It’s dark outside: 4:34 AM. I am peering through a truck’s windshield, gazing at a seemingly endless stretch of highway. “Female truck driver Li Ping is live streaming,” reads the title above the Douyin video player. It’s accompanied by the option to follow Li Ping’s account. Li Ping and her sister converse with fans, their voices audible, but the camera remains directed out the window, capturing the drive and road ahead. “Have you all woken up from a night of sleep?” a voice asks. It belongs to Li Ping’s younger sister, whose weariness is evident in the countless yawns that follow. The chat springs to life as fans engage, their messages reflecting varied states of wakefulness: some have just risen, some couldn’t fall asleep, and others are truck drivers like Li Ping who have been awake and on the road. A robotic navigation voice reminds them to take a break. The camera captures the uninterrupted expanse of mountains; rest stops and service areas are nowhere in sight. Fans implore Li Ping’s sister to turn the camera and reveal herself and her sister. She replies, enticing them with the promise that if gifts are given, they will be granted a glimpse. The navigation voice reminds them again to take a break. They continue driving on. Below, a row of vibrant stickers awaits my interaction, offering the opportunity to support Li Ping through virtual items like hearts, flower bouquets, and cars, which streamers can later cash out for real money.
There are 30 million truck drivers in China, shipping everything from selfie sticks to food to household appliances across vast distances around the country and neighboring regions. These drivers are a critical part of the often-hidden truck transport infrastructure that supports the country’s economy. Just 4% of these truck drivers are female. In a male-dominated industry, the contributions of the approximately 1.3 million female drivers are further overlooked.
On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, however, female truck drivers are sharing their experiences and gaining significant followings, illuminating the work and challenges of this profession. Over the course of a month, I examined the content of four popular female truck drivers on the platform: 丽子 (Li Zi) [Douyin ID: LZ8118] with over 2.7 million followers, 姚姚 (Yao Yao) [Douyin ID: kcyy9999] with over 2.6 million followers, 楠姐 (Nan Jie) [Douyin ID: 38235954] with over 1.6 million followers, and 莉萍 (Li Ping) [Douyin ID: 945604500] with over 1.3 million followers. I explored how their efforts to change the narrative of truck driving and empower themselves and their peers are both informed by and confronted with gendered norms. Their experiences reveal the entanglement of gender inequalities in the seemingly distant worlds of shipping and online entertainment.
As Female truck drivers show on Douyin, they encounter challenging living and working conditions and defy traditional gender stereotypes that associate toughness and endurance with masculinity. Revealing how they face limited access to basic amenities such as toilets and showers while on the road, female truck drivers showcase their resourcefulness in finding alternative solutions for everyday tasks like cooking, washing clothes, and personal hygiene. In her truck trailer, Nan Jie creates a makeshift bathroom using a red trash can and a garbage bag. In a parking lot, Yao Yao rinses shampoo from her hair using cold water from a tube coming out from underneath the truck. They share stories of long and irregular working hours, disrupted sleep and eating schedules, and the physical and mental strain of driving for extended periods. They illuminate the demanding road and weather conditions they navigate, from Nan Jie’s experience in the freezing conditions of the Gobi Desert to Yao Yao’s drive through winding mountainous paths at night. Their videos demonstrate that women have the skills and expertise to be successful truck drivers. Historically overlooked and marginalized, female truck drivers are making their own contributions visible on Douyin, asserting that they are invaluable participants in the trunk transport infrastructure. They use Douyin to empower themselves and their peers.
At the same time, however, they also confront gendered expectations that hinder their efforts. These drivers demonstrate how they assume a disproportionate share of caretaking and household duties, highlighting the persistence of traditional gender roles and inequalities. Despite their active role in a male-dominated industry and their efforts to challenge gender norms, female truck drivers continue to grapple with societal expectations that undermine their work as truck drivers.
Voicing over a compilation of videos of life on the road, Nan Jie responds to a question she often receives about why she and her baby join her husband on the trips instead of staying at home. Nan Jie explains that joining him on the road allows her husband to save time by not having to make additional trips home to see the family. Furthermore, on the road, she can assist by doing “everything that women do,” including cleaning, taking care of the baby, cooking, and washing her husband’s clothes. Notably missing from this list is driving the truck. But I’ve seen her drive the truck. In her other videos, I’ve seen her get in the driver’s seat in the freezing Gobi Desert, as well as command the vehicle even when she was seven months pregnant in Xinjiang. These remarks highlight the reinforcement of traditional gender roles, with women expected to fulfill caregiving responsibilities and prioritize their husband’s work over their own. Nan Jie’s work is predominantly framed within the realm of domestic duties, overshadowing her role as a truck driver and suggesting that her driving work is considered secondary to her husband’s.
