CHINA / SOCIETY
Anti-epidemic-themed Chinese drama mired by gender equality controversy
Published: Sep 21, 2020 01:50 AM Updated: Sep 22, 2020 01:54 AM
 

Photo: Screenshot of TV drama Heroes in Harm's Way

 

A TV drama about stories of Chinese people joining the unprecedented fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province, may have sought to honor those who made contributions during the darkest hours in the city but instead sparked a fierce debate about gender equability, cinematography, as well as Western media's keenness to jump on any negative story to smear China's fight against the COVID-19.

The highly-anticipated TV series Heroes in Harm's Way focused on reportedly true stories of medical workers, supporters from other provinces and local residents in the early days of the outbreak after Wuhan was locked down on January 21.

However, instead of drawing applauses for the heroic actions of the characters, the series stirred controversy among Chinese viewers, with some criticizing it for discriminating against women and its shoddy production quality. Some even called for a boycott of the series, which was aired on Thursday on China Central Television, while others saying that the critics were overacting. 

Beyond criticism over depiction of women in the battle, some Chinese netizens also criticized the TV series for handing out ammunition to Wester media to smear and obliterate China's efforts in fighting the virus, after a New York Times report on the drama highlighted the controversy over the drama as an example indicating negligence over women in Chinese society - not only in the real world but in the narrated world.

One of the most controversial scenes from the first episode shows drivers of a Wuhan bus company voluntarily registering to transport epidemic control supplies but none of them were female. A divorced woman stood up only after the chief specifically asked if there were any female drivers that want to join them.

The scene sparked anger online and netizens dismissed it as a disrespectful depiction of women, with some questioning why the drama does not portray how female medics, which accounted for two thirds of all frontline medical workers, contributed to the fight.  

"Setting up contrasts was a tactic to highlight the virtues of the main characters. But the production team did it in a very clumsy way and nobody who lived through the epidemic would say it was a good retelling of those touching stories," a student in cinematography told the Global Times. 

Wuhan Tongxing, the official account of the company running Wuhan transport cards on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo, also released five posts on September 18 - with the hashtag of "Heroes in Harm's Way, the female bus driver scene" - about the stories of Wuhan female bus drivers who remain at their post and worked through the night to help the city combat the virus.  

Apart from its depiction of female workers, the series was also criticized for unprofessional portrayals of the treatment of patients, such as taking off face masks before removing protective outfits and gloves. 

Shi Wenxue, a Beijing-based film critic, told the Global Times on Monday, that he can understand that the creators probably wanted to cut in from the angle of families and individuals rather than making a medical documentary, but the medical staff's professionalism should not be neglected.

Rather than taking the drama as a reflection of gentle equality issues, many Chinese netizens blame the production team for failing to tell the stories given their previously similar controversial works.

Guo Jingyu, chief script writer of Heroes in Harm's Way is also the director of a 2018 hit Mother's Life, which also triggered heated criticism due to preferences of sons and ideals of male superiority that can also be evidenced in some other of Guo's other works.

In response to the controversy, Bai Yicong, artistic director of the drama, told media on Friday that the values creators input into their works are different from what the audience might feel through the works. 

But many are not buying such an explanation. 

Interpretation is a very personal issue that the creators cannot control, Bai said. Creators can deliver values in their works, but it does not mean that they can ignore the facts or public opinion, Shi added.  

Heroes in Harm's Way received a 2.4 out of 10 on the Chinese review platform Douban with many giving it only one star. A Douban user wrote "to be honest it may not be that bad among all the dramas, but it is too bad this is telling the stories of a series of shared memories and trauma."  

The review section on the Chinese review platform Douban for Heroes in Harm's Way has been closed as of Monday without an explanation. Before the closure, the drama received 2.4 out of 10.

Despite the perceived negativity, the series is not disappointing to all.

Some netizens said that they are touched seeing Wuhan residents unite together to help each other during the lockdown; people try to escape but finally decide to stay and fight together with Wuhan; and every ordinary person tries their best to contribute to the battle. 

The drama also used documentary footage from certain events during the epidemic such as supporting teams departing across the country for Wuhan. 

Some also said they will still look forward to following other anti-epidemic-themed films and TV productions. 

Another anti-epidemic-themed drama Be Together is scheduled to be aired on September 29.


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