Sisters Who Make Waves

Source: The China Project (9/7/22)
Same-sex ‘ships’ on the summer’s hottest talent show in China
By Nathan Wei

‘Shipping,’ a once-niche fan fiction practice of pairing two celebrities or fictional characters in a romantic relationship, has become something of a national pastime in China this summer, thanks to a popular reality show with an all-female cast.

As one of the most talked-about talent shows in Chinese television this summer, the recently finished Sisters Who Make Waves, Season 3 (乘风破浪的姐姐) has gained popularity among both women and LGBTQ audiences for weaving feminist and queer themes into performances. This is a defiant feat in an age where China has greatly stepped up its censorship of LGBTQ content on screens large and small.

Produced by Mango TV, a video-streaming site under the Hunan Broadcasting System, the show features 30 female celebrities competing against one another and fighting for a position in an all-women band to be formed at the final. While its format is nothing new, Sisters invites only contestants who are above the age of 30 and have established their careers in respective fields. However, while on the show, they were assigned new challenges that required skills beyond their expertise. Famous singers were asked to learn K-pop choreography, while veteran actors were made to sing onstage. With this novel perspective, the show branded itself as focusing on all-age women’s self-exploration and growth.

When the first season of Sisters came out in 2020, the show received many positive reviews from female audiences who praised it for being refreshing, empowering, and carrying an implicit feminist message. Many considered its cast of middle-aged female stars as diverging from the conventional preference for younger women in the entertainment industry. Its showing of competitors’ mutual support during training sessions was also praised as encouraging the idea of “girls help girls” and challenging the stereotypical display of fights between women that prevails in reality television.

This year, in the latest season of the series, there was an additional, elusive layer of queerness. Although the show never explicitly mentioned LGBTQ identity or queer culture, it sparked discussion among queer communities for its inclusion of homoerotic content in both onstage performances and offstage training segments.

One of the most widely discussed moments was a music performance delivered by Hong Kong pop star Fiona Sit (薛凯琪 Xuē Kǎiqí) and mainland jazz singer Liú Liàn 刘恋. In their rendition of Chinese Cantopop diva Faye Wong’s (王菲 Wáng Fēi) “Dreamlover” (梦中人 mèngzhōngrén), the two singers were enveloped in dreamlike light on the stage, eyes locked on each other. The performance ended with them hugging each other tightly. While Wong’s original song is about a girl confessing her romantic feelings for a genderless figure, some viewers saw Sit and Liu’s rendition as two women expressing love toward each other. On Bilibili, one of the largest video-streaming sites in China, a clip of the performance has been watched more than 5 million times, with the most upvoted comment saying, “This is to represent a beautiful dream; they are in each other’s dream.” Some fans even went so far as to suggest that the hues of pink lighting onstage echoed the shades of pink in the lesbian flag.

Moved by the performance and the two singers’ obvious appreciation for each other, many fans started “shipping” Sit and Liu — in other words, rooting for them to get together and date. In Chinese, this act of supporting a hypothetical romantic relationship is known as 磕CP (kē CP). Roughly translated, it means “doing a hit of a couple.”

The early “shipping” scene in China overlapped heavily with dānměi 耽美, a Chinese genre of youth literature that features romantic relationships between male characters and has its roots in Japanese anime. At the turn of the last decade, with the rise of social media and the fan economy, the term made its way into the mainstream public consciousness, with TV and film producers being incentivized to create “ships” to attract viewers.

In the third season of Sisters, some nicknames for certain pairings were brought up by the celebrities themselves. For instance, actresses Níng Jìng 宁静 and Nà Yīng 那英 mentioned the nickname for their supposed “love affair” in one episode to attract more votes from audiences. Many of the friendly or intimate interactions between the competitors were also carefully examined by fans as evidence of “ships.” Based on these materials, they created fictional stories, videos, and drawings revolving around the “ships” they were obsessed with.

Although none of the contestants in Sisters actually identified themselves as gay, that didn’t seem to bother fans who “shipped.” As one article argues, what matters in “shipping” culture is not the authenticity of pairings, but how imagination can be empowering for women and queer audiences.

Liu Xingxing (pseudonym), who works in the media sector in China, told The China Project that although tomboyish-looking female contestants like Lǐ Yǔchūn 李宇春 were not hard to find in the early days of Chinese talent shows, it’s a new trend for TV producers to craft moments of mutual affection between women for viewers to “ship.”

Liu attributed this new practice to several factors, first of all the specificity of the platform: “Different from many other streaming websites, Mango TV’s audiences are predominantly young women who are embracing a rising gender awareness. It is in response to these female consumers’ demand that the platform started to produce women’s friendly and even feminist content.”

According to Liu, the feminist trend on the Chinese internet has also prompted some young women to stop “shipping” male celebrities and turn to female celebrities, which is understood by them as a method to increase women’s visibility on screen.

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