While female truck drivers on Douyin may want to challenge gender stereotypes, they face pressure from the platform and its users to conform to conventional notions of femininity and beauty standards in their online content. Past scholarship has shown how there are social and economic incentives to engage in gender performativity online (Cunningham et al., 2019; Abidin & Thompson, 2012). On Douyin, livestreaming serves as a means for female truck drivers to expand their audience and convert their social capital into financial gains. However, this endeavor comes with heightened expectations to embrace emphasized femininity in order to appeal to their viewers, who can reward live streamers with virtual sticker gifts that they can later convert into real money. Whether driving on the road, taking breaks at rest stops, or staying at home, female truck drivers often initiate livestreams to share glimpses of their lives and work. These livestreams not only serve as a potential additional source of income but also offer real-time interactions, helping to counteract the isolation and loneliness often experienced during long hours on the road. In this process, however, they experience audience discipline and self-imposed policing compelling them to adhere to idealized images and portrayals online.
“She looks good today,” a fan comments. It’s 10:55 pm in China, and Yao Yao is wearing a white blazer and a black shirtdress, sitting on a bed, livestreaming. She thanks them, stands up, and gives viewers a better picture of her entire look, turning to the left and to the right. Gifts float in. She says “brother” when addressing people in the room–it’s a predominantly male crowd.
One person writes, “Your filtered face is better-looking than your real one.” She responds that yes, she does have the beauty filter on–it’s set to the highest level of 100–but so what? She drives every day in the sun and wind so her skin has become dark and there are spots all over her face. People are still watching her and giving her gifts, so, she concludes, the filters are working. Viewers expect Yao Yao to conform to certain beauty and behavior standards, which may clash with the practical and often physically demanding aspects of truck driving. In using beauty filters, Yao Yao appeases viewers, which enables her to benefit economically through their gifts, but simultaneously undermines her empowerment by reinforcing societal beauty standards and masking the realities of her work.
Despite the challenges female truck drivers encounter in both their offline work in the trucking industry and their online work, there’s a resounding positivity to all of the content they share on Douyin. Towards the end of a video, Nan Jie shows the intense manual labor involved in truck driving, including a shot of her tugging at the strings around a truck tarp with her right hand while holding the baby in her left arm. Nan Jie types in a screen recording of her Notes app, “For the future you want, no matter how difficult it is now, you must, with confidence, persevere.” In the video of Li Zi washing clothes on the side of the road, she flashes a smile to the camera. Playing over the video is a soft ballad with the lyrics, “If you fall down, you can only get up. Even if it hurts, you have to cry while laughing.” Both Nan Jie and Li Zi engage in affective digital labor to build positive images of themselves and their work through their content, illustrating the ways through which beneath the guise of empowerment, Douyin, like other social media platforms, extends the unpaid and gendered work of women from offline to online.
Digital labor encompasses activities such as liking and commenting on posts, creating digital content, and moderating online forums–work that produces value for the corporations owning the platforms but for which the user is uncompensated (Terranova, 2000; Scholz, 2012). Other scholars have elaborated on this to consider the ways digital labor, which is largely performed by women, draws on the gendered history of invisible, free labor (Arcy, 2016; Duffy, 2016; Duffy, 2017). The work of social media content creators is creative and affective by nature, as they must engender feelings of trust, positivity, and intimacy in their audience to gain social capital (Abidin, 2015; Utz, 2015). This demands time and skill that often goes underappreciated, so the work tends to be undervalued (Abidin, 2016). Besides normalizing the care work for a household that disproportionately falls on women, these female truck drivers take on added care work for the community of truck drivers they build through Douyin as well as for the rest of their fans online. The digital labor that these female truck drivers engage in when posting on Douyin adds additional pressure to an already demanding job.
In creating entry points on Douyin, these female truck drivers expose the complex intersection of gender roles, social media, and work. As the sun rises through the window of Li Ping’s truck several hours into her livestream, it’s clear that for Douyin’s female truck drivers, there is always more work, both online and offline, to be done within the truck transport infrastructure. It’s a continuous fight to make the work performed in all spheres–occupational, domestic, and online–more visible and valued.
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