Imperfect Victim: What A Chinese Series About Sexual Assault Can And Can't Say
A new melodrama broadcast in China about sexual assault in the workplace is a sign that some difficult questions are being addressed, but that serious taboos remain in Chinese society and public life.
BEIJING — Seeing the trailer for Imperfect Victim on TV was a harrowing experience: on a screen that is usually used as a backdrop, the face of an overwhelmed girl suddenly appears, along with several keywords, including "power imbalance." The advertisement explains that a drama about sexual assault in the workplace is being broadcast on Beijing Satellite Television and multiple other channels. It looks from the spot like a repeatedly banned subject is diving straight into the drama.
The story begins with a rape case reported anonymously by a third party. The victim, Zhao Xun, is a successful female assistant to the chairman of the board of directors, Cheng Gong. She is questioned by the police, her lawyer and the perpetrator of the crime, who sometimes affirms and sometimes denies the case.
During the course of the investigation, it was also discovered that after working in the company for only three months, she was transferred to a position that other colleagues had not reached despite working for several years, and that she had received luxury items purchased by Cheng Gong on the company's dime, which made her an "imperfect victim."
Cheng, as a perpetrator of sexual violence, was by no means unaware of Zhao’s conflict, or else he would not have covered up for himself by repeatedly bribing people who knew about it. Even he himself admitted that he likes Zhao not only because she is young, but also because he likes to see her "troubled face." However, Cheng still refuses to admit his crime on the grounds that Zhao did not resist.
A complicated lawyer
The lawyer, Lin Kan, is the most colorful character in the whole drama. She takes advantage of Zhao's weakness to help Cheng get rid of the rape charge, and to establish herself as an authoritative figure in the legal field. However, when she realizes that she is also a victim of sexual harassment in a powerless relationship, she cancels her lawyer's license and helps Zhao sue Cheng again for sexual harassment.
In the courtroom, Lin mentioned, "We are afraid of hurting our people and abusing the power in their hands," and "Since when do we ask victims to explain why they are victimized, and take it for granted that the perpetrators are not held accountable for what they have done?"
Sexual assault has always been about power, not just sex. This is a discourse that is not new to the feminist community, and it is one for which Imperfect Victim is able to make a strong case.
The fact that both Lin and Zhao see their own "fear of weakness" in each other, and ultimately face it together, is one of the most subtle, yet important parts of the film. Each person involved in the case has their own "side" that they want to protect: for Cheng, being the chairman of the board of directors, for Zhao, the beginning of her career, for Lin, the case that she won't lose.
The harmony and wordplay of the characters' names in the drama also hints at the story line they represent. For example, the name Lin means "brave" or "daring," Zhao means "searching," while Cheng Gong means "success" and Yan Ming, who anonymously called the police, means "hidden voice." The director and screenwriter have intentionally made the characters’ names as such.
Morally gray characters
The director and screenwriter intended for the characters to be neither black nor white, so even people with good intentions have moments of "evil" and evil characters have “good moments” or qualities. Even in the case of Cheng, who appears as the antagonist, the scriptwriter said, "We wanted to portray him as a very charismatic and authoritative person in a high position of power, rather than only demonizing him."
Is your incident representative enough?
The film also has a bold presentation of the difficulty of proving rape in criminal cases, with the male leaders in the public security system repeatedly asking female case officers not to "use their gender."
In this way, the drama is indeed an overall retaliation against the perpetrators of sexual assault. But what did it give up in order to confront the inequality of power and the loopholes in the law?
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Media coverage and public opinions
What Imperfect Victim leaves out the most is actually the most important aspect of a real-life sexual assault" the victims' active voice in the media and on social media.
The two screenwriters mentioned in an interview that they had read almost all the media reports on sexual assault since 2017, but it is clear from the plot that they still stereotyped the interactions between the victims and the media, and even took the initiative to blur out the distinction between different media outlets, and equated the media's attention and festering public opinion with the complicity of the abusers.
