From Iron Girls To Superwomen Cultural Studies Essay

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Films are always the best reflection of the social environment and mass psychology for being driven by the market. The prosperity of Chinese movie industry continues to boom during the urbanization and commercialization of China under the big picture of globalization and internationalization after Deng Xiaoping's reform in 1978. In the newly introduced market-driven society, Chinese working women play a vital role in the process of Chinese modernization development. However, Chinese working women images on the big screen have changed dramatically from post liberation era to the post opening-up era. And this phenomenon reveals a big issue: the maintenance and reinvention of identity targeting Chinese working women in urban area.

Trying to find out the driven force behind the phenomenon, this essay examines identity studies in social science. It will show the process of the identity reinvention of Chinese urban working women by analyzing the transformation of women images in selected Chinese movies during the last 20 years. By examine the comparison among historical stereotype of Chinese femininity, degenderized womanhood in culture revolution and the new social status Chinese women attain after Deng Xiaoping Reform, the essay will discuss the self-consciousness and identity maintenance of Chinese working women and their identity reinvention in the other's eye in a highly capitalized society after the opening-up policy. It will also reveal the ambiguity, controversy and dilemma Chinese working women face in the global trend of masculinity.

A Brief Note on the Selection of Films

Films selected are the distinctive Women Films produced from the 1990-2010, directed by directors from the post opening-up generation. The selection tries to cover films with typical women images that have heterogeneity of time and therefore can reflect the topic in multiple interpretations.

Raise the Red Lantern, directed by Zhang Yimou. Zhang Yimou is the most prominent director of the Fifth Generation Directors of China. The Fifth Generation Directors is the official name for the directors graduated from Beijing Film Academy (BFA) in the 1980s from the restore of National College Entrance Examination after Cultural Revolution. After the drama of the Cultural Revolution, China embraces the new era of Deng Xiaoping Opening-up Reform. The Fifth Generation Directors experienced tribulation during the unrest times and witnessed chaos of the nation. So in the post opening-up era, they received professional training and created films with passion, sensitive observations, speculative philosophy and artistic views. Their works emphasize on the critical examination of national culture history and ethno psychology and the concern and compassion to the underclass of the society. Therefore, the women images in their works usually revealed the traditional Confucian femininity. Without any doubt the Raise the Red Lantern is the representative of these masterpieces. By portraying distinctive women images in premodern China with historical thinking, it dissects the banal Confucian value, explores the subject consciousness and the living status of Chinese women in traditional cultural history.

All about Women, directed by Hark Tsui. Hark Tsui is the representative of the New Wave of Hong Kong films in late 1980s to early 1990s. The film itself shows the living status about the lives of young working women in their thirties in metropolitan Beijing. And more important, it touched a major issue effecting the reinvention of women identity of working class in urban area: the degenderization in working people especially for women in market economical China due to the opening-up policy.

24 City, directed by Jia Zhangke. Jia Zhangke is the representative of the Sixth Generation Directors in China, who graduated from BFA in late 1980s. The Sixth Generation Directors grew up in the big economical transitional period after opening-up policy. Their values were built in the era of the breaking of old the system and values and the establishing of new ideology and values, which determined the suspicions position towards the old world in their works. Comparing to the Fifth Generation Directors' focusing on rational thinking about the nation history and avoiding the reality, the Sixth Generation Directors concerned more about the urban life and the living hood of common individuals, especially the underclass. The heavy rationality culture in the Fifth Generation works were replaced by records of daily life and sensitivity culture. In 24 City, the director showed the passion to restore individual life status and experience by building women images from different times. And the film showed the transition of living status and identity of Chinese women in social transformation under the contemporary Chinese experiences.

Apple, directed by Li Yu. Director Li Yu is one of the contemporary female directors born after 1970s and grew up in post opening-up era. And she tries to display the problems that underclass working women in urban cities face in their integration to the society despite the rapid speed of economic growth from a feminine point of view. By showing the living condition and the struggle of a working migrant woman in 21st century Beijing, the film examines the lost and dilemma in the process of the maintenance of feminine identity of working women in a hypermasculine society.

Go La La Go!, directed by Xu Jinglei. The film is about the awakening of female consciousness of high class working women in male ruling metropolitan area by showing the promoting process of them. It shows the new images of Chinese working women in urban area as superior white collar compare to the stereotyped Confucian women images before 1980s. And the director is also one of the 1970s female director and actress. She is one of the representatives of Chinese successful working women herself.

