In addition to producing cartoons urging women to marry, the Chinese government organizes speed-dating events. And—as its promotion of the concept of sheng nu demonstrates—it also encourages Chinese citizens to see unmarried women as unhappy and unfulfilled. But that wasn’t how Qiu felt. “The so-called leftover women are mostly those with higher education who have a good income,” she told me. “They don’t follow the social order. So society has to fight them. To make them surrender.”
Watching the film as a 30-something British woman, I was struck by how subversive Qiu’s ambivalence about marriage appears to those around her. When Shlam visited Qiu’s law firm, she noticed that married and unmarried female lawyers worked in separate rooms. “You really feel second-best,” Shlam said. “The pressure is everywhere.”
Two other women feature in the film: a broadcaster named Xu Min, 28, who wants to get married but struggles to find a man who meets her mother’s exacting standards; and an assistant college professor named Gai Qi, 36, who marries a younger man from a less wealthy family and has a child soon afterward. But the most memorable scenes belong to Qiu, because of her constant battle to live her life the way she pleases. When she returns to her parents’ village, they tell her that their neighbors mock them because she is childless; Qiu’s sister flatly tells her that she cannot be happy without getting married.
Read: It isn’t the kids. It’s the cost of raising them.
Shlam was drawn to the story after hearing about the Chinese feminists arrested in 2015 for protesting sexual assaults on public transport. In Leftover Women, Qiu has short hair, which she told me she cut to protest the fact that several universities have lower entrance requirements for men in some subjects than for women, because the state fears that men are falling behind.
Shlam lives in Israel, where the ultra-orthodox Jewish community has extremely high birth rates. Her 2005 film, Be Fruitful and Multiply, followed ultra-orthodox women in Brooklyn and Jerusalem who were expected to be, as she put it, “baby machines.” She saw parallels between China and Israel, as conservative societies “where the woman’s role is very obvious.” When she showed Be Fruitful and Multiply at universities in Beijing, Shlam said, the Chinese viewers “were shocked: How can you have 17 children?” But then an audience member said, “We and the ultra-orthodox women are in the same situation. She’s forced to have as many children as she can. I’m forced to have only one.”
In one scene in Leftover Women, Qiu is told that she cannot freeze her eggs in China, so she must travel abroad to do so (although the government permits the existence of sperm banks). By contrast, Silicon Valley companies encourage female employees to freeze their eggs. These are all attempts to get around the fact that for many women, the fertile years coincide with the most crucial time in a career. Chinese women are pressured not to delay childbearing, because of their state’s natalist outlooks. Americans are encouraged to do the opposite, because it would disrupt their working lives. Family-friendly policies, such as paid maternity leave, extra training for returning workers, and protections for those who take time off, are not part of the discussion.