Abstract This article analyzes how affect and emotion are linked to processes of voice, empowerment, and agency among a group of female domestic workers in Beijing. I explore such processes through analyzing the women’s participation in an NGO-sponsored drama club and putting this in conversation with their social media use. I argue that although such programs provide limited forms of communicative empowerment, public performances of pain present a singular view of domestic workers that contrasts with their diverse expression online. Moreover, the therapeutic mode embraced by the NGO fosters individual empowerment, yet it also potentially dampens collective resistance. Nonetheless, the mobilization of affect creates potential for agency, a bottom-up process that enables possibilities for people to pursue and achieve goals. In a darkened theater in Beijing, 11 domestic workers perform vignettes before an audience of other migrant workers, Chinese and foreign scholars and students, and some urban residents. The stories primarily concern the difficulties of the lives of domestic workers: women who must be kind when exacting employers constantly criticize them; one who brings a child to her bedroom to shield it from quarreling parents, only to be accused of stealing the child and thrown out into the night. A few of the performers shed real tears during the show. Some audience members—most likely migrant workers themselves—also cry. The stories, save for one, convey varying degrees of pain and hardship, and show the labor, both physically and emotionally, the women must do. Later that night, in her small bedroom in her urban employer’s apartment, one of the performers uses her mobile phone to post a status update on social media: “During tonight’s performance, I didn’t perform well enough. By the time we finished it was 10:00pm. I arrived at my employer’s home at 11:00. Finally, I can relax. I need to rest for several days.” The performance and the social media post described above exemplify two distinct yet interconnecting ways that Chinese migrant workers are able, and often encouraged, to express their lives in the city. In the first instance, in recent years several non-government organizations (NGOs) have created projects that combine drama, music, and dance with the goal of migrant workers’ empowerment, usually defined as giving them a voice, both individually and collectively. Through public performances, NGOs hope migrant workers will be viewed more empathetically and gain greater visibility and rights. As in the example above, harnessing the emotions of both performers and audience, often through victimhood stories, is prominent in such productions. In the second instance, older labor migrants are increasingly using smartphones to communicate via social media. Like the drama performances, such platforms have also been viewed as a mechanism for voice and grassroots empowerment, both through workers’ individual expression and NGOs’ use of public microblog accounts (Han, 2013). In this article, I analyze how affect and emotion are linked to processes of voice, empowerment, and agency among a group of female domestic workers in Beijing. I focus on the affective dimensions of communicative empowerment and agency through offline, formal programs (the women’s participation in an NGO-sponsored drama club) and online, informal spaces (social media). By communicative empowerment, I mean the incitement to voice through multiple modes and mediums of expression so that the speaker gains individual and social power (Luthra, 2003). I ask, how are affect and emotion mobilized to empower migrant women as speaking subjects, and to what end? Moreover, in which ways do these organized performances of emotion intersect, or not, with the women’s affective expression on social media? Finally, what can we learn about processes of empowerment and agency for marginalized groups through examining these two interconnected domains? Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork, I unpack the women’s motivations for participating in the club and put these in conversation with their use of social media. I argue that, although such drama programs can function as a limited form of communicative empowerment, the performances often come at the cost of great expenditure of emotion by these women, whose lives are already characterized by affective labor. Although the performance of pain might be cathartic, in the public sphere it presents a singular view of domestic workers, which contrasts with the diversity of their expression in the drama workshops and online. Moreover, the therapeutic mode embraced by the NGO fosters individual empowerment, yet it also potentially dampens collective resistance. Nonetheless, in both spaces the mobilization of affect creates the potential for agency, defined as a bottom-up process that enables possibilities for people to pursue and achieve goals. A number of China scholars have analyzed migrant workers’ mainstream media representation (Kong, 2014; Sun, 2009) and their own cultural production (Jacka, 2006; Qiu, 2009; Sun, 2014), with mixed conclusions regarding the efficacy of the latter for migrant worker resistance. Others have researched younger migrant workers’ use of digital media as a means of navigating their lives (Wallis, 2013; Cheng, 2012; Law & Peng, 2006). However, very little research has examined labor migrants’ grassroots theater (Fu, 2009) or older workers’ social media use, and none has explored the affective dimensions of these arenas and the connections between them, even though, as I discuss below, they are intricately and intimately connected. There are similar lacunae in research situated within the “affective turn”; in the Chinese context, scholars have analyzed mainstream media and