The High-Drama, Low-Impact Feminism of ‘Hear Her’

The hit show did a commendable job representing women, both in front of and behind the camera. But sometimes representation isn’t enough.

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. Continue to read the full article here


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone