A new Chinese TV drama is unlikely to pass the Bechdel test: Almost every conversation that its female protagonist Chen Keyi has with another woman is about a man.
At first, fresh graduate Chen is uncomfortable when her wealthy male acquaintance lavishes her with expensive gifts. But her worldly-wise housemate and former classmate Wang Jiajia reassures her: “He doesn’t expect anything from us,” she says. “We’re just having a good time together, right?”
In another episode, Wang instructs Chen how to profit from her femininity. “Some women can use a bed to win themselves a house,” she explains.
Chen, played by Qi Wei, is the protagonist of “Beijing Women’s Manual,” or “Women in Beijing,” a new online drama from video platform Youku. The show — a hotly anticipated remake of a popular 2016 Japanese series — charts Chen’s social and professional rise over a decade after she moves to the capital from southwestern China’s Sichuan province.
Just two weeks after its premiere on April 10, the show has already sparked fierce debate over how it portrays its heroine relying on her sexuality for social mobility.
The series starts in 2008 with Chen planning to move to Beijing with her boyfriend. But he breaks up with her, and she ends up alone in the city looking for work. She stays with a male classmate, who forces himself on her but also connects her to her first job as a receptionist. What follows is a succession of men who open doors to further professional opportunities and maturity — leading some netizens to quip that the series could more accurately be titled “Beijing Women’s Manual for Meeting Womanizers.”
One blogger commended the show’s realism, saying it was a cruel truth that connections — or guanxi — are vital in China’s workplaces. Only yesterday, a report on gender discrimination in China’s job market found that one-fifth of government positions in 2018 were advertised as open only to men, while other job postings focused on what physical attributes were desirable in female candidates. The blog review also praised true-to-life details in the story such as Chen chatting with old classmates in Sichuan dialect, or her parents extending the life of a shampoo bottle by adding water to it.
Yet many others on Chinese review platform Douban lambasted “Beijing Women’s Manual” for its handling of gender relations. “Is going through a pile of men and using them as springboards [to success] really the only way?” one typical review asked. Another user noted that while the original Japanese series also chronicled its heroine’s romantic relationships, in the Chinese remake, every step of Chen’s professional and personal growth is precipitated by a man.
One scathing review said the script insulted women. “[Chen] has no CV, no real ability, she relies on her body and appearance to muddle her way up: This kind of plot always makes you think the writers are encouraging everyone to become gold-diggers,” the reviewer wrote.
Some said that Chen’s smooth path to success — albeit through the beds of benefactors — was unconvincing for a beipiao, a nonlocal professional working in Beijing. One upvoted comment in a discussion on Q&A platform Zhihu argued that in a city already jam-packed with beautiful and talented women, a fresh graduate wouldn’t find it so easy to gain favor with wealthy men. Others claimed the show fell into the “Mary Sue” trap, as it shows a world in which its protagonist is somehow desired by every man she encounters.
Fans also pointed out anachronisms, like an advertisement for an iPhone X in the background of a scene set in 2010.
But despite its flaws, many reviewers say the show fares better than other remakes of Japanese and Korean series. “Tokyo Women’s Manual,” the 2016 Japanese drama on which the new series is based, was a hit in China with a rating of 8.7 out of 10 from 67,000 users on Douban. While “Beijing Women’s Manual” currently scores 6.2 on Douban, another remake of a Japanese drama, “Midnight Diner,” is rated a miserable 2.8.
Chinese programming often looks abroad for inspiration. A recent report looking at 54 Chinese variety shows found that only 28 percent were wholly original productions, while the rest either copied foreign formats or imported concepts wholesale.
“Every detail is realistic and believable,” the top-rated positive Douban comment says of the Beijing-based adaptation. “I’m not a water army soldier [paid commenter], please don’t suspect me everyone, thank you! A decent Chinese remake deserves support: five stars.”
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: A still frame from the online drama ‘Beijing Women’s Manual.’ From the show’s Weibo account)