Damsels in Distress in China

This begins with this column by Eugene Robinson in Washington Post:

Someday historians will look back at America in the decade bracketing the turn of the 21st century and identify the era's major themes: Religious fundamentalism. Terrorism. War in Iraq. Economic dislocation. Bioengineering. Information technology. Nuclear proliferation. Globalization. The rise of superpower China.

And, of course, Damsels in Distress.

Every few weeks, this stressed-out nation with more problems to worry about than hours in the day finds time to become obsessed with the saga -- it's always a "saga," never just a story -- of a damsel in distress. Natalee Holloway, the student who disappeared while on a class trip to the Caribbean island of Aruba, is the latest in what seems an endless series.  Holloway assumed the mantle from her predecessor, the Runaway Bride, who turned out not to have been in distress at all -- not physical distress, at least, though it's obvious that the prospect of her impending 600-guest wedding caused Jennifer Wilbanks an understandable measure of mental trauma.

Before the Runaway Bride, there were too many damsels to provide a full list, but surely you remember the damsel elite: Laci Peterson. Elizabeth Smart. Lori Hacking. Chandra Levy. JonBenet Ramsey. We even found, or created, a damsel amid the chaos of war in Iraq: Jessica Lynch.

The specifics of the story line vary from damsel to damsel. In some cases, the saga begins with the discovery of a corpse. In other cases, the damsel simply vanishes into thin air. Often, there is a suspect from the beginning -- an intruder, a husband, a father, a congressman, a stranger glimpsed lurking nearby.  Sometimes the tale ends well, or well enough, as in the cases of Smart and Lynch. Let's hope it ends well for Holloway. But more often, it ends badly. Once in a great while, a case like Runaway Bride comes along to provide comic relief.

But of course the damsels have much in common besides being female. You probably have some idea of where I'm headed here.

A damsel must be white. This requirement is nonnegotiable. It helps if her frame is of dimensions that breathless cable television reporters can credibly describe as "petite," and it also helps if she's the kind of woman who wouldn't really mind being called "petite," a woman with a good deal of princess in her personality. She must be attractive -- also nonnegotiable. Her economic status should be middle class or higher, but an exception can be made in the case of wartime (see: Lynch).

Put all this together, and you get 24-7 coverage. The disappearance of a man, or of a woman of color, can generate a brief flurry, but never the full damsel treatment. Since the Holloway story broke we've had more news reports from Aruba this past week, I'd wager, than in the preceding 10 years.

I have no idea whether the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida hung on every twist and turn of the Chandra Levy case; somehow, I doubt he did. But I suspect the apostle of "deconstructionism" would have analyzed the damsel-in-distress phenomenon by explaining that our society is imposing its own subconsciously chosen narrative on all these cases.

It's the meta-narrative of something seen as precious and delicate being snatched away, defiled, destroyed by evil forces that lurk in the shadows, just outside the bedroom window. It's whiteness under siege. It's innocence and optimism crushed by cruel reality. It's a flower smashed by a rock.  Or maybe (since Derrida believed in multiple readings of a single text) the damsel thing is just a guaranteed cure for a slow news day. The cable news channels, after all, have lots of airtime to fill.

This is not to mock any one of these cases (except Runaway Bride) or to diminish the genuine tragedy experienced by family and friends. I can imagine the helplessness I'd feel if a child of mine disappeared from a remote beach in the Caribbean. But I can also be fairly confident that neither of my sons would provoke so many headlines.

Whatever our ultimate reason for singling out these few unfortunate victims, among the thousands of Americans who are murdered or who vanish each year, the pattern of choosing only young, white, middle-class women for the full damsel treatment says a lot about a nation that likes to believe it has consigned race and class to irrelevance.  What it says is that we haven't. What it says is that those stubborn issues are still very much alive and that they remain at the heart of the nation's deepest fears.

Kevin Drum pointed out that Eugene Robinson had a missing entry:

Actually, Robinson forgot the DiD who came in between the Runaway Bridge and Holloway: Schapelle Corby, the attractive, white, Australian beautician who was recently sent to jail for allegedly smuggling marijuana into Indonesia. I'm going to take a wild guess and estimate that dozens of foreigners have been sent to jail for smuggling drugs into Indonesia in the past year alone, but Corby is the only one to get splashed all over CNN's front page. Can you guess why?

