Defining the Self in Sexual Violence
*Content warning: Contains mention of subjects such as sexual violence and rape in the context of the films. Details of the incidences are not discussed.*
It is easy to paint an entire population with one brush. It is also tempting to tell the story of an entire group with one narrative. Because all experiences are different, it is important to highlight individual narratives, and although they cannot encompass entire experiences they can give readers a glimpse into an individual’s world. In this study, three Chinese movies will be discussed, and they will be investigated for their individual narratives of women who went through political upheaval in the twentieth century. The first film, Twenty Two (二十二), is created by Guo Ke. The movie reviews the lives of twenty-two “Comfort Women,” those who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China in World War II. The second film, created by Hou Yong, and entitled Jasmine Women (茉莉花开), depicts the lives of four generations of women throughout the twentieth century. The third film is XiuXiu: The Sent Down Girl (天浴), created by Alice Chen. This movie describes a story about a girl who is forced to have sex with Communist party members in order to receive her freedom. All of the films discuss subjects such as the role of women during political upheaval, how women navigate sexual relationships within their time periods, and how they view their experiences in comparison to their male peers. The way these films talk about these subjects is unique because the protagonist is female, and they are able to provide fresh perspectives. The main focus of this study is how Chinese women in these narratives view their selfhood and bodies, even though their individuality is subordinated by the state. The three Chinese movies examined in this paper show individual narratives and roles of women during political upheaval, their sexual relationships, and the way their female gaze shifts the meaning of each film.
The Role of Women
One of the first major focuses in these three movies was that of the role of women during political upheaval. There were several narratives that were presented of women, but they all tended to follow a certain theme. For example, in the movie Twenty Two, women were seen as weak or something biologically inferior. Women were not allowed to fight and were seen as having the express purpose of marriage and children. They had no value outside of their sexual characteristics. This attitude unfortunately continues in modern day, as Navarro found “the majority of men (63% of the younger men and 69% of older men) cite biological reasons for the differences they observe [between men and women] and support: physical characteristics, character features or intelligence” (56). Men especially view women as different than them physically, which also translates to seeing women as inferior as human beings. They are held to as less valuable than men since they are “different than” men.
Another core concept that Twenty Two addressed was the idea of women as prizes or objects. If a woman is “inferior” compared to men, perhaps not even considered a full human being, then her degradation can be begin. It is much easier to identify someone as an “object” in order to use them. One common way this is rhetorically implemented is through emphasizing the difference between the sexes. For example, “most salient rhetoric [in the discussion] about gender emphasized the physiological differences between men and women and the importance of attending to women’s ‘special characteristics’” (Bossler 192). The supposed “special characteristics” that are mentioned would be women’s ability to carry children and the biological factors that come with that ability. Although in this case the argument was being made that women should be given special privileges, this can also be used to reduce a woman’s value down to her sexual capabilities and bodily functions. If women have “special needs,” it becomes much easier to see them as something that can be used, especially in the situation of war. In the case of the twenty-two women, they were used as sex objects but also as political instruments for the cause of the Japanese. By wearing away at the women’s self-worth through the abuse of their physical form, the Japanese were able to destroy their sense of self. Women’s sense of self can be used as a weapon, but without it they can be taken advantage of and used.
In the movie the Jasmine Women, women had a very different role during political upsets. Although women were still limited, China was no longer the one being invaded. Because of this, women were not forced to use their bodies to protect themselves in the same way. Instead, they took supportive roles in their families. There were still very strict gender roles in place, so women were not portrayed at the ones involved in the political upheaval themselves, only as passive participants. Filial piety, or “value for and responsibility to those who make your life possible,” is of utmost importance in Chinese society (Navarro 64). Throughout the movie, the female characters are set in scenes that discuss the changes that happen during political upheaval, but they are never directly a part of the changes themselves. Filial piety has a huge effect on family dynamics and the role of women in general. Because women were meant to lead supportive roles in the family, they, by necessity, would lead supportive roles in public life. Especially in the movie Jasmine Women, women were following their prescribed roles in society very closely. Their roles, even during political upheaval, only had small deviances from those chosen for them.
