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Online Patriarchal Bargains and Social Support: Struggles and Strategies of Unwed Single Mothers in China

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Abstract

Patriarchal bargains have been studied in many settings as a strategy that helps women circumvent constraints and forge spaces for individual empowerment. Despite the growing use of mediated communication, little is known about how patriarchal bargains are enacted and realized within online interactions such as in discussion forums. By analyzing how Chinese unwed single mothers renegotiate the state's oppressive population control and gender policies through their online activity, this study proposes the concept of "online patriarchal bargain" to extend patriarchal bargain theory to women's Internet use. It further explores linkages between social support and patriarchal bargain to elucidate how support is integral to enacting agency in the face of forbidding systemic constraints. The findings also delve into the role of therapeutic culture in the day-today experiences of women, especially those in marginalized communities.
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Article
Online Patriarchal Bargains
and Social Support: Struggles
and Strategies of Unwed
Single Mothers in China
Xiaoman Zhao1 and Sun Sun Lim2
Abstract
Patriarchal bargains have been studied in many settings as a strategy that helps women
circumvent constraints and forge spaces for individual empowerment. Despite the
growing use of mediated communication, little is known about how patriarchal
bargains are enacted and realized within online interactions such as in discussion
forums. By analyzing how Chinese unwed single mothers renegotiate the state’s
oppressive population control and gender policies through their online activity, this
study proposes the concept of “online patriarchal bargain” to extend patriarchal
bargain theory to women’s Internet use. It further explores linkages between social
support and patriarchal bargain to elucidate how support is integral to enacting
agency in the face of forbidding systemic constraints. The findings also delve into the
role of therapeutic culture in the day-to-day experiences of women, especially those
in marginalized communities.
Keywords
online patriarchal bargain, social support, therapeutic culture, online forum, unwed
single mothers, China
From the 1970s, the Chinese government strictly regulated reproduction using penal-
ties (Lu and Xie 2013) under its one-child policy. This persisted beyond 2000
(Greenhalgh 2008) until 2013 when aging trends demanded that the policy be relaxed
1Renmin University of China, Beijing, China
2Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore
Corresponding Author:
Xiaoman Zhao, Research Center of Journalism and Social Development, School of Journalism and
Communication, Renmin University of China, 59 Zhongguancun Street, Beijing 100872, China.
Email: xiaomanzhao@ruc.edu.cn
942743TVNXXX10.1177/1527476420942743Television & New MediaZhao and Lim
research-article2020
2 Television & New Media 00(0)
by allowing couples to have a second child. However, non-marital childbearing
remains illegal and women who give birth out of wedlock still do not have access to
social welfare (Lu and Xie 2013). These birth control regulations have exacerbated
gender disparity, social discrimination, and violence against unwed single mothers.
However, these marginalized women’s voices are missing from current discussions in
Chinese academia and public discourse. This study draws on Kandiyoti’s (1988) theo-
retical framework of patriarchal bargain to analyze how unwed single Chinese moth-
ers negotiate the state’s population control and gender relations via “online patriarchal
bargains.”
“Patriarchal bargains” are constraints that regulate male dominance in gender rela-
tions (Kandiyoti 1988), influencing women’s ability to resist oppression. Previous
research have uncovered women’s tactics to circumvent patriarchy in face-to-face set-
tings, including exchanging sexual services for economic protection, employing
domestic workers to delegate household responsibilities, and tapping women’s com-
munity groups to mediate domestic disputes (Arieli 2007; Jongwilaiwan and Thompson
2013; Lan 2000). However, patriarchal bargain theory has not been applied to wom-
en’s online activities, with little known of whether and how patriarchal bargains are
struck online. Yet, women’s agency online is germane, considering the proliferation of
online communities which can potentially enhance women’s social ties, disrupt gender
inequality, and facilitate social support (Elliott 2004; Humphreys and Vered 2014).
Greater resources via enhanced social connections and mutual affirmation can posi-
tively reshape the nature and forms of women’s bargaining tactics (Pedersen and
Smithson 2013). Through extended social networks, participants can reach wider
audiences for greater commiseration, mobilization, and fellowship (Reich 2010).
Building on earlier theorizing of patriarchal bargains, this study examines the role of
online social support in unwed single mothers’ enactment of patriarchal bargains to
renegotiate male dominance in heterosexual relations and the state’s population control
policies. We propose the term “online patriarchal bargain” to encapsulate the negotia-
tion processes (online and offline) facilitated by the resources gained in online com-
munities. This approach extends previous research on patriarchal bargains that focused
on material-based exchanges within household settings (e.g., Arieli 2007; Yount 2005).
Instead, we emphasize online relational and symbolic resources and highlight their new
dynamics as renegotiation defies the boundaries of the household and enters into public
discussion. Online forums open up discursive spaces where personal pain can be dis-
cussed and disadvantages interrogated (Wright 2008). The collective reconstitution of
these women’s social experience, resembling feminism’s second wave, also reflects
how the personal becomes profoundly political (Friedan 1963).