(Answer: According to a cable news employee who was willing to state the obvious on an anonymous basis, "We showcase missing, young, white, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers. It's about beating the competition and ad dollars.")

What has this got to do with China?  Here is a statement translated from an interview with a certain famous Chinese media expert (via Boxun).  He has seen what goes on in the United States and he does not like it.


Free thought is a very irrational way of thinking, because it has a proclivity for entertainment.  For example, you know that the public adores celebrities; when you turn on the television set and you see some celebrities, you pay attention to the celebrities instead of the things that concern you.  What is the celebrity thinking?  What is he doing?  

The celebrities are setting the agenda for the general public, which does not have to pay attention to what is happening around them, or care about it, or think about it.  Instead, the public watches and listens to whatever the celebrities feel like talking about.  But sometimes the thought may come to the public member, "What he is talking about has nothing to do with me personally.  He seems to talking about things from another planet.  Maybe something is happening to me right now, but how come I don't feel that it matters to me at all?"  That is why I am opposed to free thought.

The other thing about free thought is that it feeds on scandals.  For example, in the United States, the media are reflecting on the Monica Lewinsky case.  Lewinsky was a White House intern.  The media went overboard with the sex scandal between her and President Clinton.  It was all intern all the time.  Every small and large detail about Lewinsky has appeared in the media.

At the time, the audience loved it.  When people go home, what they think about most was what happened between the two, or what will happen to them.  All the radio and television stations bombarded the country around the clock for a month, and then the newspapers published the entire Starr Report.

Later, people reflected: What do such things such as the private affairs of the president got to do with our public interests?  Does not the president have really important things to deal with: environment protection, foreign relations, Sino-American relations, the Taiwan Straits problem, American-Russian negotiations about strategic ballistic missiles, unemployment, minorities, Indian tribes, education, campus massacres, and other matters that the American public care about?

Concerning those issues, 'free thought' should have given individuals a major impetus to form a public opinion force to demand the President solve the problems.  Instead, free thought wants to know if the President went to bed with Monica Lewinsky.  If free thought continues to cause that to happen, is it not damaging the public interests?  Sometimes, people praised Americans for being free to think; they are even allowed to think about whether the President went to bed with that woman.  But if everybody starts thinking about those kinds of things, then where is that society heading towards?  What have these things got to do with the people?  What have these things go to do with the public interests?

Here is the first thought: If the Chinese Communists want to cement their hold on their country and turn people's attention away from political and social issues that might challenge their rule, shouldn't they be running Damsels in Distress stories?  That was a rhetorical question, because the answer must be ... ah, but they do and will probably do a lot more!  For proof, just read Danwei continuously (especially the summary of newpaper front page stories) and take note of the tendency in Chinese media (also see the LAT article at bottom of this page).

What is the alternative then?  Here, I am going to insert the section that was previously omitted by the ellipsis in the statement from the Chinese media expert:

Your own free thoughts may be different from the thoughts of society and the government as a whole, because you don't have all of the relevant facts or you haven't considered all of the aspects.  The thoughts of society and the government have been approved by the relevant government departments, which have collected all the relevant facts and thoroughly considered all the positive and negative aspects on your behalf, and then express the information in the way that you prefer to receive.  In so doing, we are selfless.  We only do this so that you won't have to think for yourself.  All you have to do is live like pigs.  

Here, I must add that I think that pigs are the luckiest animals in the world.  It is noted that there I am referring to domestic pigs, not wild boars.  As arranged by the master, pigs live, eat, drink and play without a worry.  Although their ultimate fate is death, they are lazy, they don't think and they live happily.  For them, death is only terrible in the final few minutes of their lives.  Most of the time, they live in a happy paradise.  But wild boars are different, because they have individuality and they think too much; they want to fight with humans and they need to find food for themselves; for them, death is not just terrible in the last few minutes, but it is a fact in every minute of their lives.

What a choice!  Choice #1: Spend your life worrying about (white) damsels in distress.  Choice #2: Be a mindless pig and trust the government to take care of everything.  The correct choice should be clear -- NONE OF THE ABOVE.  Why must I choose between two extremely weak straw men?