All the women in the film are passive in the face of the media and public opinion: Zhao is always in hiding; Xin Lu, Cheng Gong's wife, releases a statement indicating that the couple has a good relationship with each other under Cheng's arrangement for the benefit of the company.
In pointing out the lack of role of the media and the public in the drama, we are not trying to find an optimal balance between media exposure and silence, but rather we want to see the victim interacting with the public, and we want to see more dilemmas faced outside the courtroom, as it happens often in real life.
In fact, just like the law, the media in reality has its own selection criteria for reporting on sexual assault: is your incident representative enough? Can you add a new dimension to the existing #MeToo debate? Is now the best time to talk about this issue? — and the crueler fact is that, while it is often the victim who chooses to speak out, the event is more related to the perspective of the perpetrator. More and more victims are willing to come forward, perhaps for the simple reason that if we speak out one more time, will there be less sexual violence?
Now, even a drama about "imperfect victims" has weaknesses. The ultimate victory of the victims in the drama is not achieved by the support of their peers or the attention of the society, but by Lin, a well-known lawyer, and Yan Ming, the head of the case team. This actually makes me doubtful — will such a "power-over-power" ending be just a narrative of "female heroism" rather than a real empowerment of the weak?
Safe at the top, empowered at the bottom
Imperfect Victim was released only five days before Barbie, and Imperfect Victim is much more relevant to the situation of women in China than Barbie. But until it was released on iQiYi (Chinese video streaming site), I could only talk about it with a handful of friends, which is probably due to the fact that sexual assault is not a popular topic. The film had a 7.2/10 rating on Chinese film rating website Douban, but there was more empathy for the abuser, which dominated the front of the comments section, while understanding of Zhao and sharing of her own experiences of sexual assault and harassment were pushed to the back.
The #MeToo movement has struggled in China in recent years.
In addition to not receiving a standing ovation from the feminist community, Imperfect Victim is not nearly as broad a topic in the existing discussion as Barbie. In the film, every character made a transformation, and even Cheng apologizes at the last minute, though it's still not always sincere.
Let's go back to the female characters in the drama. In fact, no matter how much they form an alliance, the setting of these characters still carries some kind of "prey" attributes: Zhao's young and beautiful appearance and Kan's large influence in the lawyer's circle. This is in fact a design that is more likely to push the audience into victim-blaming, as if only women with these specific labels will be noticed by men and become victims.
The #MeToo movement has struggled in China in recent years, and it's this tension that gives the melodramatic #MeToo films room to create.
Now, after Imperfect Victim, the public authorities may be suggesting that gender inequality has become impossible to hide, the goal of the official discourse on sexual violence is no longer to deny the existence of these violations, but rather to fight for the victims.
It is "safe at the top and empowered at the bottom." But the empowerment is most likely an illusion, because the way to be empowered is to be a female icon like Lin — a woman who walks the line between those in power and the public with ease; a woman who gave up her lawyer's license but still managed to fight against the system on her own with a high-profile and much-applauded stance.
Image from the "Imperfect Victim" series.
hongmenyan via Instagram.
A kind of "compensation"
But is it really possible for such a person to exist in reality? In recent years, the only high-profile women's rights advocate in China who has cooperated with the system is Liang Yuhua, whose actions have made small, but important impact, such as mutual aid in the form of sanitary napkins, yet she has not yet pushed for changes in the system.
After the airing of Imperfect Victim, I am most wary of whether the place it occupies in the media will still be just a kind of "compensation" offered to "imperfect victims" after they have gone through their trauma. Like as shown in the film, the successful attempt to send Zhao's family out of the country, it is a unilateral demand for a settlement, with no option of not accepting it.
Moreover, could this film be just a euphemism for a "hush agreement" between the officials and the victims of sexual violence — I accept all your demands, we have said everything you want to say; can you stop making a fuss?
However, I still believe that a voice of compromise is better than no voice at all, which is why I gave Imperfect Victim a five-star rating on Douban.
After all, since Imperfect Victim has already brought these incidents that were banned from the internet, to television, it is still a move in the right direction. In a situation where expression itself is limited, interpretation can also fill in the other half of the freedom.
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