A woman's place

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 April, 2011, 12:00am


Women in Hong Kong today live in contradictory times. On one hand, they have made remarkable advances as reflected by their increasing presence in the workplace and other public arenas. However, this belies a lack of progress in the symbolic realm, particularly in changing social and cultural attitudes about gender.

The media plays a powerful role in shaping and reflecting public perceptions of gender. Studies on images of women in the mainstream media in Hong Kong from the 1980s and 1990s strongly convey that a woman's place is in the home and stress the need to keep up one's physical appearance. Men are generally represented as authority figures while women take on more subordinate roles. These representations of women have not changed much in the past 30 years. Research conducted last year on advertising for luxury homes in Hong Kong found that the adverts typically portrayed women as traditional objects of desire and/or wives and mothers. For example, in a TV commercial for Residence Bel-Air, images of a grand home are accompanied by a female vocalist singing: 'What are you doing for the rest of your life?' The romantic ballad sets the tone for the main narrative showing a woman running through gardens to the home, to her waiting lover. Her chief preoccupation, according to the song lyrics, is to ask her man to 'spend [his life] with me'. The advert focuses on the woman's attainment of love and devotion. It culminates in a kiss, suggesting that the 'successful' woman in this advertisement has achieved the perfect life - fulfilling her dream of perfect love in her ideal home.

Even in seemingly more non-traditional roles, the same values are emphasised. For example, in an advert for The Long Beach property development, we see a young, independent and competitive woman realising her goals through hard work and action. The female protagonist is then transformed through her relationship with a man and, by the end, is revealed in a more feminine image of the woman as a wife and mother. The love story in the commercial depicts a kind of 'taming' of the non-traditional woman into a more traditional and 'recognisable' one. The representations of women in adverts such as these suggest there is only one path to success for women - to use stereotypically feminine roles to pursue wealth and a privileged life.

If we look to measure the progress of women in terms of their non-traditional representations in the media, the results are disheartening.

Even government public service messages are not immune to gender stereotypes. In a series of public service adverts in the wake of the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, Hongkongers were urged to fulfil their civic duties, which, according to the ads, translated into clearly gendered roles: men were urged to be careful when shaking hands in business meetings and women were encouraged to dutifully apply the formula for mixing bleach solution.

That so little has changed in media representations of women over three decades speaks to a critical need for society to review how traditional gender stereotypes contribute to the limited roles available to women in our society. The news underscores how these images contribute to practices that fossilise outdated views of gender. After all, it was only a few years ago that a female teacher resigned over a dress code that forced female staff to wear dresses.

The perpetuation of stereotypes is particularly destructive because the media wields the power to normalise those stereotypes. The images are pervasive to the point that they appear so convincing that it is difficult to conceive of women in any other way. Maintaining stereotypical images of women in the media implies a degree of complicity with the lack of symbolic progress for women in Hong Kong society. Acknowledging that stereotypes in the media create barriers to gender parity is the first step to challenging and, ultimately, changing them.

M. Agnes Kang is a lecturer in the School of English at the University of Hong Kong. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation