Gossip as Alternative Narrative —— A Case Study on Chinese Female Online Community

Dec 15, 2023 4:01 AM

Xiaoyun Huang

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Publication year
December 14, 2023


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Gossip as Alternative Narrative —— A Case Study on Chinese Female Online Community

by Xiaoyun Huang

In April 2022, the Chinese government permanently shut down an online celebrity gossip community. While accumulating almost 700,000 female members over 10 years, this community transitioned from a celebrity gossip forum to a feminist space. Its original purpose notwithstanding, it gradually embraced feminist agitations, raised feminist awareness, and launched feminist actions.

As such, this community may also serve as an intriguing case to examine narrative change practices in China’s digital space, by understanding gossip as “women’s talk” and as an intimate and collective narrative, to demonstrate, as Adkins suggested, “the value of ideas and talk on the margin”.

A celebrity gossip community

Founded in 2010, Douban Goose Group (豆瓣鵝組) started as a celebrity gossip forum, before developing into one of the biggest online communities of feminism in China. To facilitate such an environment, the forum administrators adopted strict admission procedures, which allowed the group to grow into a female cluster. Originally, the main topics were entertainment news, celebrity news, novels, and movies. The narrative change especially occurred through the emergence of new topics related to gender inequality. The discussions on issues such as workplace inequality, domestic violence, and #metoo have become more and more central to the discussions in the community. What’s more, the community began to emphasize solidarity among women, cautioning against the past judgment between women and calling for “sisters helping sisters” (姐妹互助). In the discussion on celebrity gossip, the attitude transformed from being critical to becoming supportive towards other females.

In addition, the narrative change also extended to female care actions. Some group members launched offline campaigns, including charity projects addressing period poverty and the education for schoolgirls in rural China. These real-life actions may have also eventually been perceived as a threat by the Chinese government. Since 2018, the group faced successive shutdowns until it was permanently closed in April 2022.

Gossip as “women’s talk”

Under censorship in China, feminist activists have been facing serious challenges. While there are many critiques towards post-feminism, the case of this community may illustrate how post-feminist agitations can lead to meaningful narrative change practices.

To understand the transformation, I would like to frame gossip as “women’s talk” in particular. Gossip can be understood as a feminized language which can eventually encourage feminist solidarity to unfold.

Gossip is often defined as the intimate informal talk about the absent (see the related studies about gossip in anthropology and linguistics). While “talk about the absent” is not negative per se (for example, catching up on a mutual friend when friends meet), and is widely adopted, the stereotype of gossip often slips into perceiving it as both malicious and gendered, which usually goes along with devaluation.

In similar fashion, as Mayer suggested, the concept of “women’s work” indicates that tasks such as serving, assisting, and caring, are not designed for women originally, but tend to be assigned to women by “virtue of gender” and thus overlooked as trained skills or performances. So along with feminization, the work tends to be devalued and degraded compared with non-feminized work. As gossip is perceived as driven by inherent gender characteristics, the devaluation of gossip and women concurrently occurs and reinforces each other. Gossip is stigmatized as malicious and trivial, being excluded from the public discussion, while women who are perceived as enjoying gossip may be looked down upon.

Gossip as an intimate and collective narrative

However, while gossip is excluded by the dominant knowledge structure, it serves as an alternative narrative to include “the value of ideas and talk on the margin”. Women’s talk encourages the sharing of personal experiences, transforms women’s muted condition, and enables the encoding of women-centred meanings. While the domestic or personal life is labelled as “private” and excluded in the public sphere in the male-dominant society, to speak about female personal experience is a break of the private/public, female/male dichotomy. In this sense, gossip is both intimate and collective and fosters solidarity among women and subversion of male-dominated narratives. While female testimony, such as the accusation of sexual harassment, is often attacked by the lack of evidence, gossip acknowledges its legitimacy. In this sense, it may become clear why matters of women’s interest, including domestic violence and me-too issues, can flourish in the gossip community.

References & Further Readings

  • Adkins, K. C. (2002). The real dirt: Gossip and feminist epistemology. Social Epistemology, 16(3), 215–232.
  • Gluckman, M. (1963). Papers in honor of Melville J. Herskovits: gossip and scandal. Current Anthropology, 4(3), 307–316.
  • Kafei (2021, March 8), Douban feminism: The feminism with Chinese characteristics formed in the cracks. The initium. https://theinitium.com/article/20210308-opinion-china-douban-feminism-awakens-or-failure
  • Mayer, V. (2014). ‘To communicate is human; to chat is female: The feminization of US media work’. In Carter, C., Steiner, L., & McLaughlin, L. (Eds.), The Routledge companion to media & gender (pp. 51–60). Routledge.