Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    How Loveable Losers Took Over China’s Screens

    They’re not hyper-competent or wealthy; some are barely functional. But these men are winning fans by doing their best, one day at a time.
    Apr 29, 2024#TV & film

    Take a moment and picture the archetypical male sex symbol. What do you see? A fresh-faced young idol? A rugged action star? A callous and imperious — but ultimately protective and doting — leader of men? Or a bumbling mid-level manager with average looks?

    That last category might seem like an unusual turn-on, but these so-called wonangfei — something akin to a “timid loser” — have starred in some of the past year’s most popular films. Take for example Ma Jie, the struggling company drone played by 35-year-old actor White-K in 2023’s “Johnny Keep Walking!” or Lei Jiayin’s conflicted prosecutor in this spring’s smash hit “Article 20.”

    They’re not hyper-competent; in some cases, they’re barely functional. But the wonangfei archetype has won over female fans because they love their families, they are emotionally stable, and they are able to provide emotional support to the women in their lives. It doesn’t hurt that they also possess a certain schlubby sex appeal.

    Still, while they may be “husband material,” these men are a far cry from the brisk, no-nonsense, and fantastically rich CEOs that dominated China’s airwaves until recently. So, how did these apparent losers get so hot? And what does it say about the country’s changing gender norms?

    To answer those questions, it helps to go back two decades to examine how males were portrayed in Chinese urban dramas. It was the surging popularity of Taiwan-produced idol shows on the Chinese mainland beginning in the early 2000s that introduced viewers to the domineering male lead. The most famous of these might be Jerry Yan’s turn as Dao Ming Si in 2001’s “Meteor Garden.” The leader of a high-school clique, he was handsome, arrogant, wealthy, decisive, and single-mindedly devoted in his love for the female lead — all traits that attracted viewers.

    These high-and-haughty men not only served as male leads in romances but also embodied the general admiration given to the rich and powerful in that era. People tend to idolize and imitate the strong and believe that their competitive advantage provides security and resources. China’s booming economy at the time made everything seem possible, and the success of the Dao Ming Si archetype — sometimes called “arrogant CEOs” — benefitted from people’s pursuit of higher social status.

    Yet female viewers gradually started rejecting the toxic masculinity that these men represented, leading to the emergence of another kind of trope-y male in urban dramas after 2010: the “economic man.” Usually portrayed as modest, prudent, and dependable, these men were of average height and weight, and they had at least a bachelor’s degree and a regular income. They might not have much professional ambition, but they valued their families and relationships, and they willingly offered the women in their lives emotional support.

    The popularity of that trope at the time was closely tied to the focus on “leftover women,” a discriminatory yet rampantly used label applied to women who were seen as unmarriageable if they were still single by their late 20s. For women facing age pressures and marital anxieties, the economic man reflected a kind of compromise that they’d made with reality.

    Yet they never really ascended to the status of an ideal. Due mostly to China’s swift development, relatively smooth class mobility, and the higher value placed on the professional achievements and social status of men, economic men’s absent ambition and aspirations put them at odds with the pursuit of success and wealth that defined that era.

    It wasn’t until more recently that down-to-earth, middling guys got their moment. Whether they’re CEOs or ordinary white-collar workers, they share a desire to put their women first and provide them with emotional value, instead of toxic masculinity and control. For example, the character Cheng Liang in the TV drama “Lady’s Character” — also portrayed by White-K — is competitive in the workplace but warm, considerate, and respectful to his wife. There also has to be sexual tension: Either they are dashing and tall, or else they’re kind and endearing to give women a sense of control.

    To return to our original question, have audiences really fallen in love with “losers”? The answer is probably no. They might work in an office setting in which they are treated as nobodies, but at home and in front of women, they show their husbandly charm. Far from undermining their manliness, the loser label highlights not merely their “worthlessness” but also their willingness to sacrifice. Under enormous professional and personal pressures, young people have no choice but to endure and compromise — to be “losers” — in order to make ends meet. Audiences, able to empathize, are falling hard for men who reflect this reality.

    In other words, the wonangfei trend essentially reflects some young Chinese people’s joking self-awareness of their own pathetic circumstances, which are often the consequence of power imbalances in the workplace and the home, rather than a lack of ability or character flaws. In the face of injustice or pressure, they can only suffer quietly and resign themselves to their fate, thus becoming “losers.” By identifying with and as wonangfei, young viewers pointedly yet humorously express their discontent with their lives and push back against pressures.

    Throughout different periods, on-screen depictions of the ideal man have reflected audience expectations and perceptions of love, marriage, gender relations, and success. The shift in Chinese urban dramas — from overbearing CEOs to economic men, from husband-material suitors to losers — points to women’s rising status and progress. It also reveals the way the definition of a “successful man” has evolved with the economic climate and the growing concern of China’s younger generation for the plight of the individual.

    Translator: Katherine Tse.

    (Header image: White-K in “Johnny Keep Walking!” (left) and Lei Jiayin in “Article 20.” From Douban)