Sexism in Han Han’s Film Review?

Yesterday I translated this Han Han post for ChinaSMACK. In the process, I came across this passage, which I found rather interesting. Han Han is saying that he is willing to give Confucius (the recent Chow Yun-fat film) only two “points”, the second of which is thusly explained:

Also, because the director is female, I will encourage her with a point. But it must be said, that whether it’s this female director’s Confucius or another female director’s I am Liu Yuejin, their grasp of non-emotional films, especially the more complex/intricate ones, is rather weak. I don’t understand why they don’t make films about love or life [instead], which is what female directors are good at. Zhang Aijia’s Heartbeat or Xu Anhua’s Day and Night in Tianshui are good movies by female directors. Why should women embarrass themselves?

This passage hasn’t, as yet, jumped out at many of the ChinaSMACK commenters, and neither did it appear to leave a deep impression on Han Han’s commenters from what I can tell (though I confess a deep disinterest in wading very far into the thousands of comments, which are 90-95% just “Han Han I love you”, “I will always support Han Han”, “Wow, first page!”, etc.).

Nevertheless, the passage bothers me. What Han Han seems to be suggesting is that women are inherently better at making one type of movie than another; that they’re not fully capable of creating a complex dramatic epic like a man can. Furthermore, the sentence “why should women embarrass themselves?” suggests that the failure of one female director, is, somehow, reflected on all other female directors.

Granted, there is a great disproportion in the ratio of male to female film directors. But does that justify judging female directors collectively, or deciding based on the works of a few what they can or can’t do? When Zhang Yimou makes a mess of a complex martial arts/”historical”/character drama (as he has repeatedly in the past decade), I haven’t seen anyone calling that an embarrassment to male directors. So why the special treatment for women? Are they really less capable of making films than men because of their gender?

In fact, Chinese female directors can and have made films every bit as complex and character-driven as men. Huang Shuqin‘s Woman Demon Human [人鬼情] springs to mind immediately as a cinematic work by a female director that is moving, emotional, and quite complex in its meditations on the nature of gender and performance. It is not about “love” or “life” (at least, not any more than any film is about “life”), and yet a female director managed to pull it off. Of course, I doubt Han Han has seen this film as it came out in 1987. But there are other examples.

A scene from Woman Demon Human (1987)

Do Han Han’s comments constitute sexism? Furthermore, how do Chinese people define sexism? There seem to be two terms, 性别主义 (“sexism”) and 性别歧视 (“sexual discrimination”), with the former just being a sort of ideology and the latter often implying some kind of discriminatory action. If we take Han Han’s words at face value, it seems to be a clear cut case of 性别主义 (“sexism”), as Han Han implies that men are inherently better at making certain kinds of films than women.

Whether or not Han Han’s comments constitute 性别歧视 (“sexual discrimination”) is probably more controversial. On the one hand, these are his own thoughts posted on a blog. On the other hand, by expressing them in a place where literally thousands of women are going to read them, his words are bound to leave some kind of impression on his many adoring followers, male and female both.

Is it the same as beating a woman, or paying her less than a man? Certainly not. But this kind of mindset is exactly what leads to those more extreme behaviors. After all, if women are inherently worse at making certain types of movies, they must also be inherently worse at other things too, right? Unless there’s some kind of adverse reaction that happens between film cameras and the female gender, we can assume Han Han also believes women are less capable of writing great works of dramatic literature, for example. The supposed existence of these shortcomings in the female gender suggests to readers that there might be more ways in which women are incapable of measuring up to men.

I do not mean to suggest that Han Han is a male chauvinist. I’ve never met the man, and though I read his blog fairly frequently this is the first time I can remember running across something like this, so I am not attacking Han Han as a person. But I do believe that what he suggested in this essay was fundamentally sexist. Confucius may have sucked, but that doesn’t mean no women are capable of making that kind of film, it just means that one woman wasn’t. To paraphrase a favorite line from the film Gettysburg, ‘anyone who judges by the group is a pee-wit. You take people one at a time.’

What do you think? Was Han Han being a bit sexist or are we making mountains out of molehills?

0 thoughts on “Sexism in Han Han’s Film Review?”

  1. “But it must be said, that whether it’s this female director’s Confucius or another female director’s I am Liu Yuejin, their grasp of emotional films, especially the more complex/intricate ones, is rather weak”

    The original is actually “non-emotional films”, not “emotional films.”

    He is stereotyping, but anecdotally, it does ring true. Women tend to identify more with emotional works, whereas men tend to be stronger with logic and facts.

    “Unless there’s some kind of adverse reaction that happens between film cameras and the female gender, we can assume Han Han also believes women are less capable of writing great works of dramatic literature, for example.”

    Love stories can be dramatic. What Han Han is saying is that women are not as good with historical works. Men and women do have differences, statistically speaking. Many women aren’t interested in politics or history, for example, for reasons that can’t be explained by social environment alone.


  2. @ xyz: good point, I must have skipped the 非 when I was translating it, that actually makes a lot more sense.

    That said, I think what you’re saying is just as sexist as what Han Han said.


  3. I don’t see how anyone can argue this wasn’t a sexist remark, and a duchebag remark at that.
    However, Chinese society is so balatantly sexit I’m not at all surprised it’s passed unnoticed: If you ask people of Han Han’s generation 9 out of 10 would probably agree with him, and would back their words with widely accepted “facts” such as “Many women aren’t interested in politics and history”.


