Sisters Who Make Waves: Empowered Women are Empowering Women

“Girl group elimination show” is not a new term to Chinese audiences, but participants of those shows are generally limited to young girls under the age of 25. Although those talented girls are generally well trained and attractive, some critical voices pointed out that the show raised people’s, especially female’s, anxiety about age. Therefore, when Mango TV decided to premier a show that features 30 female celebrities over 30 years old to compete to debut in a 5-member girl group, the show soon triggered a wave of discussion and hit the trending list on Weibo: China has finally started to embrace the beauty of so-called “old girls.”

The discussion of diversifying the standard of feminine beauty and breaking down the imprisonment of age on women has been raised in China and China’s entertainment industry for a while, but the discussion has mainly focused on the marriage perspective. Many Chinese shows launched in recent years are discussing how Chinese women have gained more control over their marriage. Although those discussions are positive, since in Chinese traditional family values women are expected to get married and raise kids early, they are not enough. The industry still maintains its rigid superficial standards for females, and while male actors in their 40s are still able to star in multiple-genre movies, many of their contemporary female actresses have been facing dwindling screen time and limited role options. Despite many of China’s well-known celebrities repeatedly calling out unfair ageism in recent years, nothing has changed. Especially due to the impact of COVID-19, opportunities for middle-aged actresses have continued to dwindle.

SEE ALSO: How Female-Empowerment Advanced Mango TV’s Video Streaming Business

What is happening to female actresses is a reflection of what Chinese women are experiencing in real life. The anxiety of age has been deeply planted into Chinese women’s minds due to ubiquitous sweet, fair-skinned, youthful and gentle faces in almost every talent show. Thus, the desire to have a stage designed exclusively for mature, independent, and strong “old sisters” has been booming both for actresses and audiences. People hope these high-achieving celebrities with established careers can display their strong personalities in the show and demonstrate that feminine beauty is multi-faceted. From the very beginning, celebrities have not been afraid to express their ambitions to win and confidence about their talents. When asked to give a personal introduction, actress Ning Jing replied, “Do I still need to introduce myself? All my efforts in the past few decades went in vain then.” When disagreeing with a judge’s decision, singer Aduo refuted, “There is no single standard for a girl’s group. Instead, it should incorporate different styles.”

Empowered women are empowering women. “After watching the show, I am not afraid of getting old anymore,” wrote a female netizen after watching the first episode. The girls in front of the screen happily found that getting old is not equal to losing beauty. Instead, beauty is a package that incorporates all of one’s past experiences and efforts. The financially independent, opinionated, confident, and self-disciplined role models deliver a strong message that even if time has physically changed you, it also gives them the ability to love, accept, and embrace themselves without relying on other people’s standards, which make them even more radiant than their younger selves.

When more women are awakened and empowered, they stand together to make their own voice. In the latest episode, sisters made their debut group performance and 500 audiences voted to decide who could stay. All voters were female and the voting result reflected what types of performance is expected by the all-female group. Contrary to the traditional preference for soft and mild characteristics, in all three rounds of battles, audiences showed strong preference towards strong and powerful programs. Instead of hearing “I am thankful to have you by my side,” audiences were more willing to shout out “I can decide what I look like.”

Certainly, the show itself does not magically change the way women are perceived and portrayed on screen. Besides age, the sisters maintain slim figures and young faces, and some of them have underscored “we are forever 18” multiple times. Adia Chan, a 49-year-old actress, received many negative comments on her body figure since she is not as slim as before, even if her dancing and vocal performance still shows her professionalism as a musical actress. Thus, there are critics online that say that although the show claims it is creating opportunities for middle-age women and relieving increasing ageist discrimination, it falls into a stereotype that the prerequisite of escaping from anxiety is to be young and beautiful, but Chinese women have put too much attention on their appearances to please others.

The critics are right – Sisters Who Make Waves does not solve gender discriminations that women are facing. We cannot rely on a reality show to change the whole industry nor topple the systematic oppression of women, and it might be unfair to require an actress to stand for gender equality. However, a successful program can raise discussions that people tend to avoid, thereby triggering empathy that bonds a group: why can’t charming, skillful, and confident celebrities find roles in movies and need to participate in a reality show? Broadly speaking, why are Chinese women so anxious about age in general and why are most of them forced to spare seats for their male counterparts? Without recognizing those cruel questions, we cannot challenge discriminatory attitudes regarding gender roles placed upon women by society or spark real changes.

Among all six performances, the song “Orchid” received the most votes and many people commented they were touched by its lines:

I am walking towards that mountain with orchids
The mountain is windy and snowy but even cliffs have flowers
I do not want to live in greenhouse because I want to embrace all wind, sunshine, and moonlight
I am infatuated with this big world, and the orchids in my hands tell me to be strong

I am walking towards that mountain with orchids
Wind and snow did my makeup and time left signals on my body
I do not need anyone by my side but I can still live well and energetically
I am infatuated with this big world, and the orchids in my hands tell me to be strong

Time takes its toll on everyone, but empowered sisters are empowering women all around China.