From "Iron Girls" to "Superwomen"

La La is a white collar administrative assistant in a foreign operated investigation company in her late 20s. She made her way through the terrible traffic in CBD, Beijing, in her sports car to work. She shuttled freely among the rushing people in her neat first latest fashion dress and high heels and finished her work efficiently. Her face was always filled with confident smile and the same confident determination. This is the typical image of the successful higher class working women in modernized metropolis in 21st century China which the film Go La La Go! portrayed.

However, this kind of women image was newly appeared in Chinese films. Chinese screens were once filled with the images of "iron girls" rather than the professional office ladies in post liberation period (1960s-1970s). The "iron girls" were always displayed as strong, tight, dark skinned, short haired, uniformed and loud women workers. Take Jia Zhangke's 24 City as example, 24 City portrays the different fates of three "factory beauties" in a state-owned arms factory. The "factory beauties" represented three generations of the working women in 1960s, 1980s and 2000s in general. And, Da Li, the factory beauty of the first generation belonged to the "iron girl".

Da Li was a north eastern common girl worked in the arms factory that later moved to the faraway south east for political purposes. And Da Li was forced to move with the factory because of the confidentiality nature of arms factory and was away from home and parents for the rest of her life. Da Li was the model worker and won a lot of prizes for accomplishing her job excellently. However, Da Li lost her job in the layoff of the factory after the Opening-Up Reform and lost her child in an accident. So although she was once the glory "working heroine" of the state, she ended up with the miserable loneliness by her own.

Da Li's experience could be seen as a representation of the "iron girls". "Iron girls" was the cultural symbol of Cultural Revolution. They came from the idea of "holding up half the sky" and "women are as good as men" in the Cultural Revolution period by Mao Tsetung. In 1950s to late 1970s, China was in its socialism construction and industrialization movement. The state was driven by the planned economy and labors were under unified state allocation which caused local temporary gender disproportion in production. It was first in 1958 that gender segregation was broke considering the lack of labor in the Great Leap. Therefore, women were encouraged greatly to participate in the nation-wide socialism production, especially heavy industry and heavy physical labor to decline the imbalance. So women were considered to be as the same as men in work places. Until 1980s, the participation of women in labor work reached 80%. This degenderization in the division of labor expanded the working fields of women. However, it was not the self-empowerment and self-enhancement of women. Women gained their power and leadership not because of her femininity, but her transformation through masculinization. [1] 

Although the change of the division of labor changed the social estimate of working ability of women, it was not out of regard for the gender equality, but the labor allocation mechanism. And the equality and degenderization stops at the demonstration level. The degenderization ignored the natural differences between femininity and masculinity. And it forced working women to remove their domestic identity of Confucian womanhood such as obedience, feminine beauty and self-sacrifice abruptly for the new extremely politicalized identity. What's more, women were marginalized by allowed to participate only at the periphery of public sphere, but not in the leadership or authority. [1] But even this degenderized identity revealed the powerlessness and marginalization of post-liberation working women; it still raised the opportunity for women's participation in work and abandoned the Confucian domestic identity which set up a precondition for the reinvention of working women identity in post Opening-Up period.

After opening-up policy, women images on Chinese film screens changed again to the desirized Confucian women images. After the Opening-Up Reform, the Fifth generation Directors brought the vibrancy of Chinese film industries. As mentioned in the selection of films, the Fifth generation Directors focuses more on the historical examinations of the fate of the nation and the journey of nation psychology. Therefore, landscape, rural life and oppressed women were shown in films [2] and women images returned to traditional Chinese femininity in order to satisfy the visual liberation due to the opening of the market and make more profits for the prosperity of film industry. In Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, women occupy the traditional spaces of frustrated, dissatisfied, or tortured young wife, widow, mother, adulteress, and concubine, who despite their strength of character remain always trapped in a hopeless situation. [3] In the film, Lotus used to be a student from girl school in 1920s China and was well educated. After she married a landlord in suburb Beijing as the fourth concubine to pay the debt of the death of her father, she involved herself into the war of concubines in the feudal family. Although she once was recognized as an independent individual, she lost her self-awareness for the Confucian identity as an affiliation of traditional masculinity in transitional China.

When it came to the Sixth Generation Directors, women images gradually changed into workaholic, ambitious and competitive working women in big cities. This "superwomen" image not only revealed the focus change from the historical view of the nation to the concern of the development of individuals of the Sixth Generation Directors, but also revealed the reinvention of self-identity of working women in the cities after the opening-up policy.

