So I don’t know if any of you out there in blogland have ever read Golden Arches East, but it’s an interesting anthropology/sociology book written about the effects/perceptions of McDonald’s in ‘East Asia’ (Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo). I had to write a paper on it for my Globalization of Food class, and I thought that it might make for a good blog post!
I thought I’d take a look at how McDonalds’ presence illuminates tensions concerning women’s roles in Westernizing societies, because a) it’s an interesting lens through which to view the Westernization of society and b) feminism is awesome and examining womens’ roles is something often overlooked in discussions of Westernization and cultural imperialism (and that is a very Vassar sentence). So, without further ado-
Aunt McDonald— McDonald’s and Gender in East Asia
McDonald’s is part of a worldwide movement towards globalization in which countries are torn between traditional values and ‘modern’ Western capitalist ideals; women in particular are often caught in the cultural crossfire. By examining the role that McDonald’s comes to play in the lives of the women of Taipei, Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo in Golden Arches East, the tensions within each society between traditional values and Westernization are illuminated.
Although the concept of modernity and the valuation of Western culture is not something that was introduced by McDonald’s, an examination of the effects of McDonald’s on gender relations in East Asia illuminates many of the tensions between tradition and modernization in East Asia.
For example, the transition between from a Confucian-style multigenerational family where care-taking was focused on the elderly to a model family unit much more similar to the Western-style nuclear family has been in the making for many decades. McDonald’s is merely a useful anthropological lens through which to examine the phenomenon.
Seeing how McDonald’s (and the families who frequent the restaurant) interacts with China’s “Little Emperors and Empresses” (second-generation only children, who can have as many as six adults doting on them) is a revealing exercise. Chinese women assert that they feel more comfortable in a place where they know their children are being taken care of and, and value McDonald’s as a place to exposed their children to Western culture that will in order to improve their job prospects later on. Children are expected to compete for jobs and university spots with their peers around the world, and so exposing them early to Western culture has become a priority for their parents. McDonald’s fills this need in a safe, consumerist fashion, so that the ideas that the children (and, as a side effect, their parents) are consuming are much less important than the actual food—this is transnationalism in action.
The shift in East Asian societies can be seen not only in changing family demographics, but also in the increasing amount of disposable income in the pockets of younger consumers. McDonald’s is the ideal place to spend it, as food is cheap and paid for on an individual basis. Although this makes men feel uncomfortable because they “feel awkward and stingy just paying for their own food,” (146) it also means that purchasing power is can be put in the hands of the female consumer.
This is not to say that the individual-payment model is without a doubt considered superior; traditional communal meals are still very much a valued part of the society. However, for women to have the opportunity to pay for their own meals is certainly a step towards Western cultural values, and one that women seemed seem to welcome as it allowed allows them to inhabit a room of their own, so to speak.
Although all of the cities valued Westernization as a desirable trait in varying degrees, women’s basic needs (such as safety and public restrooms) were still seem being overlooked in many of the cities surveyed. However, in all of the cities cited, McDonald’s is perceived as a refuge for by women; whether it’s the lack of alcohol, the child-friendly environment, or the clean public restrooms, women consistently cite feeling more comfortable in McDonald’s than in comparable native establishments.
Hong Kong is attempting to establish itself as a stable, genteel society looking forward instead of back, but public amenities for women still lack far behind that of men. McDonald’s is described as “an oasis, a familiar rest station, in what is perceived to be an inhospitable urban environment” (90). If half of the population views their own cities city as inhospitable urban environments, that calls into question the role that women play in this ‘new,’ stable Hong Kong.
In both Seoul and Beijing, McDonald’s is cited as creating a secure space for women to spend time unaccompanied. This is attributed to its unique environment: “an alcohol-free and child-friendly environment is perceived as an appropriate and safe place for women unaccompanied by male family members or friends” (146).
In this culturally novel situation women can relax, escape home situations that they find unsatisfactory (for example, the Taiwanese daughter in law who spends time at McDonald’s with her children instead of putting up spending time with her husband’s mother), and connect with each other.
