Anti-corruption hit TV series “In the Name of the People” has won over millions of fans, but Chinese feminists are none too pleased with the show’s depiction of women.
“In the Name of the People” centers on an anti-graft investigation in the fictional province of Handong, and stands out for its frank depiction of corrupt officials — shows with such themes had previously been scheduled outside of prime-time hours for 13 years.
In part because its script might as well be a news story drawn directly from China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, episodes of the show have garnered over a billion views since it premiered in late March.
The protagonists in the drama are an all-male panel of high-ranking officials, whereas the show’s female characters are all flawed women who conform to traditional gender roles: a reckless employee, an obedient housewife, and a businesswoman who sleeps her way to success.
“The portrayals of female characters, especially the gender relations in the drama, are unrealistic and are full of stereotypes,” Shen Yifei, associate professor of sociology at Fudan University, wrote on her public account on messaging app WeChat on Sunday.
In her article, Shen cited an example from the show: The head of Handong’s anti-corruption department, Lu Yike, frequently comes off as incompetent and is constantly quarreling with her superiors. “It’s as if all of her value lies in helping to cook,” Shen wrote, referring to a scene in which Lu is asked by her boss to prepare a meal for a visiting official. Lu is also continuously urged to get married by her mother, her boss, and even her subordinates.
Feminist Voices, a leading feminist organization in China, posted an article on its Weibo microblog on Tuesday with the headline “Which Mediocre Female Roles Make You Uncomfortable?” that mentioned several “In the Name of the People” characters.
Even the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), China’s quasi-official women’s rights organization that is not usually known for its feminist stances, critiqued “In the Name of the People.”
A message circulated online over the weekend that claimed to have come from the ACWF criticized the lack of gender consciousness, the use of negative descriptions for female cadres’ career paths, and the ridicule of the women’s federation in the drama. The post said that the ACWF had communicated with the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, China’s public prosecutor and the show’s producer, which — the post claimed — had promised to revise and remove some of the show’s offending scenes in both episodes that have and haven’t yet been broadcast.
An employee from the ACWF’s publicity department surnamed Chen told Sixth Tone that the message originated from one of the federation’s internal WeChat groups. “We don’t know how it leaked out, but we didn’t plan to make the information public,” Chen said, adding that the part about the procuratorate promising to delete discriminatory scenes was false. “We’ve talked to them, but we can’t decide what they will do next,” she said.
In one scene in the show, an official is criticized during a meeting for knowing little about his area of expertise but being more than familiar with “any female cadre with a little bit of beauty.” Another male official then jokes that “he can be appointed to guard the door of the province’s women’s federation.”
“This line is in such bad taste; we felt very uncomfortable hearing it,” Chen said. “We hope there could be a better environment for female cadres, and that people can bear in mind issues of gender equality.”
China’s political system is dominated by men, and instances of women reaching high positions are rare. In a global gender gap report by the World Economic Forum in 2016, China ranked 74 out of 144 countries in political empowerment, with parliamentary bodies being less than one-fourth female, and just 12 percent of ministerial positions held by women.
The writer of the drama, Zhou Meisen, declined to comment when contacted by Sixth Tone on Monday.
Many on Chinese social media agreed with the feminist critiques, but others thought they were exaggerating. “The drama reflects reality,” one Weibo user wrote, echoing a popular sentiment. “Officials in power really think this way. The drama shouldn’t be criticized, but rather praised for daring to show this.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A still frame from the anti-corruption-themed TV show ‘In the Name of the People.’ IC)