Western media’s mistreatment of global women’s movements

Last year, 2018, seemed to be the year of women. In the United States, the Congressional midterm election saw 131 women elected to serve in both chambers, including the first two Native American and the first two Muslim women and nonvoting delegates. Across the world, women earned prominent positions in international organizations, such as the post of chief economist of the International Monetary Fund – now held by Gita Gopinath. American reporters turned their attention elsewhere in the world: many observed that the grassroots anti-sexual harassment campaign, #MeToo, sparked heated discussion in even the most adverse and conservative environments, such as in Egypt and China. In Saudi Arabia, a seven-year internet campaign, “Women2Drive,” came to fruition as Saudi women finally earned the right to drive a vehicle in their country. Overall, these events show a pattern of progress in advancing women’s rights in 2018.  

While still recognizing these remarkable achievements around the world, some Western media outlets celebrate these achievements with a righteous attitude by evaluating these experiences according to predominantly Western values and interpretations of women’s rights and feminism. While implicitly using these values as a universal benchmark for measuring “progress” elsewhere, many of the reports lack serious and systemic contextualization with the local situation, politics, and culture. Coverage of the recent #MeToo movement in China and the “Women’s Wall” protest in southern India show the shortfalls of American and European media.

Media coverage of the Chinese #MeToo movement

Instead of convergence between the #MeToo movement and other women’s rights movements, in China, the two movements have diverged significantly. #MeToo participants in China often consciously disassociate themselves from the labels of “feminist” and “activist” and some prominent #MeToo women even issued open letters on their social media to denounce these titles.  This is largely because of the stigma and political danger associated with the two terms in China. However, Western media tends to overlook this important trend. The Washington Post, for instance, described the #MeToo women in China as “feminists” who “have courageously and creatively followed the path of their feminist forbears from over 100 years ago.” In this report, Chinese #MeToo women were represented as if they were self-identified feminists and activists. This is indeed the case among some “hardcore feminists” (called “ying he nv quan” in Chinese.) However, such selective representation is very out-of-touch with the majority of Chinese #MeToo participants.

This negligence has multiple negative consequences. First, while using misleading terms to describe the situation in China, these reports invite undue attention to some sexual assault victims and distort their message. In one prominent #MeToo case in China, a female intern accused a renowned TV host of sexual harassment. The case has attracted over 100 million views on Weibo, the Chinese analog of Twitter. Although Time magazine recognized the victim’s reluctance in giving her real name, the article represents her as an organized feminist by placing her narrative closely to the interviews of staunch self-identified “hardcore feminists” in the same paragraph. In a private conversation with the relative of the victim at a workshop in New York in early 2019, I was told that the woman received many phone calls from American reporters inquiring about her experience self-identifying as a feminist despite her multiple claims against the label. In China, these reports have caused disheartening online criticism and warnings from the authorities, causing women to feel revictimized by the unwarranted labels imposed by Western media.

Second, some media outlets attempt to evaluate and normalize the Chinese campaign in a liberal democratic context. As a result, they neglect important nuances resulting from China’s authoritarian system of government and fail to gain a deeper understanding of the situation on the ground. In liberal democracies, activists commonly approach social movements through the lens of intersectionality, broadening the movement’s goal to include other marginalized groups. However, the use of intersectionality has never been a prominent theme in the majority of Chinese #MeToo cases. On the contrary, the Chinese government has divided and isolated these marginalized groups from one another, such that advocating for sexual harassment prevention is no longer even considered a feminist issue. None of the major Western news outlets has spoken about this pattern. Conversely, many seek scattered evidence to perpetuate and justify the presence of an imagined intersectionality. For instance, although The Guardian’s reporting on China’s #MeToo movement constituted an objective and encompassing summary, their article highlighted the LGBT community’s participation to invoke cases of intersectionality while failing to mention the greater pattern – a lack thereof. Either because of wishful thinking or selection bias, these media reports have been feeding the public an incomplete image of the reality.

Media coverage of the Indian “Women’s Wall”

At the turn of this year, five million women in Kerala formed a 385-mile-long chain to gain access to a prominent Hindu temple that has historically closed its doors to all women of menstruating age, defined as ages 10 to 50. Many Western social media accounts called the protest the “Women’s Wall.” The British Broadcasting Corporation published in-depth coverage of the protest, explaining the political motive behind the movement – general elections in India will be held in April and May of 2019, and the opposition to incumbent prime minister Narendra Modi organized the women’s protest as a political wedge to attack the platform of his party, the BJP, which relies on conservative Hindu nationalist support. The BBC article further explained the cultural background of the ban, that the enshrined religious icon Lord Ayyappa is an avowed celibate deity. In this case, the BBC successfully contextualized of the issue.

In comparison to the BBC’s well-rounded report, the social media accounts of major American news outlets declined to give proper context to the events. The oversimplified version presented to American audiences is a positive story of female empowerment that overlooks backlash and the political element of the protest. New York Times Gender’s Instagram account (@NYTgender) highlighted the symbolism of the protest and referred to it as a movement against sexism. The account draws attention to one protester in the crowd of millions  who demanded “higher quotas for women in government and better access for women of lower castes.” Although the protester’s words may be quoted correctly, the NYT account only represents one aspect of the movement, the side liberal U.S. readers would prefer to hear. The oversimplification neglects to address the ulterior motives of various stakeholders in the issue, especially the incumbent Kerala state government, which is often at odds with Modi’s party, leaving the public partially informed while overestimating the progress women’s rights movements have made in other cultures.

While evaluating “progress” or situations elsewhere, scholars and journalists should try to conduct systematic analysis concerning the local situation, politics, and culture. Failure to address the differences in women’s issues can cause serious consequences such as misinforming the audience, bringing trouble to the stakeholders, and perpetuating the one-sided definition of women’s rights movements. In sum, we need more contextualization and plural understandings of such issues in the world.


Author: Nico Han

Nico Han is a staff writer at The Compass. She is majoring in International Affairs with concentrations in Asia and Europe, having completed part of her study at Waseda University and the London School of Economics. She is the strategist and panel facilitator for GW Global China Connection and a co-founder of the student publication Cathay’s Review. In her spare time, she writes fiction, hikes, and volunteers as an orientation leader at the GW Office of Study Abroad.