At first glance, decent roles for Chinese television actresses have become much more abundant in the last few years. The trend has seen many intelligent, complicated and independent female characters feature on the small screen (see WiC381).
Until two months ago, that is. In April, Women in Beijing, a web series only available on the online video site Youku, was derided for dispiriting retreat in its gender stereotyping.
The show, which generated over a billion posted comments on Sina Weibo, has been widely criticised for portraying women as relying on their sexuality for upward mobility.
The series focuses on the female protagonist Chen Ke, played by actress Qi Wei, and shows how she climbs the social ladder over the course of a decade.
Chen moves to Beijing in 2008 and through the help of a lecherous former male classmate gets her first job as a receptionist. In later episodes, a friend explicitly tells her to play up her sex appeal. “Some women can use a bed to win themselves a house,” she opines.
Critics of the series have said that it reduces women to stereotypical sex objects. Others say the show is outrageously unrealistic in its portrayal of migrant workers in Beijing. “The drama is so out of touch with reality. The heroine meets one sugar daddy after another that paves her way to career success,” one netizen complained.
Women in Shanghai, a follow-up drama from the same producer, may yet redeem the franchise. The series, also on Youku, tells a similar story about Luo Haiyan, a small-town girl from Anhui played by actress Wang Zhener, who moves to Shanghai to make a living after graduating from college.
It charts her professional and romantic travails, plus some of the minutiae of day-to-day life in the fast-paced city.
So far, word of mouth for the show is markedly better than its predecessor, and the online commentary on Sina Weibo is that the portrayal of working women is much more positive.
“The truth is, Women in Shanghai is not only better produced than Women in Beijing, there are also less storylines about women using men to advance in life,” another netizen applauded.
Audiences say Women in Shanghai has also struck a chord because of its true-to-life depiction of the struggles that migrant workers must confront, including the loneliness of being separated from their families and the frustrations of being kicked out of their apartments by shady landlords.
One scene sees Luo, by now working as an intern at an advertising agency, going out to lunch with her colleagues. The bill comes back at Rmb45 ($7) per person, which exceeds her daily budget of Rmb10 a day. Before going home that evening, she heads to the supermarket to buy instant noodles because that’s all she can afford for dinner for the next few weeks.
Instead of trying to seduce men to advance her career, Luo relies on hard work to shape her destiny. In another scene, she is tasked with preparing a presentation to a group of foreign clients. Because of her limited English, a colleague ends up taking the credit. Instead of complaining, she opts for a more practical solution: language classes after work.
“A lot of people today still believe that a woman’s greatest success is to marry well and her biggest achievement in life is to take care of her family,” says Phoenix News. “What they don’t understand is that women, like men, build their own sense of self-worth themselves. While it’s great when they marry well, what if there is a sudden change in the circumstance? When that day comes, women want to think that their fate is in their own hands. Luo Haiyan is such a person.”
That’s not to say that all of Luo’s decisions struck viewers as correct. When one of her boyfriends dumps her, he offers Rmb20,000 as a ‘break-up fee’ (for more on these fees, see WiC410). She deliberates on whether to take the money but ends up accepting it and putting it towards a downpayment for a flat.
“How do you choose between money and dignity? Different people will make different decisions. But Luo Haiyan’s decision was to take the deposit to buy a house. To that end, she decides to say goodbye to the relationship by leaving behind her love and dignity,” adjudicated 36kr, a portal.
The city of Shanghai provides the ongoing backdrop to the drama, and to improve the show’s authenticity, the entire production team were selected from city residents.
“We were all born and raised in Shanghai,” director Cheng Liang boasted, adding that he wanted to highlight Shanghai’s beauty. All the foods that appear in the series are Shanghai specialties too.
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