Popular children’s song ‘Mom, Don’t Go to Work’ condemned for reinforcing sexist prejudices

Society & Culture

“Mommy, don’t go to work. Cuz even if you go, you won’t make much money.” These are not phrases pulled from a Jordan Peterson speech, but the music that millions of Chinese children are listening to these days. Yán Lìfēi 闫立飞, the artist who wrote the song, has come under fire lately after people discovered that his entire discography is packed with misogynist lyrics that perpetuate gendered assumptions of women’s roles at home and in society.

The controversial tune “Mom, Don’t Go to Work,” which put Yan in trouble in the first place, was brought to the forefront of public attention last week due to its appearance on a singing competition show broadcast on CCTV. On the show, a little girl, who’s one of the contestants in that week’s episode, sung part of the song, which contained a string of problematic lyrics such as:

“Mommy, don’t go to work anymore. Otherwise, I have no one to play with.”

“Mommy, even if you go to work, you won’t make much money.”

“Mommy, look at me. What a poor child I am.”

After an internet user shared the clip on Weibo, writing, “I can’t believe this is written in 2019,” the song instantly stirred a loud chorus of critiques (in Chinese) from other Weibo users, who not only took issue with the song itself, but also questioned how the performance passed through what they imagined were multiple levels of quality control at the predominant state television broadcaster.

“Who the f**k wrote this outrageously terrible song? Did he get abandoned by his mother when growing up?” commented one Weibo user. Another went a bit further by tagging China Women’s Daily on Weibo, writing, “Can you do something about this children’s song, which teaches kids to disrespect their mothers? If children are exposed to songs like this, whose core message is ‘Women should go home and take on housework and child-care duties,’ it will be increasingly difficult to improve gender equality in the future.”

Following the backlash, it didn’t take long for angry internet users to find out more information about the song. In fact, before it was widely blasted, it had floated into many short-form video platforms like Kuaishou and Douyin, where it was frequently used as a background tune in kids’ clips filmed by their parents. Meanwhile, its creator, Yan Lifei, turns out to be a local celebrity in Shandong Province, who hosts several programs at the local TV station and has released more than 70 songs as a musician.

A deep dive into Yan’s musical outputs so far revealed that the vast majority of his songs are about his family life, which, just like “Mom, Don’t Go to Work,” are littered with misogynist, sexist, and gender-stereotyping lyrics. In one song titled “I Want a Vacation So Bad,” he sings, “I want a vacation so bad, so I can spend some time with my family/I want a vacation so bad, so I can travel to a beach and hit on a woman in a bikini.” On another duet, called “Daughter and Dad,” he brings out his daughter, who sings, “Daddy, I’m your daughter. I love you more than my mom.” To make things creepier, in another performance (in Chinese), which Yan did with his daughter in 2017, the little girl was presumably taught by Yan to say, “I want to marry my dad!”

As complaints piled up, Yan issued an apologetic statement (in Chinese) on September 15, explaining that he “half-jokingly” wrote “Mom, Don’t Go to Work” in 2014 when his daughter just turned two years old and wailed every time his wife left home for work. “In fact, my wife works hard every day but earns modestly. That’s the message I meant to convey,” Yan wrote on Weibo. “I had no intention of harming women. I am a person who respects women a lot.” As a move of redemption, Yan also deleted controversial lyrics from some songs and removed “Mom, Don’t Go to Work” from streaming services completely.