Another large aspect of women’s roles in Jasmine Women were the narratives of marriage and being a wife. In the movie, Li chooses to marry a man who is part of the Communist Youth league and ends up giving up her nice life with her family to live with her husband and be a dutiful wife. Interestingly, this narrative still continues today, with “some students admitt[ing] that if the woman had a good job, it was okay that she contribute to family finances but clearly it was the male who was seen as responsible for insuring a good life with material things including a home to live in” (Navarro 68). Li followed the prescribed path of women in her generation, to be a wife and not concern herself with political affairs or making money. Her self-hood was defined by her relation to her husband and how she supported his dreams. Later on in the work, her purpose became wrapped up in creating a child in order to continue her husband’s legacy, not on what she truly wanted in life. Her body was not her own. Her entire identity was that of a wife and mother, not as an individual.
An additional point that Jasmine Women makes throughout the film is that women also work. Throughout the film it is shown that women, despite their status in society as docile, are the backbones of the family. As the film progresses, the narrative stresses that women have changing roles as the political landscape alters to allow more personal freedom. However, what remains constant is that “women have to undertake both career roles and family responsibilities. It’s very hard for women” (Navarro 70). No matter what happens and what roles the women in the film take, they will always have to also juggle the responsibilities of taking care of their children and the home. The men in the movie are not portrayed as people who the women can rely on, so the women end up having to support themselves and the family. The public role of women during political upheaval changes, and, despite appearances, the private role of women can also vary depending on circumstance.
The movie Xiu Xiu has a contrasting perspective on the role of women during political upheaval. This movie has a protagonist who is only a young girl, which shifts the narrative slightly when viewed in the greater context. Xiu Xiu stresses the idea that women are capable of work, but in a different capacity as the movies previously mentioned. At the time this movie is set, women were being included in the narrative by Mao Zedong himself, but only in the capacity that they were available as laborers. As he is quoted, “The times have changed; men and women are the same. Anything male comrades can do, female comrades can do too” (Bossler 185). According to this statement, Mao believed that men and women could accomplish the exact same things. It is hard to discern whether or not Mao actually believed in his words, but it was vital to his campaign for women to join his forces. Mao needed good workers to support him wholeheartedly in his efforts, especially those who were young and malleable. Xiu Xiu was brought in to her role through Mao’s Down to the Countryside Movement, where her role in political upheaval was clearly defined as a laborer for the greater good of the Communist movement. Women had begun to define themselves by their political activism, despite pushback from traditional society (Zuo 115). Because of political upheaval, women’s roles by demand, and necessity, changed. Before women’s roles had been passive because that was what was demanded by society. However, when they became political participants their roles in society also shifted dramatically. Despite these facts, there was still heavy prejudice and traditions that imposed roles onto women in their new positions.
One narrative of women that prevailed despite the changing tide during this time was that of weakness. Women were still perceived as weaker than men, perhaps in part because Mao’s statement was not law, but instead suggestion. If Mao had moved to include women in a real way, then he would have enshrined their rights and status in law. Instead women only had his word to back them. As such, traditional thoughts still were the norm of society. In fact, “as labor [became] increasingly denigrated, women workers [were] losing their social roles and hence, the heroic status” (Zuo 116). Whereas before women had been seen as heroes for their efforts, women were suddenly questioned for leaving their former positions as work under Communist rule decreased. As such, women were again regulated by society to be weak and inferior beings, only motivated by the words of a man. Even in positions of power or when doing hard work, women like Xiu Xiu were seen as poor substitutes for the “real thing.”