government training programs (Kong, 2014; Yang, 2015), while within digital media studies research has focused on textual analyses of online communities or broad-based social movements (Garde-Hansen & Gorton, 2013; Papacharissi, 2015). Here, I offer a feminist analysis of the intersections, contradictions, and challenges of offline and online spaces for voice, empowerment, and agency of marginalized groups while adding to understandings of the role of affect and emotion in such processes. Domestic workers, invisibility, and labor(s) According to the International Labor Organization (2009), domestic workers make up about 10% of China’s over 200 million rural-to-urban migrant workers. Beijing is estimated to have 400,000 domestic workers. Most are middle-aged women with a low education level. They are either rural-to-urban migrants or laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises that have closed as a result of China’s market reforms. Although their labor is a sacrifice for their families back home, most, especially those from rural areas, view their experience as an opportunity for self-development. Government discourse, disseminated through domestic worker training programs, encourages this mindset, framing such labor as an opportunity for these women to improve their suzhi (or “quality,” including morals, manners, capacities, etc.). This also ensures the “urban family’s class distinction and reproduction,” as well as China’s capitalist development (Yan, 2008, p. 176). Domestic workers are vulnerable to particular forms of exploitation and discrimination. Their work is not covered by China’s 2008 labor law because it is considered informal employment (Ma, 2010). They not only have a low social status, but also in their employer’s private home they are easy targets of surveillance (Ellerman, 2017; Gaetano, 2004). Their lives are characterized variously by emotional labor (Hochschild, 2003), or how service workers (especially females) in the public sphere are expected to maintain a pleasant demeanor regardless of circumstances; intimate labor (Boris & Parreñas, 2010), because they know intimate details of their employers’ lives; and caring labor (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001). These terms, although analytically distinct, highlight how care work commodifies affect, emotion, and intimacy. Scholars researching domestic workers in various contexts have shown how, in their employers’ homes, they are expected to subordinate their own needs and mask annoyance and tiredness (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001; Ma, 2010). Sun (2009) has elaborated on Chinese domestic workers’ “ubiquitous invisibility” and their position as “intimate strangers” in the middle-class urban family. The performativity of affect and emotion Terms such as emotional labor, care work, and intimate strangers gesture to the importance of affect and emotion for understanding domestic workers’ lives and their drama club participation and social media use. Theories of affect—diverse and sometimes contradictory—attempt to account for how felt qualities of embodiment play a crucial role in forming subjects; motivating passions, energies, and investments; and producing alliances and feelings of belonging. In its most basic definition, affect is the ability to affect and be affected. Lawrence Grossberg (1992, pp. 80–81) notes how affect “operates across all of our senses and experiences, across all of the domains of effects which construct daily life.” He adds that affective relations are the basis for the optimism and passion “which are necessary for any struggle to change the world” (p. 86). Michael Hardt (1999, p. 96) has similarly argued that affective labor, or labor that involves care and human contact, and is meant to produce “a feeling of ease, well-being, excitement, passion—even a sense of connectedness or community,” embodies potentialities for social change. Building on early feminist work on emotion as constitutive of discourse, power, and social relations (Abu-Lughod & Lutz, 1990), Sara Ahmed (2004, p. 4) focuses on the performativity of emotion, or what emotions do (rather than what they are) in order to track “how emotions circulate between bodies” and “how they ‘stick’ as well as move.” Instead of distinguishing between affect, emotion, and thought, she uses the term “impression” to map the relational aspect of emotions and how they operate in feelings of attachment and connection. Discussing the sociality of emotions, she argues that emotions are not something individuals possess, but rather “it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 10). The performative aspect of emotions provides a useful analytical concept for unpacking how affect flows through mediated collective and individual (self-)representations of domestic workers. Theories of affect can also be linked to understandings of emotion as underlying social relations in China, shown in the emphasis on human feeling captured in the words ganqing (feeling) and its variants, such as qinqing, or “emotional attachment between family members,” (Zhang, 2007, p. 60) and renqing, or proper human feelings and social obligations. Recent scholarship has thus joined Western theories of affect to deeply-rooted Chinese notions of mind and body, spirit/energy, and dynamism (Kuan, 2015). Moreover, as Jie Yang (2014, p. 12) has shown, the Chinese state seeks to mobilize “affect and its animated potentialities” as a key technology of governance and a site of value extraction. Utilizing Foucault’s notion of governmentality, she argues that state power works “through affective modes of engagement or individual desires and feelings” rather than primarily through coercion (Yang, 2014, p. 6). Li Zhang (2017, p. 9) similarly uses the term “therapeutic governing” to “include practices, procedures, and ideas by both state and nonstate authorities in order to shape, regulate, and manage the conduct of individuals and social groups.” Both Yang and Zhang note a psychologization of Chinese society, with a proliferation of self-help books and state training programs that emphasize positive psychology and happiness to counter the upheaval caused by rapid social change. Yang (2015) shows how such programs are specifically targeted at marginalized groups to quell social unrest that could result from their unhappiness. As I discuss below, NGOs, though autonomous to certain degrees, utilize techniques to empower migrant workers that are not far removed from such state strategies and modes of therapeutic governance.1 Finally, theories of affect and emotion have also undergirded studies of digital media. Early scholarship analyzed the mediation of emotions (both positive and negative) via mobile phones (Vincent, 2006). More recent research has examined how affect is mobilized within online communities (Hillis, Paasonen, & Petit, 2015; Karatzogianni & Kuntsman, 2012) and global social movements (Garde-Hansen & Gorton, 2013; Papacharissi, 2015). However, with few exceptions, this work has offered textual analyses or online ethnography without an offline component, or has focused on broad-based movements instead of smaller, localized terrain. I draw inspiration from such research to analyze how affect, as well as modes of therapeutic governance, flows through domestic workers’ use of social media. Mainstream media and NGO representations of migrant workers Although domestic workers are often invisible in Chinese society, they frequently appear in China’s popular culture, usually for a middle-class audience. “Compassionate journalism” seeks to gain empathy for migrant workers, yet frames their abuse as one-off tragedies instead of the result of deep structural inequalities (Sun, 2009). Several television dramas also have featured laid-off female workers, many who become domestics (Kong, 2014; Sun, 2009). Kong (2014) notes that such shows, which uphold state discourse on marketization, have female “crying subjects” who gain the audience’s empathy while voicing their judgment regarding society’s injustice and corruption. She argues that the “performativity of emotion” reveals deep social antagonism, yet ultimately the shows offer catharsis, not social transformation. In contrast, since the early 2000s various NGOs have provided creative programs for labor migrants so that they can represent themselves.2 In their mission statements, most emphasize empowerment, usually defined as capacity building and giving migrants a voice.3 To achieve these goals, the NGOs host weekly workshops, with one prominent feature being the creation of stories based on migrant workers’ experiences. The stories tend to focus on hardship, yet they often have “dream” in their title, thus gesturing to a brighter future. These narratives, along with song and dance, are occasionally performed in public, usually for a largely urban audience. Although Fu (2009) has argued that such activities enable migrant workers to escape the “cage of voices” created by the NGOs, as I discuss below, the reality is more complicated.4 If the drama activities are narrow in their narrative focus, social media has been hailed as offering a space for migrant workers’ voices. All the NGOs that encourage workers’ cultural production have public accounts on Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter), where they document activities and share news articles and policy updates about migrant workers.5 Their followers tend not to be migrant workers, but scholars, activists, and donors. Most migrant workers do not know how to use Sina Weibo or do not see it as relevant. Yet they do use QQ (a chat, social networking, gaming, everything app) and increasingly use WeChat, a hugely popular mobile social networking app. However, social media’s potential as a space for ordinary migrant workers’ voice and agency has been underexplored (Svensson, 2014). Methods The findings are based on ethnographic fieldwork, online ethnography, and semi-structured interviews. Although I have observed various migrant worker rehearsals and performances with several organizations since 2007, I base my arguments on extended fieldwork conducted in Beijing during 2013 and follow-up visits in 2014 and 2015. I draw primarily from participant observation among a group of female domestic workers involved in a drama club organized by an NGO. Ten to 20 women attended the weekly day-long activity; they ranged in age from 39 to 51 and had been in Beijing anywhere from two to 10 years. In addition to attending the weekly workshops, I participated in various social activities and attended performances. I also conducted interviews with a core group of 14 women (10 were from rural areas and two were laid-off factory workers from a large city) and with the drama club organizer (a college-educated NGO staff member). I have also analyzed several hundred posts and photographs on the women’s Qzone (QQkongjian) and WeChat for common themes.6 These data are supplemented by my participation in several weekly activities and performances by other NGOs for migrant women and interviews and informal conversations with several participants. All of the participants owned low-end smartphones with Internet access. Although there is a misperception that older domestic workers do not use social media, except for one woman all used QQ in various ways: for chatting, listening to music, reading news, and social networking. At the beginning of the research period, only two women used WeChat, but over time the other women joined WeChat and some are now primarily users of WeChat rather