Moreover, women’s practices of active self-disclosure and sharing of narratives of
personal suffering may be understood through the therapeutic culture lens. It was ini-
tially critiqued for fostering a preoccupation with the self over communal bonds and
civic responsibility (Becker 2005; Rieff 1966), and for encouraging narratives of vul-
nerability and socially disengaged narcissism birthing new forms of social control
(Furedi 2004). Recent studies laud the therapeutic ethos for its emancipatory value
(Wright 2008). Das and Hodkinson (2020) see the agentic potential of self-disclosure
in online therapeutic communities in motivating participants to take control and
Zhao and Lim 3
develop supportive relationships and processes, thereby facilitating self-acceptance,
self-awareness, autonomy, and resilience despite adversity (Dubrofsky 2007; McLeod
and Wright 2009). The caring relations in women’s support groups particularly create
transformative possibilities in gender relations (Foster 2016). Therefore, we also
explore how online therapeutic discourses helped these women negotiate and navigate
structural inequalities and material circumstances.
Patriarchal Bargain Framework
“Patriarchal bargains” are manifested in different degrees and forms of resistance,
from eager collaboration to skillful maneuvering (Kandiyoti 1988). This framework
augments our understanding of women’s choice and tactics within systemic constraints
in explaining why women can be mobilized around certain issues despite undermining
long-term interests (Waylen 1992). Systems of patrilineal inheritance and patrilocal
residence require that women submit to the male authority to gain economic protection
and other extrinsic resources (Kandiyoti 1988). Such “bargains” necessitate women’s
adoption of interpersonal strategies to manipulate their husbands’ affections to maxi-
mize security through offering reproductive, sexual, and labor services, demonstrating
sexual and emotional fidelity, and exchanging kin-keeping tasks (Jongwilaiwan and
Thompson 2013; Yount 2005).
Women continuously contest, redefine, and renegotiate the rules and scripts of
patriarchal bargain (Tønnessen 2010) through seeking education and employment,
thereby liberating themselves from family work and autonomy in childcare (Lan 2000;
Lim 1997). Women-centered social groups mobilize to mediate domestic dispute and
raise their social standing (Arieli 2007). By letting women enjoy some economic and
social autonomy, the patriarchal system gains women’s collusion in reproducing their
own subordination (Kandiyoti 1988). Given such vested interests, women then resist
subverting the prevailing order unless empowering alternatives emerge (Waylen
1992), where women’s silenced voices are restored (Sa’ar 2005). However, previous
studies were notably on face-to-face contexts, particularly in marriage relationships.
With the growing ubiquity of online support groups (Pedersen and Smithson 2013),
we must more closely examine patriarchal bargains in online interactions and their
relationship to social support.
Social support refers to the exchange of resources and assistance within social net-
works (Cohen and Syme 1985) such as emotional, informational, and network support
(Cutrona and Suhr 1992). Online support groups are a potentially valuable resource for
mothers to navigate cultural limitations offline, such as providing breastfeeding sup-
port (Alianmoghaddam et al. 2019), encouraging experience sharing (Hall and Irvine
2009), offering increased social connections, and better understanding of parenting
roles (Brady and Guerin 2010). These facilitate depression mitigation and enhanced
self-esteem (Bragadóttir 2008). Pedersen and Smithson’s (2013) study of the online
parenting community of Mumsnet also suggests that online parenting communities
allow mothers to campaign for gender equality.
However, very few studies touch on the needs of unwed single mothers, especially
in China. Context is crucial in our study as Chinese women’s experience of unwed
4 Television & New Media 00(0)
motherhood is determined by the government’s legislative reconstitution of reproduc-
tion and the cultural script of childbirth within marriage. Moreover, there is scant
research on how online social support fosters agency and system navigation. Therefore,
we extend social support theory to patriarchal bargains to uncover how online interac-
tions enable women’s resistance against structural oppression.
Patriarchies of Unwed Motherhood in China
Patriarchy encapsulates the privilege and power men enjoy relative to women (Connell
1987; de Beauvoir 1961; hooks 1981). In this study, the term “patriarchy” specifically
refers to social systems that disadvantage unwed single mothers relative to men and
wed mothers. As non-marital childbearing is illegal, a “social fostering fee” penalty is
imposed, and children born out of wedlock are denied access to a household registra-
tion system of social welfare (Lu and Xie 2013). National Census data in 2010 esti-
mate that ninety million people lack household registration, with a significant
proportion being illegitimate children, constituting 7.1 percent of the country’s total
population (Sun 2018). Maternity tests also increased by around 15 percent in 2010,
with a large portion out of wedlock.1
Unwed single mothers also suffer social stigmatization and marginalization because
premarital sex is considered disgraceful for the woman and her family, and antithetical
to normative sexual conduct and motherhood (Cao 2015). Poverty is entrenched
among unwed single mothers (Hertog 2009) and their voices are excluded from dis-
cussions in Chinese academia and public discourse. Previous academic studies and
governmental social assistance programs define single mothers as divorced and wid-
owed mothers, thus excluding unwed single mothers (She 2013). While these gen-
dered social systems and processes circumscribe unwed single mothers, the Internet,
especially parenting forums, provides opportunities for them to defy boundaries and
make their voices heard (Yang 2013).