Tang Lu was living in the first decade of the new century in Beijing. And she was the CEO of an investigation company in her 30s. She was obsessed with money making in her work and wandered in the big city with her upper class friends. She fascinated all the business men around her with brilliant brains in marketing and her model-like body and face. This image in Hark Tsui's All about Women showed the typical successful working women in senior position.

Before the Sixth Generation Directors, there was tiny proportion of images of women working in senior positions in Chinese films. The change of the working women images in films is the result of cultural commodification. And gender identities are constituted and reconstituted in dynamic ways, variously serving as metaphors for the signs of changing times, including economic, political, national, ethnic, cultural, and other areas of dramatic transformation. [1] So Tang Lu's success could be seen as the reflection of the reinvention of working women identity due to the transformation of the China.

Among all the factors, economic factors, especially the development of national economy played a vital role in the process of the reinvention of the identity of urban working women. [2] After the opening-up policy, the Chinese market was opened to the world. New investigation and industries were introduced which brought both opportunities and challenges. Therefore, multiple experts and competent people were urged due to the short of specialist talents in high and new technology industries in urban areas. And this offered more chances for urban Chinese women to demonstrate their talents in working places. And the opening-up reform accelerate the progress of modernization and urbanization. The state accepted the distribution system as distribution according to work, which means people who were capable of working could make the money. Therefore, traditional domestic femininity of working women in urban area was replaced by temporary neglect of gender difference in working abilities submitted to production demand. What's more, in order to train talents of high quality and strong ability, especially in high and new technology field, the Chinese government pushed a series of educational reform to lower the requirement of higher education institutions in big cities. This made higher education more accessible for urban women and later them qualified to compete in working places with men.

The improvement and development of the situation in employment for urban working women urged the female mobility and autonomy. They could fulfill personal completion through personal efforts by the platform built by market economy. And therefore, they had the chance to reexamine their identities which began the awakening of female self-awareness. As a result of sexual permissiveness, professional career brought by the markets, working women no longer struggled for the acceptance by the cultural and social norms in a form of the weaken or even abandon of Confucian femininity. Instead, they became more benefit-driven which enhanced the autonomy of female identity. The reinvention of femininity showed the demand of independence of female identity. As in the films, images of strong women with abilities and talents rather than obedient, affiliated housekeeper were more acceptable by the mass.

Femininity or Independence?

Although Chinese working women seemed to gain the gender equality and self-independence in working places, given that China is currently a developing country still in an initial stage of socialism, Chinese women still have a long way to go before they can declare independence in a true sense. [1] 

In All about Women, Tang Lu finally found her love and determined to sacrifice her career to marry the man. But eventually the man chose an ordinary woman as housewife rather than gorgeous CEO. And In Go La La Go!, however successful La La was in her working career, she had to work, think and determine like a man to compete with her male competitors. This revealed the miserable situation Chinese working women are now facing, that they are still living under the masculine society driven by the Confucian ideology. Women had to gain the masculinity inside the self to maintain her identity of an independent working woman. Therefore, the reinvention of the identity of working women went back to the degenderization. However, this degenderization is different from that in the Cultural Revolution era. It was no longer forced by the state but tend to more market-sponsored. That is to say, Chinese urban working women after opening-up reform chose to abandon their femininity, either of no alternative or voluntary. The degenderization was also shown in the competition. In the job recruitments, women with strong femininity were not acceptable except she had the masculine ability as men and could work and compete like men.

La La's female boss quit her job to maintain her marriage because her husband was extremely dissatisfied with her default in domestic duties. In order to survive in the competitive workplace and invent the independent identity, working women had to abandon their traditional femininity to fit the degenderized trend. But working women risked their marriage and family life in doing so because the society itself was still under the masculine ruling. So if they wanted to maintain their femininity to fulfill themselves in family lives, they had to abandon their independent identity as working women. So this whether to maintain or abandon the femininity keep or lose the identity autonomy became the dilemma working women were in.

The masculinity of Chinese society was the result of the surviving influence of cultural traditions. [1] Confucian traditions are still influential and are not eliminated from social lives. And women served as symbols of rewards and dangers of the modern era in [films] that show them struggling against the vestiges of colonialism and poverty within…decaying traditional [Chinese patriarchies]. [2] However, the modernization and urbanization of the state bring impact on the maintenance of traditional values and cause too many uncertainties to the development of individuals, especially to women. Therefore, the contradictions between tradition and modernity reflect as the ambivalence and confusion of society in matters of gender and sexuality. [1] In the film Apple, Apple Liu was a masseur in a bath center of Beijing. She was economically independent by earned her penny through over 10 hours hardworking every day. Apple could make more money than other girl masseur because of her outstanding sexual appearance. However, the hardworking Apple was raped by the manager of the bath center just because her attractive sexuality. Therefore, like the feminization in service industry the femininity in terms of sexuality of working women was consumed. This revealed another dilemma of contemporary working women that they had to enhance their external femininity while reinvent an inner masculinity to maintain the independent identity. And the dilemma will exist unless Chinese urban working women find a balanced way to maintain the autonomy while keep their femininity.


