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Youth identity revealed in celebration of ‘Girls’ Day’

HAO DAHAI and LU YANG | 2019-06-06 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Though the celebration of Girls’ Day focuses on girls, boys also show great enthusiasm. Photo: FILE


“Girls’ Day” is a big holiday for Chinese college students. Every year on March 7, students throughout the country celebrate the day as a campus version of International Women’s Day.
Online sources say students from Shandong University in eastern China invented the day in 1986 to celebrate the “charm” of female students. It quickly spread across Chinese campuses and flooded into society when the media began to pick up on the more inventive banners and ways of celebrating.

Scholars have put forward different explanations and opinions regarding the campus culture of Girls’ Day. Scholars with a positive attitude toward it hold that the celebration makes cultural campus less gender-neutral, meaning that cultural attributes are being more clearly associated with masculinity and femininity, and that it provides a broader stage for the growth and development of female college students, and opens up a new channel to carry out gender awareness education.

In contrast, a majority of scholars hold a more critical attitude, arguing that Girls’ Day not only objectifies female college students and deviates from the pursuit of female empowerment, but also fosters new discrimination against women and distorts the goal of gender equality.

It can be seen that these studies on Girls’ Day are mostly carried out from the perspective of gender. However, we noticed that the celebration is not just for girls, but also for boys, so if the gender difference is overemphasized, it will inevitably hide the fact of mass youth participation. In order to further clarify the nature and significance of the day, we conducted one-on-one interviews with 24 college students at Renmin University of China. Through interviews and analysis, we found that Girls’ Day, as a festival for male and female college students, does not intentionally highlight gender differences, but serves as a way to express youth personality in the form of a carnival, so as to realize youth identity and resistance to adult society through ritual.


Group identity
Girls’ Day has now become a well-organized and relatively mature campus holiday. When we look at the organizers and participants, we can see that the activities are prepared and celebrated by male as well as female college students. Though the celebration focuses on girls, boys also show great enthusiasm and sometimes even take a leading role in the activities.

Therefore, Girls’ Day should not be viewed as a festival just for female college students, but a celebration for college students of this specific age group. One of the main activities, it seems, is male students hanging out giant banners extolling their female peers, but the banners are almost without exception marked with major or class information. In this way, Girls’ Day strengthens the collective identity of majors and classes in the school, which has significance for both male and female students.

In addition, Girls’ Day signifies a declaration of self-reliance. To some extent, though college students have become young adults in terms of age, their identity as students remains intact. Schools or families of origin are still the main environments of their daily-life activities, so they do not have many opportunities to demonstrate their self-reliance. Girls’ Day is an opportunity to establish their own festivals to show their identity as young adults that is different from their identity as adolescents and teenagers.

Before the celebration, student organizations at all levels will spontaneously prepare festival activities, such as conceiving banners and slogans, collecting gift wish lists, and rehearsing performances. It is through such activities, which are designed, prepared and implemented by male and female college students without the participation of authoritative bodies, that the festival has the meaning of independence, strengthening college students’ reclamation of their youth. In most cases, what is highlighted in the holiday is not gender difference, but the difference between college students on campus and the adult group off campus, which makes Girls’ Day a “Youth Day.”


Cultural significance
Studying the form and content of the activities further revealed that college students do not follow normal festival rules when celebrating Girls’ Day but strive to pursue novelty. For example, the celebration always includes giant red banners, some of which are mixed with various popular internet buzzwords, some of which contain fancy and bold love confessions, and some of which are absurd and insulting. Many of the words in these banners would attract criticism if they were hung in public.

Again, a signature activity for Girls’ Day is that boys will come in groups, sing love songs or shout confessions together in front of the girls’ dormitory, while girls generously accept their admiration and praise. This kind of activity is reserved for the day and is rarely seen in daily life.
The ritual resistance theory of the Birmingham School points out that youth subculture’s resistance to dominant culture is not through extreme modes of violence but primarily through the lens of style and ritual. Therefore, when analyzing the absurd and playful Girls’ Day festival style, one can regard it as a ritual behavior for group identity.

As mentioned, the main participants of the day are  both male and female college students. Male and female college students are now a community, and they prove the particularity of their own group by constructing subcultural festivals that can only be celebrated on campus. After all, college students still face the constraints and expectations of multiple parties, which in turn restricts the manifestation of their personalities.

The suppression of personality is regarded as the key trigger of ritual behavior in college students. The group is trying to get out from under prescribed rules and express their dissatisfaction with routine and the norm, so as to resist the adult social reality and convergence among groups. In a way, college students take this platform to spar with adult society, trying to assert their right of speech and realize there identity as energetic and creative youth.


Consumption society
Young college students express their personality and resistance through rituals, but this kind of ritual resistance seems to be inadequate in the face of social reality. According to the theory of the Birmingham School, youth subculture will eventually be incorporated into mainstream ideology or commerce. If we look back at the development of the campus holiday in China, we can see that the concept has not been paid much attention to by the mainstream ideology; it is still confined to the campus and it is more of a mode of entertainment. However, the trend of Girls’ Day’s commercialization is apparent and its own significance as ritual resistance is gradually fading—Girls’ Day might just be one more thing for businesses to exploit to promote sales.

On Girls’ Day, male students usually give gifts to their female peers to express their good wishes. The interaction quickly turned into an opportunity for businesses to launch large-scale promotions. Here, businesses are using cultural elements to construct a consumption fashion, commandeering college students’ attention and making them comply with the consumption conventions of male-dominated society.

As a result, Girls’ Day has in some degree become a commercial shopping day. The independence of female college students is devalued and female students end up being treated as the passive receivers of gifts. Not only that, the marketing strategy of the day also conveys the message of a weak female identity.

The celebration is not intended to emphasize gender differences in campus culture, but it has aided the weakening of women’s status through media reports and online entertainment. Women are somewhat portrayed as a vulnerable group that needs protection and care. So the idea of caring for them on a particular day crept into the Ivory Tower. In a sense, female college students are objectified as the consumption object of male power.

In short, Girls’ Day is limited to a specific place and age group, which makes it difficult to spread beyond campus, and the ritual significance behind it is a necessary stage in the process of youth socialization, with distinctive age features. Therefore, it is counterproductive to over-interpret and over-intervene with the campus holiday as an arena for gender discrimination. The correct attitude should be to clearly understand the needs of contemporary college students, conduct appropriate guidance, reduce commercial involvement and create a benign campus youth subculture.


Hao Dahai and Lu Yang are from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China.

​edited by YANG XUE