The unfair sex

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2007, 12:00am

The findings of the largest survey on mainland women's attitudes towards the way they are represented by the media were revealed earlier this month. They make disturbing and contradictory reading.

The good news is that women don't consider themselves subordinate to men. But the most shocking revelation is that almost half of the 40,000 respondents said they would rather not be a woman if they had the choice.

Most cited social discrimination as the reason why they would swap their skirts for a suit. What's particularly perturbing is that most of the respondents to the survey, which was conducted by the All-China Women's Federation in March and April, were twentysomething college graduates. If half of the best-educated of the mainland's females would rather be men, then the proportion of rural women who'd like to switch gender is surely far higher, given the generally low status of women in the countryside.

There is now a huge disparity between the lives and expectations of women in the big cities and those in the countryside. In the cities, where mental skills are far more valuable than the ability to do physical work, and girls do better than boys at school and college, more and more women are challenging the dominance men have always enjoyed on the mainland.

China is one of the few countries where the female suicide rate outstrips that of men, and women in rural areas are four times more likely to attempt suicide than those in the cities. Perceived as less useful than boys, girls in the countryside often don't get the chance to stay in school.

But while educated women in the cities have achieved a measure of equality in the workplace and financial independence, they face a new enemy in the way the media increasingly objectifies them. With the rise of the mainland equivalents of the British 'lad mags', such as the Chinese version of FHM, photos of scantily clad women stare out from every newsstand.

What the survey makes clear is how much women dislike the way the media judges them solely on their appearance. Such is the stereotyping that some have gone to extreme lengths to try and claw back control of the way they are portrayed. The sex blogger phenomenon of a couple of years ago, where a few women sought to turn the tables on men by acting as sexual predators and then talking about it on the internet, was partly a reaction to the media's presentation of women as subservient sex objects.

According to the survey, just 10 per cent of the respondents see sex on its own as leading to fulfilment. It's a message that hasn't sunk in with the media, which continues to reinforce the idea that women are just here to please men. The reason why is simple: most editors on the mainland are men. No wonder so many women would rather be in their shoes than high heels.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist