Chinese TV Gets a Dose of Feminist Realism
From classics like “Ode to Joy” and “Twenty Your Life On” to last year’s “Nothing but Thirty,” female ensemble-led dramedies have been a consistent bright spot for China’s television and streaming industries in recent years. Despite the trend, almost nobody saw “Delicious Romance” coming.
The series, which debuted on Chinese streaming platforms last November, took the entertainment world by storm, becoming one of most successful dramas released in the past year. It’s not as though it came out of nowhere. “Delicious Romance” was helmed by Chen Zhengdao, director of acclaimed teen films such as “Eternal Summer” and “Upcoming Summer.” Still, after a desultory pre-release advertising campaign, few thought the show would leave a lasting impression. Instead, it benefitted from a groundswell of word-of-mouth support; on the notoriously picky popular rating site Douban, its average score reached as high as 8.4 out of 10 before eventually settling at a still impressive 8.1.
But “Delicious” isn’t merely a re-run of the girl boss feminism that made “Ode to Joy” a hit six years ago. One reason it has resonated with drama fans is the way it subverts the tropes of past female ensemble-led soaps. In the process, it injects a bit of much-needed nuance into the growing body of feminist Chinese TV and film.
Prior to “Delicious,” a number of hit shows had won over female viewers with stories of workplace empowerment and strong women overcoming every challenge put in front of them. These shows, including the above-mentioned “Ode to Joy” and “Nothing but Thirty,” challenged stereotypes and inspired many viewers, but their particular brand of feminism also left many feeling excluded.
Part of the problem was that their female protagonists seemed closer to superheroes than ordinary women. In recent years, da nüzhu — or “strong female leads” have proved popular with domestic viewers. These protagonists are idealized to the point of becoming two-dimensional — their perfection turning them into a kind of caricature of the perfect woman. They remain cool, calm, and collected under the patriarchal gaze, all while deftly balancing their obligations at home and in the workplace. Their success often depends on their ability to silently endure and overcome, rather than confront or overturn.
What such shows depict is less the experience of being a woman at this point in Chinese history, and more the necessity of not letting being a woman stand in the way of your professional and personal goals. The structural power imbalances of modern Chinese society are necessarily minimized, as they would otherwise impede our female protagonists’ ability to always come out on top. This type of narrative risks simplifying and idealizing the female experience, as though women only deserve our sympathy and support if they’re already capable of having it all.
This is where “Delicious Romance” has the most to say, in part by presenting viewers with a cast of heroines far less obviously heroic.
The plot of “Delicious Romance” is not complex. The show recounts the stories and choices of three women— Liu Jing, Fang Xin, and Xia Meng — who have vastly different personalities, experiences, and lifestyles, as they face various problems at work, at home, and in love.
Much like the vast majority of Chinese TV series featuring female ensemble casts, the series nods at diversity by focusing on women from different backgrounds, ostensibly offering viewers insight into different facets of the female experience. Liu Jing doesn’t allow herself to be defeated after she’s fired and refuses to settle down despite pressure from her family; Fang Xin doesn't stay silent in the face of workplace harassment and holds her head high even during a difficult divorce; in her pursuit of excellence, Xia Meng doesn’t force herself to conform to societal expectations or repress who she is. Though they are plagued by internal contradictions, they are never pigeon-holed, nor do they become accessories to the men in their lives.
That’s not to say they are perfect. They have obvious shortcomings; if it’s become common in recent years for women to complain of self-absorbed and lazy zha nan, or “scumbag men,” there are moments in this series where all three leads could probably qualify for “scumbag women” status. Their most notable offense, though, is simply not abiding by traditional society’s rules for women. In their romantic relationships, for example, they blow hot and cold and make decisions without thinking about the consequences. Both Liu Jing and Xia Meng hesitate between two suitors, and both are very open about the fact that they can't make up their minds.
The show doesn’t pass moral judgments on their behavior, however, and instead invites audiences to simply appreciate the difficulties of contemporary womanhood. At the end of the series, at a party attended only by women, the three protagonists each meet and engage in an imaginary dialogue with their younger selves. This dreamy sequence highlights how, just because they’re not perfect, they’re not failures.
“Is the way we are now the way that you hoped you’d live?” their present selves ask. The answer from their younger counterparts is an emphatic no: They’ve become too indecisive; they suffer too much; they’re too weak.
“Then have we disappointed you?” the three women ask their younger selves. But here, the answer is again ,more surprisingly, no. “You live bravely… diligently… beautifully,” their past selves reassure them. “You give us something to look forward to growing up. We want to experience everything you have.”
The message behind this conversation is obvious: Whether or not a woman has become the most perfect version of herself is less important than whether, after everything she goes through, she still chooses to love herself.
Many of my female friends and acquaintances have related to the plotlines and attitudes expressed in “Delicious Romance.” The show embodies an appeal all too rarely heard these days — that women’s pleasure, power, and opinions don't serve the needs of men or society, and it shouldn’t be just men who are entitled to agency and its rewards.
On a deeper level, what’s significant about the show is that its underlying message applies to every woman — including those who will never make it to the top of the pyramid at work or home. You shouldn’t have to be a strong female lead to be worthy of being seen, heard, and respected. From this point of view, “Delicious Romance,” for all its tropes, succeeds in its pursuit of realism in at least one respect: creating characters that resonate with viewers.
Arguably the show’s most interesting potential, however, lies in how it engages male viewers. Though the men in the series appear well put together, they all end up displaying obvious and typical problems with intimacy, ranging from commitment issues to larger violations of ethics and even the law.
The only male character the show paints in a somewhat idealistic light, Huang Yu, provides plenty of food for thought for men. Huang believes that relationships between the two sexes should be based on mutual respect, and doesn’t see monogamy as a burden. However, his extremely idealized view of romance and pursuit of a perfectly balanced intimate relationship ultimately leads him to become disillusioned with the idea of marriage. In other words, the marginal opinions of this otherwise “ideal man” cause him to be alienated by mainstream society. Men, too, are subject to certain expectations in a patriarchal society.
In this sense, “Delicious Romance” shouldn’t be written off as “women’s TV.” A good female ensemble drama can also inspire reflection and change in male audiences, by showing them how female experiences have changed over the course of the last couple of decades, as well as how women’s perspectives deserve greater respect from society.
For better or for worse, equality is only truly achievable if men from all walks of life commit to changing their behavior. Of course, women shouldn’t be afraid to be themselves and embrace who they are, but it isn’t enough for them to just be seen, or even heard. Building a better society will take more than women helping women — everyone needs to play their part.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait Artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A still from “Delicious Romance.” From @网剧爱很美味 on Weibo)