Theses Doctoral

Breaking Barriers with Laughter: Stand-up Comedy and Feminist Online Expression in Contemporary China

Meng, Xingyuan

With the rise of feminist sentiment and the growing awareness of gender equity in China, social media has become an increasingly central space for Chinese feminist expression. However, the complex dynamics of feminist expression in these online spaces—and the role of popular culture in facilitating such discourse—are still to be fully elucidated. This dissertation delves into these understudied facets, focusing on the social media platforms Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) and Bilibili (China’s largest anime fandom hub), through a cross-platform comparative analysis of the online discussion sparked by the stand-up comedy acts of Chinese female comedians. It further narrows its focus to young (age 22-33) female audiences' engagement with these comedy routines online, probing their perceptions of the confluence between feminist discourse, humor, and social media.

Drawing on a mixed-methods qualitative approach that combines content analysis of videos and comments on Douyin and Bilibili with in-depth interviews with 15 young female participants, this dissertation demonstrates how users employed the platform’s creative features to challenge everyday sexism by echoing or building upon the stand-up comedians’ gags. At the same time, the analysis also uncovers how social media is used to insult and push back against these feminist voices. Subsequently, audience analysis reflects the dual use of female comedians' humor as a tool for cultural critique and community formation, while highlighting the deterrents to engagement, such as the polarized reception, stigma surrounding feminism, and online censorship.

The findings shed light on the sophisticated role of social media as a platform for digital feminist expression, and the ways in which it can amplify both feminist discourse or, conversely, give voice to misogynistic attacks. They also uncover audience perceptions regarding the influence of popular culture in enhancing female representation, albeit within a frequently binary discourse. Additionally, the study addresses broader cultural implications, including the weaponization of “Westernness” in misogynistic rhetoric and the impact of censorship on audience interaction.

By situating the investigation within the context of China's digital landscape and framing stand-up comedy—a genre that resonates with millennials and Gen Z—as a unique lens through which to view feminism, this dissertation transcends mere observation of a cultural phenomenon to offer a deeply personal exploration. It aspires to enrich the literature on social media as a fertile ground for gender-related discussions and to chronicle the emergent feminist ethos of our era.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Thesis Advisors
Literat, Ioana
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
May 22, 2024