Back in 1998, nobody would have predicted that Zhao Wei — the controversial actress and socialite best known for her role as an illiterate princess in the 1998 soap smash “My Fair Princess” — would be the driving force behind a hit self-proclaimed feminist miniseries. “Hear Her,” which Zhao executive produced and co-directed, and which finished its eight-episode run on streaming service Tencent Video last week, consists of eight different actresses narrating fictionalized stories on issues ranging from eating disorders to domestic violence, in the vein of BBC’s “Snatches: Moments From Women’s Lives.”
“Hear Her” is part of a wave of women’s issue-centric content to hit Chinese screens in the past year. “A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower,” another Tencent production, was hailed during its summer run for the way it integrated issues such as domestic violence against women, slut shaming, and hiring discrimination into the suspense drama format. More lighthearted fare, like the stand-up comedy talent show “Rock & Roast,” also made headlines for its female contestants’ barbed approach to gender relations and willingness to poke fun at over-confident men.
Viewed in a broader context, these shows sit smack in the middle of the so-called fourth wave of feminism. Fourth-wave feminism, which emerged around the turn of the last decade, shares some DNA with second-wave’s radical and Marxist strands, as well as the third wave’s emphasis on intersectionality, but is also characterized by intense digital activism, a focus on sexual violence, and increasingly vocal participation from mainstream celebrities, public figures, and corporations often motivated by commercial interests.
Particularly in China, this wave has seen young, well-educated, and media-savvy women begin to make their voices heard. Starting in the early 2010s with buzzy, attention-grabbing campaigns like “Occupy the Men’s Room” and the “Bloody Bride” protests against domestic violence, their voices grew louder during the country’s grassroots campaign against sexual harrassment in the workplace. They’re also international in outlook, having joined with feminists around the world to tell stories of empowering women through localized adaptations of works like “The Vagina Monologues.”
If these grassroots efforts have largely struggled to establish themselves on mainstream platforms — “The Vagina Monologues” has become increasingly hard to get staged — the movement is also partly caught by commercialization in social media and other digital spaces. So-called “marketing accounts” on microblogging platform Weibo and Tencent’s messaging app WeChat commodify their users by producing articles on hotly debated and viral topics, like misogyny and neoliberal feminism, then turning around and selling their audiences to click-hungry advertisers. Meanwhile, brands like Victoria’s Secret have adapted feminist posturing and sought to position themselves as “body positive.” And of course, streaming services, including those from Tencent, have successfully incorporated this discourse into their offerings with shows like “Hear Her.”
Let’s be clear: Capital is not pro-feminist. British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie once analyzed their relationship through the lens of the 2001 romantic comedy “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Capital claims to support women’s freedom, yet its version of women’s empowerment primarily manifests in the aspiration and ability to buy better goods and services targeting women or female characteristics. Women’s confidence is largely based on their perpetual body maintenance and ability to juggle overwhelming workloads in the workplace and at home. Underlying the whole enterprise is the belief that the market, rather than the government, holds the solution to women’s burdens.
How does this play out in a show like “Hear Her”? To be clear, the program does actually resonate with audiences’ experiences by offering space for the representation and discussion of women’s experiences of oppression. That’s better than leaving these problems undiscussed. But what about the next step, after the suffering? Here, “Hear Her” resorts to the old formulas of liberal feminism and neoliberal freedom: equal opportunity, freedom of choice, and rational judgment, together with smuggled-in, unrealistic representations of women’s actual struggles.
The most obvious example of this is how the show makes escaping from an abusive relationship or environment seem far easier than in real life. In “Hear Her,” a housewife can easily find a good lawyer capable of triumphing over her husband in court. A woman with an abusive spouse pours herself into her career as a real-estate agent, eventually earning enough to buy an apartment for herself on the tropical island province of Hainan, right around the time her husband finally dies. The show’s 38-year-old singleton character is likewise free of the stress of working-class life: A successful writer, she can afford designer bags and dates younger men.
“Look,” the show seems to say, “these women can rescue themselves, so why can’t you?”
A GIF from the miniseries “Hear Her,” showing an artist saying “(My father) might have forgotten that I am a woman.” From @腾讯视频听见她说 on Weibo
Also contributing to the show’s neoliberal ethic is its reaffirmation of heterosexuality. One episode features a master porcelain artist who has lived as a man for years in order to inherit the family trade — otherwise restricted to male family members. It’s an exciting hook, yet the story instead shifts to focus on her heterosexual love affair with a French co-worker. The character describes the first and last time they have sex as so gentle and caring that she trembled with joy and felt like she was in “a vast ocean” of happiness. Rather than interrogating her experiences being raised as a boy, or why that had been necessary in the first place, the show dismisses these issues by portraying heterosexuality, and specifically loving a man, as naturally the same as biologically or socially identifying as a woman. It also implies that the answer to feminist rebellion is a good man.
Indeed, the show repeatedly — intentionally or otherwise — provides its female characters with kind-hearted male saviors. In one episode, an older male plastic surgeon praises a girl and keeps her from undergoing surgery. The girl’s boyfriend also endures her bad temper and helps boost her confidence by showing her photos of dancers with diverse body types. Another central character, a robot, is freed from a kind of slavery to an abusive master by a female engineer, but she only does so at the request of the robot’s former male co-worker at a nursing home. The robot then winds up with this co-worker: her freedom in effect boiling down to the freedom to be with the male co-worker who desired her.
A still from the miniseries “Hear Her,” episode “The Flawless Girl.” From @腾讯视频听见她说 on Weibo
It is worth applauding shows for representing, narrating, and discussing female struggles. But representation isn’t an end in itself, nor should suffering be overly dramatized, even if it does resonate. “Hear Her” did a great job ensuring women were given leading roles both in front of and behind the camera, but it doesn’t point to problems in ideology or structure. If anything, the leading actresses occasionally display conservative attitudes toward gender in the interviews appended to the end of each episode. Taken together, it all gives women hope of breaking down stereotypes or achieving women’s independence, but ultimately leaves them to find the solutions to their problems themselves.
Without writing off its accomplishments, I hope one day to see a successor to “Hear Her” in which women can be free, even if they’re not strong or wealthy; in which they aren’t expected to care for and love others, even at their own expense; and in which they don’t have to be superwomen just in order to rescue themselves from a bad situation — or worse, in which they simply play the role of damsel in distress in their own story, waiting to be saved by a kindly old man, a progressive boyfriend, or the caresses of a French lover.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A promotional image for the miniseries “Hear Her,” 2020. From Douban)