than Qzone. Agendas of empowerment Like nearly all NGOs that provide theater workshops for migrant workers, the organizer of the Saturday drama club has clear objectives, which can be summarized as: (a) to help domestic workers have more confidence and a voice (or to be more empowered); (b) to help urbanites understand migrant workers’ lives; and (c) to be a mechanism of social change in the struggle for greater rights and recognition of domestic workers through the public performances. In an interview, she stated: My biggest goal is for the women to create short drama performances to show their real life, work status, and living environment. We want them to be proud of being a domestic worker and not feel ashamed. I hope they can express this kind of feeling through their drama and get the audience to understand their work and not look down on them. … They shouldn’t hesitate to show who they are to the public through their drama.7 The organizer’s words speak to the emphasis on communicative empowerment, as well as the importance of emotions (pride, shame, empathy) in this process. During the Saturday workshops, there were multiple activities designed to achieve these goals. All the activities engaged a therapeutic mode that mobilized affect, both positive and negative, to promote self-expression and self-realization. During the morning session, there were exercises that encouraged creative bodily movement, coordination, and cooperation. There were also story improvisations, disco dancing, and games. Afternoons were usually devoted to practicing short vignettes about domestic workers’ lives. Aside from the stories described earlier, other storylines included a woman whose employer wanted her to call him “master”; another who was repeatedly refused entry to a residential community due to her rural appearance; and employers who belittle domestic workers in all kinds of ways. Cruel treatment and numerous small insults: this is the life of a domestic worker. There was one positive story about a young woman named Xiao Zhang.8 She fled an unwanted engagement in her village and, upon arriving in the city, was hired by a kind older woman and her daughter to be their live-in domestic. After the daughter left China, the mother treated Xiao Zhang like her own child: paying back the bride price, helping her start her own business, and eventually introducing her to a Beijing man whom she married. In reality, the story is like a fairy tale. The vignettes just described are similar to other dramas I have viewed. In a performance with another NGO that serves female migrants, several women recited monologues based on their lives and, again, save for one, the content was extremely tragic and included domestic abuse; ridicule and scorn; and personal pain (a woman who has an abortion because she and her husband are too poor to afford the child). The stories are distressing to hear, which is the point: to get the audience to empathize. But they are also extremely painful for the women to recite. The young woman who was the victim of domestic abuse made an audio recording of her story rather than perform it in public; the one who spoke about her abortion wept during practice and on the stage. She later told me she did not think she could perform it again. Interestingly, these public performances contrasted with the women’s improvisation during practice. Among themselves they chose to focus on the positive and their hopes for the future. These narratives thus raise the question, what is the emotional cost of empowerment? In China, migrant worker NGOs purport to let migrant workers speak for themselves, yet communicative empowerment is a double-edged sword. A therapeutic ethos encourages pleasure and leisure as part of this process, yet in public, empowerment comes at the price of victimhood and the expenditure of much emotion, just as domestic workers must perform emotional labor in their employers’ private homes. However, rather than creating a comfortable environment (the purpose of emotional labor), on stage the goal is discomfort, in order to generate awareness and empathy. It is a performance, but it draws its power from tapping into personal pain that must be performed for the agenda of empowerment, which is both its problem and its possibility. In the most cynical sense, these women’s emotions are a commodity, used to validate the NGOs’ missions and ensure donor support. In a more positive sense, these public performances are cathartic and allow the women to release suppressed wounds and traumas. The public airing of grievances makes a moral statement that demands recognition of the women’s struggles and a validation of their voice.9 If this circulation of negative affect “sticks,” it can generate empathy and move the audience to work for social justice. However, as Ahmed (2004) notes when discussing the “sociality of pain,” although pain is relational and rarely private (as is generally assumed), empathy can work to sustain differences between those who suffer pain or trauma and those who do not; thus, the performances can potentially reify the women’s identity as marginalized outsiders. “I like to go anywhere that’s lively” Any performance is multi-faceted, and participants in organized activities have multiple motivations. Here I turn to the women’s reflections on their participation in the club, which can be summarized as voice, fun, and face. Their emphasis on self-realization and happiness/pleasure aligns with the psychologization of Chinese society noted by Yang (2014) and Zhang (2017). For some women, particularly those from rural areas, the emphasis on voice and self-confidence in the workshops was quite important. Ms. Ying, who was from a village in Inner Mongolia, told me when I first met her, “The others can talk. I can’t. I