The Praised, The Displayed, The Neglected

Women in the Time of Coronavirus

Action, Contribution and Media Representation

How did you celebrate International Women’s Day this year? On the evening of March 8, 2020, the Office of Diversity Initiatives of Shanghai New York University (NYU Shanghai) organized an online panel discussion, “Women in the Time of Coronavirus: Action, Contribution and Media Representation.” Guest panelists were Alex Li, editor-in-chief of BiedeGirls; Sakura Chan, founder of GirlSUP Shanghai; and Jing Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Shanghai. Along with Joyce Tan, moderator of the discussion, the three panelists shared their observations and thoughts on the COVID-19 outbreak through the lens of gender. 

In this epidemic, women make up two-thirds of the dispatched medical force nation-wide to assist with the treatment and containment in Hubei. Among the medical staff working at the front line, more than half of the doctors and over 90% of the nurses are women. In various other fields such as scientific research, management, sanitation, construction, community service, and social work, women have also been playing an active and indispensable role. Despite their immense contribution to the society, the outbreak has accentuated the already ubiquitous sexism from biased media coverage to the neglect of female medical staffs’ needs. Starting with this critical lens, the panelists discussed the intersectionality of gender in culture, media representation, and civil society. They also shared projects they’ve initiated during the outbreak and addressed other social issues related to gender.

Xiang Jing, 《妆扮》, 2015-2016
Image Source: Xiang Jing’s studio

Meet the Panelists

Sakura Chan | Founder, GirlSUP Shanghai; Co-initiator, Firefly Plan; Freelance Fashion Designer

GirlSUP Shanghai is a female network that connects and supports women from different professions and industries. In January 2020, together with BiedeGirls, GirlSUP co-founded the “Firefly Plan” aiming to support frontline female medical workers with a range of products, including disinfectants, hand creams, and period panties. 

Alex Li | Editor-in-chief, BiedeGirls; Co-initiator, Firefly Plan

BiedeGirls is an online channel that explores issues, experiences and opinions through lenses of gender and sexuality. Through in-depth discussions on gender-related topics and interviews with professionals, BiedeGirls hopes to bring inspiration, valuable insights, and courage to women.

Jing Wang | Postdoctoral Fellow, NYU Shanghai; Co-initiator, Sinophobia Tracker

Founded by Jing Wang and Li Li, Sinophabia Tracker is a site to document and archive Sinophobic phenomena and anti-racist efforts worldwide during the COVID-19 outbreak. Website:


Joyce Tan | Specialist, Diversity Initiatives, NYU Shanghai; Initiator, unCoVer疫中人

“unCoVer疫中人” is a project dedicated to amplifying the voices of those who are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in and beyond China through translation, storytelling and interview.

Panelists and moderator
(top left: Jing Wang; top right: Sakura Chan; bottom left: Alex Li; bottom right: Joyce Tan)


Their Actions

What has prompted you all, who had different backgrounds in the media industry, the fashion industry, and academia, to act so valiantly during the COVID-19 outbreak?

[06:51]  Jing: The purpose of creating the Sinophobia Tracker with friends

[08:50]  Sakura: The intention of initiating the “Firefly Plan” and the support they’ve received from women along the way

“What does the project [GirlSUP] mean to me? I didn’t make any money from it. But this time when I wanted to do something for women through this platform, almost everyone I asked — most of them girls — said yes immediately.” — Sakura

The Neglect of Women’s Needs

Why did the mainstream media and official organizations neglected the needs of female staff after the outbreak? How does this phenomenon relate to gender roles in culture?

[12:40] Sakura: Influenced by cultural upbringing, people are uncomfortable with discuss personal needs in the public, and the neglect towards female have been long standing

[13:07] Alex: Behind the incident of female nurses being asked to shave their heads [2] is the lasting history of female body objectification, this issue is rooted in gender roles and gender norms in culture

“The underlying reason for this misrepresentation or underepresentation boils down to the consistent unwillingness of first see women’s bodies and then to acknowledge and respect their needs as equal to men’s – not less important just because men don’t have the same needs.” — Alex

The Portrayal of Women in Mainstream Media

What is it that lies behind the paradox of women’s real needs being neglected and women’s contributions and “sacrifice” being highly praised?

Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, c. 1923
by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986

[14:35]  Alex: Women have always put on a pedestal for being the guardians of morality or honor, instead of humans with basic physical needs. This is the prefiguration of the eternal feminine [2]

[16:10]  Alex: The deified female body is propaganda

[19:07]  Jing: The creation and impact of propaganda that constructed women as warriors, consumers, and working class who “could hold up half of the sky” during 1950s in China

“It’s essentially the archetype of women as beautiful, holy, and virtuous beings. This feminine entity — they’re almost like goddesses, but they’re not real . . .The ‘eternal feminine’ is meant to be a praise but not a realistic portrayal of women . . . These female bodies are hyper-visible and invisible at the same time.” — Alex

“Tani Barlow’s text [3] traces the discursive shift of what is being considered or constructed as a woman in modern China. I think she would definitely agree  . . . with how women are constructed as ‘the Other’ in the private sphere versus men in the public and political domains, and that the concepts of women are always relational.” — Jing

The Intersectionality of Gender and Class [4]

Who are also being neglected, when we start to pay attention to women medical staff?

[21:44]  Jing: The intersectionality between gender and class; the absence of women logistics workers in the media

[22:53]  Joyce: Female workers constitute 34.8% of the entire migrant worker demographics according to the “2018 Report on Migrant Workers”. Every screen is also a panel: we need to see the presented as well as the underrepresented

“This is not just a gender issue. It’s a class issue as well.” — Jing

“Every screen is also a panel that blocks what’s behind it. So when we see what’s shown on the screen, we always have to question which narratives are presented and which are not.” — Joyce

Personal Narratives and Documentations

Cloud Layer, 2014, by Yu Hong in Art | Basel

How have people documented the COVID-19 outbreak in their own ways?

[24:57]  Jing: Fang Fang A writer whose works were widely read during the outbreak [5]

[26:35]  Alex: Guo Jing’s diary on Wuhan’s lockdown [6]; “The Unrecorded” Project [7] that grieves over the unrecorded lost lives.

“I have been reading Judith Butler’s Precarious Life[8]. And to quote her, ‘If a life is not grievable, it is not quite a life; it does not qualify as a life and is not worth a note.’” — Alex

The COVID-19 Outbreak and Civil Society

The year of 2008 is claimed to be “The Beginning of China’s Civil Society.” During this outbreak, social organizations and individual citizens have actively contributed to the relief work. In the long run, how might this outbreak impact the the advancement of civic consciousness and the development of civil society?

[32:00]  Alex: The so-called “Golden Age” is already passed, but this outbreak has led to more appreciation and recognition for the political involvement and civic engagement. It has caused heated discussions among young people on public affairs.

[35:17]  Jing: The idiosyncrasy of civil society in China constraints and opportunities[9]. The incident of “Whistler Blower” Doctor Li Wenliang and its relations to asserting voices within censorship[10]

[39:49]  Sakura: The commercialization of social media in China and its impact and momentum for hot topics in public affairs; the “Firefly Plan” receives much support from the media

“[In] a heavily controlled system, there are always cracks and gaps at different levels. I think there are people who know how to use new media to self-educate and become [more politically conscious] citizens.” — Jing


[41:44] Question: Doctor Li Wenliang did not disclose information to the general public, why is he called the “whistleblower”?

From the Audience

The event helped inform me of the nuances in how women are portrayed in China: to inspire boldness and bravery during this fight, while also casting an underlying notion that female bodies are not “suit”-able enough while working in healthcare professions. 

— Rayna Wang, Intake Coordinator and Therapist, Child Center of New York; Alumna, New York University 

Female nurses in Wuhan’s hospitals need to work for 8 hours straight without drinking, eating, or going to the toilet. They are portrayed as “heroes,” but not many people actually care about improving their situation. 

— Kuntian Chen, Class of 2023, NYU Shanghai

Women in the time of coronavirus should be seen. She might be a doctor, a nurse, a scientist, or just an ordinary person like you and me. I still remember that when a little girl was asked what her mother looked like in a protective suit, she said, “like the sun.”

— Mia Zhang, Class of 2023, NYU Shanghai

Only when people realize that each of us has liberty over our own identity, can we break free entirely from patriarchy and achieve gender equality. For the female workers during the outbreak, which is also the theme of this panel discussion, we don’t have to give high praise, but pay the respect that they well deserve.