Female images in films could always reflect the living status and psychological transition in the transformation of the state and actually reflect the commodification of gender identity. [2] The images of Chinese working women in films had changed from degenderized women workers to women entrepreneurs or successful office ladies. The change of images of Chinese working women in films from post liberation period to post opening-up period reflected the reinvention of identity of urban working women and dilemma they faced during the reinvention process.

The reason for the change attributed to the modernization and urbanization of China after the opening-up reform. The reform brought China the market-based economy and distribution according to work system. The huge need of talents of new and high technologies caused the shortage of qualified labors, Driven by the development of economy and pursuit of benefit, the state carried out a series of reforms including enhanced the gender equality in working places and improved higher education accessibilities to urban women, which offered urban women education and job opportunities directly and indirectly. The enhancement of work opportunities result in the financial independence of urban working women. Therefore, they began to focus more on the benefit-driven individual development rather than struggled for the acceptance of the social norms. And this change caused the awakening of self-awareness of urban working women which led the reinvention and development of identity autonomy.

However, the gender equality in working places offered by the state stopped at a demonstration level. The Confucian culture still existed and urban working women were still living in a masculine society. The social identity was not changed. Therefore, working women were stuck in the dilemma of the maintenance of the reinvented identity. According to the Confucian social norms, femininity was not accepted in workplaces. So they had to abandon their Confucian femininity and gain the transformation of masculinity to fulfill the market requirements, which was the precondition of their financial independence. Thus, family life of urban working women was sacrificed for the independent identity because of the degenderization since they had to abandon their femininity for domestic duties. However, external femininity in terms of sexuality was required more to satisfy the consumerism in the market-driven society. Therefore, urban working women had to enhance the external femininity to survive while removed inner femininity in transformation of masculinity to maintain the independent identity reinvented in free market economy. The dilemma will not disappear in the trend of masculinity in China and urban Chinese women have to find out a way either to reinvent their identity again to gain the autonomy or to balance their femininity and the social need.

It is really hard to conclude everything in one essay. There are much more to say about this topic such as the multiple identities of migrant groups in urban working women. I will continue to study and try to find out the answers in further researches.


I hereby certify that this submission is entirely my own work.

Annotated Bibliography

Ling, L. H. M. "Sex Machine: Global Hypermasculinity and Images of the Asian Woman in Modernity." East Asia Cultures Critique 7.2 (1999): 277-306.

This article examines the global hypermasculinity interest under the globalization and internalization background and the structural oppression of Third World women, East Asian Women included, under global capitalism. It analyzes the reinvention of identity of Chinese women as a whole, from the degenderized "iron girls" to successful entrepreneurs, through the changes of women images in Chinese contemporary movies before and after Chinese open-up policy. It also reveals the fact that although Chinese women appear to be more liberal and have more self-consciousness, they are still under the male gaze and the hypermasculinity developmentalism even after the market commercialization. It analyzes the reason and the phenomenon of Chinese women's struggle and dilemma under the global trend of hypermasculinity. On one hand they are reinventing identity from the old Confucian womanhood of subordination and disciplines into a new one of self determination. On the other, they are still identified as in a manipulated position which they cannot change.

This is a very critical source provides the counterpart of my topic, which is the inherent problem, ambiguities and contradictions during the process of identity reinvention of Chinese urban working women. This article was found through Project Muse with the keywords "woman image", "China" and "modernity".

Lu, Sheldon H. "Soap Opera in China: The Transnational Politics of Visuality, Sexuality, and Masculinity." Cinema Journal 40.1 (2000): 25-47

This article introduced me how the modernization process of China influenced the sexuality consuming in soap operas in China in 1990s in a very interactive way. Because my essay will examine the driven force behind the women images in films, so this essay provided me how to relate the sexuality change including femininity and masculinity to the market economy development in process from another angle. But the source analyzed more about market consumption became the determine factor of commodification and transformation of the visual images in soap operas. But the soup opera is also one of the popular visual media besides films, and this essay gave me a direction of how to discover the economic and consumption factors behind the popular visual media industries especially in 1990s right after the opening-up policy. And the consumption is a major factor of the transformation of the working women images in Chinese films in my essay to explain the reinvention of women identity.

