Is Double Eleven perpetuating the patriarchy? Femininity and consumerism in China
What is Double Eleven (11.11)?
Double Eleven or 双十一 shuang shiyi in Chinese, is the biggest shopping festival in the world. It occurs every year on November 11th, hence the name. It was first launched by e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2009 as an occasion for university students who are still single to enjoy a festival dedicated to them and purchase goods for themselves at discounted prices1. Its premise is that of “revenge shopping,” a way to express their frustration for lacking a partner through irrational online shopping. Double Eleven now encompasses poor university singletons and boasts record sales every year.
More specifically, Alibaba declared that women aged 25 to 40 make up more than 70% of the buyers on Double Eleven. Why is that, and what are the implications of this phenomenon?
Do women still hold up half of the sky? Waves of Chinese feminism
Women’s role in Chinese society has gone through rapid changes in the past 100 years or so. In the context of the May Fourth Movement (1919), what is regarded as the First Wave of Chinese feminism took hold. As a response to the humiliations of the Opium Wars, Chinese intellectuals began to question the value of Confucianism and asked for democratic reforms. Two prominent intellectuals, Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei, viewed woman’s liberation as part of the nation’s liberation2, followed by Chen Duxiu, who identified Confucianism as the reason behind women’s oppression, and He Zhen, who proposed anarchism as a solution and is China’s first female feminist theorist.
In 1931, the first Marriage Law was passed in the Chinese Soviet Republic to ensure freedom of marriage so that women could join the revolution. During this Second Wave, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, women were proclaimed equal to men in education, labor, and political rights. This is the backbone of the Marxist Feminist discourse that is still officially held by the Chinese state through the All-China Women’s Federation (中华全国妇女联合会 Zhōnghuá Quánguó Fùnǚ Liánhéhuì).
However, following the Economic Reforms in the 80s, women saw their role in society grow more subaltern. Mass layoffs and the decline of the 单位 danwei Work Unit as universal welfare provider resulted in a decreasing participation of women in the workforce3: market economy slowly turned them from revolutionary “iron ladies” to “consumers-in-chief”4. A return to the domestic realm and a new idea of femininity defined through consumption are the premises for the gendering of shopping festivals such as Double Eleven.
Defining femininity through consumption
As Betty Friedman points out in The Feminine Mystique, in capitalist societies, advertising plays a big role in constructing gender roles: while men are portrayed as breadwinners, women are targeted for beauty and cleaning products5. Big e-commerce companies such as Alibaba and Pinduoduo carry on this gendered consumption discourse by using stereotyped catchphrases to address their customers.
In their 2015 recap of Double Eleven sales, Alibaba made use of the expression 败家娘们 baijia niangmen “Spendthrift ladies/Shopaholics,” Since then, this idiom is often used on the Chinese web as opposed to 省钱媳妇 shengqian xifu “Money-saving wives”, creating a dichotomy between “good and bad wives”6. Besides reducing women to their role as wives, this stereotype also ties their identity with their consumer behavior.
That women in China are responsible for most of the shopping and handle finances in the family is a widespread reality.7 However, they are still disparaged for “being shopaholics” if they spend more than what is perceived to be beneficial to the family. At the same time, the idea of femininity encouraged by society can only be achieved through consumption (clothes, beauty products, weight-loss and skin-whitening products, etc.). How to solve this impossible dilemma?
The first step is to stop gendering consumption, especially on occasions such as Double Eleven. Hopefully, in the future, big e-commerce companies will encourage men, as well as women, to be responsible for purchasing cleaning products for their houses and to become “money-saving husbands” 省钱老公 shengqian laogong.
References / To go further
Hu, Chunyu, and Mengxi Luo. "A Multimodal Discourse Analysis of Tmall's Double Eleven Advertisement." English Language Teaching 9, no. 8 (2016): 156-169.
Zheng, Jiaran. New feminism in china: Young middle-class Chinese women in Shanghai. Springer, 2016.
Qian, Yue, and Jiaxing Li. "Separating spheres." China Review 20, no. 2 (2020): 19-52.
Meng, Bingchun, and Yanning Huang. "Patriarchal capitalism with Chinese characteristics: gendered discourse of ‘Double Eleven’shopping festival." Cultural Studies 31, no. 5 (2017): 659-684.
Friedan, Betty. The feminine mystique. WW Norton & Company, 2010.
Yang, Juhua. "Gendered division of domestic work and willingness to have more children in China." Demographic Research 37 (2017): 1949-1974.