There’s nothing like building a country with millions more men than women thanks to misogynistic family planning policies, then shaming women into early marriage when you realize you need every last one of them to become baby-making factories in order to avert a complete demographic crisis. Am I right?
In China, unmarried women over the age of 27 are referred to as “leftover women,” a title that carries a stigma both within a family unit and in broader society as well. The implication is that there’s something wrong with them, and they enter the marriage market as damaged goods. (The commodification of women in this way is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problematic gender politics.) The documentary Leftover Women, directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, details the lives of three unmarried women in their late 20s and early to mid-30s, and their increasingly urgent quests to find husbands. One is a lawyer, another a university professor. All seem to have achieved professional success and fulfilment in their careers, but social and familial pressures make them feel as though they’re failures because they haven’t found someone they’d like to marry yet.
We follow the women through painfull awkward government-sponsored blind dating events, some of which involve them being paraded on stage waiting for a man to select them. They brave the frantic and crowded marriage markets, where mothers carry photographs of their sons with brief descriptions of their height, vocation, and, interestingly enough, whether or not they were born in Beijing. One meets with a modern-day Yente who tells her that she isn’t pretty, she shouldn’t be so picky, and that she should be under no illusions that she’s in a good position in the marriage market.
The director’s camera lingers on the women’s face in these moments, watching the full emotional weight of casually cruel comments as they fall, like drops of acid. From an outsider’s perspective, one less tied to the notion of marriage as a duty owed to family and country, the unfairness of this all is infuriating. But for the women in the film, the constant pressure and criticism are just another part of their daily routine.
Each has their own reason for why they’ve yet to marry. Gai Qi spent the majority of her twenties and early thirties caring for her dying father and is only now at 36 getting married (to a slightly younger man, yet another element of stigma in Chinese society). Xu Min has had a number of interested parties, none of whom lived up to the unrealistically high expectations of her mother. But Qiu Hua Mei is perhaps the most compelling because out of the three women, she’s the one who doesn’t seem…particularly interested in getting married?
She has certain expectations of a partner that she has no inclination to compromise on, and it just happens that they run counter to an inherently patriarchal Chinese culture. She wants a man who will do his fair share of the housework, one who does not see himself as the unquestioned ruler of his family unit, free to dominate his wife and children as he chooses. If she can’t find a man like that, well, better no man at all. And while it’s heartbreaking to watch her slowly realize that she’s a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, it’s also incredibly rewarding when she liberates herself from the burden of her family and society’s expectations.
Leftover Women is an empathetic and sensitive examination of not just a China that demands of young women marriage as a means of averting a demographic crisis, but of a world that puts immense pressure on women everywhere to conform to societal standards. It’s an exhausting fight in an unwinnable war for perfection, with many more battles stretching out to the horizon. But here, at least for Qiu Hua Mei, is one small victory.