This source was found through Jstor with the keywords "China", "film", "woman" and "image".

Lu, Xin-An and Linda Y. Devenish. "Women in Propaganda Posters in Post-Liberation China: Portrayals of Insidious Oppression," in Women and the Media: Diverse Perspectives, edited by Theresa Carilli and Jane Campbell, 147-165. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2005.

This source examined the state factors in influencing the women images in popular printing media in China during 1960s-1970s. I used the examples analyzed in the book as evidences to support how state factors determined the reinvention of women identity in my paper. The macroeconomic control of the state is the crucial factor of the transformation of women images in popular media and the reinvention of women identities no matter in the post Cultural Revolution period or in the post opening-up period. The only thing the source was lack of was the analysis of images in visual media such as films other than printing media. But it still provided me the methodology of analyzing the relationship between visuality in popular media and the socioeconomic factors behind it.

This source was found in Gleeson Library, USF, with keywords "Chinese women", "image" and "media".

Rey Chow. Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995.

This book examined the social and cultural factors behind the visuality in contemporary Chinese films from the early 20th century to the early 21st century. I found the part of the analysis of films from Cultural Revolution era and from post opening-up era very useful for my paper. In the analysis of films from 1950s-1970s, the author showed the how political influences and state intervention influenced in the highly politicalized images in Chinese films. Also the transformation of sexuality determined the film images. And in my paper I will introduce the images of working women from the post Cultural Revolution era in order to show the big change after opening-up policy. And this part of the book offered me the driven factor of the visuality on screen which determined identity of the state and in general. In another part of the book, the author examined the change of the sexuality in films after 1990s. And the change of sexuality on screen is also an important part of my paper to show the dilemma which Chinese working women faced in the masculinity society.

This source was found in Gleeson Library, USF, with keywords "China", "film", and "identity".

Su, Hongjun. "Reinserting Woman into Contemporary Chinese National Identity: A Comparative Reading of Three 'New Immigrant' Plays from 1990s Shanghai" Theatre Journal 57.2 (2005): 229-246

This article examined the new national identity of women by analyzing the plays of "New Immigrant" in 1990s. Here I took plays as another example in visual media other than films to show the reinvention of national identity of Chinese women in capitalist globalization trend. By reviewing the statistics in late 20th and early 21st century, the author raises the dilemma of migrant generation in urban China after the opening up of the nation after 1980s. And by inserting feminine characteristics into Chinese national identity, the plays showed the change of social status and the awakening of self-consciousness of urban working women. For me it offered an example of analysis of gender identity in understanding the complex relationship between capitalist globalization, nationalism, and patriarchal dominance. And it also offered the evidences of identity of femininity struggle in patriarchal society of Chinese women in general.

This source was found in Google Scholar with keywords "gender identity", "China", "media".

Zhang, Everett Yuehong. "Goudui and the State: Constructing Entrepreneurial Msculinity in Two Cosmopolitan Areas of Post-Socialist China," in Gendered Modernities: Ethnographic Perspectives, edited by Dorothy L. Hodgson, 235-263. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001.

This source examined the masculinity existed in workplaces in urban China after the opening-up reform. And it supports me theoretically in showing the separation and reinvention of the identity of Chinese women in the modernizing and industrializing China. The masculinity domination could also be found in most of the women-theme films in China. By analyzing the gender domination in enterprises in two cosmopolitan areas post-socialist China, the author pointed out the problems for Chinese working women and the fact of the existence of masculinity ruled society. It helps me to analyze the situation of gender oppression in labor division especially for the women workers group in capitalizing China, which contributed to both of the identity reinvention and the identity dilemma of Chinese urban working women.

This source was found in Gleeson Library, USF, with keywords "modernity", "China", "women identity".

Zhou, Xuelin. "From Behind the Wall: The Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese Film," in Chinese Connections: Critical Perspectives on film, Identity, and Diaspora, edited by Tan See-Kam, Peter X Feng, and Gina Marchetti, 125-137. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

The source examined the contradictions of the gender issue in transitional China under a globalized background. It also examines the constitution and reconstitution of gender identities which embody the contradictions of nationalism, tradition and modernity from movies of Chin from the works of the sixth generation directors in a critical way. It provides the examples and analysis to show the process of the struggle and changing of identity of Chinese women from traditional, patriarchal state into a flexible, dynamic, and competitive but threatening, unappealing China.

This source was found in Gleeson Library, USF, with the keywords "film images", "identity", "gender".