  4. “Many women aren’t interested in politics and history.”

    Actually, that is a fact. Also a fact: many men aren’t interested in politics and history either. Again it’s a case of description vs. prescription. If it’s prescriptive, then it’s wrong. But I know what you mean. You mean people who were being prescriptive about what women should be interested in. They’re sexists.

    Since we’re at this topic, I have a favorite question: Have you ever in your life frowned upon or felt uncomfortable (if well hidden) with men wearing women’s clothes like skirts or bras (remember a recent piece of news about some Japanese men wearing bras that are scientifically proven to help their posture or ease their exhaustion) but felt fine if women wear suits or pants? I always remind myself of this question when I hear accusations of sexism.


  5. Wooddoo, I’m sure it was sharp manly logic that helped you make this linkage between argument for women’s capabilities and dressing preferences, but that logic is really beyond the grasp of my tiny lady brain.
    Since you’ve asked: No, I don’t frown upon what anyone chooses to wear and I find men in skirts quite hot, so long as they shave their legs.


  6. @ wooddoo: That’s not really a fair analogy, I don’t think, because social dressing norms are based, at least in part, on the actual physical differences between the bodies of men and women. Obviously there’s no physical reason men can’t wear bras or a skirt, of course, but you saying it is the first I’ve ever heard about bras being good for men’s posture, and there are men in many cultures who wear skirts (I had a friend in high school who would sometimes wear a kilt to class, didn’t really faze anyone…)


  7. I actually didn’t link clothes to physical differences. The question was a non-sequitur as I like to digress. And the reason I ask the question is to say sexism abounds, because the vast majority of people feel uncomfortable with men wearing women’s clothes and I believe it’s sexist. So sexism is not only confined in this article Custer wrote.

    Rachel, I was supporting your argument by raising the question that would ultimately lead to the conclusion that most people are sexist, therefore China is a sexist society. Believe or not, I actually wrote something to the effect “I agree that China is a sexist society, and much of the world is, too, because I often ask myself the quesion blah blah blah and the answer for most people would be blah blah blah so sexism is deep in people’s heart which education should seek to combat” in my original comment but it got too long and I deleted many sentenes. But I’m surprised by your finger pointing and the “poor-me” attitude of adding gender words to the speech (i.e. manly logic, tiny lady brain) that betray deep defensiveness. Well. And apparently you forgot in my first comment after this article I said Han Han was being a sexist by being prescriptive about women’s physical abilities. But it doesn’t matter once one gets blindingly defensive.

    Custer, the “social dressing norms” along gender lines ARE the legacy of sexism. You’re arguing in a loop.


  8. And I want to add I’m one of those people who radically supports elimination of all non-biological differences. Different dressing codes for men and women? Sexist. Traditional roles of men and women in the family? Sexist. I guess part of the reason I had the non-sequitur question was because I believed Han Han’s prescription on women’s physical or mental capability was as offensive to me as different dressing codes for different genders, BOTH EQUALLY OUTRAGEOUS for me. But strangely I was automatically accused of sexism. I would be if I thought both of them were equally no big deal.


  9. So, Custer, are you going to translate Han Han’s post 我只是在猜想, about increased internet censorship and (reportedly I haven’t read far) the CCP collapsing by 2020? I guess it’s a hot one, it seems to have been deleted from a lot of sites.


  10. Sure, it seems to me that Han Han is being sexist. So what? Do you think that just because he’s a clever writer he’s going to conform to modern liberal American concepts about gender issues? He’s not an American, and you shouldn’t expect him to act like one.

    We shouldn’t ignore his sexism, and we shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. Just because he writes it now doesn’t mean that he can’t realize later that it sounds foolish. He’s writing what he thinks, right? Should he censor himself for our sakes?


  11. No one’s asking him to censor himself, but I don’t think the argument “he’s sexist so he should write sexist things” really holds a lot of water. Yes, he can write whatever he thinks, he isn’t American, and he might realize it’s foolish later. But ultimately, he’s suggesting that women are fundamentally less capable of doing some things than men, which is sexist, and it shouldn’t be what he thinks.

    That isn’t some “Western” value I’m imperialistically holding him to, it’s thinking that has been adopted into policy by the Chinese government (see this UNESCAP report for more details), and of course there are millions of Chinese people who believe in equality of the sexes.

    No one’s condemning Han Han, but he doesn’t get a free pass because he’s young (plenty of young men in China, as everywhere, manage to not publish overtly sexist essays) or because he’s Chinese (see the previous parenthetical statement).


  12. Chinese culture is deeply plagued by sexism. in this patriarchal society most women still aren’t ware of that fact that they are being treated as inferior, the power is not equally shared.
    of cause he is sexist! then, for most man i encountered in china, who isn’t? i guarantee that being a sexist will not affect his popularity with his female fans! probably win more!


  13. he is a serious sexist. it is not only in this occasion. read his recent comments, filled with patronising attitudes towards women.

    @Sly Reference:
    this is not about western culture vs. Chinese culture. if Chinese women agree with what he said, it should be fine. but we are not!

    On the contrary, the stupid CNN helped to promote such a sexist who dressed up like a fighter, but no more than a coward in his head.


  14. This is not the first time I see sexist arguments Hanhan made, so my answer is “no, you are not making mountains out of molehills”. As for evidences, I’ll have to quit the 翻墙 software I am using right now and go find a post in 豆瓣。wait for it


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