2020-07-10 12:01:01

The9 and BonBon Girls 303 are the latest additions to China’s growing crop of girl groups.

Products of the popular girl group talent shows “Youth With You” and “Chuang” — produced by streaming giants iQiyi and Tencent, respectively — the nine-member The9 and seven-member BonBon Girls 303 have become instant sensations for millions of young Chinese.

If hashtags are any indication of success, the names of the two shows have collectively been viewed more than 78 billion times on microblogging site Weibo.

With their singles landing as smash hits, The9 and BonBon Girls 303 have gained all the stardom the talent-search shows promised. But how far have the girl bands gone toward smashing gender stereotypes?

Here’s Sixth Tone’s look at three of the most-discussed gender-related topics from “Youth With You” and “Chuang.”

Brave, bold, and ambitious

The 2020 season of “Chuang” encouraged its participants to “dare,” urging them to be brave, bold, and ambitious. Breaking from its usual format of choreographed performances in a scheduled lineup, the show instead asked participants to come onstage voluntarily in order to create a more competitive atmosphere.

The phrase “Am I not high enough?” — popularized by a participant who finished fourth in this year’s competition — became a buzzword on Chinese social media. She claimed that she was ditched by sponsors for reasons that were never explained, despite ranking as high as second during the show.

But even with the show’s purportedly progressive themes, many fans noted that “Chuang” was unable to break the stereotype of women as trophies. In fact, the show’s first episode had a “waistline challenge” favoring the slimmest contestants.

“Women’s beauty isn’t decided by their weight or waistline,” one viewer commented under a related Weibo post.

‘Atypical’ contestants

“Youth With You” generated buzz this season in part because of its slogan: “We don’t define girl groups.”

Aiming to break away from the typical image associated with girl idols — as fair-skinned, pretty-faced, and slim — the show invited on women who didn’t tick these boxes. With her super-short pixie cut, Frhanm Shangguan Xi’ai won over viewers with her diva’s personality and impassioned performances, while Lin Xiaozhai, a successful entrepreneur with a popular clothing brand, also became a fan favorite. However, neither of them ultimately made it into the band.

Joey Chua, an actor from Malaysia, broke the show’s traditional mold by becoming the first reportedly divorced woman to compete. The would-be idol’s participation sparked heated debate on her personal life.

The personal affairs of another participant, Qin Niuzhengwei, fell under the spotlight after she commented “I wish the world treated all girls nicely.” Before taping the show, Qin was trolled and slut-shamed by fans of pop star Kris Wu, with whom she had an affair.

Ditching the labels

Liu Yuxin from The9 shocked many girl idol fans globally after performing in shorts instead of a skirt — widely considered an essential part of an all-girl band’s uniform.

“I’m so glad they let Liu Yuxin wear shorts. No one can define what a girl should wear, just be yourself,” read an upvoted comment under a YouTube video of the show’s theme song.

Liu said she was trying to support the show’s stated mission of not defining girl groups, and expanding the conventional idol group personality. The singer said she wanted to “be myself.”

However, not everyone was rooting for the androgynous contestants, especially after one of them, Lu Keran, secured the ninth spot in the band. Many viewers mocked both Lu and Liu for their tomboy looks.

“Some people think neutral-looking girls represent aesthetic freedom and the awakening of feminism (but) I hold the opposite view,” wrote one viewer in the show’s fan group on social platform Douban. “I think this especially proves the narrow aesthetics of this group of women and their recognition of patriarchal values: They still only like men and women with male characteristics.”

Lu’s defenders, meanwhile, fought back. Her fan group on Weibo hosted an online giveaway, gifting feminist literature such as “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir and “Black Box” by journalist Shiori Ito, who became the face of Japan’s #MeToo movement.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Promotional photos of “Chuang” and “Youth With You,” 2020. From @硬糖少女303 and THE9官博 on Weibo)