can’t talk.” However, I noticed that when there were story-telling activities she actually could talk and, during improvisations, was often quite funny. Later she said, “When I first came here, I wouldn’t speak. But the others encouraged me to take part in the drama and eventually I did.”10 For her and a few others, the numerous activities did build up their confidence and make them feel their individual voice was important. However, when asked why they attended the drama club, most women’s answers were not about voice or confidence but about fun and relaxation. For example, “I like to come here for the singing and dancing. I like anywhere that is lively,”11 Ms. Li said, laughing. According to Ms. Wang, “It’s fun. It’s relaxing. We are in our employer’s home all week. This is our day off. The last thing we want to do is stay home. And where else are we supposed to go?”12 The emphasis on singing, dancing, and relaxing was near unanimous, which raises questions about how these feelings contrast with the heavy content of the actual drama performed. Here, Ms. Fan’s words are revealing. “I come here because I like to sing and dance,” she said, “but as far as the drama … I still haven’t found my position. … Yeah, I still haven’t found my position.”13 Her inability to find her position stemmed from two sources: her reluctance to perform the drama publicly because of a lack of confidence (hence, the focus on voice) and because the stories were not her story. The women do have opportunities to tell their stories at some point during the Saturday activities, yet it turned out that the vignettes the women practiced every week and performed publicly were not based on any of these women’s own experiences but that of other domestic workers, once again revealing the often scripted manner in which NGOs give voice to migrant workers. Regarding the stories of pain and abuse, some women said they had had incidents with an overly exacting employer. Two had quit their jobs for this reason and found employment elsewhere. Others felt they were treated fairly well, and many had been with the same employer for several years. The fact that many domestic workers remain with their employers for extended periods of time is not meant to ignore domestic worker abuse, minimize many domestic workers’ sense of alienation, or downplay the unequal relationship between domestic workers and their employers.14 However, even those who had had bad experiences did not necessarily want to rehash these over and over, and some felt it was humiliating to do so in a public setting. Others insisted that any time strangers live together misunderstandings could occur. Still for others, the stories in the performance were not theirs to claim. “My experience is not like this,” Ms. Wang said as three women were rehearsing a vignette that involved a picky employer. “My employer is not like that.” Later, when asked why she participated, she said, “They want us to perform these stories, so we do. You know, to give them a kind of face” and then laughed.15 After the public performance, drama club members were asked to write about the performance in the NGO’s monthly magazine. As another sort of public performance, their write-ups are revealing. The women mention the warm feelings they have at practice and the sense of community and enjoyment. One thanks the organizer and the volunteers. Two other women write that they hope they will not disappoint the drama teacher, which resonates with the comment about “face” earlier. Finally, another writes, “I hope … we can add elements of singing and dancing, to demonstrate domestic workers’ artistic skills. Through this, we can tell the whole society that we are beautiful in numerous ways, not just good at domestic work.” The women’s comments on their reasons for participating and their write-ups in the magazine reveal that the emotional public performance is one small facet of the multiple meanings of the drama club, where affect circulates through leisure and pleasure as well as the airing of grievances. Rooted in the performativity of emotion, the drama club does promote communicative empowerment. One cost is the expenditure of scripted, public pain, yet a therapeutic ethos emphasizing self-growth and happiness dominates, thus enabling a space for the sociality of emotion, which shapes the women’s individual subjectivity and facilitates community among them, themes that are even more evident in their social media use. Virtual voice, affect, and agency In contrast to the NGO’s top-down mode of communicative empowerment, in this section I analyze the women’s individual expression on social media as an informal means for voice and agency, the latter understood as a bottom-up process wherein space is opened up for acting on and achieving one’s goals. For these women, such goals included self-expression, aspiration, and social support, which manifested in an emphasis on positive, rather than negative, feelings and experiences. Like many social networking sites, Qzone and WeChat allow for personalization and various activities. Below, I first describe how the women set up their profiles. I then discuss how a therapeutic ethos emphasizing positivity circulated through posts of forwarded content, photographs (the most common activity; one woman had posted over 1,000 photos, two others had over 600), and self-written status updates. I focus on the sociality of emotion, where “objects of emotion” circulate and in the process transform “others into objects of feeling” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 11). Such objects can be words, animate or inanimate matter, virtual avatars, or material bodies. Profiles When setting up a Qzone or WeChat profile, users create a name, and they also have the option of composing a signature (or motto). The women chose names like “Happy Dove” and “Better and Better” and mottos like “Laugh at Life and Tread Lightly” and “Forget Troubles, Be Happy Everyday!” Profile images were rarely pictures of themselves; instead, they chose cute avatars, flowers, or something else considered fun or beautiful. Overall, there was a desire to express outwardly an optimistic and even carefree outlook, in clear contrast to the representation of domestic workers in the drama performances and the reality of their lives. In one sense, their profiles demonstrate the “impression management” that is frequently seen on social media. However, my concern is how the profiles were one articulation of the affective value that circulated among a small number of contacts (20 to 30) who are emotionally close and could offer social support. These included family members, other migrant workers, drama club participants, and NGO staff, but rarely employers. Forwarded content The women frequently forwarded content, due to varying levels of active (as opposed to passive) literacy, time constraints, convenience, and ideas regarding what was interesting or worthy of posting. Ms. Zhang spoke for many when she said the articles she forwarded were mostly positive and had “to be useful … informative.”16 Several women said positivity was important, because no one wants to be surrounded by negative things. In general, their forwarded content fell into three categories: indirect virtual care work, self-care, and words of wisdom. Indirect virtual care work, the most common type, continued the women’s affective labor into the online realm. Popular topics included hygiene, such as guidelines on how to properly wash one’s hands or handle raw eggs, and health, with remedies for poor blood circulation and information about traditional Chinese medicine. Reproductive labor manifested in recipes, food preparation tips, and advice on handling an infant. Overall, such posts affirmed the positive role of a domestic worker as someone with skills and knowledge, who takes seriously her role as a nurturing caregiver. Such positive attributes contrasted with the representation of domestic workers in mainstream media and in the NGO’s public performances. A second type of forwarded post highlighted self-care, both of one’s body (proper skin care, hair styling tips) and spirit (handling heartbreak with dignity, the qualities of a good woman). For example, one forwarded post advised, “If a man neglects you leave him. Take care of your skin. Dress elegantly. Don’t drink or smoke. Vanity is poison.” Another item, which several women circulated, was called “Xi Jinping’s Letter to All Women.” In this letter (most likely a hoax), China’s president extols the virtues of tending to one’s partner’s spirit rather than material goods or physical appearance. Just as virtual care work was feminized, here essentialized gender was emphasized through a therapeutic mode of governance. The third common type of forwarded post contained “words of wisdom.” In these posts, moralizing and sentimental messages highlighted qualities deemed necessary for survival in contemporary China’s hyper-competitive world of marketization and self-responsibility. Such qualities included working hard, trusting in fate, and having faith in the future, particularly when facing loneliness or alienation. For example, Ms. Sun forwarded the following: When I’m tired and lonely and I want to give up, and there are too many sad things, too much loneliness, and too many feelings of helplessness, life still continues. The future is still waving to me. Come on … Continue to move forward! Never look back! Other posts emphasized having self-confidence and resilience, while also maintaining the ability to be happy with one’s lot in life. Real friendships, characterized by true feeling (ganqing) and the ability to offer support in times of hardship, was also a common theme. For example: You don’t need to have many friends as long as their hearts are sincere. … Whether in daily life or online, we have to have friends. In life you’ll encounter difficulties. … When you are hurt, your friends will give you energy and stay with you until you recover. Like Hallmark greeting cards, such posts were characterized by sentimentality and optimism meant to mobilize positive affect even when one might feel lonely, tired, and hopeless. These messages were not just for the women, but also, several women said, to provide comfort to others, thus revealing the emphasis on positivity as well as the sociality of emotion. Significantly, most of these forwarded posts were written by employees of state-owned telecommunications companies. Their melodramatic flavor and pedagogical tone are meant to cater to a social media user with a low income level that is older and less educated (Wallis, 2013). Their writers engage in affective labor, or the manipulation of affect, emphasizing hope, positivity in the face of adversity, and individual resilience rather than highlighting structural factors that cause personal difficulties. They exemplify Yang’s (2014, p. 6) assertion that affect is “a felt quality that gives meanings, and imaginative potential” to social transformations, and they reveal how various social actors participate in therapeutic governing (Zhang, 2017). Affective images Drama club participants are also friends on social media, and a regular ritual was to post pictures from all the activities associated with the club. This ritual posting of photographs followed every performance and every Saturday workshop, when some women posted numerous photos. The women also regularly shared photos from the NGO’s social media to their own social media pages. Photos of outings to parks or other tourist or recreation sites were also posted. Such outings were