The scene came seven minutes into a new Chinese-government-sponsored television drama, so short that it would have been easy to miss: The head of a bus company in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus outbreak began, asks his drivers if they are willing to make emergency runs during the city’s lockdown. A line of volunteers forms. None are women.
That roughly minute-long clip has set off a furor on Chinese social media. Users have called the scene — in which the official then asks why no women have stepped up — a flagrant example of sexism in Chinese society and an attempt to erase women’s contributions to the fight against the virus. In reality, women made up the majority of front-line workers during the crisis, according to the official news media.
By Sunday, a hashtag about that segment, which aired on Thursday, had been viewed more than 140 million times. Tens of thousands of people had called for the show to be taken off the air.
The uproar reflects lingering tensions even as China emerges from an outbreak that sickened many, cratered its economy and upended the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people. Still-simmering tensions include cynicism about the Chinese government’s efforts to rewrite the narrative of the outbreak, disillusionment about the silencing of dissenting accounts and anger toward persistent discrimination against women, both during the crisis and more broadly.
Indeed, many people were particularly incensed by the perceived slight to women, given their prominent role in containing the virus. Women made up two-thirds of the more than 40,000 medical workers who traveled to Wuhan and its surrounding province, Hubei, to fight the outbreak, People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, said in March. Xinhua, the official state news agency, said that more than half of the doctors deployed to Wuhan from Shanghai were women, as were more than 90 percent of the nurses.
“In previous television dramas, women would frequently be smeared. But I thought that something would change this year, after the experience of the epidemic, because so many women participated in the fight,” Zoe Shen, a feminist activist and blogger in Beijing, said in an interview. “I didn’t think there would be such a plotline now.”
This is not the first time that women’s treatment while fighting the virus has set off public anger. In February, an official newspaper shared a video of female medics having their heads shaved before heading to Wuhan, ostensibly for a better fit for protective gear. The newspaper called the women “the most beautiful warriors.” Many people who saw the video said the women were crying, and viewers accused the government of using women’s bodies as propaganda. The video was ultimately deleted.
Other female medical workers said their supervisors rebuked them when they asked for help obtaining tampons or pads when goods in Wuhan became increasingly hard to obtain.
“In real life, they pushed women out” onto the front lines, said one commenter about the show on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. “In propaganda, they buried the women.” The comment was liked more than 30,000 times.
The episode was the pilot of a new show, “Heroes in Harm’s Way,” that dramatizes Wuhan’s battle against the outbreak. Wuhan was little known outside of China before the pandemic, but as the contagion spread there and then around the world it became a stark warning about the virus’s threat. Desperate residents shared photos of people being turned away from overwhelmed hospitals, and they raged at the officials who had let the virus spread unchecked in an effort to conceal it.
That desperation is far from the focus of the show, which was aired by China’s state broadcaster and produced by Shen Haixiong, the deputy minister of the Communist Party’s Publicity Department. Instead, the show is a paean to the “touching stories that happened on the front line of the epidemic” and the Chinese people’s “courage to fight and win,” according to the state-run media.
In the scene at the Wuhan bus company, dozens of drivers file into a meeting room shortly before the lockdown is imposed. An official explains that the government has requested volunteers for an emergency transport team. A number of men line up, led by a Communist Party cadre.
After reviewing the roster, the official then announces that the list is made up entirely of men. “Will a female comrade step up too?” he says.
He singles out a woman sitting in a back row and asks her to volunteer. But she demurs, saying her family has traveled a long way to visit her for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. “I really can’t,” she replies.
In response to the show, social media users quickly began sharing screenshots of the state media reports of female participation in the epidemic response. Many also began using the hashtag “Request that ‘Heroes in Harm’s Way’ Stop Airing.” A poll that asked whether the show should be canceled received more than 91,000 “yes” votes, with about 6,800 votes for “no.”
“Now I finally know how women disappear from history,” one Weibo user wrote.
Others hinted at the broader battle to control the narrative of the pandemic. “Everybody just wants to be able to have an accurate collective memory,” one user wrote in a post that was liked more than 110,000 times.
While many posts criticizing the show were still available on Saturday, the outrage had attracted the attention of censors. The hashtag requesting that the show be canceled had been blocked, and some clips of the offending segment had been removed. Ratings for the show were also disabled on Douban, a popular film review site.
The official response was a reminder not only of the Chinese government’s sensitivity over the story of the outbreak, but also of the tenuous space occupied by feminist activism in China. Rhetorically, the government encourages gender equity and even sponsors its own agency dedicated to women’s issues. But the party is wary of any organization it does not control and has cracked down harshly on activists who have mobilized independently.
Women are still almost nonexistent in the highest echelons of the party apparatus. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has emphasized women’s roles as homemakers and mothers. Employment discrimination, curbs on property rights and weak protections against domestic violence are common.
The initial outrage provoked by the bus driver scene also set off other condemnations of the show. Du Keye, a doctor in Wuhan, wrote on Weibo that the show was medically inaccurate, often depicting nurses without proper medical gear or performing chest compressions incorrectly. The show is fictional, he wrote, but accuracy is important because the show was intended to commemorate a momentous event in the country’s history.
Ms. Shen, the feminist blogger, also hinted at how deeply the pandemic — and the response to the pandemic — had been etched into the country’s psyche to criticize the show.
“To film this kind of show before everyone’s memory has entirely disappeared is really just an insult to the audience’s intelligence,” she said.
Liu Yi and Claire Fu contributed research.