Research Questions
Given the preceding theoretical framework and research context, we ask the
following:
Research Question 1 (RQ1): What are the online patriarchal bargaining strategies
adopted by Chinese unwed single mothers?
Research Question 2 (RQ2): What online social support do the women solicit and
elicit via online patriarchal bargains?
Method
Participants
The participants’ ages ranged from twenty-three to thirty, with the average child-
birth age of twenty-three. They hailed from rural and urban areas with eight living
Zhao and Lim 5
in municipal cities or provincial capitals, fifteen in smaller cities, and seven in
counties/rural areas across thirteen provinces. Of the thirty unwed single mothers
studied, eleven (37%) have a college degree, with 63 percent up to high school
education.
Especially striking was the respondents’ relationship impoverishment. All the
women were separated from the child’s biological father during pregnancy, thus
lacking emotional connection and financial support. Only seven (23%) of them lived
with parents or received help, while twelve (40%) were turned out by their families
and the remaining 37 percent concealed their childbirth from their families. Four
respondents had no stable accommodation and found themselves drifting among
friends’ homes. Poverty and unemployment were prevalent as they had no childcare
support. Only five (17%) were employed and another three (10%) were working
part-time, with twenty-two (73%) unemployed. Child-raising and penalty payment
strained their finances, and estrangement from their social networks undermined
their well-being.
Recruitment
Participants were recruited from Beijing-based parenting forum babytree.com, China’s
largest parenting forum with a “Danqin Mama” (Single Mother) discussion board spe-
cifically for single mothers, including unwed single mothers. Xiaoman Zhao, the first
author of this article who is a native Chinese, reviewed discussion board posts for two
months to identify potential participants. The homepage of each ID was visited to see
whether the user was active in the forum according to the number of original threads
and replies she initiated. Only relatively active users were included as they interacted
more and thus had more insights. She then sent recruitment letters and the participant
information sheet to potential participants through the in-site message function. In
stage 1, thirty respondents were contacted and twelve replied.
In stage 2, two forum moderators were also interviewed and their permission sought
to post recruitment advertisements on the discussion board, through which seven addi-
tional participants were recruited for stage 3. Participants were asked to recommend
other potential participants, leading to eleven more participants in stage 4. After four
recruitment stages, thirty-two participants were interviewed in total.
Ethical Considerations
Given the topic’s sensitivity, the authors anticipated challenges in recruitment.
Therefore, a participant information sheet explaining the research protocol approved
by our institution’s ethical review board was sent to the potential participants explain-
ing our research purpose and process, and their right of withdrawal. To ensure confi-
dentiality, only the authors have access to participants’ identifiable information, with
all records de-identified before use. Participants were given a mobile top-up voucher
of fifty RMB as a token of appreciation and told it would be given irrespective of
completing the interview. All participants completed the study.
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Data Collection and Analysis
Semi-structured interviews were conducted in Chinese, of 45- to 120-minute duration.
The mutually agreed venues for face-to-face interviews included parks, cafes, and
respondents’ homes. Interviews were digitally recorded then transcribed verbatim in
Chinese, generating 418 pages of text.
All thirty-two transcripts were analyzed in full through three thematic analysis
steps (Corbin and Strauss 2014). Open coding was first conducted, where salient
phrases and words were marked according to themes suggested by the data itself
(Charmaz 2014), guided by the theoretical constructs. Further grouping and categori-
zation was performed through discussion between the authors to ensure the research
questions were answered. These categories were refined into three themes during
selective coding (Corbin and Strauss 2014). To ensure validity of the findings, we
sought feedback from thirteen participants by sharing with them case summaries,
codes, and relevant quotes to assess whether our interpretation matched their percep-
tions and experience. All thirteen respondents approved the interpretations.
Results
The online community provided these single mothers with social support and new
spaces for active bargaining within social and material constraints, enabling novel
tactics such as leveraging online influence, negotiating marriage commodification,
and circumventing legalities.
Leveraging Online Influence
Unwed single mothers mustered support and exerted pressure on their former partners,
largely through moral condemnation and online denunciation. They adopted strategic
storytelling and self-disclosure to win the community’s trust and sympathy. The com-
munity derived influence from their abilities to construct an interpretation of the situ-
ation that placed the blame on the men and forward these interpretations to the wider
public. The ensuing moral condemnation compelled the men to undertake the due
responsibilities.
The respondents’ relationships with their male partners were largely fraught with
unequal power dynamics, further intensified by the family planning policy that legiti-
mizes only heterosexual marital units. Subject Ou explained how her child’s illegiti-
mate status denied her alimony:
The law just does not protect us. My lawyer told me the law would not support me. The
women’s federation and other organizations only protect those with marriage certificates.
Her account highlights the dearth of support unwed single mothers face. They thus
turn to online communities for social support and resources. For instance, after being
betrayed and abandoned by her partner Wang who was a famous singer, and refused
Zhao and Lim 7
assistance by local institutions, Quan chose to disclose her experience on the Single
Mothers discussion board:
I have been with him for one year. Now I need his ID to register at the hospital, but he just
shirked his responsibilities. Now I do not have money, and also have threatened
miscarriage.
Quan explained her purpose of posting:
I was really sad, heartbroken. So I sought consolation in the forum. I have been attacked
by his family and other people millions of times, so I posted hoping that someone can
speak up for me. Also I wanted to let the public know the kind of person he is.
Her account highlights her trust in group solidarity and her being attacked by Wang’s
supporters underlines her weak bargaining position. After her post was viewed more
than 800,000 times, drawing more than 4,000 replies, she further posted to explain
how she was impregnated by Wang and then betrayed and abandoned:
[. . .] I have been looking for him all over and was so desperate that I tried to commit
suicide. He kept hanging up on my calls and shirking his responsibility.
Each of her posts garnered more than 10,000 views and hundreds of replies. Some
members expressed sympathy, while others offered suggestions on how to protect her
own interests, such as “Currently do not worry about the ID. It is only required for
birth certificate and household registration. Currently, staying healthy is most impor-
tant.” Some other members also sought to shift the blame to Wang to counteract cul-
tural norms that stigmatize women for unwed pregnancy:
Girl you are by no means promiscuous. You fell in love with the wrong man and became
pregnant, so what? He is the irresponsible and immoral one.
These interpretations were actively shared with the wider public and as the forum
discussions spanned months, they eventually drew attention from beyond the forum
community. Quan’s posts were picked up and reported in websites of traditional media
outlets, such as ifeng and People’s Daily. With wider public pressure, Wang was com-
pelled to pay alimony and suffered irreparable career damage.
Likewise, Nan successfully leveraged the online community to negotiate her rela-
tionship with the father of her son, posting,
He never showed up during my pregnancy. Now I need his ID number for household
registration, only to be rejected. He even used a false name during our relationship.
Her post received more than 18,000 views and more than 300 replies, most of which
were supportive, such as “Dear did you save any evidence for lawsuit? Such as chat
history or photos. You should ask for financial compensation.” In addition, the
8 Television & New Media 00(0)
single-mother community also endorsed her actions and destigmatized her situation:
“You are a kind woman, hurt by a bad man. He is the one to blame, selfish and irre-
sponsible! He does not deserve to be a father!” Some members offered to help contact
the local television station to forward these interpretations to the wider public and
expand the influence of their denunciation. The ongoing discussion and denunciation
put the man under pressure to take due responsibility. As a result, Nan obtained the
man’s ID for household registration for her child and secured alimony from the man.
Such a bargaining practice became a readily suggested route that women increasingly
adopt as forum moderator Flower described:
I cannot see any other better choice to deal with this kind of men. You can only try to find
him, through discussion boards, Weibo, local forums or @his friends on social network
platforms. Try to dig him out. That is the only possible way to win over some interest.
Through active engagement with technology, the women strategically elicit public
sympathy as Quan explained in a post:
I have been pregnant before, ending in miscarriage because of a forced sex act by him. I
was also hospitalized for uncontrollable bleeding.
Such posts contained narratives around physical violence, emotional breakdown, and
threatened miscarriage. Subject Nv explained how such storytelling was carefully
formulated:
You need to depict yourself as tragically as possible. The effect is even better if you
mention your baby, because no one would pay attention to your experience otherwise.
Narratives of suffering thus serve to create an image of vulnerability and abuse that
elicits community support as explained by the moderator Flower:
Basically, all forum members are kind and compassionate being mothers themselves.
They are thus easily moved by other members’ stories of hardship and suffering.
Especially when they see photos of the babies suffering, their maternal love just
overflows, and they join in to support.
The online space thus enables women’s agency as they strategically craft messages to
amplify their bargaining power. By uploading photos, screenshots of chat histories,
and audio records, they increase the credibility and potency of their messages:
Just words or audio records are not enough. Photos are the best, most appealing, and
screenshots of chat history. They are more credible. No one can deny the facts in the face
of private photos.
Quan also explained how she leveraged online affordances to demonstrate her com-
mitment to romantic relationships:
Zhao and Lim 9
I kept some of his private photos. I took them when I accompanied Wang for his
performances. And also our chat history. So I can prove that I was his girlfriend rather
than in a casual relationship. Otherwise, people would not support me.
By curating her image to highlight her commitment to their relationship, she scotched
speculations of promiscuity and capriciousness on her part. The photos and screen-
shots of chat histories boosted her credibility and bargaining power. While seemingly
calculative, such bargaining involves cost and compromise on the part of the women
who must engage in constant self-disclosure and emotional work but thereby amplify
bad memories:
When you reveal all your secrets to public scrutiny, you may feel uncomfortable as your
personal experience is circulated widely and may be distorted over time.