For the record, the Chinese media expert is Li Xiguang (李希光), the Dean of the Tsinghua University School of Journalism.  He was previously featured in the post The Man With Two Faces.  The Boxun article which reproduced his remarks in their entirety has this sub-title inserted by the commentator: "I ask everyone inside and outside to get together and boycott Li Xiguang and Tsinghua University!" (吁海内外共同行动,抵制李希光和清华大学).  Indeed.

(Los Angeles Times)  China's pulse races.  By Mara Hvistendah.  July 24, 2005.

Headlines like "Sex, Porn Pack Berlin Film Festival," features on the Pamela Anderson cartoon "Stripperella" and photos of Paris Hilton examining her cleavage might easily be the work of the National Enquirer or Globe. But the Chinese state news agency?

In the China Youth Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League, readers can find articles on adult toys, while the People's Daily has published features on Shanghai's Ancient Sex Culture Museum, once a source of government ire.

And then there is state agency Xinhua, which regularly displays photos of scantily clad women on its website. In a four-day period in early May, Xinhua ran pictures from the Miss Bikini China contest; a spread of foreign swimsuit models, one of whom was wearing only a bikini bottom; provocative shots of foreign women under the English headline "How many luring poses can you imagine?"; photos from the swimsuit competition of last year's Miss Universe contest; and, for good measure, pictures from a Thai transvestite beauty contest.

Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs a Beijing advertising firm and keeps an English-language blog on the Chinese media at http://www.danwei.org , says the change has been vast. "You would never have the idea that there was any sex in China from reading the People's Daily five or six years ago," he says. Now, "There's a lot more lifestyle stuff. The party has decided it doesn't want to control people's private lives."

The explosion of suggestive images is partly a reflection of changes in Chinese society — many sociologists say China is in the midst of a sweeping sexual revolution — and partly due to market reforms. In 2003, the Chinese government introduced far-reaching regulations that require many newspapers and magazines to try to turn a profit. Television is undergoing a similar, though more gradual, transformation. Xinhua remains state-owned, but it competes for hits with NASDAQ-traded Internet portals Sina and Sohu, which publish their share of racy content. "They have less of a profit motive," Goldkorn said of Xinhua, "but they must be looking at their visitor stats."

The government has not given the press free rein to publish material with sexual themes, but the way censorship is carried out means that some media outlets can get away with quite a lot. Rather than issue top-down decrees, Beijing's censors primarily react to existing material, so websites, whose content is easily removable, and publications far from Beijing, which are less likely to attract censors' attention, can take more chances. Still, articles on topics such as "China's Janet Jackson," a TV star who has twice revealed a breast in public, and the incidence of erectile dysfunction among China's urban men are now common in the national media.

Beyond the state-owned news outlets, once the country's sole purveyor of information, several recently launched men's magazines are mining the territory opened by Western ladmags. Mangazine (with the emphasis on man, not manga) gives readers photos of coy, fully clothed women and features on sexy topics, and the Chinese edition of FHM provides discreetly posed centerfold nudes and articles like "I Want an Orgasm, Not Romance."

Menbox publishes spreads of nearly nude men that seem targeted at a male audience, but it stops short of defining itself as a gay magazine.

The new men's magazines are showing strong numbers — FHM has a circulation of 330,000, while Mangazine sells 200,000 copies a month. "China is one of our most important territories," said Chris Mooney, international editorial director of Emap, the company that owns FHM. "We're very happy with how the magazine is doing there."

The fate of China's men's magazines, however, is still unclear. Both FHM and Menbox appear to be gauging the reaction of the censors, following up risqu้ issues with tamer ones. Maxim, which hopes to join the mix, is in continuing talks about a Chinese edition.

Until it reaches the newsstand, however, Chinese consumers have Xinhua. In January the state news agency posted photos of a bikini-clad Laura Prepon accompanied by a short interview on its website. The content, grabbed from the "girlfriend of the day" section of the Maxim site, is labeled with Maxim's logo.

Perhaps the best gauge of the government's tolerance of sexual content is the Internet, where material is decentralized and spontaneous, but heavily censored. According to a report released in April by the Open Net Initiative, a research group run out of Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Toronto, China has the most sophisticated Internet filtering system in the world, with at least 30,000 censors in police units around the country.

China has made much of its campaign against online pornography, but a wide range of sexual content remains accessible to its 94 million Internet users. The Open Net Initiative report found that the Chinese government blocks only seven of the top 100 Google results for "pornography" and three of the results for "sex."

