Japanese beauty brand SK-II’s video, “Marriage Market Takeover”, was released in April this year and went viral. The video follows a number of single Chinese women who have reached or surpassed the age at which they are expected to get married, and must bear the brunt of social stigma about unmarried women.
The video sheds light on a major social issue; that of the Sheng Nu or ‘leftover woman’. Interviews with these women and their parents highlight the criticism and pressure faced by unmarried young women across China. SK-II created an exhibition of these women’s profiles near the regular Marriage Market in Shanghai’s People’s Square, clearly stating that marital status does not define them. Later we see their parents’ reactions to this display, in a deliberately public attempt by SK-II to bridge the generational gap:
Find out what these women courageously say to reconstruct the mutual respect between generations and increase society’s understanding to finally change their destiny in the film.
At a time when feminism is growing in China and yet the movement remains largely underground, the need for women’s empowerment is routinely ignored in China. As stated by one of these women: ‘not getting married is like the biggest sign of disrespect’ to her parents, and society as a whole. The film taps into that need directly. It now has over 2 million views on Youtube and almost 3 million on Youku (the Chinese alternative to Youtube, which is not accessible in China) and became a major talking point on social media across the country in the Spring.
Reading this in China? Watch SK-II’s Marriage Market Takeover on youku.
The short film really seems to be pushing for personal change for the featured women, and social change for China in general. What isn’t fully clear from this short, emotive, and quite informative, film is that it is, in reality, an advertisement. In some ways this seems subtle: the company aren’t selling a product, just enhancing the brand. However, this is a major contemporary marketing technique: sell the story and the ideology, then the product will sell itself. You just have to find their mission statement to see how this double-sell works:
We at SK-II believe that your destiny isn’t set at birth – it’s defined by the decisions you make, the chances you take, and whether or not you follow your dreams.
We also believe that everyone can have beautiful, crystal clear skin, and that feeling beautiful gives you the confidence to challenge the “little dictators” that hold you back.
The prestige beauty brand are using the tagline ‘change your destiny’ to sell beauty products. SK-II are using women’s empowerment as a marketing tool. They took advantage of a group of women trapped by their social situation in order to increase the visibility of their brand, which was an incredibly successful marketing ploy. As feminist author Andi Zeisler states: ‘modern feminism was co-opted by the market almost as soon as it was born.’
Almost since the suffrage movement began, years before the invention and advertisement of a ‘ladies cigarettes’ in the USA, companies have been using the language of empowerment to sell products. There is a ‘history of drawing on feminist language and theory to sell products […] driven by the idea that female consumers are empowered by their personal consumer choices’ (Ziesler).
More recent – and perhaps more obvious – examples of feminist ideals being used to advertise products include the Always “Like a Girl” campaign, which was dubbed a ‘social experiment’ all in the name of empowering women through feminine hygiene products.
Another is FCKH8’s controversial video entitled ‘Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism’, which was designed to offend a huge demographic and sell everyone else a T-shirt, while possibly exploiting child actors.
The language of empowerment is ever more prevalent in advertisements aimed at women. But it is not the chosen product, but the choice itself that matters in this particular brand of “empowertising” as Ziesler calls it. Looking over the history of advertising for women’s products, the company will normally target their female audience in one of two ways:
- make women feel bad about themselves, then offer a product that will solve the problem created by the advertisement, and explain exactly how it will improve life;
- make women believe that buying or using the product will make a difference to the lives of others, or to the women’s empowerment movement in general.
It seems to me that SK-II’s brand of ’empowertising’ does both of these things at once. However in an age of ‘marketplace feminism’, where a lot of brands are doing this, perhaps the Japanese brand is doing something subtly different, offering a little more. They are a company, not a non-profit. Their aim is to make money, not put the world to rights. So, while they are using empowerment as an advertising tool, as a friend put it: “at least they’re advocating these ideas.” In other words, at least their advertisements empower women, rather than diminish women.
What is truly striking about this short film is that these are real women (and their real parents) sharing the truth about their real lives. While other brands are using actors and shooting in studios, this genuinely occurs in the outside world and – we are led to believe – actually has an affect on the women featured in the film. If all beauty advertisements created positive social change in even a handful of women’s lives, the industry would be a different place.