Earning sympathy at the price of continuous emotional work thus requires one to
negotiate between privacy and public exposure. For instance, to fully gain the trust and
solidarity of other members, Quan had to disclose her true identity:
At first many people did not believe me. So I disclosed my phone number, home address,
and social networking accounts. It may incur stigma, as some would think I should just
remain silent over such a shameful childbirth. But if they did not trust me, they would not
consent to help me.
Furthermore, the women actively engage with traditional sexual conservativism in
Chinese society to seek public affirmation. For instance, Quan recounted how Wang
seduced and dated multiple women simultaneously and abandoned them after sex. His
promiscuity and immorality was then highlighted by media reports:
One of Wang’s ex-girlfriends found he was dating 2 girls on the same day. More details
have been disclosed online, showing that he was dating 8 girls during a short period of
time. (People’s Daily report)
Such reports earned Wang moral condemnation, thus reflecting the effectiveness of the
strategy as Na explained:
The public fury over Wang’s chaotic private life, where he was exposed as having have
relationships with several women simultaneously, riled many.
Negotiating Marriage Commodification
Unwed single mothers also sought to circumvent government legislation of childbirth
premised on marriage. Based on advice solicited from unwed single-mother online
communities, they engaged in unions of convenience, thereby earning a sense of
empowerment and self-esteem. Through such commodified marriage, they could also
10 Television & New Media 00(0)
neutralize feelings of alienation. As Fen recounted, she was “pursued” by local family
planning officers and excluded from normal social life:
The neighborhood committee kept coming to my home to register my marriage status. I
gave them false information and did not even dare to take my daughter out.
Marginalization is thus a very real consequence of the state’s strict legislation. Besides
institutional exclusion, unwed single mothers also face isolation from their own fami-
lies. Hong recounted how her parents ostracized her:
My parents still refuse to accept my baby, as they feel ashamed. They told me if I get
married, they may consider helping me.
Without family and support networks, these women have limited resources for circum-
venting constraints. Hence, some women engage in unions of convenience online as
detailed by Baoer:
There are some communities of unwed mothers where you can find a man to register
marriage with you so that you can get household registration for your baby.
Similar posts also appear from time to time on the board, offering advice about such
marriages, including child custody and the impact on future childbirths: “Some people
are willing to do it online. But you need to reach an agreement beforehand about pos-
sible risk. For example, his own child will be the second child in the future.”
Marriage is thus commodified, being bought or exchanged, with emotion and love
being secondary, as Tian recounted: “I just wanted to get a marriage certificate, so that
my baby can have household registration. It is purely a transaction.” Indeed, so com-
modified is marriage among such people that there is a price list reflecting different
rates for marrying men from different households as Baoer explained:
The price is clearly indicated. The price for marrying a man with a Beijing or Shanghai
household is especially high. The more you pay, the better the welfare you can enjoy. Just
like how you buy any other things in the market.
Besides such practical advantages, marriages of convenience can also serve as protec-
tion from social stigma as Ya illuminated:
After getting married, I can register household for my child and give him the man’s
family name. And my parents can just tell others that I am divorced. My son would
encounter less discrimination.
By entering into a transactional relationship, Ya resolves challenges for her child and
earns social recognition too. Notably though, such bargains come at the expense of
romantic love and free choice, possibly hindering future chances of a new relationship
as Baoer shared:
Zhao and Lim 11
It is very hard for me to start a new relationship, especially since I am now legally
divorced. I do not expect so-called love any more. But my child will always be mine.
While hers is a commodified marriage, the social recognition and wider resources she
can enjoy for her child affirm the wisdom of her choice.
Navigating the Legal System
This strategy relates to the political context in which strict regulations of illegitimate
births coupled with the household system severely constrained these mothers. But by
sharing experiences, they could accurately evaluate the situation and seek solutions.
Many felt pessimistic as multiple obstacles have been introduced and reproductive
rights are frequently infringed upon as Hong critiqued:
Whether to get married, it is women’s right. Childbirth is also women’s right. However,
in China, you cannot have a baby if you are unmarried. Otherwise you pay the penalty or
induce an abortion.
To subvert such restrictions, women negotiate for a better position through articulating
a compelling online narrative as Shao did:
The hospital I first attended refused to issue a birth certificate because I did not have the
birth authorization certificate. So I posted on the discussion board seeking suggestions.
In response, a member shared her own experience of obtaining a certificate from a
private hospital without presenting a birth authorization certificate:
It turned out to be true. The private hospital only requested my identity card. The price
was higher than public hospitals, but still much lower than the penalty.
