This is the second article in a series on Chinese ‘damas.’ The first can be found here.
Ask someone from China what they think of when they hear the word “dama” — a slang term for a middle-aged or elderly Chinese woman — and you might find yourself treated to a lengthy diatribe about their supposedly uncouth, gold-hoarding, square dancing, troublemaking ways. However, if you ask the same question about the dama male counterpart, the elusive daye, you’ll likely get a far different response.
A recent photo essay on daye describes them in glowing terms: “Unlike dama, Chinese daye eschew crowds, commotion, and gossip, instead preferring to keep a low profile and derive enjoyment from solitary recreation.” The piece goes on to inform readers that the average daye, in contrast to a dama, possesses a naturally serious temperament and is characterized by a deep sense of duty to their country, a commitment to helping others, and an altruistic desire to promote public welfare.
What lies behind the radically different public images of dama and daye? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is gender-based double standards.
In 2015, Wu Zhihong — a psychologist who experienced 15 minutes of fame when his book “Nation of Giant Infants” kicked off a debate on China’s national psyche — once tried to pinpoint why women were supposedly more drawn to things like square dancing than men. In an interview with Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, he said, “Women have a greater need for human connection; they live more in their emotions and their bodies.” Wu explicitly links this need to women’s participation in square dancing and other group activities. In contrast, he argues that men are more capable of “living in their own minds.”
In making this argument, Wu and others like him contribute to long-held stereotypes that depict women as being ruled by emotion and men by logic. Despite their pretensions to objectivity and neutrality, Wu and the rest of his ilk are just playing the same old patriarchal tunes.
Reality is more complex. This past spring, a group of square dancers got into a physical and verbal altercation with a young basketball player in central Henan province’s city of Luoyang. The story went viral, as netizens bemoaned the actions of yet another overbearing group of dama. But when videos of the incident surfaced, it turned out that the primary culprits were the dance group’s daye members, who had escalated the situation.
The presence of daye in a dance troupe should come as no surprise. Many daye are quite active in a variety of senior-centric group activities, including tai chi, chess, and yes, even square dancing. In other words, not every daye is off “living in their minds.” They take pleasure in many of the same things that Chinese dama do; they just aren’t mocked or ridiculed for doing so.
So, why the double standard? One reason dama come under so much more criticism than their male counterparts is because of their lower social status. This is in part an issue of financial independence. At a time when so much of a person’s worth is wrapped up in how much money they have, Chinese women — especially older Chinese women — are at a severe disadvantage. In both the countryside and cities, Chinese women have significantly lower incomes and fewer personal assets than men. So, it should come as no surprise that they also have less social capital and influence.
Moreover, by the time they reach old age, the gender-wealth gap can become a veritable chasm. A 2011 survey shows that elderly, urban Chinese women made roughly half of what their male counterparts did. And much of the money they did have — 47 percent— came from family members. Only 29 percent of elderly Chinese women had an income, and just 18 percent had a pension, compared to 44 percent and 28 percent of elderly Chinese men, respectively. This reliance on family members for financial support perhaps makes it easier to dismiss dama as a drag on society.
Another reason it’s so much easier to stereotype and degrade dama is related to how society views and values women. Traditionally, a woman’s place was in the home, where she was to stay out of sight and out of mind. Whatever value women had was tied to their abilities to look young and beautiful while producing and raising male heirs — a formidable feat for middle-aged or older women to achieve at all. Even today, women who are not regarded as sexually desirable or who are not actively fulfilling their household duties are sometimes seen as having no value. Menopausal women, for example, are frequently dismissed as sexless.
In recent years, so-called age-defying actresses, such as 64-year-old Angie Chiu or 52-year-old Sophie Marceau, have made headlines for their sex appeal. Yet despite both being around the same age as the typical dama, they would never be referred to as such. After all, their wealth, dedicated skin care regimens, and teams of stylists ensure that they retain beauty fit for society’s high standards, allowing them to stay in the public’s good graces.
Most dama don’t have that luxury. Typically, Chinese look down upon women who dress younger than their age. Some see older women in heavy makeup as violating society’s rules for women — rules that only get stricter as females age. Dama flout these rules by refusing to accept their marginalization and instead going out to sing, dance, and get dolled up together. Of course, these rules don’t apply to men, whose paunches and wrinkles are given a pass by society: They can be sex symbols well into their 60s and even their 70s.
In short, older women in China have a lower social status than men, less money, and less cultural capital. By any definition, they are a socially disadvantaged group, yet somehow the term dama has become synonymous with a brash, bullying type who dominates their family's finances and the country’s public spaces. Meanwhile, daye, who have far more influence, and who are also occasionally prone to acting out, are treated far more generously.
It’s hard to emphasize how ludicrous this is. The ageism and sexism inherent in the term dama, in contrast to the more neutral term daye, reflect the kinds of punitive measures our society takes against women who refuse to conform, and whose brash presence in public spaces is treated as an affront to patriarchal societal norms. Unfortunately, until the underlying gender-based economic and social inequalities are addressed, little is likely to change.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: ‘Dama’ and ‘Daye’ dance together at a park in Beijing, Sept. 26, 2014. Wang Zhao/AFP/VCG)