Gender antagonism is a pervasive problem that affects societies all around the world. In China, the long-standing patriarchal system has been a source of oppression for women, leading to a clash between feminist and patriarchal ideologies that have resulted in extreme gender suppression and antagonism. On the internet, gender divisions are exacerbated by hate speech directed towards different gender groups, which reinforces negative stereotypes and biases, creates echo chambers, and fosters harmful attitudes and behaviors. In this blog, we will explore the recent gender-based internet war in China between two popular platforms, LittleRedBook and Sun Bar, which highlights the destructive effects of gender antagonism and the urgent need for greater awareness, understanding, and action to promote gender equality and respect. The purpose of this blog is twofold: on the one hand, to explore the vicious cycle of gender antagonism generating hate speech in the Internet environment, which further intensifies gender antagonism, and on the other hand, to explore in depth the causes and effects of hate speech formation in gender homogenous platforms at the micro level.
Why is there gender antagonism in China
China’s deeply rooted culture of Confucianism has promoted patriarchal ideology for millennia, which has led to the suppression of women by men in Chinese society. Both men and women have accepted this hierarchy as a way of maintaining stability in the family, society, and nation. However, this long-standing patriarchal system has been a violation of women’s legitimate rights and a denial of their human rights. Although the feudal era may have seen some advantages to this system, the ongoing effects of this oppression have persisted into the modern era.
Since the radical social revolution of 1949, China has seen a tradition of women’s emancipation and increased participation of women in the labor force, which has transformed the economic and social structure of the country from that of a feudal society. Additionally, the impact of Western culture on Eastern culture and the rise of female subjectivity in the new media era have led to a confrontation of the male gaze, dissolving its power and establishing the subjectivity of women’s discourse. Women are seeking to reverse their suppressed position, while men are unwilling to relinquish their long-held dominant position.
Feminist and patriarchal ideologies have collided fiercely, and the extreme accumulation of “gender suppression” has directly led to another extreme – “gender antagonism”.
Hate speech directed towards “misandry” and “misogyny” on the internet exacerbates gender divisions
On the internet, conflicts are often magnified to group-level opinions, and these opinions are typically one-sided, biased, irrational, and sometimes extreme forms of hate speech. Hate speech is commonly considered to be a harmful form of expression that can cause damage equivalent to physical harm (Sinpeng, Martin, Gelber, & Shields, 2021). Its harmfulness exceeds that of insulting or attacking speech, aligning it with other harmful behaviors regulated by governments.
“While the internet did not invent gender discrimination, it is amplifying it in unprecedented ways.”
一一Emma Jane (2017, as cited in Nurik, 2019)
As a form of discriminatory behavior, hate speech deprives its targets of equal opportunities and violates their rights. Often, hate speech causes its targets to retreat from dialogues, undermining their freedom of expression. For example, Antunovic (2019) indicated that hate speech targeting women might stem from traditional gender roles and stereotypical notions that position women as inferior to men or mainly as objects for male enjoyment. This might contribute to a culture of misogyny and hostility towards women that manifests in various forms of harassment and abuse, including online hate speech.
This reinforces negative stereotypes and biases about different genders, exacerbating gender polarization. Moreover, given the internet’s viral nature, when platform users are exposed to hate speech frequently, they may internalize the negative information and develop more extreme or polarized views about different genders. Additionally, hate speech normalizes discriminatory attitudes and behavior, making it more difficult to challenge and address gender-based discrimination and bullying. This creates an environment in which the acceptance of such behavior is cultivated, further dividing different gender groups and fostering harmful gender stereotypes and biases. Ultimately, hate speech forms a feedback loop in groups, reinforcing existing prejudices and biases. When individuals encounter hate speech, they tend to seek out like-minded groups that affirm their beliefs, leading to the creation of echo chambers online, and exacerbating gender divisions.
Hate speech intensifies in platforms dominated by single-sex users
On the internet, hate speech is becoming increasingly rampant on platforms dominated by a single gender. When a platform is dominated by either men or women, it’s easier to generate prejudice and extreme emotions against different gender groups, creating a sense of “us versus them”. Based on the feedback loop mentioned earlier, hate speech accumulates rapidly in echo chambers, strengthening the beliefs of those who share them while marginalizing or excluding individuals who don’t fit into their gender category. For those who are excluded, expressing their opinions on these platforms is difficult and may lead to insults and defamation. As a result, people retreat to their familiar circles, reinforcing the barriers between platforms and contributing to a vicious cycle of emotions. In addition, when a platform is dominated by a particular gender, it can create a sense of superiority or privilege among members of that gender group, leading to a lack of empathy or understanding towards people of other genders, which can also lead to the use of hate speech or discriminatory behavior.
