Just two short weeks after pop idol-producing talent show Youth With You wrapped up a hugely successful season, China is once again abuzz over a new reality TV singing contest — but this one is significantly different. Mango TV’s Sisters Who Make Waves swaps cutesy teens and twenty-somethings for a cast of mid-career female celebrities who are all over the age of 30, with the eldest competitor aged 52.
After debuting this weekend, the show has triggered a wave of discussion around ageist stereotypes and female empowerment. A hashtag tied to the show’s Chinese name — #乘风破浪的姐姐# — has already attracted 7.63 billion views on the Twitter-like platform Weibo and after the first set of episodes aired on June 12, Sisters pulled in a total of more than 370 million views in its first three days of release.
Sisters is a knock-out competition where 30 female contestants are battling it out for 5 places in an all-female singing group. The top candidates will be selected by judges and the viewing audience based on four factors: individual qualities, potential to fit in a band, vocal expression, and on-stage performance.
While similar pop idol-creating shows often feature young, largely unknown individuals hoping for a chance at stardom, Sisters features a host of high-achieving celebrities with established careers that are already familiar to much of the audience.
However, most of the contestants are considered to be Chinese entertainment’s “leftover women” — a widely-used derogatory slang term that describes single women aged 27 or older. According to traditional Chinese family values, women are expected to get married early and raise kids, regardless of how successful they may be in their own right. In recent years, Chinese authorities have been keen to push this further by encouraging families to have more babies and introducing measures to discourage divorce.
The contestants on Sisters are not necessarily single, and many of them are mothers, yet in a notoriously ageist industry, the show feels like a riposte to its rivals’ constant focus on youth — especially when it comes to female celebrities.
There is hope that Sisters may help shift perceptions. Audiences, perhaps tired of samey fresh-faced pop idols in the likes of Youth With You and Produce 101, have responded positively to the strong personalities on display in the show. Instead of being told what to do and how to perform, the contestants have broken away from the norm by playing more provocative roles in the production of the show as well as being critical of comments made by judges.
For example, when asked to give a personal introduction, actress Ning Jing angrily replied, “Do I still need to introduce myself? All my efforts in the past few decades went in vain then.”
Meanwhile Taiwanese singer Yi Nengjing — who at 52 is the oldest contestant on the show — refused to change her posture on the stage and asked the director to adapt to her style instead. Yi is a proud mother who is currently in her second marriage. Whenever faced with online criticism over her personal life choices in the span of her 34-year career, the award-winning singer has always fought back with self-assured remarks, something the Sisters audience is now getting a taste of.
Another notable contestant is Zhang Yuqi, an actress and singer who left a strong impression in the first episode thanks to a confident, honest and natural performance. Zhang, whose acting career has seen her feature in Stephen Chow’s Mermaid and CJ7, went through two divorces and was under fire recently after allegedly attempting to stab her ex-husband during a dispute.
In addition to being well-received by general audiences — on notoriously hard-to-please user ratings site Douban, Sisters has an overall score of 8.5 after 48,000 votes — the show has also sparked heated discussion online around leftover women and gender roles in China.
One of the highest upvoted comments on Douban reads, “I am glad that China is starting to embrace the beauty of the so-called ‘old girls.’ When I was watching Sex and the City, I became jealous of the four girls on the show. They are not necessarily younger, in better shape or wealthier than their peers, but they are independent in their spirits […]
“More importantly, when ladies grow older, they need to accept and embrace themselves, and not refer to other people’s opinions and standards when it comes to loving themselves.”
Another writes, “This is so wild that the announcement of the show only came out half an hour before airing with zero promotion beforehand [But the show is still so popular].”
Perhaps surprised by the response to the show, the network producing it has already announced that they are set to make a male version of the program, entitled Brothers Who Pursue Their Dreams.
But for many, it’s important that the spotlight remains on the women and the positive, older female role models they represent. Popular fashion blogger Jiang Shen AA commented on the show, “The most impressive thing about the show is how charismatic these mature women are — financially independent, opinionated, confident, self-disciplined.”
In recent years, the term of “leftover women” has faced increasing backlash inside China as more and more women start to challenge discriminatory attitudes regarding gender roles placed upon them by the society. Whether Sisters Who Make Waves can give rise to a continuing conversation over gender equality and help spark real change remains to be seen, but it’s certainly off to an interesting start.
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