Shao’s positive experience highlights how the forum affords peer-to-peer sharing of
insights and tips that are clearly beyond the purview of institutional structures and
regulatory oversight. Similarly, Qian recounted how the shared experiences demon-
strated the lack of coordination between governmental branches, thereby emboldening
her into bargaining:
A mother recounted that the penalty was charged by family planning committees, while
household registration was granted by the police station, and the latter only required the
father’s ID card . . . [so] I borrowed my friend’s ID card and obtained household
registration. After that, the family planning committee approached me, but since I already
had household status, they could not do anything else, but charged me a small penalty to
close their report.
By actively seeking information support online and strategically navigating the
myriad power structures, Qian overcame her feelings of uncertainty and helplessness.
12 Television & New Media 00(0)
The women empowered one another through sharing tips: “Don’t write the father’s
name in the birth certificate or reveal any information about the father to the police”
and “Register your child’s household under some distant relative in the village, as it’s
easier to complete the procedure there.”
Crucially, such messages expose the inconsistencies in the population regulation
system and remind the women of the space for negotiation and maneuvering. The
forum served as a convergence point for self-disclosure and knowledge sharing, col-
lecting, and validating experiences, as Yuchen noted:
It is impossible to get all the required documents for routine procedures. Civil Affairs
Bureau, Public Security Bureau, family planning department and all other departments
involved. It is better to follow others’ experience.
As the strategies shared on the board for bargaining with the family planning system
were at the intersections of legality and illegality, the members had to be careful not to
challenge the political establishment. Yuanai recounted pushback on politically sensi-
tive issues:
I remember from the end of last year, my posts were removed, and my account was
occasionally muted. It made me very cautious but is still hard to avoid. Whenever you
talk about politics or national affairs, you touch the so-called sensitive words.
Yuanai’s account highlights how the government tries to devolve censorship responsi-
bilities on online intermediaries and build an atmosphere of self-censorship of illegal
and seditious content. When interviewed, both moderators acknowledged being
required by the forum to target posts critiquing the family planning policy and mute
the accounts when necessary. Hence, circumventing such restrictions without chal-
lenging the status quo was the only viable option open to users who nevertheless felt
empowering as Yu articulated:
[System restructuring] is impossible and can also invite danger and troubles. We want
more understanding and respect from society. Maybe their actions [referring to the
bargaining practices] cannot bring about social changes immediately, but at least we have
dignity and pride. In this way we expect that society can change its view of unwed
motherhood.
Social Support in Patriarchal Bargain
Social support facilitated the women’s online patriarchal bargains in three ways: (1) by
providing collective wisdom, (2) garnering public support, and (3) expanding the
resource pool. Overall, social support was a critical enabler in enacting bargains.
Providing collective wisdom. Online social support, especially information support,
offered collective wisdom. The suggestions and experience shared online encouraged
the women to creatively explore multiple options, leaving no stone unturned. For
Zhao and Lim 13
instance, the first post Quan made about her plight was very emotional and disorga-
nized, thus undermining the credibility of her narrative. In response, some members
advised her accordingly:
If you need more than sympathy, you should share more details. Or post a photo with him.
If your account is authentic, we are all willing to help you.
After Quan posted several photos with Wang to prove her authenticity, her messages
began to draw attention and support from more members. Their collective wisdom
boosted her confidence:
Some of them suggested that I modify my postings, and where to post the messages, and
how to initiate lawsuits. Without them I could not have hung on till the end.
Information support was also an empowering resource. As Jiaming explained, infor-
mation support addressed practical needs but also eased her anxiety:
Almost every day, I consulted everyone about legal issues. It helps me know the general
direction to pursue. You do not feel so anxious after seeing other’s experience.
As these suggestions were drawn from the actual experience of the posters, the forum’s
anonymity encourages the sharing of tricks that may not be legal but nevertheless had
proven efficacy.
Garnering public support. Public support was highly motivating because members of
the community expressed encouragement and companionship through inspirational
notes: “Keep on fighting. You will definitely have a better life!” and “Brave mommy,
hope you will always be happy.” When asked about the usefulness of the board, almost
every respondent mentioned emotional help, including encouragement, understand-
ing, and warmth. Such supportive messages showed that those who replied were pay-
ing attention to the narratives. Posts that drew more support remained on the top page
so more people would see them. With public support, more pressure could be exerted
on errant male partners, as explained by Na:
There can be hundreds or even over a thousand replies to each thread within just one day.
People from other boards would also come and follow the chain of events, adding to the
heat of the discussions.
Such support and public pressure can be parlayed into a bargaining tool for compelling
the man to honor his obligations, as Nan explained:
He called me, asking me what I want, and asked me to stop my online friends chasing
after him. It seems that my post, or the messages in the community really worked.
Similarly, Quan compared the discussion board with other media:
14 Television & New Media 00(0)
I had also posted on Weibo, but no one paid attention. Without active and supportive
response from the discussion board, my posts would not be forwarded to other platforms.
Quan’s experience illustrates that the large number of users and sizable influence of
Weibo did not guarantee successful patriarchal negotiation. It is the enclosed commu-
nity of Single Mother with its supportive atmosphere that translated into success.