Empowertise me! an excerpt from Andi Zeisler’s book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl©, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
Helen Wang was born in Hebei province in Northern China, in 1960. She and her parents were forced to leave their home during the Cultural Revolution. Wang is now a retired English professor and still lives near the Beijing university where she taught for fifteen years. Here she reveals the hardship of life in China during the Cultural Revolution.
I was born in a very small town. Life was very simple. When I recall my life when I was a child, I feel I didn’t know anything much, even about China. I’d never been anywhere except my hometown, until I entered university.
What was day-to-day family life like?
Life was very boring to me, when I think about it now, because every day we worked for food. We starved all the time. I didn’t really have a childhood because I worked all the time, even when I was a child. For example, picking up broken glasses, toothpaste, waste paper, and getting a little money in return. When I was very little we didn’t have piped water, so even getting water I started very young. I carried two buckets everyday. I don’t have much memory of playing with other kids. I think every child at that time was working. I began to sew when I was six or eight years old, because my mother sewed for every member of the family. She worked, so she’d tell me “you do this: when I come home, you have to finish.” So it almost took me the whole day to finish, so I didn’t have time to get out. Like Mo Yan’s story, [we spent] everyday looking for food. Looking for food in the trees and in the fields, when all the crops were gathered, [we took] what was left. I grew up fed on potatoes and sweet potatoes, that was the main food for me. When I was in primary school, my classmates often took me home because I starved and fainted in the classroom. I was very thin. I never grew fat in my life.
What was the community like where you grew up?
I lived in a high school. My parents were teachers so I didn’t really get far out of the school. We lived in school and I learned in school and my parents worked in school. My grandparents were real farmers. So in summer and winter vacations, I did farm work. But when I began school, [it was] already the Cultural Revolution [1966-76]. So we didn’t really learn anything. Most of the time we were having meetings about class struggle and working in the farm fields. We lived at the farmer’s home. We did military training and work in factories when we were very, very small. At that time, there was no college entrance examination, so the main thing we learned, everything we tried was to find a job.
When I was in junior high, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I was thinking, “what should I do? There’s no reason for school, so what should I do?” So I began to learn to play musical instruments. I thought that would be good, because learning other subjects was no good. My father learned in Tianjin conservatory, so it is natural that I learned to sing, I learned to play, I learned to listen to music. But my father said, “no, this is no good for your future.” Most factories didn’t need people who could play a musical instrument. So, I began to learn to play basketball. I was in a basketball team. I was tall when I was young, but now I am just a normal person. I played for more than one year. I actually did very well because my motivation was to find a job, not to enjoy playing. So I did long distance running, I was a marathon runner. I really did very well in that small county. I was always number one when I was running the marathon. It was a very large county in Hebei province, now it is a small scale city.
I was chosen to play basketball at a higher level, at district level in Baoding, very close to Beijing. I was chosen to play basketball there and I was very happy. I thought I could probably get even higher if I played well so I really worked very hard. In Hebei province they wanted someone who could play well, so I went there too. They said: “let your parents come”, so my parents came. My mother was really very short. They said: “you have no future, you won’t grow any more.” So that was a disappointment, because I worked really hard toward finding a job and I couldn’t go any further because of my height. The other players were really tall women, they were like 180 [cm]. I was 168.
So I was thinking about doing something else, and in 1976 I graduated from high school. It was still the cultural revolution. At that time people were still having the meetings, and all of the country people were doing a lot of criticism on Deng Xiaoping. They needed people who could write Chinese characters, larger characters, on the boards, on the street. So I began to learn writing with brushes. I did that pretty well, and a factory needed such a person. I began to do this in a paper mill. They needed me because I could use a brush, but I was not a regular staff at the mill. I worked in the paper mill for two years until Deng Xiaoping started the college entrance examination.
