The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused political, economic and social impacts globally, with women being affected disproportionately across the world.
In China, the gendered impacts of COVID-19 have manifested in various ways. In mainstream media — like on TV shows and state-run media — women and women front-line workers in particular were underrepresented or misrepresented. These depictions were highly controversial and provoked backlash led by feminists on social media.
Misrepresentation of women front-line workers
Heroes in Harm’s Way was the first TV series about front-line workers fighting the outbreak in China that aired during September 2020. Although claiming to be “based on real-life stories” of front-line workers in Wuhan — where the outbreak was first reported — it sparked severe criticism for portraying women medical workers as subordinate and showcased them as reluctant to head to the front lines.
In addition to portraying women as subordinate, the lack of basic supplies such as sanitary products, making their jobs even harder, was often neglected across dominant narratives. To avoid talking about these everyday problems, state media called women medical workers who shaved their heads “the most beautiful warriors” praising them for their devotion.
This under- and misrepresentation of women triggered waves of backlash led by feminists across social media.
Re-writing history by making visible ‘herstory’
My recent research has been examining how feminists took advantage of social media to respond to gender inequality and injustice during the COVID-19 outbreak in China. The research reveals that Sina Weibo has become an essential site for women fighting against stereotypical media representations.
On Weibo, a Twitter-like social media website in China, feminists created hashtags such as “#她能” (#SheCan), “#看见女性劳动者” (#SeeingWomenWorkers), “#逆行中的她们” (#HeroinesinHarmsWay) with the aim of helping women feel empowered. The hashtags worked as a counter-narrative to what was happening in the mainstream — a narrative that neglects and degrades women’s contributions in fighting COVID-19.
Their hashtags are meant to serve as a rally cry that invites users to share their personal stories and feelings. They are also a means to rewrite herstory and showcase the role women played in fighting the pandemic.
Under a post that criticized the TV series Heroes in Harm’s Way, there were two comments, each of which got over 3,000 likes. These comments read:
“During the most serious time of the epidemic, when the community needed volunteers, no one was willing to go, and finally my mother took the initiative to sign up, the trash screenwriter has no heart.”
“#SeeingWomenWorkers I am angry I went to Hubei to support a local hospital, and the vast majority of medical staff are women. I witnessed them cut their hair, hug for farewell, I cannot accept this kind of drama.”
Weibo allows each comment to open a sub-thread, where other users can respond to a specific comment. Under the two comments listed above, other commenters posted multiple testimonies that endorsed the original comments and posts. This work contributed to re-constructing the misrepresentation of women.
Archiving feelings against “correct collective memory”
Feminist responses to the dominant narrative are loaded and social media posts are full of of anger. Emotion has long been taken seriously in feminist studies.
Anger in the collective sharing of testimonies highlights women’s contributions during the outbreak and functions as a means to connect individuals with similar experiences and feelings.
Emotive expressions and terms such as memory (“记忆”), mesmerizing (“记住”), documenting (“记录”), correct memory (“正确记忆”) and collective memory (“集体记忆”) frequently appeared in Weibo posts that clawed back against the mainstream narrative. This suggests that women are using Weibo as a means to archive feelings, and to problematize how collective memories are being created about who is involved in fighting COVID-19.
A shift of media attitude
Since the COVID-19 outbreak passed its peak its peak in China, state-run media outlets in the country have begun picturing women as an essential force in confronting the virus. If and to what extent the feminist counter-narratives on social media influenced mainstream media’s agenda are worth further study.
These counter-narratives did play an important role in raising awareness of the stereotypical media representation of women during COVID-19. And the interconnection and interaction, commenting in particular, enabled by Weibo, helped facilitate the process.
By bringing a variety of users together, Weibo helped solicit feelings of belonging and community, or as political theorist Jodi Dean terms “community without community.”
We should not assume social media determined the way for the emergence of affective solidarity among women misrepresented in the dominant narratives. Nonetheless, social media has become an important site where fragmented voices can come together and find a voice.
Jinman Zhang does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.