But if the show reflected the casual discrimination that is widespread in Chinese society, and the way gender inequality has arguably widened since the days of Mao Zedong, there was at least a silver lining when the country’s nascent feminist movement made their voices heard in protest.
An online campaign protesting against discrimination in the television show quickly garnered 1,300 signatures being before blocked by censors.
But when two dozen people followed up by complaining to the country’s media watchdog, they won some surprising support in state newspaper China Daily, as well as on social media.
It was “certainly embarrassing” for the censors at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the paper said in an editorial Wednesday, while the discrimination in the show should put the nation ”to shame.”
The four-hour show is an important part of family viewing during the Lunar New Year celebrations, and has a reputation for generating laughter at the expense of various groups -- be it people with strong regional accents, the disabled or the overweight.
But the letter’s signatories said they had identified at least 44 cases of discrimination in this year’s show against unmarried women, domestic helpers, full-time mothers and others. They demanded apologies from state-run China Central Television and the gala’s director.
One comedy sketch compared a “nuhanzi,” Chinese for a “‘manly women,” and a “goddess” by putting an ordinary-looking woman beside a professional model. The sketch mocked the “manly woman” for her looks, and for remaining single while approaching 30.
Another sketch depicted unmarried women over 30 as unwanted and second-hand goods. Another sketch implied that female officials rise to power by sleeping with male leaders. In a blog, Foreign Policy called the show "spectacularly misogynstic."
One poll on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, attracting some 30,000 people, found that around 85 percent of people felt the gala discriminated against women, while the rest believed it was only for fun. However, another poll on netease.com found almost the reverse results, with 69 percent finding the show was not discriminatory.
One Weibo user said the show had discriminated against women from every possible angle, from age to looks, from employment to marital status. “The values being promoted in state media and this Communist country are so blatant that even my dad couldn’t watch it anymore,” the user wrote.
Another wondered ironically whether the discrimination and patriarchal message was an attempt to avoid “Western values,” which have become particularly unwelcome under President Xi Jinping. Another said that when the room for free speech was so strictly curtailed, the only laughter allowed comes at the expense of the disabled.
Despite the government’s pledges to improve gender equality, many people argue that women's rights have gone backwards in recent years. Blatant discrimination based on gender and looks can still be seen in employment advertisements. University professors and celebrities still make sexist comments in public without consequences. And with a skewed sex ratio after decades of a one-child policy, there's a growing social expectation for women to get married early and take care of the families.
Conservative attitudes also come from the very top: as the New York Times pointed out in a recent story about the growing gender gap, no woman has ever served in the Politburo Standing Committee, at the apex of political power, while women are steadily losing ground in the workplace, with female executives especially rare in state-owned companies.
In 2013 President Xi said that women’s “unique role” in the family should be emphasized, and that women should consciously shoulder the responsibility of respecting the elderly and educating their children to become useful to the country.
But China Daily, at least, made a rare statement in support of activists and others who wrote the letter this week.
“The administration may pretend that no protest has been heard. CCTV may shrug off the request for an apology. Fans may continue to disparage the whistle-blowers as unfunny.
"Yet, unpopular as they may be, the naysayers have brought up a topic that should not be swept under the carpet in a country that calls itself civilized, and which aspires to flaunt its soft power globally.”
Ratings for the outdated variety show have been falling in recent years, but it is likely that for next year’s gala, some women in China will surely be watching closely.