Sister act

The first episode got 420 million views – what makes this show different?

Zhang Yuqi-w

Zhang Yuqi: rebooting her career in Sisters Who Make Waves?

One of the certainties about girl bands is that they aren’t destined to last forever. Many of the best-known bands in Asia try to delay the inevitable, changing their line-ups as their singers start to age. However, once passionate younger fans also change too, becoming less devoted as they grow up.

A reality show in China wants to reverse the aging process, proving that women over 30 can still deliver the girl band goods.

Sisters Who Make Waves – which is shown on Hunan Satellite TV’s streaming platform – has become the most talked-about topic on social media since its debut last Friday. The first episode has already accumulated more than 420 million views on its streaming platform Mango TV. On Sina Weibo, conversations related to the series have already generated two billion views.

Like previous idol survival shows, Sisters Who Make Waves features a large group of celebrities who compete to be part of a five-member girl group. But the rub is that all of the contestants are more than 30 years-old. Some of them are household names, like the scandal-prone actress Zhang Yuqi, 33; Ning Jing, 48, a singer-actress of Nakhi descent; and singer-actress Annie Yi, 52. Jin Chen is the youngest at 30.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the women will live together, honing their dancing and singing skills, and putting in live performances on TV.

Actor Huang Xiaoming is the series host.

As so often the case with these reality formats in China, the series isn’t an original idea. The casting of older female stars like this was pioneered by South Korean TV station KBS, which aired Sister’s Slam Dunk in 2016. This time around, Hunan Satellite TV says the goal is to give the older women another chance to prove that girl bands aren’t just for teens. However, most of the participants seem less interested in being part of a band than in looking for a second chance to reboot their careers. When the producer asks Jin Sha, 37, why she’s taking part, she is very open about her motivations, explaining that “I want to be recognised and loved again.”

“In the last two years, a lot of topics about ‘abandoning’ middle-aged actresses and not giving enough opportunities to actresses over 30 have been commonplace on social media. That is what’s so savvy about the series on Hunan Satellite TV. It shows women that are unembarrassed by their ages… it highlights women who are independent, strong and charismatic,” says 36Kr, a news portal.

“In the past it felt like women after 30 lose the ability to choose; all they can do is to accept their fate. But these sisters, through their words and actions, tell everyone we can still rock it into our 50s,” celebrated one of the show’s more enthusiastic viewers.

Female empowerment aside, the producers spend much of their time trying to stir up the required sense of drama between the contestants. “Sisters is highly entertaining because of the ‘reality’ part of the show. Compared with Idol Producer 2020 and Youth with You [two other ‘idol survival’ hits] the amount of time and money spent on their performances is almost pathetic,” Sina Entertainment comments.

In the traditional way, more outspoken contestants get more time on camera, leading some of the women to openly challenge the judges on their scoring system. Taiwanese singer Annie Yi, the oldest of the contestants, refuses to change her style on stage and tells the director to adapt to her instead. There are other rebellions too, including a row over the food on offer during the production.

Some of the assertiveness on display has prompted netizens to think that younger is not always better. “I am especially impressed by the confidence of all the sisters on the show. Because like them, I don’t believe that women in their 20s are the most beautiful or the most valuable. In fact, when I was in my 20s I was lost and confused. I needed other people’s affirmation for my own self-worth. I always wanted to prove my value, always wanting to be right,” one wrote.

Another of the advantages in attracting a larger female audience is that the series has been popular with advertisers, securing 13 backers including cosmetic brand Thanmelin as the title sponsor, smartphone maker Vivo, and online marketplace Vipshop.

It remains to be seen if the final five-member band that emerges from the series will prove a commercial success. Most commentators are doubtful about the prospects, it seems. “Sustaining the band after the show is going to be difficult. This group of older female artists each has their own careers and images. Whether they can come together in a group is hard to tell. After all, look no further than Nine Percent [the boy band from iQiyi’s reality competition show Idol Producer]. Managing these little-known trainees was a bloodbath… let alone older female artists that already come with fame and resources,” says 36Kr.

Surprised by the runaway success of the format, producers have already announced that they are set to make another version with male contestants, entitled Brothers Who Pursue Their Dreams.

The flood of reality series in China comes at a time when most cinemas are still shut across the country. TV production – especially the making of reality series – has been quicker to get back to pre-virus levels, recognising that there is a larger audience to reach as well.

Nevertheless, to lower the risk of another round of Covid-19 infection, most variety shows have changed their formats, doing away with live audiences. Contestants are also required to quarantine for an appropriate period ahead of filming and in another bid to minimise the chances of contracting the virus, a lot of the participants are wearing plastic masks too. Dating shows like If You Are The One have also cut the number of contestants by half in a nod to social distancing.

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