I began to prepare for an education. But I couldn’t do the math and the science part. It would have taken me two or three years to make up for the loss during the Cultural Revolution. I said I would learn Chinese as my major, but they said I had to take the math test. I looked at English; you didn’t need the math test if you study English. But I didn’t learn any foreign language during the Cultural Revolution. At that time China was the enemy of the United States, the enemy of Russia, so I didn’t learn any foreign language. But the only way it seemed I could enter the university was by learning English. because for others I had to take the math test. So I began to learn by myself. It was a very strange English becuase I spoke English based on Chinese characters. Like, ‘cup’ I would say ‘ka – pu’. Luckily I passed the test. That was the beginning of my formal education. But before that my education, I don’t think it was called education at all. We weren’t learning anything, we were just in the countryside, in the army, in the factory. Most of the time in the army; like three or four months a year.
What was your military training like as a child?
We did very simple things, we were very young. At 12 years old, we learnt to walk very evenly, everybody doing it at the same time. It took a long time to become like this. We did how to sit, how to stand up quickly, like an army. We learned how to rescue wounded soldiers, so how to carry them and how to bandage their wounds. We did short distance fighting, with knives. Also with real guns, one time. But because we were so young, we might have made mistakes. I don’t think I could shoot well. Most of the time we did short distance fighting, with real knives.
Do you think your family life was typical of China at that time?
Not very, because my childhood was during the Cultural Revolution and my parents were teachers. Teachers had bad luck during the Cultural Revolution. If my parents were workers, it would probably have been very normal, except being very poor. Everybody was poor. But my parents, being teachers…
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s wife represented one party and premier Zhou stood for another party. Everybody had to take sides, but children, like me, wouldn’t. Adults had to take sides, whether you stood on this side or on the other side. My parents chose the wrong side, Zhou’s side, not Mao’s wife’s side. But my eldest sister chose the right side. My other sister wasn’t home for several years, because they hated my parents for being on this side. They argued, all the time, they really argued. I don’t think my elder sister, still, now, is very close to my parents, because of that.
My eldest sister is twelve years older than me, so when I was very little she was already a red guard. She was very lucky during the Cultural Revolution. She had almost everything.
Before I entered school, when I was about six or seven years old, one night a student came to my home [in the school] and told my father: “you have to run away, because they want to arrest you.” So that night we ran. We didn’t have anything. Took one quilt, my parents and me. We didn’t even have a bicycle, so we really had to run, on foot. We ran for the whole night, and we ran to a very remote countryside. It was s isolated from the world, nobody knew about the cultural revolution, so we stayed there for two or three years. I was late for the first year of primary school because I was there. I remember that time very well, because we starved all the time. What food could we eat? My parents didn’t work. If the farmers gave us some food, we had food. If they didn’t give us food, we didn’t have food.
I remember my mother sewed a lot of pockets into my coat. I’d put on the coat with a lot of inside-out pockets and go to the fields and take some food in the pockets and run back quickly so that they had food.
I did that very very often when it was harvest season. Everyday I went to the fields. A lot of farmers, if they saw me, they would tell the brigade leader and she would use a whip to punish me, because I am taking food from them. So I had to run away quickly. The farmers were not rich either. Everybody was poor. A lot of people starved to death. So that was life. We couldn’t take a bath. We didn’t have clothes to change, because we ran away on foot and couldn’t carry much. My mother was a math teacher so she taught me some math before I went to school. We used sticks on the floor, we didn’t have paper and pen. I even wrote a story when I returned to school, about what the landlady was like. An old woman, I remember her well because we lived with her and everyday you had nowhere to go, nothing to do. For me, I went to the fields. I ate there, got full, so the food I carried was all for my parents. I wouldn’t eat at home. Eat in the fields, and get food for my parents. This went on every other day, for three years. Later on we moved closer to school, but still we couldn’t enter school because we worried there would be a change for the worse. So, we lived closer to the school but we still lived at another person’s home. What did I do? I was about seven years old and I worked for the landlady. She sold noodles. Everyday I helped her, so she let us live there for free. My mother also helped, by growing sprouts to sell. We lived there for two years I think. Until finally, in 1973-4 we entered school. It was a kind of migrant life, but worse.
My parents didn’t have a salary for ten years and they didn’t make up for that. When we were home, they had broken open the house and nothing was left. My elder sister brought some stuff for us.
What happened to your other sister?
My other sister was ‘sent down’ to the country side. She was very young, only two years older than me. Because my grandparents were farmers, and since she had togo to the countryside, my parents decided that going to her grandparents home would be better than going to a strange place. So she lived with my grandparents. She was safe but she was a farmer at that time.