According to Flower, while exposure and support vary according to different plat-
forms, social support is crucial for bargaining success:
Only those celebrity users can get public attention on Weibo. But on the board, discussions
about males’ responsibilities are very active. It is a strategic way to find a forum for a
specific purpose first to get your messages circulated before they are picked up by other
platforms.
The board’s network of mutual support worked coherently to strengthen their influ-
ence and push their claims into the public arena.
Expanding the resource pool. Network support connected the women to larger social
networks and sub-communities, thus enabling the unwed single mothers to signifi-
cantly expand the resource pools they could tap. In Quan’s case, her messages were
actively forwarded by some members to other platforms, such as Tianya and Weibo,
which connected their narratives to the larger Chinese community and drew more
sympathy. A member once posted on Tianya, championing more support for Quan:
You can go to the Single Mother community . . . Hope you can understand this mother
and hope my forwarding of the post can help her.
By connecting the unwed single mothers’ storytelling to the larger community, net-
work support encourages more women to reassert their agency over a relationship.
Indeed, Quan explained that other women who had been spurned by Wang were
encouraged to seek justice for themselves.
In addition to seeking alimony, network support could help the women navigate the
legal system by connecting them to “underground” communities as Kong explained:
This kind of information is very hard to access elsewhere, because it is not legally
sanctioned. In addition to marriages of convenience, there are also some communities
relating to pregnancy tests, or household registration agencies.
Similarly, Zhang recounted how the network support connected her with an agent that
was hard to approach offline, through which she managed to obtain household
registration:
One mother connected me to her acquaintance, and further to an agent for household
status. I was charged 39,000 RMB, inclusive of everything. Of course, they don’t reveal
how.
Zhao and Lim 15
Zhang’s experience reveals the covert nature of such transactions and the difficulties
of accessing such resources through conventional approaches. Under the cover of ano-
nymity, network support connects the women to critical, elusive, yet empowering
sources of information and practical assistance that were potentially life-changing.
Discussion
The presence of a solidary online community together with the provision of social sup-
port encourages open and frank self-disclosure and creates new spaces for agency to
be enacted. Unwed single mothers were found to ingeniously bargain with the patriar-
chal system by leveraging online influence to exert pressure on ex-boyfriends for ali-
mony and engaging in unions of convenience for tangible benefits. They also
proactively constructed narratives that made errant male partners culpable and for-
warded these interpretations to the wider public so as to counteract the cultural stigma
of unwed motherhood. Online advice-giving and resource-sharing also helped them
navigate the legal system in obtaining the required certificates and political and social
recognition offline. The specific dynamics on different platforms also require the
women to adapt their bargaining practices accordingly. Some platforms are open while
some are closed; some are more influential while some are more supportive; while
some afford more media richness while others invite greater self-disclosure. These
online communication spaces require the women to carefully craft their messages to
maximize their bargaining power. The findings point to a need to reconsider the theory
of patriarchal bargain and raise some new aspects that are worthy of investigation.
Moving from offline to online, their patriarchal bargains also lead to unique influ-
ences and costs. In classic patriarchy, women’s negotiation strategy (i.e., the exchange
of female labor resources for economic protection) is related to increased economic
and social dependency on their husbands and ongoing emotional labor to attain a bet-
ter sense of self (Arieli 2007; Kandiyoti 1988). The strategy of hiring domestic help,
while reducing their loads of domestic work, also entails emotional costs of anxiety
and insecurity (Lan 2000). Moreover, some women’s self-empowerment is always
achieved at the cost of other women, such as the power of mothers-in-law over daugh-
ters-in-law and the domination of more privileged women over less (Lim 1997).
Unlike offline bargains, online patriarchal bargains require negotiation between
privacy and public exposure. By entering into public discussion, the women had to
forego some level of privacy. Their strategy of disclosing extensive personal details to
win trust also introduced potential for doxing and attack. Furthermore, the bargaining
practices also defy the traditional exclusion of women and stigmatized women’s
groups from discussing sensitive and taboo issues such as sexuality in the public
sphere. In some cases, the women in the study were found to become targeted scape-
goats for breaking boundaries and this exacerbated their sense of insecurity.
Furthermore, to win sympathy, they had to undertake considerable emotional work in
their storytelling, which may lead to additional psychological strain. One way of doing
so was to always relate romantic relationships to personal experiences of suffering,
which could be a strategy for garnering sympathy but also amplified bad memories.
16 Television & New Media 00(0)
By entering into marriages of convenience, they also had to forgo romantic love and
free choice, hindering their future chances of new relationships. Their bargain with the
family planning system was also at the margin of legality and illegality, implying con-
siderable risk and other forms of passivity and harm. Such compromises also high-
lighted the paucity of other life options in the system. Most of the time the bargains did
not permit the women to entirely break free from the political and social system that
stubbornly subordinates women. To gain such advantages as a group, they had to sac-
rifice legitimate liberation.