usually with other club members, and these types of photos far outnumbered pictures of family members, revealing how the club provides a sense of community far from home. All the women’s photographs focused on leisure, pleasure, and relaxation. Often the images were accompanied by short comments, such as “A New Year’s Day get-together. Good fun and a learning experience. I am thankful for everyone in my life.” Many photos were of two or three women together. Only a few women posted pictures of themselves, yet these were never selfies (unlike the abundance of selfies taken by younger migrant workers).17 The photos were always taken by a friend and often grouped together in a series. The images thus enabled the construction of the self in a particular way, individually and in relation to others, not as a victim, but as an agent learning and enjoying new experiences and opportunities and engaged in processes of self-transformation and self-care. The photographs empowered the women to share their experiences and to represent themselves. Because they emerged from the women’s lived experiences, the personal quality of the images required a response: a “like,” a thumbs up emoticon, and/or brief comments of praise or encouragement from others in their network. Such comments had a performative function. In other words, the sociality of emotion requires participation for affect to be effective, as will also be discussed next in relation to the women’s self-written posts. Self-written posts Self-written posts made up the smallest amount of the women’s social media content. When they expressed themselves through writing, they again overwhelmingly emphasized the positive new experiences and opportunities brought about by living in Beijing. For example, during a trip with her employer’s family, Ms. Xu wrote, “Today we ate in an international hotel. When I was small I wanted to see the ocean, and today I finally saw it! The rippling of the endless blue sea made me feel happy. All wishes come true!” Similarly, Ms. Li posted about Beijing indeed being the capital because of the high quality (suzhi) of the city and its residents. Despite the emphasis on positivity, the reality of being a domestic worker also appeared in status updates. Although not often, all of the women at times expressed feelings of loneliness and, unlike the more general sentiments found in forwarded posts, the women wrote about specific situations, particularly feelings of sadness when missing family. Such feelings always generated comments from other women. For example, after Ms. Sun wrote about feeling sad because she could not return home for Spring Festival, a friend commented, “Little Sister, Happy New Year! Turn your grief into strength. I understand your feelings, (we must) be strong for our children. Keep on! Later life will be even better!” This type of comment, reiterating the need to be strong and persevere, was common. However, unlike the public performance of trauma, such posts and responses to them never expressed victimhood or the need for pity. They did, however, reveal how therapeutic governing and positive psychology are deeply interwoven. Still, two women did use social media to voice the frustration and humiliation that can accompany domestic work. One woman, who posted frequently about being misunderstood by her employer, one day wrote: Domestic workers are very tired [and] busy all the time. When employers are happy, you need to smile. When your employer is angry with you, you have to keep silent and tolerate it. … My life is so difficult, but who cares? If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be a domestic worker, but who could my family depend on if I didn’t do this work? So, no matter how difficult or tiring, I’ll persevere for the sake of the elderly and the young in my family. With her words, she eloquently captured Hochschild’s definition of emotional labor—masking one’s emotions for the sake of others’ happiness—and the emotional exhaustion it brings. One friend commented, “I see this and my heart aches,” and others offered sympathy. As if to balance out the negative, a few days later the author wrote she was touched that the grandmother in the family had bought her mooncakes during Mid-Autumn Festival. Employers were not the only ones who could cause anger or disappointment, however. Ms. Chen wrote a long story about planning to leave Beijing to go home and a friend who never showed up when she was supposed to help carry luggage to the train station. She ended her story: I wish next time I travel by public transportation, if I have to bring luggage, I’ll only bring one thing: renminbi [Chinese yuan]. I hope I don’t have to go out and do migrant jobs once I get home. I hope that at home I’ll have cars when I go out, have money when I come back, make money when I work, [and] have friends when I hang out. Ms. Chen’s deep sense of feeling let down by a friend was compounded by her awareness of her marginalized social position and the constraints it put on her ability to cultivate both social and economic capital in the city. These last two posts clearly demonstrate the hardships and stress faced by domestic workers. However, despite such experiences, the women overwhelmingly chose to emphasize self-care and social support over negative feelings, revealing an internalization of a therapeutic ethos, a mode of psychological survival, or both. Whether in forwarded content, photographs, or individually-written posts, their social media use is permeated with the performativity of emotion. It is also connected to their identity as domestic workers, yet in a much more diverse way than in the drama club performances, even as the club is mutually constitutive with such usage. Conclusion Lawrence Grossberg (1992, p. 83) has argued