(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)