Chinese TV gets a dose of feminist realism

From classics like “Ode to Joy” and “Twenty Your Life On” to last year’s “Nothing but Thirty,” female-led ensemble-dramas have been a constant bright spot for China’s television and entertainment industries. streaming in recent years. Despite the trend, almost no one saw “Delicious Romance” coming.

The series, which debuted on Chinese streaming platforms last November, has taken the entertainment world by storm, becoming one of the most successful dramas released in the last year. It’s not like it came out of nowhere. “Delicious Romance” was directed by Chen Zhengdao, director of acclaimed teen movies such as “Eternal Summer” and “Upcoming Summer.” Yet after a rambling pre-release ad campaign, few believed the show would leave a lasting impression. Instead, he enjoyed an outpouring of word-of-mouth support; on the notoriously picky popular review site Douban, its average score reached 8.4 out of 10 before finally settling at a still impressive 8.1.

But “Delicious” isn’t just a rehash of the boss feminism that made “Ode to Joy” a hit six years ago. One of the reasons it resonated with theater fans is the way it subverts tropes of old soap operas run by female ensembles. In the process, it injects some much-needed nuance into the growing body of feminist Chinese television and film.

Prior to “Delicious,” a number of hit shows had won over viewers with stories of empowerment at work and strong women overcoming any challenge thrown their way. These shows, including “Ode to Joy” and “Nothing but Thirty” mentioned above, challenged stereotypes and inspired many viewers, but their particular brand of feminism also left many feeling left out.

Part of the problem was that their female leads seemed closer to superheroes than regular women. During the last years, da nüzhu – or “strong women” have proven popular with domestic viewers. These protagonists are idealized to the point of becoming two-dimensional, their perfection transforming them into a sort of caricature of the perfect woman. They remain cool, calm, and collected under the patriarchal gaze, while deftly balancing their obligations at home and at work. Their success often depends on their ability to endure and overcome in silence, rather than confront or overthrow.

What these shows portray is less the experience of being a woman at this point in Chinese history, and more the need to not let being a woman get in the way of your professional and personal goals. The structural power imbalances of modern Chinese society are necessarily minimized, as they would otherwise hamper the ability of our female protagonists to always assert themselves. This type of narrative risks simplifying and idealizing the female experience, as if women only deserve our sympathy and support if they are already capable of having it all.

The structural power imbalances of modern Chinese society are necessarily minimized.

This is where “Delicious Romance” has the most to say, in part by introducing viewers to a cast of far less overtly heroic heroines.

The plot of “Delicious Romance” is not complex. The show tells the stories and choices of three women – Liu Jing, Fang Xin and Xia Meng – who have very different personalities, experiences and lifestyles, as they face various issues at work, home and in love.

Much like the vast majority of Chinese TV dramas featuring female actors, the series nods to diversity by focusing on women from different backgrounds, ostensibly offering viewers insight into different facets of the female experience. Liu Jing is undefeated after being fired and refuses to settle down despite pressure from her family. Fang Xin does not remain silent in the face of harassment at work and holds her head high even during a difficult divorce; in her pursuit of excellence, Xia Meng does not force herself to conform to societal expectations or repress who she is. Although they are plagued by internal contradictions, they are never cataloged and do not become accomplices of the men in their lives.

That doesn’t mean they’re perfect. They have obvious shortcomings; whether it has become common in recent years for women to complain of being self-centered and lazy zha nah, or “scumbag men”, there are times in this series where all three leads could possibly qualify for “scumbag women” status. Their most notable offense, however, is simply not respecting traditional society’s rules for women. In their romantic relationships, for example, they blow hot and cold and make decisions without thinking about the consequences. Liu Jing and Xia Meng are torn between two suitors, and both are very open about the fact that they can’t decide.

An image from “Delicious Romance”. From @网剧爱很美味 on Weibo

However, the show does not pass moral judgment on their behavior and instead invites the audience to simply appreciate the difficulties of contemporary femininity. At the end of the series, at a women-only party, the three protagonists meet and engage in an imaginary dialogue with their younger selves. This dreamlike sequence shows how, just because they’re not perfect, they’re not failures.

“Is the way we are now the way you hoped to live?” ask their current selves. The answer from their younger counterparts is a resounding no: they have become too indecisive; they suffer too much; they are too weak.

“So, did we disappoint you? ask the three women at their young age. But here, the answer is again, more surprisingly, no. “You live courageously…diligently…beautifully,” their past reassures them. “You give us something to look forward to growing. We want to experience everything you have.

The message behind this conversation is obvious: whether or not a woman has become the most perfect version of herself is less important than whether, after all she’s been through, she still chooses to love herself. .

Many of my friends and acquaintances have referred to the plots and attitudes expressed in “Delicious Romance”. The show embodies a call too rarely heard these days – that women’s pleasure, power and opinions do not serve the needs of men or society, and that it shouldn’t just be men who have right to free will and its rewards.

On a deeper level, what’s important about the show is that its underlying message applies to all women, including those who will never reach the top of the pyramid at work or at home. . You shouldn’t have to be a strong woman to deserve to be seen, heard and respected. From that perspective, “Delicious Romance,” for all its tropes, succeeds in its quest for realism in at least one respect: creating characters that resonate with viewers.

The pleasure, power, and opinions of women do not serve the needs of men or society, and it should not be only men who are entitled to agency and its rewards.

However, arguably the show’s most exciting potential lies in how it engages male viewers. Although the men on the show seem well put together, they all end up exhibiting obvious and typical intimacy issues, ranging from commitment issues to larger breaches of ethics and even the law.

The one male character that the show portrays in a somewhat idealistic light, Huang Yu, provides plenty of food for thought for the men. Huang believes that relationships between the two sexes should be based on mutual respect and does not see monogamy as a burden. However, his extremely idealized view of romance and the pursuit of a perfectly balanced intimate relationship ultimately lead him to become disillusioned with the idea of ​​marriage. In other words, the fringe views of this otherwise “ideal man” make him alienated from mainstream society. Men too are subject to certain expectations in a patriarchal society.

In that sense, “Delicious Romance” shouldn’t be considered “women’s television.” A good female ensemble drama can also inspire reflection and change in male audiences, showing them how women’s experiences have changed over the past two decades, as well as how women’s perspectives deserve greater respect in society. part of society.

For better or worse, equality is only truly achievable if men from all walks of life commit to changing their behavior. Of course, women shouldn’t be afraid to be themselves and accept who they are, but it’s not enough for them to be seen or even heard. Building a better society will take more than women helping women – everyone has to play their part.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; Portrait Artist: Zhou Zhen.

(Header image: a photo of “Delicious Romance”. From @网剧爱很美味 on Weibo)

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