Women going on road trips is a movie genre that made its greatest stir in the 1991 classic Thelma and Louise, when the protagonists – played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon – drive off a cliff in the final scene.
More generally, the Hollywood genre revolves around a group of ‘gal-pals’ realising in the end that nothing substitutes for sisterhood.
A new Chinese reality TV show is taking a similar line, putting a group of middle-aged female celebrities together and filming them on vacation. For many of its viewers, the series is also raising questions about the nature of friendship in the social media era where deeper physical bonds have given way to mass networking and ‘likes’ .
We Are Real Friends is a travel show on Tencent Video that follows Taiwanese actress Barbie Hsu and her sister Dee (a variety show host), along with two celebrity friends Aya Liu (another TV host) and Mavis Fan (a singer) as they travel the world together.
But the underlying premise explores how women can nurture their friendships so that they don’t slip away.
Since its premiere in early May, the series has received a rating of 8.9 out of 10 on Douban, the TV series and film review site.
In the first three episodes, the four women, who met when they were 16 at Taipei’s Hwa Kang Arts School, travel to Myanmar, where they explore the local markets and ancient temples, and watch sunsets by the seaside.
That said, Myanmar serves mostly as an exotic backdrop; the main focus of the show is the interaction between the friends.
“Since the 1990s, tourism programmes that help audiences discover the world have become very popular. More and more people, too, fell in love with travelling and reality travel programmes – like Divas Hit the Road (see WiC240) and Sisters Over Flower – were also very successful. However, most of the time the drama of the show surrounds the people not getting along. The newly launched We Are Real Friends seeks to do something different, bringing together four people that have known each other for 20 years,” one critic wrote on Douban.
“The show’s brilliance is putting four real friends together: there is no initial awkwardness between the stars; as soon as the camera starts rolling, they are quickly in their element; there is no need for a script. The interaction feels genuine,” Yangcheng Evening News agreed. “This is what travelling with friends is really like.”
Despite their age (all the women are over 40), they often behave like they’re in their twenties. In one scene they go giddy about the good-looking skipper of their boat. In another, they almost jump out of their seats with happiness when a server at the restaurant guesses their ages as much lower than they really are.
When there is bickering, they quickly patch things up. “On the surface, it is not hard to see what makes a lasting friendship: their opinions and humour are very similar; there is mutual respect and appreciation for one another. But what’s clear is that they have always been there for one another through ups and downs. Some people don’t want to spend too many resources and too much energy on those who are facing hard times. The lasting friendship between these four women, however, shows that they don’t give up on each other. And this is what’s heartwarming about the show,” a netizen wrote.
Online debate about the show has highlighted how it has struck a chord with some younger viewers, who admit to feeling lonely despite having thousands of ‘friends’ on social media.
In fact “empty nest youth” is a growing social theme, according to the debut Economy of Loneliness report released last year by Momo, an dating platform (see WiC400), and Xiaozhu, a home-sharing app similar to Airbnb.
The findings, the South China Morning Post wrote, suggested that these younger people are “usually single”, “renting a flat” and “living in a city away from their family and relatives”.
The stress of surviving and succeeding in big cities “exacerbates their feeling of loneliness,” it adds.
Formal studies of the impact of loneliness on public health are getting more common, including one from the UK government in 2017 that put on par the damage that loneliness does to physical and mental health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
But for many of its fans in China the new reality series is prompting more reflection on what matters most in life, especially for a generation that is often gripped by social media.
“After watching the first episode of We Are Real Friends, I became lost in my thoughts about the difference between real friendships and virtual ones online,” a blogger on Ying Shi Guan Shao, an entertainment portal, wrote.
“Having thousands of ‘likes’ online does not equate to true friendships. In fact, in this day and age where people gauge their self worth based on how many ‘likes’ a photo generates, we need real friends – like the four women on the show – to remind us of the importance of true friendship.”
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