Representations of Gender in Photographs from People’s Daily: How has China’s Rise Affected Women?
Pullen, Katherine Taylor
Thirty-five years ago, no one could have foreseen the dramatic changes that would transform China and shift the balance of global power. What started as a series of economic reforms in the late 1970s has redefined a nation in the time since. This study is a theoretically driven examination of the relationship between photographic portrayals of gender and observed gender inequality in Chinese society during the transformational period from 1979-2013. Dominant paradigms in the sociology of culture — reflection and production theories — prove inadequate to explain findings that reveal an initially surprising absence of change in representations of women and men in a sample of 240 front-page news photographs from People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao), the Chinese Communist Party newspaper. Moderation theory accounts for this null empirical finding in images published across a time of dramatic social upheaval by considering the sociohistoric context of the photographs as well as their production processes, and additionally theorizing an interaction between those two forces. This new theory, the synthesis of two formerly incongruous frameworks of sociological thought, predicts the null finding as the result of a moderation effect such that the forces of production change the strength of the relationship between observed gender inequality and photographic portrayals of gender. Deconstructing the relationship between media representations, production forces, and societal facts explains the novel empirical findings of this study in a way that illuminates complex and ambiguous structures of gender inequality, provides unique insight into the role of the state in post-Mao China, and paves the way for contemporary strategies of social change relevant to China’s distinctive context.