(Re)Producing Gender: Commodities of Desire

The identity of dagongmei, or little sisters, is faced with a number of ideological expectations of femininity fueled by desires of production and reproduction. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the desires are not always the women’s own yearning.  That migrating to the sweat shops of the export processing zones will require the exploitation of their bodies and their labor is public and popular knowledge. The dagongmei know what they are getting into when they begin their journey toward the modernity that has been denied to their village.

What, exactly, is this vague modernity that is so valuable? That’s hard to answer definitively, but whatever it is, it is the total opposite of what it means to be rural – the negative social reflection of what it is not. “The capitalist machine represents rural people as incomplete, as lacking, and they begin to see themselves as such.” They cannot separate this lack from their social presentation and their social location.

Ironically, there is (or, at least recently, was) an entire industry of cultural tourism where the more affluent members of society would vacation in quaint rural villages to remind themselves of the simplicity of country life as compared to the trials of modern life. Of course the sights they desired to see had nothing to do with reality. There is no social value in actually existing within those conditions, only in being able to consume the commodified simulacrum. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari point out in Anti-Oedipus, “Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract quantities . . . The real is not impossible; it is simply more and more artificial.”

Dagongmei are always faced with the realities that they must work against the conceptions of their gender and their village. These realities serve as a point of discipline. Work just a little harder for a while, and this latest fashion will provide modernity. Be more feminine, and maybe the male supervisors will offer a job off the production line which pays more and hence hold greater possibilities for the modernity that is lacked. But, these “opportunities” are threatened by any perceived resurgence of ruralness, foreignness to the ways of modernity.

This ideology is prevalent in capitalist mythology. The Other from a place that is not modern, can achieve membership to the collective sense of Self if they work hard enough. But the thing is, they never can. No amount of nail polish or fashion can allow them to escape the stigma of their rough hands and rough feet. By the standards of those who already exist within the center, there will always be something that identifies them as not belonging to their social order. To be a subject, in capitalist mythology, is to be a consumer.

Migration into dagongmei might allow the women to consume certain commodities that they would have otherwise not have had access to, but it is nearly impossible for them to achieve the level of consumption needed to grant them full citizenship.

Beyond the personal consumption of a transformation into a more feminine consumer subject, they often also seek to augment their potential within the domestic sphere – some of the most frequently desired commodities are washing machines and rice cookers. These same commodities of desire are potentially produced by other dagongmei in different factories, each pursuing her own path toward modernity through the appropriation of seemingly feudal ideas of what it means to be “good” woman.

In this way, the reality is that gong ren, the ostensibly genderless working people, was always an illusion. Though their paid labor was not gendered, like most women, their labor within the home most certainly was. They know all to well what is expected of their gender back home, and they know what these same commodities of desire will mean to that reality. There are substantial cultural inertias which variously define what it means to be a “good” woman. Modernity, as it exists now, is a trade between choices of domesticity.

Either way, their labor (re)produces and consumes a commodified femininity that can then be consumed by others who hold even more capitalist subjectivity and citizenship.

This is another of the episodic and contradictory contradictions within capitalist logic. On the one hand, the women seek to liberate themselves from their lives of subsistence farming by inserting their bodies into the factory process. The memory of what awaits them, if they fail on their road to modernity, ensures that they will submit to the conditions of their labor. On the other hand, this submission requires an acceptance of conditions, ideologies, and regimens that they would not have been subjected to otherwise. They liberate themselves through a different oppression and they oppress themselves in the quest for liberation.  Moreover, they actively choose this path.

(Image Credit: China Hush)

(Re)Producing Gender: The paradox of China’s feminine labor

Last week, The People’s Republic of China celebrated the 60th anniversary of its successful revolution. To commemorate the occasion, the Empire State building was aglow with the red and yellow of markings of the Communist Party. This, in itself, is not overly spectacular, since the lights regularly highlight days of importance for other nations. What is more interesting, are the implicit subtleties.

It is no secret that the endeavors of the Empire have been made possible in whole by the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party, to the extent that they have paid heavily into the US Treasury in the wake of the “crisis” of globalized capitalism. It should equally be no secret that our era of insatiable consumerism has been built upon the low-cost Chinese labor force. And cheap labor is almost always gendered in the feminine.

Before the era of “reform,” there is no way that this could have been possible as there was no such thing as gendered labor. All workers were regarded as the genderless gongren, working people. Official rhetoric told women that they could hold up half the sky, and they were expected to do just that (often with disastrous results). But then, things began to change. The role of women (d)evolved from unspecified comrades to subordinates. They became dagongmei, little sisters who sell their labor. The new identity is not only gendered, but it also designates status, since a little sister is explicitly single and younger. Their employment is regarded as temporary, with the tacit understanding that the job is only designed to last until they found a husband. Like their labor, their lives are transient – most of the dagongmei are migrants from the rural reaches of China.

The individual reasons for migration are as diverse as the cultural bodies coming into the export processing zones, their migration patterns forming their own transnational communities within a singular border. Some are environmental refugees, others are looking for an escape from village life. Some are fleeing forced marriages. Others go to the factories to send back remittances so that their siblings can get an education that has potentially been denied to them, or to fund their own educations. Ultimately, the goal is the same. To produce. The result is also ultimately the same – the social and ideological conditions which led to their migration are reproduced by their labor for continuing generations.

While the factories are producing the various commodities, they are also (re)producing an equally commodified hyper-sexualized femininity. This commodified identity that seems to go hand in hand with the schizophrenic logic of capitalism, the logic of an episodic and contradictory existence that is required to be a good cog in the great social machine. This logic is particularly interesting, and contradictory, in China since the nation is still to some extent guided by Marxist principles.

In exchange for their time, migrant women receive discipline in submission and training in urban modernity so that they may change their social registration ironically, through marriage. Only this time the marriage is to a modern urbanite, rather than a village boy. This matters because social services and potential jobs derive from the locale in which an individual’s home is registered.

Dagongmei are encouraged by both their peers and aspirations to spend their salaries on make-up, clothes, and public socializing. The ideological subtext is that sexualization and modernization will allow them to escape the stigma of backwardness attached to a rural upbringing, cushou cujiao, (rough hands, rough feet), which is a decidedly unfeminine trait. Or so the ideologies say. To be free meant to become more feminine. “Gender became a means of discipline and self-discipline, invoked so that they (dagongmei) would learn to police themselves. The feminine was not only imagined and inscribed but also self-desired. Objectifying and self-subjectivizing became the same process.” These contradictions inherent to the identities of the dagongmei, are at the center of the dialectical nature of Chinese women’s labor under the schizophrenic logic of capitalism. Whereas social conditions encourage labor outside of the home, the only labor available is that which will ultimately result in a return to the “acceptable,” domesticized, labor of the home. The result is that the dagongmei become acculturated to the ideological demands of capitalism, that women’s labor be understood as temporary and of a lower standard.

The benefit of such contradictions are that they present the opportunities to organically develop a more liberated consciousness that cannot be enforced by the top-down methodology used by the Party in its past social experiments in revolutionary society. Is the Party creating the paradoxes so that the people will resist and resolve themselves in such a way as to be in line with the ultimate goals of their society? Maybe, but at what cost? Where will the long march of ideology from gongren down to dagongmei lead? Will they bring their rough hands and feet with them?


(Photo Credit: Libcom.org)