that “it is in their affective lives that people constantly struggle to care about something, and to find the energy to survive, to find the passion necessary to imagine and enact their own projects and possibilities.” In this article, I have explored how affect and emotion are harnessed and circulate through the drama club participation and social media use of a group of middle-aged female domestic workers in Beijing. I have highlighted the complicated terrain of formal modes of communicative empowerment and informal processes of agency, and the linkages and contradictions between them. The drama club seeks to empower domestic workers through various means—songs, dance, games—but in the public sphere their voices are often heard through victimhood stories, which show their strength and resilience but not their joys and triumphs. In other words, the price of empowerment is the public performance of personal pain. Such performances are intended to generate an urban audience’s understanding of the women’s lives and to indirectly call out China’s entrenched social inequality. However, it is unclear whether the mobilization of affect through stories of victimhood generates empathy that motivates social change or reifies the women’s marginalization. Moreover, due to the ephemeral nature of such performances, the limited audience, the narrow representation, and the emotional distance between domestic workers and most urbanites, it is difficult to make such empathic feelings “stick,” in Sara Ahmed’s words. In contrast to the narratives crafted by the NGO, women use social media to share information, engage in self-care, offer social support, and construct selves that are outwardly shaped by the new experiences their urban life brings. Of course, they also voice grievances, yet this occurs far less frequently. This emphasis on positivity is not due to an inordinate concern with self image. Rather, the women understand their social media posts as having a pedagogical and uplifting function for those in their social networks. Still, in the smaller, more private realm of social media, the women’s limited economic, cultural, and social capital mean their voices are rarely heard beyond their small personal networks. Although both the drama club and social media offer a space for individual voice and empowerment, it is difficult to assess to what degree they alleviate the marginalization of domestic workers in Chinese society. The therapeutic ethos embraced by the NGO, with its focus on resilience and self-strength, substitutes for collective resistance in a context where labor activism is increasingly risky. And though the diversity of the women’s expression online contrasts greatly with the public performance, the disconnect is only partial. The women’s emphasis on positivity, self-realization, and supporting one another also reflects the therapeutic ethos noted by Yang (2015) and Zhang (2017). Still, the women make the drama club a space for female sociability, belonging, and support, as affect motivates passions and produces alliances between women from different geographical regions and backgrounds, which is reinforced and grows online. In the public sphere, the NGOs want them to be victims, while in the workshops, creative expression is supposed to result in happiness. Similarly, the state wants them to focus on happiness via the sentimental and moralizing messages produced by the telecoms. The women embrace elements of both, but also push back to claim their own voice in a process of becoming whole. If empowerment is a top-down process, the women carve out their own space for agency from the bottom up. Notes 1 On how such processes unfold among NGOs in India, see Sharma (2008). 2 These include former migrant worker Sun Heng’s New Worker Art Troupe, founded in 2002, and Hua Dan, set up by British expat Caroline Watson in 2004. 3 See Oxfam Hong Kong (http://www.oxfam.org.hk/en/whatwedo.aspx) and HuaDan’s “Women Empowerment Programme” (http://www.hua-dan.org/programmes/women/). NGOs that work with women have been particularly influenced by the United Nations’ Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which seeks to acknowledge all women’s voices and “further the advancement and empowerment of women all over the world” (United Nations, 1995, par. 7). 4 Globally, NGOs’ construction of “acceptable” narratives for public consumption is common. See Schneeweis (2015) on NGOs that advocate for the Roma. In the context of India, see Sharma (2008) and in China, see Jacka, 2006, chapter 2. 5 These include Sun Heng Sings for the Workers (http://weibo.com/sunheng1975?from=profile&wvr=5&loc=infdomain); the Migrant Women’s Club (http://weibo.com/u/1197557374?from=profile&wvr=5&loc=infdomain); and Things about Domestic Workers (http://weibo.com/jiazhenggongnewmedia?from=profile&wvr=5&loc=infdomain). 6 I am also a member of the drama club group WeChat and follow several migrant worker NGOs’ Sina Weibo. 7 Fieldwork, April 4, 2013, personal communication. 8 All names are pseudonyms, including drama characters. 9 Although it is tempting to compare such performances to Mao-era “speaking bitterness” campaigns, those were highly politicized top-down campaigns orchestrated by the state and rooted in class struggle. 10 Fieldwork, July 27, 2013. 11 Fieldwork, July 13, 2013. 12 Fieldwork, July 27, 2013. 13 Fieldwork, July 27, 2013. 14 On domestic workers’ consciousness of their subordination see Ellerman, 2017. 15 Fieldwork, July 27, 2013. 16 Fieldwork, September 19, 2015. 17 On the imaging practices of younger migrant women, see Wallis (2013). 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Communication, Culture & Critique – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 30, 2018
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