Online outrage sparks gender backlash in China

‘Heroes in Harm’s Way’ portrayed Chinese female medical staff as reluctant front line workers

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused political, economic and social impacts globally with women being affected disproportionately across the world.

In China, the fallout from Covid-19 has manifested in various ways.

In mainstream media, such as TV shows and state-run media, women front-line workers, in particular, were underrepresented or misrepresented. These depictions were highly controversial and provoked a backlash led by feminists on social media.

Heroes in Harm’s Way was the first television series about front-line workers fighting the outbreak in China that aired during September 2020.

Although claiming to be “based on real-life stories” of front-line workers in Wuhan, where the outbreak was first reported, it sparked severe criticism for portraying women medical staff as subordinate and reluctant to head to the front lines.

In addition to portraying women as subordinate, the lack of basic supplies, such as sanitary products, made their jobs even harder. Facts such as these were often neglected across dominant narratives.

To avoid talking about these everyday problems, China’s state media called women medical workers who shaved their heads “the most beautiful warriors” praising them for their devotion.

This under- and misrepresentation of women triggered waves of condemnation led by feminists across social media.

Gender inequality

My research examines how feminists took advantage of social media to respond to gender inequality and injustice during China’s Covid-19 outbreak. The research reveals that Sina Weibo has become an essential site for women fighting against stereotypical media representations.

Feminists created hashtags such as “#??” (#SheCan), “#???????” (#SeeingWomenWorkers), “#??????” (#HeroinesinHarmsWay) on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media website in China, with the aim of helping women feel empowered.

The hashtags worked as a counter-narrative to what was happening in the mainstream – a narrative that neglected and degraded women’s contributions in fighting Covid-19.

Their hashtags are meant to serve as a rallying cry that invites users to share their personal stories and feelings. They also help to rewrite ‘herstory’ and showcase the role women played in fighting the pandemic.

Under a post that criticized Heroes in Harm’s Way, there were two comments, each of which got over 3,000 likes. The comments read:

“During the most serious time of the epidemic, when the community needed volunteers, no one was willing to go, and finally my mother took the initiative to sign up, the trash screenwriter has no heart.”


“#SeeingWomenWorkers I am angry I went to Hubei to support a local hospital, and the vast majority of medical staff are women. I witnessed them cut their hair, hug for farewell, I cannot accept this kind of drama.”

Weibo became a focal point for feminists. Image: Screenshot

Weibo allows each comment to open a sub-thread, where other users can respond to a specific comment. Under the two comments listed above, other people posted multiple testimonies that endorsed the original posts.

This work contributed to re-constructing the misrepresentation of women.

Feminist responses to the dominant narrative are loaded and social media posts are full of anger. Emotion has long been taken seriously in feminist studies.

Emotive expressions and terms such as memory (“??”), mesmerizing (“??”), documenting (“??”), correct memory (“????”) and collective memory (“????”) frequently appeared in Weibo posts that clawed back against the mainstream narrative.

This suggests that women are using Weibo as a means to archive feelings, and to problematize how collective memories are being created about who is involved in fighting Covid-19.

Since the outbreak passed its peak in China, state-run media outlets in the country have begun picturing women as an essential force in confronting the virus. If and to what extent the feminist counter-narratives on social media influenced mainstream media’s agenda are worth further study.

Raising awareness

These counter-narratives did play an important role in raising awareness of the stereotypical media representation of women during Covid-19. And the interconnection and interaction on Weibo helped facilitate the process.

By bringing a variety of users together, Weibo helped solicit feelings of belonging and community, or as political theorist Jodi Dean terms “community without community.”

We should not assume social media determined the way for the emergence of effective solidarity among women misrepresented in the dominant narratives. Nonetheless, social media has become an important site where fragmented voices can come together and find one voice.

Jinman Zhang is a PhD candidate in Media Studies at Western University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.