Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Reprivatized Womanhood: Changes in Mainstream Media's Framing of Urban Women's Issues in China, 1995-2012

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Reprivatized Womanhood: Changes in Mainstream Media's Framing of Urban Women's Issues in China, 1995-2012

Article excerpt

From the revolutionary statement "Women can hold up half the sky" (Funü nengding banbiantian) during the Maoist era to the popular sentiment of "Better marrying well than having a successful career" (Gandehao buru jiadehao) in contemporary time, public gender discourses in China have undergone fundamental shifts in the course of marketization. Since the early 1950s, the Chinese government has endorsed the Marxist prescription for liberation through labor, resulting in one of the highest female labor force participation rates in the world. The economic reform that began in the late 1970s delivered mixed influences on the condition of gender equality in China. Intensified economic reform since the 1990s, the massive loss of jobs by women workers, the widening of the gender gap in various labor market outcomes, the commercialization of women's bodies, and the cultural devaluation of women led many Chinese feminist scholars to conclude that the economic reform has set back the efforts toward women's liberation (see Wu, 2010, for review). While recognizing the negative effects of marketization and the privatization of social services on women's status, others also point to the positive side and argue that the market reform has opened up new possibilities for the awakening of women's self-awareness (Lin, 1998).

It is under this historical context that with this study we sought to contribute to the ongoing debate on the cultural construction of gender norms in the public discourse in contemporary urban China by highlighting the gendered "separate spheres" ideology that has been gaining prominence in the course of market reform. It resonates with the long patriarchal tradition in Chinese society as summarized in the dictum "Men manage external affairs while women make home" (Nan zhu wai, nü zhu nei). What kinds of issues related to urban women are being discussed in the mainstream media? How do the mainstream media frame women's issues? Do the media's framing change over time, and what do these changing patterns reveal about the shifting social context in reform-era China? Drawing on feminist critiques of the public-private divide, our study builds on existing literature to investigate the changing gender discourse as being reflected in the mainstream media's framing of issues related to women under the context of marketization.

Through conducting both interpretative and quantitative content analyses on 202 articles drawn from three Chinese mainstream magazines between 1995 and 2012, in this study we provide empirical evidence of the media's increasing use of individualistic framing that works in favor of traditional gender ideology, thus revealing the specific ways in which the dominant public discourse regulates gender norms in urban China. We argue that such an alliance between neoliberal rhetoric emphasizing individual choice and traditional gender ideology attributing women to private spheres works to justify gender inequality that has been exacerbated by marketization by framing the resurgent emphasis on women's private issues and domestic responsibilities as a matter of neutral, rational, and individual preference. The results of this study call into question the individualist approach to addressing gender inequality and underscore the critical need to address the structural roots of gender inequalities in both public and private spheres.

BACKGROUND: GENDER IN CHINA'S TRANSITIONAL SOCIETY

Beginning in the early 1950s, the Chinese communist government endorsed Marxist ideas about women's liberation and devoted major efforts to promote women's labor force participation. Such a redefinition of gender relations took place under the broader context of socialist transformation in which the work was collectivized, private ownership was relinquished, and the family activities and personal lives became subject to state control (Hendersen & Entwisle, 2000). State propaganda promoted images of the "Iron Girls" to glorify women's public roles as workers in conventionally male-dominated fields (Honig, 2000; Jin, 2007). …

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