At the end of the month, twelve young, single women will be judged on TV against a benchmark of ideal womanhood celebrating conventional beauty standards, sexual desirability and a range of other female “virtues”, including but not limited to an eagerness to conform to normative gender roles. One lucky woman will be crowned Miss Hong Kong 2015 for perfectly balancing “beauty” and “wisdom” (as the all-too-familiar slogan of the pageant goes) determined primarily through her ability to answer vague questions clad in a bikini next to fully clothed hosts.
For anyone remotely familiar with feminist discourse and activism in the past decades, there is no need to rehash why beauty pageants anywhere are about the most anti-feminist institution that exists. (For a humorous refresher, see the last few minutes of this John Oliver satire segment with Kathy Griffin, or this satire piece by the Onion.) As with other progressive social issues, however, the mainstream media in Hong Kong rarely if ever criticize beauty pageants in the form of satire or other serious discourse. Instead, they lead the sensationalist judging of contestants from the first audition until the final, scrutinizing them and giving them debasing nicknames that are gobbled up by gossip-hungry audiences.
Not surprisingly, when certain Miss Hong Kong contestants with impressive education backgrounds demonstrate the patriarchal “virtues” celebrated by the pageant, they are immediately dubbed frontrunners by the media. Instead of seeing it as a shame, Hong Kong society takes pride in the fact that even our most high-achieving women could be trusted to make anti-feminist choices and express anti-feminist viewpoints in public.
This year, a frontrunner for the Miss Hong Kong crown is Louisa Mak, a young woman who has an impressive education record that includes straight As in her HKCEEs – the benchmark perfect score within Hong Kong’s high-stakes public exam system – and a Cambridge law degree – the benchmark subject for high achievers at the benchmark prestigious university most Hong Kong parents can only dream of.
On her contestant profile, Mak states that her life ambition is to be “賢良淑德”, a Chinese expression with Confucian origins roughly translating to “with womanly virtues while also educated and cultured”. For anyone with any feminist sensitivities at all, such a statement should sound like the stuff of satire, a sarcastic statement meant to poke fun at the unquestioned patriarchal thinking pervading our society. On the contrary, the statement is not only unchallenged but even celebrated seriously as an exemplary ambition for a young woman.
While Mak has every right to do and say whatever she wants, she should recognize that her choices and ambitions are anti-feminist, and, when celebrated in the public realm, have wider implications that go beyond her personal choice alone – she is perpetuating a type of thinking that is detrimental to progress in women’s rights and gender equality in Hong Kong.
As this brilliant cartoon illustrates, there are many forces and pressures at play in any society that influence how women make certain choices – from wearing make-up to not coming out as lesbian. While we all have the right and freedom to “choose”, we must understand that our choices are a product of all the obvious and not so obvious patriarchal forces that have socialized us from a young age and continue to influence our day-to-day life. The particularly infuriating thing about Hong Kong is that, while the forces limiting women are painfully obvious, they are virtually unchallenged in our public discourse, by women or by men.
For one, our hierarchical education system, which Mak is a proud product of, venerates so-called “traditional” good schools – many of them single-sex – for their rigid social conservatism disguised as moral high ground. Putting aside the ideas about gender taught to young men that are potentially even more problematic for gender equality, girls’ schools teach anti-feminist ideas about “proper womanhood” that stay with loyal alumnae, many of whom go on to become leaders in our society.
The way that anti-feminist ideas are instilled into young women can be both overt and subtle, ranging from schools’ toleration of slut-shaming and victim-blaming, to their denunciation of sex and abortion without regard to women’s health and rights, to lessons about the need for marriage as a woman’s ultimate life goal, down to the very existence of Home Economics classes just for girls and school uniforms that need to be worn with legs together for “modesty” while still showing some skin for “femininity”.
These overwhelming forces alone are enough to form even the most intelligent and open-minded young women into staunch anti-feminists, but our culture outside of the education environment plays an equally big role in influencing them. The same media outlet that produces the Miss Hong Kong pageant, for instance, also consistently develops TV shows in which professionally successful women are portrayed as unfulfilled unless they find a boyfriend, and women who do not conform to conventional standards of female looks or behavior would always undergo transformations in order to be loved by men again.
Our celebrity culture also reinforces these values. For example, the scandal involving female celebrities’ private sex photographs a few years ago gripped not only the tabloids but also society at large, making people decry the moral degradation of certain female stars to the point of ruining their careers temporarily. The discussion expectedly blamed women – victims of a clear crime whose private photos were stolen and leaked – instead of affirming their sexual freedom. Other anti-feminist discussions surrounding or even perpetuated by female celebrities abound, such as when certain former Miss Hong Kong contestants publicly declare their treasured pre-marital virginity – again, while these women have every right to do whatever they want, such statements, when completely uncriticized and kept out of progressive public discussion, directly influence young women who have no other channel to learn about sex.
We desperately need a mainstream feminist discourse on a range of social issues for the sake of young women who have other ambitions than to be “virtuous”, who do not conform to our narrow beauty standards, or who are uncomfortable in their school uniform because it is a dress. By letting anti-feminist forces slide without censure, we are allowing our society to uphold a false sense of gender equality that is only sustained because of the lack of feminist understanding among even the most educated and intelligent women.
The forces limiting women in our society are overwhelming and cannot be fought in one go, but parents can scrutinize teachers or principals who teach anti-feminist ideas to their daughters, TV watchers can boycott Miss Hong Kong and refuse to partake in the judgment of women’s beauty and wisdom, and Facebook users can debate friends who post links to explain why certain Miss Hong Kong candidates are “goddesses” because of their perfect attainment of female ideals. Any form of a critical mainstream discourse can expose anti-feminist forces so that, for the sake of our girls and young women, they never go unquestioned again.