Redefining 剩女 ‘Leftover Women’

This past week, luxury skin care company SK-II released a video that is receiving significant attention on the internet.  Released and intended for the Chinese segment of the brand, the video has successfully highlighted a cultural norm that is incredibly specific to China and created conversation about it across borders.

The video, originally posted on YouTube, featured emotional anecdotes of “leftover women,” or those unmarried after 25, in China.  These “leftover women” receive shameful treatment as well as intense familial and societal pressure for not being married as they ‘should be.’  The video shows the women interacting with their families and includes some of the brutally harsh and hurtful comments that parents of these “leftover women” spit out regularly.  The storytelling is enhanced by compelling visuals, contrasting scenes from the young women’s modern lives with images of traditional China: families, parading dragons and the marriage market.  

The marriage market becomes the an important feature of the video; it is both the scene that epitomizes the women’s’ frustration, embarrassment, and societal isolation, but also where they eventually stand up to their parents and reaffirm their own lifestyle choices. The marriage market is where Chinese parents display their children as marriage potential, detailing intimate information like their height, weight, salary, values and personality.  SK-II took over a marriage market, and did so beautifully, by posting photos of hundreds of “leftover women” accompanied with simple statements that assert their desire for independence and self-driven happiness.  Viewers are then shown the parents’ tearful acceptance of their daughters, coming to the realization that these “leftover women” are actually outstanding, confident, beautiful and something to be proud, not ashamed, of.     

I found this video fascinating because it was something that I witnessed first-hand this past summer in Shanghai.  On a Saturday morning, I went to People’s Park, and unknowingly stumbled upon hundreds of umbrellas covered in printed-out signs, listing the elaborate details of their children and offering them up for marriage, which I soon found out was the marriage market.  Every square inch of the park was covered in such signs, and I quickly realized that this wasn’t just some weird one-off event that I was witnessing, but rather a manifestation of a deeply-rooted cultural norm.

Throughout the rest of my time in China, I learned from more instances like this that standards for women in China are fierce and adhered to rigidly.  Physically, women are supposed to be stick-thin and have paper-white skin and large, round eyes.  The “leftover woman” designation is another one of these standards that very regularly dictate the public’s, and the individual’s, valuation of self-worth and beauty.  It’s both refreshing and fascinating to see a brand so vocally taking a stance to combat such a poignant social stigma that quietly affects the lives of thousands of women every single day.  It’s becoming increasingly popular for brands to take a stand on social issues, but this #changedestiny campaign feels different.  SK-II’s powerful and relevant message of “don’t let pressure dictate your future” is bold, especially coming from a luxury skincare company who essentially creates products to help women look and feel more beautiful (and charges upwards of $150 for it).  

Although the video features parents becoming accepting to the women’s assertions of independence, it’s not that easy for most Chinese women.  These norms have been rooted in Chinese society for decades, and while young people are beginning to challenge their antiquated origins, it’s still a long way off until cultural cornerstones like the marriage market are a thing of the past.  Being in China and interacting directly with the people, however, gave me fantastic insight into some of the many generational tensions between young people and their elders, and the 1.2 million views on this video confirm that Chinese society is slowly but surely changing.

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One comment

  1. […] Lauren Buniva explains what’s going on here: […]

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