A stand-up comedian in China recently used the term "single panic" to describe fears among women about being alone, and the words have since resonated in online discussions.
The "panic" is a product, the female comedian pointed out, of pressure and prejudices in Chinese society against single women. The only way for single women to be regarded as "not that miserable," the entertainer joked, is to live a more glamorous life than a married woman. "But even then, people will still say, 'look, she lives in such a big house and there's not even a man in it.'"
In reacting to the comedian's bit on "single panic," many online argued that it speaks to gender inequality within traditional Chinese values. As one love-and-relationships blogger wrote: "For centuries men have been the masters of the house, while women are the caregivers, and they are born to satisfy and serve the others."
Nowadays, Chinese women are gaining higher social status through access to better education. And yet, the traditional norm of "getting married as early as possible" is still popular, albeit with new social powers given to women, the blogger argues. "When being single is stigmatized, aging becomes a restriction. The mentality of Chinese women is always in conflict."
The writer goes on to say that societal norms make marriage the only significant relationship for women looking to be accepted in society, and that in turn discriminates women who have not walked down the aisle as being somehow "leftovers."
Two women glance at a mobile phone together in central BeijingArtyom Ivanov/TASS via ZUMA Press
At the same time, inflated ideas about marital life lead people into situations they haven't really though, the blogger argues. That, in turn, can result in full-blown financial, emotional and spiritual turmoil. In that sense, marriage for the sake of security is a paradox.
Others on social media take a different view, and criticize what they see as efforts, among certain sectors, to "promote non-marriage" and "infertility" — things that are ultimately "dangerous for the country." And it's not just older voices who take this kind of reactionary stance. One recent social media post (that garnered 4,000 likes) compared the so-called "leftover women" to the milk poured out during the economic crisis.
The issue of single women was also brought up, interestingly, in a 2017 IKEA commercial that aired in China. In the ad, which stirred up more than a bit of controversy on social media, a girl dines with her parents and calls out to her mother, who slams her chopsticks on the spot and turns against her: "Don't call me mom if you don't bring your boyfriend back!" Then, when the girl's boyfriend comes to visit, the girl's parents completely change their attitude and immediately set up a happy and warm home.
Some believed that IKEA's ad is a reflection of Chinese reality, that parents pressuring their children to marry is widespread. They saw nothing wrong, in other words, with the message. But others took real issue with the commercial, saying it demeans women and promotes a distorted concept. "If you don't have a boyfriend, you can't even call your mother?" one social media user asked.
Marriage for the sake of security is a paradox.
IKEA subsequently issued a statement apologizing and withdrew the ad.
Many argued that IKEA's "urge for marriage" ad simply missed that mark, that in trying to address a hot topic in Chinese society, it failed to grasp the psychology of the target group.
In another ad — SK-II's "She Ended Up at the Matchmaking Corner," from 2016 — several "leftover women" are shown speaking with their parents. It opens with the parents putting pressure on their unmarried daughters. But in the second half of the commercial, the daughters are able to explain to their parents that they "don't want to get married just for the sake of getting married." In the end, the parents seem to understand, and there's a reconciliation between the generations.
In addition to choosing between infertility and marriage, some single Chinese women are also looking for a third way: single parenthood. A particularly well-known case is Haiyang Ye, CEO of a cosmetics company, who traveled to the United States in 2017 to buy sperm and gave birth to her daughter Doris through artificial insemination. The effort cost her more than $75,000.
In a short documentary she revealed how some people on the internet criticized her for being selfish, saying that the family she had formed without a man was incomplete and that the child would have a miserable life. Ye believes that she has done everything she can to give her daughter the love she needs and that her family choices shouldn't be anyone's business but her own.
In the commenting section for the documentary, many women expressed their appreciation for her choice. Some argued that a responsible single mother can offer more happiness to her children than two parents who don't get along, while others pointed out that in two-parent families, many fathers today don't take responsibility and aren't, in the end, "essential.''
Others criticized Ye for trying to start a trend, something the CEO denies. She responded by saying that what she'd like rather is for women to have more freedom of choice. That, she said, is what she'd like to see become more mainstream.
Freedom is also the message that the comedian was trying to get at with her "single panic" routine. She too wants every woman to choose as she sees fit, and to not have to face pressure or criticism from those around her.