Written by Chris Berry.

Amongst the most memorable commercial films on display at  the recently concluded Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy—for all the wrong reasons—was Pang Ho-Cheung (彭浩翔)’s Chinese-Hong Kong 2014 co-production, Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命). The premise is a tired old staple borrowed from Hollywood: two girls fighting over the same guy. Shanghai Girl cannot attract him because he regards her as another ‘dude’. Taipei Girl seduces him away by playing helpless and stupid. A ‘Barbie army’ – yes, the subtitles really do say that – goes into battle to teach her how to flirt and win back Shanghai’s honour.

Women Who Flirt is a far cry from the heroic figures who drive tractors and fight on the battlefield in the films of the Mao era, which stretched from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 to his death in 1976. It is also typical. Chinese screens today are populated by legions of overly made-up Barbie doll women in endless changes of fashion victim outfits, despite having jobs that would never support their wardrobe. All of them are desperately Finding Mr. Right (北京遇上西雅图), to echo the title of a 2013 spectacularly successful romantic comedy, starring Tang Wei (汤唯) from Lust, Caution (色, 戒, 2007).

Chairman Mao famously said that women hold up half of heaven. And in the films, posters, newsreels and imagery of the Mao era, women appeared doing everything a man could do. In the Cultural Revolution model opera classic, Azalea Mountain (杜鹃山, 1974), the Communist Party fighters are waiting on the mountain for the ‘Party representative’ to arrive. When Ke Xiang (柯湘) finally does make her entrance, a pistol at her waist, some of the men have difficulty realizing that this woman is not only a powerful fighter but also the ‘Party representative’ who will lead and instruct them.

A milder and more comic but no less powerful variation is Li Shuangshuang (李双双, 1962). The protagonist, whom the film is named after, is a peasant woman with a conservative husband who wants her to stay at home. She not only goes out to work and wins equal pay for equal work, but also uses her powers of persuasion to win over her husband and his family. This is the closest anyone ever comes to flirtation in a Mao era film, and it is not a sign of Shuangshuang’s weakness and need to please but of her husband’s insecurity.

At first sight, it seems that while China really has taken a giant economic leap forward since the death of Mao and introduction of market economics and international trade, gender politics has slid backwards. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, but it seems that women are back to being Barbie dolls again. Although fundamentally correct, this understanding might be a bit too simple. Ke Xiang’s role as the leading Communist Party figure in Azalea Mountain is quite unusual. Far more common is a situation like that in Li Shuangshuang, where an ordinary woman’s struggle is won at least partly because she is guided and supported by the local Party Secretary – who almost always turns out to be a man.

Perhaps this emphasis on male backing in film after film of the Mao era explains why Chinese women themselves have not fought to maintain the image of the hard-fighting tough woman from that time. Was it something they felt they really owned? Or was it more a Party project to maximize production that they were mobilized for? Certainly, it is clear that although many women participated in the women’s liberation project of the Mao era, it was not a movement they initiated.

The Communist Party is still very much in control in China today. But it is more or less absent from the country’s screens. There are no Party Secretaries commanding the Barbie Army from behind the scenes of Pang Ho-Cheung’s film. The women on today’s Chinese screens seem to be doing it for themselves. Even if all about consumption, self-commodification, and competing with other women, the narratives make this out to be a process of individual self-expression and triumph. However fantastical, this seeming self-empowerment has huge appeal to young women across China.

This ideology of individual self-responsibility is familiar to us from Hollywood and American neoliberalism, and it is not difficult to pick holes in it. Its appearance in China is all the more striking, but not only because of the disavowal of the overdetermining role the Communist Party continues to have in Chinese life. What is also significant is the complete absence of effective anti-gender discrimination laws and regulations in a country where the one-party state has made it very difficult for women to develop their own movement to achieve such institutional changes.

This political blockage within the Chinese system was brought home this year on the eve of International Women’s Day, 6 March 2015. The Chinese police arrested some of China’s most prominent young feminist activists, who were planning to engage in street performance events to draw attention to harassment on public buses. The Chinese government is notoriously sensitive to any activity that smacks of political organisation. So perhaps the poorly timed intervention was not so surprising. But what their seizure also drives home is the political repression that and enforcement that severely limits the options for Chinese women to exert agency over their lives. In these dismal circumstances, perhaps learning to flirt is the only option left open for the time being.

Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London.  Image Credit: CC by Jonathan Kos-Read/Flickr