What did it mean to be a girl during the Cultural Revolution? Was there a difference between girls and boys?
The idea at that time was: girls should be like boys. This was said by Mao. You can’t be weak, you have to be strong like girls. If you look good, then it is a symbol of bourgeois, so we looked like men. Last year I watched the exhibition from Poland. Poland was a socialist country at that time, I think it was very similar. Women at that time dressed to deliberately look bad. If you looked good, you’d be accused of being bourgeoisie. So we did the same work, we did as the boys did, heavy work. Actually we couldn’t have nice clothes. Even if we wanted to we didn’t. No girls wanted to look good. But I actually really wanted to look good. So you know what we did? We did our collars. If we all dress in blue and grey, everybody dressed in blue and grey. We had some flowers on the collar, so you can just see a little bit of this. If you really turned the collar out, people would see it, so we didn’t show it.
Also, we would plait our hair and tie it with a little bit of coloured ribbon. That was as much as we could get away with. I was the youngest. The youngest usually wears the clothes that the elder sister had. When they grew up, they give them to you. So my pants always started very long, but quickly got too short. Because I was thin, my mother just had to add to the length. I had the same pants. Every time they got too short she added more, in different colours!
I had a relative from Tianjin. My relatives were sent by the government to work in Hong Kong. So when they came back, they gave us gifts, like an automatic umbrella [mimes opening an umbrella] pah! – it was really curious. They dressed so well, and they gave me some clothes. So I put them on at home. When I went to school I put on my blue coat but at home I wore my beautiful dress.
Of course, boys and girls – we were still conscious that we were different. So boys and girls would draw a line in the classroom at school and neither could cross the line. Girls played with girls; we played separately. But, secretly, I would hear boys say: “hey! You have big bright eyes.” But not loudly. [laughter]
Read on: part 2 of this interview coming Saturday 12th November
Learning that an ex is married. Walking away from a Tinder date. Getting set up by your boyfriend. These women tell true stories of their dating experiences in China.
I was dating this guy from the States for a month or so, and long story short, he ditched me out of his fear of commitment. One year later I found out that about ten months after breaking up with me, he got married to a Chinese girl. Apparently she’d tried to commit suicide, so he “had” to marry her. The best part is that only two months into their marriage, when I heard this story from common friends, they were in the process of getting a divorce. I’m not sure why, but she attacked him and went to the police, said it was in self-defense, I think he spent a few days in jail. I don’t know what happened afterwards.
– Spain, 32
This was my very first Tinder date. I was expecting to go out with a 26-year-old guy, who had said he was outdoorsy, was a teacher in Beijing, and seemed very fun loving. His pictures were not the best pictures on Tinder; I couldn’t see him very well in some of them. But I thought I had a general idea of what he looked like. He looked, you know, cute enough. So our plan was to meet at the subway and walk over to get some food in the hutongs.
I arrived at the subway and couldn’t find him anywhere, I couldn’t see him, so I sent him a message. He replied right away, with, “I think I see you, I’m coming up behind you.” I turned around and I looked and I looked, and didn’t see anyone who looked at all close to what I thought. All of a sudden this guy is right there, he’s waving at me and he’s like, “Hi, it’s me.”
I was completely caught off guard because this guy was about ten or eleven years older than his profile said he was. I was very shocked by his appearance. I mean if he had told me that he was older, that would be one thing. But I was very caught off guard and kind of had to calm myself down to be polite, and we ended up walking over to dinner. Just the entire time I felt like, “wow, the very first thing that I see is that you’ve lied to me about your age very, very blatantly.” Ten plus years is a pretty significant gap.
The other thing was that he was significantly shorter than I was. Which for me… I’m a tall person, I’ve always been tall and I’ve just kind of embraced it. I don’t want my height to at all take away from the fact that there could be a great person out there who is a different size than me. That doesn’t discount them or make them unworthy of conversation or a date in my mind. I’ll really go on a date with a lot of people.
It was my first time on a Tinder date, and I was just like, okay you know, he’s just a person and I’ll have dinner with him and that will be it. He insisted that I walk back with him, and I said “oh, you know, after dinner I think am going to go home, I’m pretty tired.” He said, “no, no, come for another drink with me”, and I was like, “oh, you know, I think I’m going to go,” so he insisted on walking with me.
