. Could it be that TLN is waxing nostalgic for bygone days of full gender equality in China? Somehow, I doubt that very, very much – but I do like to be proven wrong on occasion.

    It is an intriguing paradox, though. ‘Reform and opening’ causes a huge wave of objectification and sexual exploitation, in part by reducing farmers and their families by the hundreds of millions to a state of permanent vagrancy. At the same time, Mr Deng fully implements his party’s birth-control policies upon a rural population which sees boys as their only hope for a dignified old age. Given that historically and in the long run, the most politically problematic sector of China has been its poor countryside, it is very tempting to consider that this may have been a democidal attack on the most fertile ground for any dissident opinion against the manifest unevenness of how the benefits of these ‘reforms’ were distributed.

    It is easy enough (and, conveniently, quite politically safe given the chorus of coastal elites and pious whites which stands ever ready and eager to engage in a tad of orientalist liberal moralising) to blame male chauvinism and patriarchy for the backlash these young women are facing. But the real elephant in the room – that of predatory globalisation – isn’t going away.

    And the uncomfortable truth? Those same open-minded coastal elites that sold out performances of Ms Ensler’s play in the centres of the CCP’s political and corporate power – they’re not the solution to structural violence against women or against the poor in China. They’re tools. They’re part of the problem. As hopefully an increasing number of Chinese will begin to realise as they start pushing back against the commoditisation of their lives, their communities and their culture on all fronts.

  • az_kh89

    What is horrifying is not the globalization or “invasion” of foreign culture in to China, but rather the rampant charge of super materialism and brand imagery combined with Confucianistic ideas amongst the masses of both men and women of men being providers for the family. While lashing out against young women may not be the answer, the frustration felt by the younger generation of men (10s of millions who will not find a female partner to marry) is reflected in the general idea that many young chinese women still have, and more importantly, their parents push. The man must have a house, a car and a high paying job, if he doesn’t and the girl marries him, well, she must be of loose morals and a complete fool (in the eyes of society).

    Thus when men, who are already feeling more pressured and powerless in this social dynamic, where their solid middle class and upper middle class incomes cannot buy homes and cars, the fact that some women can demand even more rights (in their eyes, women are already greater then men in terms of control) is absurd and infuriating. Parents are going broke trying to pay for their son’s wedding, and dating. Buying random girlfriends expensive gifts in the hope that they become their future wife. This is the trend of modern day China, where the Western idea of non-materialistic love (at least in the media) had not penetrated, but instead was replaced by rich real estate billionaire heirs buying their fiances and wives high carat diamond rings, while the rest of the country’s girls watch and idealize the situation, demanding the same from their white collar boy friends and husband prospects.

  • Cornbreading

    Typical feminist BS