A final focus of Xiu Xiu was women’s perceived role as prizes or objects to be used because of their inferior role in society. Throughout the movie, Xiu Xiu is increasingly seen as a resource, not a real flesh and blood girl. She is used for her labor, and eventually, for her sex. The men that come to visit her in the night do not see her as a person, but as an object to be used and discard. This theoretical silencing of women’s thoughts and selfhood is reflected in society, as Navarro explains that “they thought it was appropriate for a girl to be silent and quiet but not for a boy” (71). The literal and physiologically silencing of women’s narratives takes away their ability to even express themselves during political strife. Despite all the strides that had been made to progress women’s roles in society, they were still not considered human beings.
A second theme throughout all three movies is that of sexual relationships and rape. Each of these movies approaches sexual relationships in a different way, but sex plays a large storytelling role in all of them. For example, the film Twenty Two specifically focuses on the relationship between sex and women’s self-worth. As the movie centers on the stories of women raped by Japanese soldiers, it explores the correlation behind women survivor’s treatment by society. A common idea throughout the movie was the concept of women being “free game.” Because the Japanese soldiers were occupying China, they believed there were no real consequences to their actions. In fact, as the movie addressed, many felt the women deserved to be taken advantage of because of their social position during the occupation. Perhaps one reason behind this was the “male elite consensus on the need for men to direct or ‘rectify’ control of female energies” (Bossler 42). This was a conception that women were something to be contained, or corrected, and one way that could be accomplished is through sexual manipulation. Comfort women represented those who had the power to fight back against the Japanese and as such their bodies were used as mannequins upon which the Japanese could reinforce their occupation.
The theme of sexual relationships was also extremely relevant for the movie Jasmine Women. Jasmine Women specifically focused on the subject of marriage and sexual relationships, which is slightly different than the angle Twenty Two used. Jasmine Women discussed how the old guard was still in place in Chinese society, so there was no “sexual revolution.” Because of women’s roles during the film’s time periods, they were really only seen for the express purpose of marital sex. Interestingly, in modern culture this still happens, as “male writers negotiated their male identity by using women as a defining ‘other’ in cultural discourses” (Bossler 60). Men use their sexual encounters with women to define themselves, but women are not allowed societally to make that distinction. Women are defined by the one relationship they are in, in which it is assumed they have sex. That sexual relationship defines their self-hood rather than other relationships or personal characteristics not related to their sex.
Xiu Xiu returns to early perceptions of sexual relations and women, such as those shown in Twenty Two. Specifically, Xiu Xiu tackles the subject of rape, especially of young women. Even though women in the time period of the movie have more rights, or at least the perception of more rights, in the end, Xiu Xiu ends up in a very similar situation as her compatriots that survived the rape of China. She is seen as free game, and the men in her life think they can take advantage of her with no consequences. There is still a prevailing narrative that the women themselves are “asking for it.” In fact, “it was not only the attitudes of male supremacy inherited by men which seemed to perpetuate the traditional structures, but women too colluded in their persistence by internalizing and perpetuating attitudes of inferiority, self-abasement and dependence” (Croll 289). Xiu Xiu participates in this self-degradation by assuming she only has her body to offer as a way out of her situation. Because women are not taught that they can break out of the roles assigned to them, they begin to find reasons of why they are in inferior positions. They justify to themselves why they deserve to be looked down upon, as Xiu Xiu does in the movie. It is a sickening sight to see Xiu Xiu try to blame herself for the acts that the men commit to her body, even as she tries to rationalize why she is still a human being despite her body being owned and used by other people.