"There is censorship of the Chinese Internet, but there's a lot more tolerance of sexual content," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "Online sexual materials are everywhere if you do a Google search and you know where to go."

Take, for, example, the case of Li Li, a young magazine columnist in the southern city of Guangzhou, who began blogging about her sexual exploits under the name Muzi Mei in June 2003. Li exposed some of the problems caused by rapid social change — she said she had no knowledge of birth control when she started having sex — as she captured national attention with her unrelenting frankness. She appeared in Chinese Cosmopolitan and Mangazine, and the state press published lengthy features on the "Muzi Mei craze."

In November 2003, the government decided that the story had gotten out of hand and banned the publication of a book of Li's blog entries. Li shut down her website and the media abandoned the story, but her writing resurfaced on other sites, while articles about her remained in the archives of sites like Xinhua. Since then, other women have begun writing about their sex lives online, and one recently posted nude photos of herself on her blog. Li, meanwhile, has quietly started keeping another blog, still using the name Muzi Mei, and had her book published abroad.

The government's treatment of Li is lenient compared with the punishment it gives to online political dissidents, Xiao said. "The mainstream media can debate on her and criticize her," he said. "Her book may have been banned, but she can travel. She has considerable freedom in that dimension." One month after Li's book was banned, online essayist Kong Youping was imprisoned for advocating democratic reforms, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is now serving a 15-year term.

Liu Kang, director of Duke University's program in Chinese media and communication studies, said the Chinese government's attitude toward sexual content is ambivalent. "It's like the way they treat copyrights — it's half-hearted," he said. "The Communist government could be very effective in cracking down on certain areas, but looking at those sectors, it's pretty ineffective."

In 2003, the Chinese government stipulated that newspapers and magazines must earn at least half of their revenue from voluntary subscriptions. In the following months, it shut down 673 publications that did not comply. Since then, many newspapers have effectively become financially independent, and a number have adopted flashy tabloid-style formats in an effort to attract readers and advertising.

Television has become similarly competitive. China restructured the state-owned CCTV last year to attract foreign investment and venture capital, with plans to make certain stations independent within three years. While China had just 100 channels 20 years ago, it now has 2,100, and in the largest markets stations vie aggressively for ratings.

At the same time, President Hu Jintao, who some had hoped would work toward a free press, has made it clear that many of the topics that might sell newspapers and attract viewers — like corruption, police brutality and political reform — remain off-limits. In early 2004 the government fired the staff of the popular Southern Metropolitan News, which had exposed the cover-up of the SARS outbreak, and jailed two of its editors. Editors and programming directors now find themselves in a bind: They must produce content that is relevant and attention-grabbing while avoiding an ever-shifting list of forbidden topics.

No wonder, then, that TV stations increasingly turn to racy content to attract viewers. While graphic sexual imagery is prohibited, infomercials and fashion programs frequently play to audiences' prurient interests, and late-night talk shows feature discussions on sexual health. "Sensational programs and tabloid news have really become the order of the day," said Duke's Liu, who is writing a book on Chinese television.

Dramas have also become more titillating, as sophisticated, locally produced series eclipse the low-budget historical sagas that once dominated Chinese television. "(Really, Really Want to) Talk About Love," a series that recently aired in Beijing, for example, unabashedly billed itself as the Chinese "Sex and the City," and the description wasn't far off. At times, in fact, "Talk About Love" ripped off whole plot lines from the American series. Gone are the explicit discussions of sex, but the show finds a lot of space for suggestion.

In one of the series' final episodes, one woman — the Chinese answer to Charlotte — announces that she has not yet slept with her fianc้. Her friends are shocked. "You have to see if shoes fit before you buy them!" one of them exclaims. "What if your man is really a woman?" another asks. The couple ends up between the sheets the night before the wedding, and, although the suggestion of sex traditionally ends at the bedroom door on Chinese TV, viewers see them in bed together the next morning.

With a cast of famous actors and pop stars, "Talk About Love" took fourth and fifth in the ratings for dramas in its time slot in Shanghai, and though it did less well nationally, it has already spawned a book.

The press, meanwhile, has been happy to write about it all — and even to point out where the show's producers held back. As one headline on the entertainment portal 163.com put it, the series "Talks About Love, Not Sex." But it will not be long, one imagines, before another show takes that final leap.