In the past two weeks, another idol survival show has swept Chinese social media. But this time, it’s different. The show, called Sisters Who Can Make Waves (Sisters), features 30 female celebrities who are over the age of thirty and battling for a spot in a proposed five-member, all-female group.
It would be wrong to see the show’s unexpected success as an example of the triumph of K-pop-inspired talent shows. What sets this show apart is not just the “30 over 30” setting, but a refreshing look at the concept of a “female idol” in the wake of Chinese women’s self-awareness. Through the eyes of “has-been” female celebrities, the show re-examines the idol survival show craze in China and how those shows are shaping today’s pop culture landscape.
The main ideological conflict of the show was revealed by the words of Du Hua, one of the guest judges — “What makes somebody a good girl-group member?” After Ding Dang, a professional singer who has released several albums, showcased her outstanding vocal ability, Du Hua, as a senior executive in the entertainment industry, gave her performance an astonishing low score for the simple reason, “She stands out too much.” Herself a women in her late 30s, Du Hua’s critique represented the gaze fixed on female entertainers by society and the industry — the perfect female entertainer must be young, fair-skinned and skinny. Furthermore, they are expected to possess singing and dancing skills, but preferably not be overly dominant or have too big of a personality.
For the past three years, China’s rising idol industry, represented by Du’s Yuehua Entertainment, has been churning out “dream girls” in the spotlight. Du and her peers make money by finding girls in their early twenties who are usually naive, obedient and yearning for a place in show business. The elder sisters, by contrast, though still troubled by social discipline, exhibited a strong sense of disobedience in the show. Many of them have withdrawn from public attention for years because of their roles as wives and mothers. Their attitudes, appearance, lifestyle and interactions with one another quickly become the hot issue everyone’s talking about.
To truly become a phenomenon in China, a variety show must be worthy of some controversy and have the potential to go viral on social media, and Sisters’ has the whole package. On the evening of its launch on Mango TV, the show’s first episode attracted 307 million views online and, at the same time, hashtags related to the show on Weibo garnered over 18 billion views. That number of views is rare even in China’s already gigantic entertainment industry.
In fact, this is not the first time a Mango original variety show trended on Chinese social media with feminism related topics. Female empowerment has been a consistent theme in several of Mango’s variety shows.
In Wives’ Romantic Trip (or “Viva La Romance”), a staple original reality show by Mango, Zhu Dan and Zhou Yiwei, a seemingly well-matched celebrity couple showed their real marriage life on the screen. The fact that Zhou is always the one who takes the lead triggered a heated debate online about Zhu’s excessive compromise.
In another well-received original hit My Little One, Mango explored the “leftover women” phenomenon in China by inviting female celebrities’ parents to the studio to watch footage of their daughters’ dating life. As a guest star on the show, famous digital creator Papi trended the “hot searches” for almost an entire week for her “self first, partner second, kids third, parents fourth” value ranking.
In an era where Chinese women as a whole start to question the long-existing gender norms, Mango seems to have found a recipe for women of all ages that would provoke discussion but in a gentle and discreet manner. According to data from Tianfeng Securities, women account for nearly 70% of Mango TV users, while users under the age of 35 account for more than 90%.
For an audience familiar with feminist advocacy and the movement in the west, shows like Sisters and My Little Oneremain decidedly conservative and lacking sophistication. However, Mango’s efforts to address social gender issues with variety shows are still very valuable to the Chinese variety show scene that is notorious for plagiarizing ideas and constrained by censorship.
The shows are not only family-friendly, but share a common interest from different groups that have varying degrees of education. Amanda Zhou, an avid observer of Chinese reality TV and self-proclaimed feminist, said Sisters is a show she can watch with her parents and start the hard conversation of gender issues in the family. “My parents, being conservative average, working class Chinese in their 50s, would never even start to rethink social gender norms if it weren’t for TV shows,” said Zhou.
Mango’s producers got two things right: to represent authentically and unapologetically how Chinese women are surviving in marriage, family and the workplace, and to raise the right questions of public concern at the right time. This originality and ability to capture social gender issues has made Mango a unique video streaming platform. As the fourth-largest video streaming site in China after iQIYI, Tencent and Youku, Mango has no capital to rely on and does not have an advantage in copyright. As a result, Mango has put original content at the forefront of its development. In a press conference, the company said the plan was to increase original content to 90% by the end of 2020.
With the most highly-rated original content, Mango TV’s ambition is to become China’s HBO. Just like HBO, which started from traditional satellite TV, Mango TV is a subsidiary of Hunan TV Station, a state-backed satellite TV station known for being the pioneer of Chinese variety shows. As “Sisters Who Can Make Waves” became the new social media sensation, Mango TV as its hosting and producing platform, is seeing considerable growth. The day the show premiered, the stock price of Mango Media, the parent company of Mango TV, rose by 6.82 percent and its market value exceeded 100 billion yuan.
Facing fierce competition in China’s video streaming market, Mango TV’s originality has earned it a place of its own. It remains to be seen whether Mango can make female empowerment themes in to a bigger business. However, the commercial success of Sisters definitely shows that the often “unwelcome” idea of feminism can break through popular culture into viewers’ hearts.