Female Perspective of Political Upheaval
The final topic explored by the three movies was a female gaze upon the time periods they showed. Because all three of these movies were shot with female protagonists, they inherently are shot through the female gaze. As such, the perspective of the movies is unique to what would typically be portrayed at the time of the narratives. Twenty Two shows that although it might be easy to assume women had rights in the early twentieth century of China, in fact women still held no positions of power. Similar to today, “the ‘right stuff’ [for] the Chinese job market, according to an assigned research assistant, involved being male” (Navarro 57). The women were not considered to be important to society because of their status. They were only seen as objects, useful only for a purpose and not as individuals. Due to this distinction, the women were simplified to the basal idea of sex objects who had no say over whether or not they should have bodily autonomy. As a consequence, rape was normalized for the women of Twenty Two, they had no rights over how they used their own bodies. Unfortunately, this attitude also spread from family, to community all the way up to the highest level of government. The lack of care and respect for the survivors show the attitude Chinese society still holds about this issue, and how women still do not control their own bodies. They were not even able to control their own narratives, as they felt their stories too shameful to talk about. Twenty Two is able to show a snapshot of how woman who lived through that time period saw, and still see, themselves. Although their gazes are individual narratives, their stories show a coherent whole of how they were shaped by the society they lived in.
Women’s gazes also held an important role in Jasmine Women, a story told through the lives of three different generations of women in one family. A common narrative throughout the story was that men only take what they want from women, and do not value women inherently. They are aware that they need women, but only use them for their own ends. During the revolution, it was even said, “women constitute half of the population of China. Without women’s participation in the revolution, the revolution cannot succeed” (Croll 207). Women were important in that moment, but only for the purposes of the revolution. Women throughout the movie began to realize that they were being used to fulfill men’s purposes and had no real purpose of their own. Instead, the women in the movie began to realize that female relationships are the most important and reliable. Throughout the movie, the characters showed time and time again that they could only really count on their female family members, not on any men in their life. In fact, during the revolution, it was said, “a very real threat that the work among women might conflict with the activities of the wider revolutionary movement and thereby become a divisive force setting men against women or women against men and disrupting the revolutionary forces” (Croll 186). This statement implies that when women formed bonds together there was nothing that could stand in their way or prevent them from accomplishing their goals. In fact, they posed a huge threat to the revolutionary movement because their bonds were greater than that of Communist comradery. Jasmine Women emphases that female bonds are incredibly strong, and it does so through stressing the female perspective of the film.
The movie Xiu Xiu tended to go a similar route to that of Twenty Two, emphasizing the evil nature of man through the female gaze. An overall theme repeated throughout the film was that of men being evil or being the cause of pain. This point was made especially in relation to men manipulating the main female character, Xiu Xiu. Through the female perspective the audience understands that the women are being manipulated by the male characters in order to achieve their goal, and they are not valued for their inherent self-worth. For example, many situations “were less about women performing jobs equivalent to those of men than about mobilizing women to take over the agricultural jobs formerly -but no longer- performed by male laborers” (Bossler 190). Much of the propaganda about women’s rights and progress during the time in which Xiu Xiu is set was merely that, propaganda. There were no enforcements to those ideals, so the “equality movement” was used to take advantage of gullible women. Even if they were told to consider themselves agents of their own fate, through the female gaze the audience can tell this is a farce. Instead of giving women true freedom, women might be taught to think of themselves as important, but discouraged from acting on it (Croll 200). A majority of Xiu Xiu’s narrative surrounds her discovery of being alone in the world with no real support. She cannot find anyone to truly stand up for her, and in the end, she finds she has to stand up for herself. Although there was a narrative of women’s “self-help” during Xiu Xiu’s time period, in reality it was an excuse to not help women at all. Through the female gaze the audience is able to see past this narrative as the veil it is and see that women’s situations may not have been different across time periods after all.
Although all of these movies portrayed different experiences, it is easy to see them as a continuing narrative. They each have individuality in their experiences, but at the same time there are several struggles that are the same across them. Each character went through an important political upheaval in their life, and it changed the way they viewed the world around them. They had to navigate sexual relationships and their own perspectives as their trials changed the way they experienced the world. The way that these movies dissect the female experience in China is unique, and the added meaning gained through the female gaze in invaluable. To understand the journeys of these individual narrators and their stories, it is vital to understand the intense struggle for female autonomy in China’s past and present.
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