— Slyler Chen, Class of 2023, NYU Shanghai

Definitely inspiring and heartwarming to hear from Chinese female activists and scholars about women in the time of the coronavirus, on the special day of International Women’s Day! It’s important to amplify the voices of women, and the panelists did that. 

— Zixia Liu, Writing & Speaking Fellow, NYU Shanghai

More on the Topic

[1] Video of female nurses having their heads shaved

On February 17, 2020, a video stirred public outrage: it showed female medical workers from Gansu province collectively having their heads shaved before departing to Hubei province in order to “make work more convenient.” In the video, many had reddened eyes and furrowed brows from holding back tears. In mainstream media coverage, they were praised as “the most beautiful warriors to go on undeterred by the dangers ahead.” 

[2] “Eternal Feminine”

At the end of Faust II (1832), Johann Wolfgang Goethe introduces the “eternal feminine,” an archetype that idealizes “woman” as pure, modest, graceful and virtuous. In contrast with the virtues of men, those regarded as feminine are inherently private.

[3] Tani E. Barlow, “Theorizing Woman: Funü, Guojia, Jiating (Chinese Woman, Chinese State, Chinese Family)”. Body, Subject, and Power in China, 1994, pp.253-290.

This text offers a genealogy of the concept of “women” from the late Qing dynasty to the 1970s. Barlow shows how the Chinese women were defined in relation to family and state in different periods as the “Other.”

[4] Intersectionality

Intersectionality focuses on the diversity of women’s identities: women’s status as the “Other” is not only shaped by their gender but also their race, ethnicity, language, and sexual orientation. Examining “intersectionality” is a paradigm for feminist research and a method for analyzing gender phenomena in societies. 

[5] Fang Fang (方方)

Fang Fang is the pen name of Wang Fang, a Chinese writer known for her simple yet powerful writing. Her empathetic portrayal of underprivileged people has earned her a place as a leader of “New Realism” literature. Since the first day of the Lunar New Year (January 25), Fang Fang, who grew up and currently lives in Wuhan, has kept a diary to record her experiences and reflections. Her “Wuhan Diary” has been widely circulated on the Internet. Supporters believe that she speaks out of conscience, while critics accuse her of “spreading negative energy.”

[6] Guo Jing’s Diary of a Life in Locked-down Wuhan

In “Diary of a Life in Locked-down Wuhan”, social worker Guo Jing recorded her living experiences, feelings and observations during the quarantine. After being taken down multiple times, the diary was reposted elsewhere so as to be read and circulated. In ISSUE 2, “unCoVer疫中人” presents a conversation with Guo Jing: 

[7] The Unrecorded

Due to the lack of medical care resources, some patients suspected of coronavirus infection could not be diagnosed and treated. After death, they were only filed with death causes like “severe pneumonia” or “viral pneumonia.” “The Unrecorded” collects information about suspected COVID-19 patients who died in the outbreak to leave a memory beyond official statistics. Website:

[8] Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

In this profound appraisal of post-9/11 America, Judith Butler reflects on the United States’ foreign policies and calls for a deeper understanding of how mourning and violence might instead inspire solidarity and a quest for global justice. Butler argues that in post-9/11 America, certain deaths are not deemed grievable because their “Otherized” lives are not considered human.

[9] Citizen Lab

The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto. It focuses on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security. On March 3, 2020, the Citizen Lab website published a report titled “Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media.” Website:

[10] Doctor Li Wenliang

Li Wenliang (12 October 1986 – 7 February 2020) was a Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. On December 30, 2019, he warned his colleagues in a WeChat group about a new “SARS-like pneumonia” — which was later proven to be COVID-19. On January 3, 2020, Wuhan police summoned and admonished him for “spreading rumors on the Internet.” Later, when his early warnings were exposed to the public, he was recognized as the “whistleblower” (chui shao ren 吹哨人) for the novel coronavirus epidemic. In its original Chinese context, this epithet is a praise of Li’s foresight and alertness that alarmed many of his colleagues when critical public attention was meager. Not long after returning to work, Li contracted the virus from an infected patient and died from it on February 7, 2020. His death resulted in waves of anger and grief on the Internet.

Proofreader: Huiyin
Editor: Joyce, Lili, Bernice, Natasha
Typesetting: Lili

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