China’s Obsessive ‘Duffy the Disney Bear’ Fandom Explained

“The love I have for the Duffy series is like the love I have for my cat, but it is more than that. [The characters] are like my sisters, my friends, my daughter, and my pets”

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7 months ago 4 mins read

Who are you a stan of? Regardless of who you just thought of, they are likely a real person. But for many in China, the answer would be none other than Duffy the Disney Bear and his cuddly companions — wholesome idols that are certainly an improvement upon many of the country’s poorly behaved celebs.

Interestingly, Disney’s Duffy and Friends franchise has performed better in China than in many other parts of the world, even without any movies or TV features to support the IP. The characters regularly draw massive crowds to Shanghai Disneyland, especially after the global debut of their latest character LinaBell in September 2021.

From queueing as early as 3 AM to purchase Duffy and Friends plush toys to christening LinaBell as the country’s ‘national daughter,’ hardcore fans in China have adopted a near-fanatical obsession with the admittedly adorable characters.

Some fans have also developed connections with the characters, by frequently visiting the theme park and sharing their life stories to the costumed performers. A handful of park visitors have even burst into tears after being overwhelmed by emotions in the presence of their furry idols while visiting Shanghai Disneyland.

In an attempt to unpack the remarkable popularity of these characters and their unquestionably passionate fans, RADII spoke with several Duffy stans and a designer who helped create the lovable characters.

Love at First Sight

Beauty blogger and ecommerce shop owner Xia Sansan (alias) visits Shanghai Disneyland every other week to see Duffy and Friends. Most of the time, she makes it a point to bring plush toys from her treasured collection to show to the characters.

During the Lunar New Year holiday earlier this year, the 25-year-old planned to visit the theme park and carry out her usual routine. Due to Covid restrictions, however, physical contact between the costumed actors and guests was prohibited, and the mascots were unable to accept gifts from visitors, Xia tells RADII.

Even so, nothing could stop the fans from expressing their affection. Xia shares that everyone ended up play-acting by ‘handing over’ gifts to the mascots, who pretended to gratefully ‘accept’ them.

Xia insists she was among the first people to gravitate toward the characters, even before the Duffy and Friends series took off in China. Back in 2016, when Duffy the Disney Bear was still relatively unknown, the bear rushed toward her in the park and asked for a photo together.

“I have always loved teddy bears since I was a child. Duffy is, in a sense, a teddy bear,” reasons Xia. “So, I started to really like the character after that encounter.”

Duffy the Disney Bear and Friends

Beauty blogger Xia Sansan with Duffy in 2016. Image via Xiaohongshu

The beauty blogger is open about her frequent visits to the mascots, which she does in the hopes of getting them to remember her.

On one occasion, she wanted to catch the attention of StellaLou, an anthropomorphic rabbit with lavender-colored fur and a love of ballet. So she excitedly shouted StellaLou’s name while pursuing the mascot during one of Shanghai Disneyland’s daily parades. Her attempt proved fruitful, as StellaLou turned around and made a heart shape using her arms. Xia felt content.

After numerous interactions with the mascots, Xia has developed a unique skill: She can now recognize which Disney staff member is playing each character.

“Each staff member has their own signature pose. I can recognize the staff even if they are dressed up as a different character,” she tells RADII.

The costumed actors’ performative talent and investment in their roles can make it hard for fans to draw a clear distinction between them and their characters. But Xia chooses to believe that she is building connections with the characters, not the staff at Disney Resort.

“When I say I like Duffy and his pals, I mean I like these characters,” she underscores.

Nonetheless, she commends the performers and stresses that they are the ones who make Duffy and Friends come alive. Indeed, for Xia, the Duffy and Friends series has become a source of companionship.

“The love I have for the Duffy series is like the love I have for my cat, but it is more than that. They are like my sisters, my friends, my daughter, and my pets.”

Xia believes that Duffy and his lovable comrades have become especially popular in China because many, including herself, are going through a lot of pressure and uncertainty. In a sense, watching the cute, unthreatening characters helps ‘cure’ anxiety.

Duffy Friendship Network

Xia isn’t alone in looking to Duffy and Friends for comfort. A-Rong (alias), a 25-year-old manager based in Shanghai’s adjacent Jiangsu province, seeks solace in the Disney characters.

Like many young adults in China, she is physically and mentally exhausted after getting off work. Upon returning home, though, seeing lots of Duffy and Friends plush toys sitting on her couch helps her feel peaceful and at ease.

After dinner, she frequently surfs the internet to watch videos of the mascots at Disney theme parks. Despite never meeting the mascots in person, she enjoys watching them interact with tourists.

“It is very stressful to live in a big city where many have even forgotten how to smile,” A-Rong tells RADII. “But watching Duffy and Friends videos makes me laugh and feel happy from the bottom of my heart.”

Growing up, A-Rong didn’t have many friends. But after learning about the seven characters in the Duffy series, she felt like she had made seven new friends. She shares her personal stories with them, and they make her believe that “the world is really beautiful and kind, and that true friendship exists.”

But the Duffy and Friends characters have, in fact, expanded A-Rong’s ‘human’ friendship circle: “I have met people in real life who are just like the characters in Duffy’s story — we support and help each other,” she says of fellow fans. “I am very grateful for having discovered Duffy and Friends because the joy they bring forms a very important part of my life.”

Duffy the Disney Bear and Friends

Left to right: LinaBell, ‘Olu Mel, Gelatoni, Duffy, ShellieMay, StellaLou, and CookieAnn. Image via Weibo

What draws her to the characters aren’t just their adorable appearances but also their inspiring personalities.

Each character symbolizes something specific for A-Rong. For instance, Duffy represents companionship while StellaLou, the aforementioned anthropomorphic ballerina-rabbit, inspires her to follow her dreams. And hit character LinaBell, who is passionate about nature and problem-solving, sets an excellent example for girls by proving that they can be just as brave and clever as the opposite sex.

“Plush toys are not exclusively for children,” states A-Rong, “Adults can still believe in fairy tales.”

Ethan Reed, a graduate of the prestigious California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and a character designer behind Duffy and Friends, reveals to RADII that he drew inspiration from his family when designing Duffy’s pals.

While drafting the green cat character Gelatoni, he was inspired by his 4-year-old son, who had just started taking art classes at the time. As for the hit character LinaBell, Disney’s producers — who never fail to offer their support or a hand whenever he runs into a creative roadblock — inspired the problem-solving fox.

One of Reed’s sketches sees a downcast Duffy sitting on a log with the caption, ‘I am lost.’ The image made him realize that Duffy needed a friend like LinaBell, who would always help him find his way.

“Perhaps LinaBell is the character everyone needs after the last two years of this global pandemic,” he says. “People all over the world are feeling a loss of some kind, whether it’s a career, a friend, income, a family member or someone you haven’t hugged or seen in a long time.”

He concludes by referencing an important moment in Duffy lore, which brings to mind a fairytale ending: “LinaBell helps Duffy. She gets him back to Mickey and makes everything good again. I think we all need a bit of that right now.”

Cover image via Haedi Yue

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