The fact that there is now a public space in which women can feel secure is heartening, but one must wonder why the space was only created by the introduction of a multinational megacorporation. East Asian societies (and the women who are a part of them) are caught between Westernization and traditional values; McDonald’s highlights the difference between the two.
Culinary traditions in Taiwan were almost completely polarized between mainland cuisine and ethnic Taiwanese cuisine before the arrival of McDonald’s, which brought a relatively non-political outside culinary option. Despite the warm welcome that McDonald’s received in Taiwan, there was still some pushback as hamburgers entered Taipei’s primary schools in 1989; news articles blamed “lazy mothers” who didn’t want to pack their children’s lunches. Women are still seen as primary caretakers of children, and the society outside of McDonald’s is still one very much coached in traditional values.
In Seoul, the relationship between traditional and modern values is coached in dichotomous terms, and eating is very much a political act. Consumption of McDonald’s is seen as a betrayal of Korean farmers and a sign of social climbing aspirations. Korea is especially protective of its culinary culture; in contrast to Beijing, McDonald’s was not largely welcomed by the general populace.
However, Korean women employed by McDonald’s feel as though the company’s “openness and relative lack of hierarchy” (142) leads to greater gender equality than they would find in Korean business situations, and were very satisfied with that. Again McDonald’s introduces a public space that is more welcoming to women, highlighting the difference in women’s roles in traditional versus modern societies.
Despite the warm welcome that McDonald’s received in Taiwan, there was still some pushback as hamburgers entered Taipei’s primary schools in 1989; news articles blamed “lazy mothers” who didn’t want to pack their children’s lunches. Women are still seen as primary caretakers of children, and the broader societies in which McDonald’s is situated are still very much coached in traditional values.
One has to wonder whether McDonald’s has sufficient clout to influence gender relations beyond the doors of its stores. McDonald’s is perceived to have had a significant effect on other aspects of public life; for example queuing, while not introduced to Hong Kong by McDonald’s, is widely believed to have caught on with the introduction of McDonald’s restaurants. Likewise in Beijing, the cleanliness of the restrooms set a higher standard that competing restaurants were forced to match; the higher hygienic standards of the Western competitor increased the standards of cleanliness across the board.
Is transnationalism strong enough of a concept that people will consume values that are unfamiliar or incompatible with their traditional cultures alongside their Western aspirations? If people only adopt the ideas that already fit into their cultural framework, then the forecast for McDonalds’ future in gender equality looks gloomy—the equality that McDonald’s brings is not a genuine, grassroots sentiment originating in the women of these societies, but rather an imposition brought part and parcel with McDonald’s other novel Western qualities. McDonald’s is not a feminist organization by any stretch of the imagination; that it brings some semblance of Western standards of gender relations to East Asian societies is nothing more than a side effect of international capitalism.
For the women discussed in Golden Arches East, McDonald’s represents a number of things. Among other things it’s a haven from an overbearing mother in law; a way to ensure the future success of children by immersing them in Western norms and ideas; a clean and alcohol-free environment where women can feel safe relaxing and connecting with other customers (and women). East Asian societies are deeply affected by globalization and are struggling to reconcile the changes it brings with their own deeply rooted tensions and traditions. By examining the role that McDonald’s plays in the role of women of East Asia, these issues are brought into sharper focus—but by no means is McDonald’s a solution to gender inequality in East Asia (or anywhere) or tensions created by the clash of traditional and Western ideals.
Congratulations if you’ve made it this far! If you’re still interested (and I certainly don’t blame you if you want to go back to watching Dom Mazzetti on Youtube) here are some questions to consider-
1. Koreans were less enthusiastic in welcoming McDonald’s to Seoul because they were concerned about people continuing to consume local and traditional cuisine. Women working at the McDonald’s in Korea enjoy a higher level of gender equality than their peers in other restaurants, but how do you think that different treatment of women is perceived when it comes from an institution that’s perceived as an affront to national cultural values?
2. China is experiencing social upheaval as a result of the tensions between global capitalism and national communism; where is women’s role in this new society? Where do you see McDonald’s fitting in?
3. In your view, does McDonald’s offer a true ‘oasis’ for women if the women are still viewed as customers? What are your thoughts on McDonald’s as safe space?