But he kept commenting about it, and how awkward I must feel that he was so short in comparison to me. I felt that he was putting words in my mouth. I didn’t like that, so I said, “well if you feel uncomfortable that’s up to you, but I don’t feel uncomfortable. I’m going to feel the way that I feel.” But he kept poking and prodding about the fact that I was really tall and he was so insignificant in comparison to me and that I would crush him. It just made me feel really self-conscious and really bad, and he just kind of continued to do this throughout the night.
At that point, I was like, you know what? I should just ask him: “why did you lie about your age on Tinder? Why didn’t you say how old you were?” He said “oh, I didn’t lie.” I said, “well, yeah, you did.” He’d blatantly lied. All of a sudden he just started yelling at me, and he was like: ”Who do you think you are saying that I lied to you? That’s a bunch of ridiculousness and it’s just horrible. I can’t believe you would say that!” He just kept yelling so I just kept walking and I walked home.
That was such a horrible event. Not a nice person, did not say anything nice, didn’t try to get to know me at all, just put words in my mouth, said really rude things. I wasn’t really having it. I thought: if I go on another Tinder date, I really need to vet better before I do.
-United States of America, 28
A couple of years ago I dated a Chinese guy for a few months. I met him on a dating app, which he told me he used specifically to find foreign girls. He frequently made comments about how he preferred Western girls because they were more “open” and he thought Chinese girls were too conservative and traditional. All of his exes were also Westerners.
We’d started sleeping together and had been going on more and more dates. One night my boyfriend invited me over to his place saying he wanted to introduce me to a friend of his. I went, thinking this was an indication that things were getting more serious between us, because I hadn’t met any of his friends or family before. When I arrived, I noticed that there were several unopened bottles of liquor on the table, which was strange because I had never seen my boyfriend drink anything more than a can of beer with dinner.
He introduced me to his friend, and immediately they asked if I wanted to take a shot. We had a few drinks before my boyfriend held up his phone dramatically, saying he had to leave immediately because a friend of his was sick and needed his help going to the hospital. I stood up to leave but he insisted we should both stay without him as long as we wanted, and told us to have fun.
After he left, his friend started plying me with whiskey, asking about my past sexual experiences and what I thought about Chinese boys. When I wouldn’t drink more he asked me what was my favourite kind of alcohol then said he was going to go downstairs to buy it. It was getting uncomfortable so I left, and he escorted me to the door with a disappointed look. “I really hoped you would spend the night with me,” he said, and I laughed awkwardly and hurried away.
The next day my boyfriend texted me as if nothing was wrong. I ignored him. Several days later he asked me if I was angry at him for some reason.
“Did you make up an excuse to leave me with your friend last weekend so we would sleep together?” I texted him.
“Yeah he saw ur picture and thought u were cute and asked me to help him spend the night with u,” my boyfriend replied.
I told him: “I’m not a prostitute you can share with your friends.”
“I’m sorry u feel that way,” he replied. “That’s not what I meant at all. I thought western girls were open about this kind of thing. Didn’t u like him?”
I didn’t dignify that with a response. He tried again, messaging me a few more times before finally to ask me if I had any pretty friends to set him up with. After that I blocked him.
-United States of America, 23
Humiliation by comedy in a Beijing bar. Parents say, “break up with him” because boyfriend is not Chinese. [part 2]
A Chinese first boyfriend who ruined dating for years. Suffering through sleep apnea on a first date. Offered money for sex with a stranger. [part 3]
Guy uses Chinese whispers to ask for a date. Remedies for dating in inauspicious circumstances. [part 4]
Date says more attractive with clothes on. Does an open relationship translate to open dates? Getting an I.O.U. for accepting a drink. [part 5]
These stories are shared by the women who experienced them in their own words. All stories took place in Beijing, China, unless otherwise stated. Identities are kept secret out of respect for the individuals in the stories.
This type of vehicle is common on Beijing’s streets: a fully upholstered armchair on the back of a mobility scooter is not an unusual sight, but their speed may surprise passers-by. Image captured on Beijing’s second ringroad in September 2016.
Want to avoid the lunchtime rush? Eat on the street.