“How can he be so average, yet so full of confidence?”
That baffled line about the male psyche, delivered by 28-year-old stand-up comedian Yang Li last year, has become a catch-phrase for feminists in China. In the face of widespread sexism, it was a moment of public pushback that is becoming less rare.
“Men are so mysterious,” Yang said, feigning a confused look on her face as she elaborated cuttingly about men’s self-involvement at the online comedy show Rock and Roast. “Unlike women, who always think of themselves as unimportant, men always think of themselves as the center of the universe. Every single sentence from men carries utmost importance, and points out the right direction in which the world should advance.”
“Average-yet-confident” has swiftly been taken up by women desperate to describe their experiences of men with outsized egos who are oblivious to the privileges associated with their gender. On Weibo, users used it to share their annoyance. “A male classmate who is attending the same online class as me changed his online bio to: ‘I am in a relationship, please don’t hit on me.’ He is really the champion of all ‘average-yet-confident’ males!” one user wrote.
Such catchphrases have been a long time coming for women in China. While terms deriding men’s behavior have been gaining traction in the west for years, observers say China is now coining its own phrases, thanks in part to comedians like Yang pushing the envelope.
“In the English-language world, there have long been terms like ‘mansplaining,’ used to mock males who like to give their condescending opinions on things. But it’s [only] now that we are finally seeing Yang’s jokes gain popularity in the Chinese-speaking community,” observed Luo Yansu (link in Chinese), a popular Chinese entertainment blogger in a widely-read post. “Yang’s jokes are in no way stoking gender opposition, but [rather] females making their voices heard—which already has come way too late,” wrote Luo.
Yang’s jokes are far milder than the takes on sex and racism delivered by her female western peers. Nonetheless, they are an example of recent efforts by some Chinese women to counter the country’s deeply rooted misogyny.
China has long been a patriarchal society. But when the Communist Party came to power in 1949, it gave women greater rights, including the freedom to work and marry who they liked. That progress was always limited—women remain a rare sight in the very top ranks of the Party—and over the years has stalled in the face of other concerns. Critics say that the country’s aging crisis, a declining birth rate, and a need to maintain social stability amid a slowing economy, have prompted party leaders to try nudge women back into their traditional roles.
The Party “aggressively perpetuates gender norms and reduces women to their roles as dutiful wives, mothers, and baby breeders in the home, in order to minimize social unrest and give birth to future generations of skilled workers,” wrote Leta Hong Fincher, the author of 2018’s Betraying Big Brother: the Feminist Awakening in China.
As a result, China has slid backwards on metrics of gender equality over the last decade. Women are also frequently the target of sexist jokes—including on national television. In one notorious example, a Chinese New Year gala in 2015, hosted by state broadcaster CCTV and viewed by over 690 million people, depicted unmarried women over 30 as second-hand goods in a sketch. In another, it hinted that female officials slept their way to the top.
Meanwhile, the space for activism or even discussion of gender-related topics in China has shrunk in recent years, part of a larger crackdown on freedom of speech under president Xi Jinping. In 2015, Beijing arrested five young feminists for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge often used to target activists. The move forced many feminists to self-censor or go underground.
But the country could not escape the outrage of the 2018 #MeToo movement. In one prominent example that year, a young woman took to social media with claims of sexual harassment by one of China’s most famous TV hosts Zhu Jun, eventually bringing the case to court. Hearings began in December.
Since then, public criticism of patriarchal values have become more common. Activists last year decried moves by state-owned media to use women as propaganda tools in efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic; there was also an online uproar when a state-run TV program downplayed their contribution to the fight against the virus. In December, pop singer Tan Weiwei railed against domestic violence and victim blaming in her latest single—a rare occasion of a mainstream celebrity addressing an otherwise taboo topic.
And in January, a cosmetics manufacturer was forced to apologize after releasing a controversial advert, which depicted a woman escaping a stalker by using the company’s makeup-removing wipes: in doing so, she had become too ugly for the stalker to show any interest.
Xiong Jing, a Chinese feminist activist, believes the public is starting to pay more attention to, and more frequently call out everyday sexism.
“Although many organizations focusing on women’s rights were forced to shut down since 2015, there is a growing awareness of the Chinese public, especially among well-educated women,” of gender equality issues, she told Quartz. While many “feel they have little power to change the situation,” they are more willing to “engage in debates on gender issues, which have become an important part of public discourse in China,” she said.
Yang has told Chinese media (link in Chinese) that she likes to joke about “anything that is seen as inappropriate to be talked about by women, such as feces, urine, and farts” to challenge viewers’ boundaries. In one joke, Yang questioned why one of the powers of Black Widow, a female superhero in Marvel’s Avengers series, is her body’s engineered resistance to disease and aging. “Why should our imagination about women always focus on how young, beautiful, and fit they are? Why couldn’t a female hero become old?” asked Yang.
In another joke, Yang replied to criticism about her stirring hatred towards men, saying she feels men are too hard to please. “Men are unhappy even for being labeled as ‘average’—what exactly do they want?” she asked.
Not everyone appreciates Yang’s jokes. In December, an internet user who billed himself as a defender of equal rights between men and women initiated a campaign on Weibo asking his followers to report Yang to China’s top media regulator. The user, accuses Yang of “insulting all men” and “creating gender opposition,” and said Yang’s jokes are “harmful to the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Yang has refrained from making many comments on the criticism against her, apart from saying on Weibo earlier this month that stand-up comedy has become an increasingly difficult profession. Many of her fans defended her, saying she isn’t out to ignite a gender war, but is in fact an advocate for true respect between men and women.
Some pointed to a joke she told in December about her experience seeing a male gynecologist, which she turned into an account that was as poignant as it was comic.
“That is the first time when I was lying in front of a standing man, and both of us were completely at ease and had no non-relevant thoughts,” Yang said. “I felt I was no longer just a woman, but a human being that wanted to survive, while the male doctor had only one purpose which was to help me survive. When he asked how I felt, I said, I felt completely free.”