Centre for Contemporary East Asian Cultural Studies (CEACS) Public Lecture
What’s in a Jacket? Another Look at the 'Masculinisation' of Women in the Cultural Revolution
Speaker: Professor Harriet Evans
A dominant trope retrospectively associated with women during the Cultural Revolution was that women were “unnaturally” masculinised in their appearance, to conform to the standard represented by the figure of the young urban male. This view was rapidly taken up media commentators, writers and the Women’s Federation, in the early 1980s, and explained the resort by pioneering early exponents of women’s studies in China, to the notion of a liberating essential femininity released from the straitjacket the Mao era. Corresponding with China’s engagement with the global capitalist market, it was not long before urban spaces were covered with commercial images of sexy women with fancy makeup, jewelry and all that had been excoriated during the 1960s.
In this presentation we revisit the concepts of socialist androgyny and gender neutrality, formulated long ago by Marilyn Young and Susan Brownell, to reflect on how they might contribute to imagining the gender possibilities and practices of the Mao era, particularly of the 1960s and 1970s, not as a straitjacket limiting women’s essential femininity but as an emancipatory opportunity freeing women from being socially characterised and visualised as sexualised products responsive to the familiar male gaze. That the sartorial emphases of the Cultural Revolution were part of a programme of revolutionary transformation which sought to equalize access to social and cultural opportunities is born out by evidence from women of this generation that wearing more or less the same as men was experienced as a kind of freedom to be able to interact socially with men and women without being constantly reminded of their difference from and inferiority to men. In this sense, the “gender neutrality” of women’s clothes of the period may be understood not so much as being dictated by the male standard but as an expression of women’s agency in identifying themselves as equal subjects.
About the Speaker:
Harriet Evans is Professor Emerita of Chinese Cultural Studies (University of Westminster) and Visiting Professor of Anthropology (LSE). She has written extensively on the politics of gender and sexuality in China, and on political posters and visual culture of the Mao era. Her main publications are Women and Sexuality in China: Dominant Discourses of Female Sexuality and Gender since 1949 (1997), Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution (co-edited with Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, 1999), and The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China (2008). Her Beijing from Below: Stories of Marginal Lives in the Capital’s Center is in press with Duke University Press. She is currently working on a volume to mark the completion of a 3-year research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, on ‘Conflicts in Culture: Localities and Heritage in Southwest China.’ Harriet works with lawyers representing women seeking asylum in the UK and is Chair of Trustees of the London-based NGO, The Rights Practice.
Free event. No registration required.