Scalpels under scrutiny

The latest casualty of the celebrity crackdown: the plastic surgery industry


Taken a beating from female viewers over his looks: actor Jin Han

Last week, an excerpt from the upcoming How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, revealed how the filming of “McDreamy” (Dr Derek Shepherd, as portrayed by actor Patrick Dempsey for 11 seasons of the show) was carefully cultivated to maximise his appeal to the female audience.

“Typically in editing you start on Derek, then you cut to Meredith [actress Ellen Pompeo] for a reaction, and then you’ll go back to him,” Tony Phelan, a producer on the show recounted. “I noticed that we weren’t ever cutting back to Meredith. I asked why. Shonda [Rhimes, creator and head writer of the series] said, ‘Because the woman in Iowa who’s watching this show wants to believe that Patrick is talking to her, and if you cut back to Meredith, it pushes them out of it.’”

It’s no great surprise that television producers pander to their key audiences in this way. But in China there seems to be some kind of disconnect at the moment. Female viewers have been complaining that the male leads in their favourites series are simply not, well, McDreamy enough.

Jun Jiuling on Youku, for instance, starring actor Jin Han, has flopped miserably, on such complaints, for instance. As has Meet You, a Tencent Video drama featuring male thespian Huang Tianqi.

Viewers have centred on one key gripe. “Anytime I watch a costume drama, eight out of 10 men are so ugly,” one netizen thundered. “To have to gaze lovingly at the male lead really requires a lot of acting from the female counterpart,” another mocked of Jin’s appearance.

Huang, who got his start as a child actor, was the main target of the complaints for his role in Meet You. “My expectation for such a small-budget costume drama is already very low but I still can’t accept the male lead’s appearance,” another rebuked. “Does the producer have no beauty standards when it comes to casting costume dramas?”

Some commentators have responded that the format isn’t looks-friendly for the cast, especially the historical hairstyling. “Costume dramas are a test of the physical appearance of actors, especially male actors. After their hair is tied back, the shortcomings of their facial features are magnified,” Blue Whale Media explained. “The genre is also specific on body type: if an actor is too thin or his shoulders are too narrow, he will look like he has a big head and a small body. But on the flip side, if he isn’t skinny enough, he will look bloated onscreen.”

Another factor in the disappointing response to a number of recent costume dramas is that they are mainly lower-budget productions for online release, which means that producers are casting lesser known stars, with less acting experience. “At present, the faces in costume dramas are all new, with little familiarity for audiences. They lack strong foundations in acting skills. Coupled with questionable costumes and make-up, it’s been a disaster,” China Youth Daily complained.

Male stars in China’s entertainment sector have had a tougher time lately. The ‘ugly’ debate aside, others have come under fire for their ‘feminine’ looks. Broadcasters were ordered to “resolutely put an end to ‘sissy’ men [or niangpao, see WiC424] and other abnormal aesthetics” in the latest government directive on the matter. Instead, the media must “vigorously promote excellent Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture and advanced socialist culture”.

Such ‘sissy’ stars often owe their looks to plastic surgeons, and the new TV directives segue with another government aim: to reduce the numbers of ordinary citizens choosing cosmetic surgery to improve their looks. In late August, there were newly drafted guidelines on advertising for plastic surgery, on concerns the industry has profited from social anxieties over physical appearance. Last week, a commentary from the People’s Daily reiterated again that it was “urgent” to regulate the “overwhelmingly pervasive” claims being made about cosmetic procedures on billboards, websites and livestreams, and through product placements used in films and TV series.

Demand for ‘medical aesthetics’ has boomed in China. Citic Securities, an investment bank, estimates that sales revenues reached more than Rmb330 billion ($51 billion) in 2020. Social media is swamped with women sharing pictures of reshaped noses, double-lidded eyes and calf reductions (see WiC543). Men, too, have been hoping that the good looks promised by plastic surgery could enhance their choice of partner and career.

However, the sector has long been criticised for failing to caution people about the risks of some of the treatments. In July, a 33 year-old online influencer died from complications following a botched liposuction procedure, for instance. There are also concerns that the demographic paying for the treatments is getting younger. Government data suggests that 64% of recipients of cosmetic operations (which includes injections) are from the post-90s generation, signalling that people in their 20s and early 30s are the main contributor to sales. Customers who are even younger – born post-millennium – account for a further 19% of business. In extreme cases, people in their teens have been paying for eyebrow tattoos, chin trims and other cosmetic changes.

Investors are taking heed of the new scrutiny of the sector by the government. Since the start of July, the market value of the three biggest publicly traded medical aesthetics firms has fallen by a third, approximating to a loss of more than $17 billion in market value.

“The reality is, a lot of celebrities who have undergone plastic surgery have received more opportunities; their careers, as a result, have also been more successful. They also became role models for young people to follow. But in doing so, all the operations have completely altered their natural beauty. There is nothing more convincing and impactful than a face that is natural and vivid and can convey rich and subtle emotions,” Guangming Daily insisted in another media broadside against the cosmetic surgery firms.

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