A Promoting Tool for Gender Equality in China? A Mixed-Methods Study on the Gender Representation on Douyin


Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is an online short-video mobile application that allows users to create, post, and share self-created short videos. It is the third most downloaded app in the world, with 400 million daily active users in China alone. This most successful short-video platform has led to new forms of information production, transmission and sharing and it has become an important arena to explore Chinese culture and society today. A literature review finds hundreds of research articles in China on the study of the characteristics of Douyin, its various applications, communication effects, user engagement, etc. However, quite limited research has been done on the gender representation on Douyin.

This study is interested in gender representation on Douyin because a recent study by WalktheChat/Jiguang reveals that female users are far more active than their male peers in terms of who publishes content on Douyin. We attempt to find answers to the following research questions: What are the gender portrayals represented on Douyin? What are the motivations behind different portrayals of men and women by different users? Does Douyin empower women and promote gender equality in China in general, and if so, in what ways in particular?

This study adopts a mix-methods study of the gender representation on Douyin: a content analysis of Douyin videos and in-depth interviews of some influential Douyin users. Quantitative content analysis is to reveal the patterns of gender representation on the short-video mobile application. Top 20 daily Douyin videos from Jun. 1st
to Aug. 31st , 2019, were content analyzed and 478 characters in these videos were studied in the domains of demographics, dominance, sexualization, occupation, masculinity, femininity, etc. The short-video sharing application variables, such as likes, shares, music and face swap were also coded for further analysis. The preliminary results show that, contrary to prior research of women underrepresentation, women were generally overrepresented on Douyin; women are generally portrayed as superior to men which is against the traditional belief of women subordination in China; the attractiveness of females in the videos is “ face beauty” instead of “body beauty”; comparatively, male femininity instead of the traditional held male masculinity is represented in the portrayals of men.

12 Douyin users with more than 100 thousand followers were selected for in-depth interviews to understand their experience and motivations on gender representation in certain ways. The research concludes that gender representation on Douyin do not reflect a simple better gender equality but is the result of the dynamic interplay between gender, fashion, technology and economic interest in Chinese society.

This research findings in this study enrich the pool of knowledge on gender representation and gender equality in a digital public sphere, which is important but under-explored. This study also has methodological implications by developing a gendered approach to the portrayals of characters in the online short-video platforms.