According to a Chinese axiom, men make houses while women make homes. But China’s latest hit TV series challenges that traditional belief, examining if it is possible for a woman to be high-achieving in the workplace while also fulfill the archetype of a loving wife and mother at home.
Perfect Couple, which was released this month on Tencent Video and Hunan Satellite TV simultaneously, has dominated ratings as well as social media chatter. It stars actress Gao Yuanyuan in the lead role. It’s her first acting gig after a lengthy maternity leave in which the 42 year-old gave birth to a daughter in 2019 with Taiwanese actor Mark Chao. So anticipation over her return among her legions of fans was high.
The show follows the story of Chen Shan (played by Gao), a 40 year-old lawyer in Shanghai. A career-minded woman, her goal is to make partner at her firm but in order to do so, she’s told she must sign a new client that promises to bring big business to the firm. On the other hand, her husband Sun Lei (Zhang Luyi) chooses to put family first and career second, so he ends up becoming the primary caretaker for their child. The pair’s arrangement works well initially, but Chen’s increasingly demanding job then starts to take a toll on the marriage.
Meanwhile, Chen’s potential client Lin (Wang Yaoqing) is also struggling to balance family and career. Even though they live in a lavish mansion, his wife Wu Min (Wang Zhener) wants only one thing: that he spend more time at home with their son. The two stories soon intertwine. Sun and Wu, two neglected spouses, end up striking up a friendship. Chen and Lin, two workaholics, are also brought together to help a company go public. The two couples, each with their own problems, learn how elusive is to try and “have it all”…
Most of the attention for Perfect Couple falls on Gao, since the last time the film star appeared on a TV show was back in 2013 in a drama entitled We Get Married. The following year she married Chao, who is dubbed by her jealous fans as “Mr Gao” (for ‘stealing’ their goddess and ‘living off’ her).
This time round, fans were surprised to see her play a character type she’s never played before: a role in which she is so cunning and hungry for success she is almost psychopathic.
In one scene, Chen, behind the wheel, rushes to deliver a proposal to Lin even as her worried husband reminds her that their daughter is in the car. As she dodges a motorcyclist, she brakes too fast and is rear-ended by the car behind her. Chen emerges largely unscathed, but her daughter injures her neck. As her father comforts her while they wait for an ambulance to arrive, Chen, even with her nose bleeding, leaves the scene to deliver the proposal to an incredulous Lin.
Gao’s star power, however, couldn’t shield Perfect Couple from a landslide of poor reviews. Audience ratings on Douban, the TV and film review site, for the show are so low that the producers demanded that the platform turn off its rating function. Audiences complained that the storyline makes little sense and the characters are overly one-dimensional. “Such a corny plot and lame characters, even dogs wouldn’t want to watch… The only thing redeeming about the show is Gao Yuanyuan’s beauty, but unfortunately her character is empty, unbelievable and very unlikeable. All the other characters, too, are so over-the-top with their acting it is cringing to watch,” one viewer wrote dismissively.
Many viewers can see where the show will end – with Chen and Lin swapping spouse’s leading to two new marriages – though some also had a problem with the show suggesting that women have to strike a balance between career and family while the men like Lin seemingly never have to deal with that conflict.
“For Chen Shan, all the obstacles she encounters in the workplace seem to imply that family is a burden, age is a stumbling block, and the reason why she doesn’t get promoted is because of marriage and children,” noted Beijing Daily. “Her powerlessness also reflects the situation of a lot of women in the workplace. Even though it is 2022 and there is so much emphasis on equality between the two sexes, women are still expected to do a lot of the childrearing and household labour. While men who don’t care about their family are merely ridiculed as ‘absentee dads’ while women who don’t care about their children are berated for being heartless wherever they go.”
Tencent Entertainment also touched on the double standard: “Is it wrong for a woman to pursue her career and dreams when she has a marriage, a family, and children? Of course she is not wrong. But how to strike a balance, they ask? On the other hand, when a man who works hard in the workplace but neglects his family – these men don’t need to rationalise their choices, it’s like that is expected of them.”
Gao’s fans meanwhile urged audiences to show her more support after going back to work. “Can we all try to stay positive? After all, it is Gao’s first drama after giving birth. Even if it doesn’t reach our expectation, I think many friends will still watch it to find out for themselves. So let’s give the show more thumbs up!” a fan of the actress pleaded.
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