The clash between Sun Bar and Little Red Book: a gender-based internet war
LittleRedBook is the most popular social media platform for Chinese women with 88.8% female users (QianGua, 2022), and its content is mainly user-generated. It started as a platform for sharing beauty and fashion tips and gradually expanded to cover various aspects of daily life, including travel, education, food, and shopping. On the other hand, Sun XiaoChuan Bar (hereafter referred to as Sun Bar) is a virtual online community developed on Baidu Tieba and named after the popular Chinese anchor Sun Xiaochuan. It concentrates on hot topics in real time and is dominated by male users under the age of 29 (baiduzhishu,2023). Users of Sun Bar refer to themselves as “shu shu,” meaning rats, based on the idea that they are like mice in dark gutters that only make noises. Users of Sun Bar refer to themselves as “shu shu,” meaning rats, based on the idea that they are like mice in dark gutters that only make noises.
However, these two platforms began to intersect on on March 21, 2023 and sparked an Internet war. when a LittleRedBook blogger discovered a large amount of content on Sun Bar that insulted women. The posts on Sun Bar often featured stolen pictures of overweight or obese girls and selfies shared by them, which were then ridiculed and insulted by other users in the comments section. The comments often contained hate speech, gender discrimination, and body shaming, such as calling the girls “tanks,” “authentic fat pigs,” and more. Insults and derogatory comments about women’s sexual morality were also common on the platform. The LittleRedBook blogger was shocked and angry, and she made a video to expose the situation, saying,
“I can’t believe that there is such a male-dominated online community in the world that is having a feast of insulting women.”
The video quickly went viral, and the hashtag “Sun Bar Insults Women” trended on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China. Many female users who had already heard about Sun Bar’s behavior expressed disgust and anger, while male users of Sun Bar made memes to mock LittleRedBook’s female users. Thus, the internet war between the female-dominated LittleRedBook and the male-dominated Sun Bar began. At the same time, the LittleRedBook platform also had a severe “misandry” sentiment, although the hate speech was not as widespread and radical as Sun Bar’s, due to stricter platform regulations. However, posts ridiculing and mocking men and hate speech against them often received more traffic and discussion on the platform.
Sun Bar is accused of posting derogatory and insulting comments about women, including body shaming and slut-shaming. This behavior reflects a deeply ingrained patriarchal and misogynistic mindset, where women are objectified and devalued based on their appearance and sexual behavior. On the other hand, Small Red Book, which is primarily used by women, has also been criticized for promoting “man-hating” content, which further exacerbates gender antagonism. Although the platform may have tighter regulations in place, the fact that it still exists on the platform indicates that gender antagonism is not limited to one gender.
In fact, the Sun Bar has long been filled with a large number of misogynistic and insulting remarks about women, and users of LittleRedBook have long been high with misandry. However, it did not receive attention before because the various app platforms on the Chinese Internet itself have “walls” between them. That is to say, most of the time, Sun Bar users will not go to LittleRedBook, and LittleRedBook users will not go to Sun Bar. Under the thick cultural barriers, each “wall” group is easily immersed in their own biased fantasies about the world. This event broke the barriers between the platforms, and the two groups collided directly, which easily gave rise to huge prejudices against each other, and then led to a large number of discriminatory and hate speech.
The case highlights the issue of online harassment and gender-based violence, and it also demonstrates how social media platforms can be used to amplify hateful and discriminatory speech, and how this can have consequences that affect real life. The internet is also a projection of the real world at its roots, and the conflict between LittleRedBook and Sun Bar reflects the tense social relations between men and women in Chinese society and how these tensions play out in the online world.
How to regulate this Internet mess
Gender-homogeneous platforms can attract users from other gender groups by improving their platform functions or optimizing their platform sections, diversifying their user base, and breaking down platform barriers. For platforms with a single function or theme, stronger regulation is needed to strictly control hate speech and misogyny/misandry. Overcoming this problem requires not only the participation of social network executives and managers but also the involvement of three branches of government, national organizations, and the public. The state needs to provide a judicial mechanism to protect victims of hate crimes and to develop manuals or guidelines for managing social media.
This internet war reveals gender discrimination and distorted social and cultural realities, so the cultural and social roots of hate speech require media and gender literacy education as the most effective tool to solve this problem. To improve the hateful discourse in the online environment, it is necessary to provide citizens with tools to cultivate critical thinking about suspicious information, understand how the media works, and how to use social media responsibly. As Aguaded and Romero-Rodríguez (2015) pointed out, this will also help to counteract the passive, reluctant, and even childish emotions when receiving information. Media literacy is urgently needed to break this vicious cycle and needs to be incorporated into educational curricula (Blanco-Castilla, Fernández-Torres & Cano-Galindo, J2022).
There are many reasons why gender dichotomy can become a “traffic code” in the network, such as ineffective platform supervision, unscrupulous self-publishing, and a traffic-first environment, etc. From the public’s point of view, the best way not to fall into the gender dichotomy trap is to be wary of fragmented thinking and maintain independent thinking skills. When a thing happens, let things return to the thing itself.
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