Theoretical Implications
In many ways, unwed single Chinese mothers try to maximize life options within for-
mally restricted opportunities. Scholars have stressed women’s social role as active
agents in their patriarchal bargains (Kandiyoti 1988; Sa’ar 2005). Our study contrib-
utes to the discussion of patriarchal bargains through an exploration of women’s active
bargaining with both male dominance and the broader sociopolitical system. Echoing
Kandiyoti, unwed single mothers have always taken an active role to navigate and
negotiate structural limitations. In particular, we have proposed the notion of “online
patriarchal bargain,” extending beyond previous work on patriarchal bargains that
focused on material-based exchanges within established institutions of marriage or
household. Rather, our study emphasizes the new dynamics arising from online affor-
dances and how online patriarchal bargains defy existing private boundaries by dis-
rupting the gendered dichotomization between a public rationality and a private realm
of emotions (Wright 2008).
At the same time, the women’s practices still conform to Kandiyoti’s notion of
patriarchal bargain. Despite the benefits unwed single mothers gained, current patriar-
chal structures remain unchallenged and the logic of male dominance consolidated
(Sa’ar 2005; Tønnessen 2010). Our findings showed that these women’s bargaining
practices only reproduced China’s traditional gender and sexuality norms. Moral and
ideological conservatism was found to persist in their online accounts. By positioning
themselves as vulnerable and abused, the women won public support but could not
fundamentally restructure the patriarchal system. Furthermore, marriage of conve-
niences only underlined their traditional roles of wife and daughter in exchange for
social recognition and resources.
Strengthened political control over the Internet by the Chinese government, as
identified by previous scholars (Esarey and Xiao 2011), also prevents them from
challenging established family planning policy. Both moderators and participants
were careful not to transgress certain standards but produced new forms of patriarchal
dominance. Indeed, new strategies and forms of consciousness do not emerge
smoothly from the ruins of the old; rather, they are often complex and contradictory,
created through personal and political struggles (Kandiyoti 1988). Echoing Kandiyoti,
our findings highlight the empowering possibilities in waging patriarchal bargains
despite the costs and compromise entailed. While these women’s bargaining practices
are insufficient and inadequate for them to realize complete empowerment, they
Zhao and Lim 17
nevertheless represent important milestones toward reshaping Chinese society’s
entrenched patriarchal culture and power structures.
Social support is crucial in decision-making, critical thinking, and social com-
panionship (Bragadóttir 2008; Pedersen and Smithson 2013), and our findings dem-
onstrate that online social support was a critical newfound enabler for unwed single
mothers’ online patriarchal bargains. Our findings also build some conceptual link-
ages to capture the relationship between social support and patriarchal bargain,
which theoretically elucidates the specific processes in which mediated interactions
facilitate system renegotiation and navigation.
Adopting a social informatics perspective, the notion of “online patriarchal bargain”
also sheds light on the complex ways in which therapeutic imperatives are enacted.
While scholars are divided about the impact of the rise of the therapeutic ethos (Furedi
2004; McLeod and Wright 2009; Wright 2008), our findings indicate the value of
therapeutic communities as a space of empowerment. Through strategic storytelling
and active use of online affordances, the women managed to gain sympathy and sup-
port from the public but concurrently upheld traditional images of women as vulner-
able, emotional, and abused. Nevertheless, we argue that the personal sharing and
supportive relationships, as a manifestation of a therapeutic ethos, provided produc-
tive emotional and informational resources that were not accessible offline by helping
them attain precious social recognition and a sense of competence and personal
autonomy.
Limitations and Conclusion
The study’s limitations lie in the difficulty of discussing topics that are politically sen-
sitive in China’s current sociopolitical context and its narrow focus on patriarchy
within only three social institutions: heterosexual relationships, sexuality regulation,
and gender norms, given their significant influence over the lives of unwed single
mothers in China. Future work should examine patriarchy in other social institutions
to fully explore the role of online media in facilitating online patriarchal bargains and,
in turn, changing the system over time.
In conclusion, this study highlights the new space opened up by technology for
unwed single mothers’ active resistance to structural oppression. We propose the
notion of “online patriarchal bargain” and its conceptual linkages with social support.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by the NUS Research Scholarship
and the Start-up Research Grant of Renmin University of China (Project No. 19XNF026).
18 Television & New Media 00(0)
Note
1. See, for instance, http://www.chinanews.com/sh/2010/11-07/2639561.shtml.
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Author Biographies
Xiaoman Zhao is assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Renmin
University of China. She has researched on social impact of digital media on marginalized
groups, especially marginalized women. Her recent studies are published in Health
Communication and Computers in Human Behavior.
Sun Sun Lim is professor of Communication and Technology and head of Humanities, Arts and
Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She has researched
extensively on the social impact of technology, authoring more than seventy articles, book chap-
ters, and books. Her recent publications include Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children in
the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Mobile Communication and the Family:
Asian Experiences in Technology Domestication (Springer, 2016). She serves on the editorial
board of eleven journals and two book series.
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