The Empress Is Naked
For the past two years, the face of girl power on Chinese television has been the cast of hit show Ode To Joy, a gang of modern women in Shanghai who are dressed to thrill. But with rising awareness of inequality, and a real world struggle for rights that has gained new momentum, can they truly represent female empowerment, or are these strong women wearing the Empress's new clothes?
Ode to Joy (欢乐颂) is the story of five young female Chinese urbanites, living in Shanghai's high-rises, buildings with floors polished to a high-heel squeak (remember that scene from The Devil Wears Prada?). Those heels are important. If fashion is a way of expressing ourselves, then in the limited dimensions of TV, you are what you wear. The precise choice of clothing of an on-screen character can tell us a lot; not only about them, but also about the creators of the show and how they view the particular social group they aspire to represent.
Representation is an important aspect when discussing Ode to Joy, since it has been marketed to audiences as a portrait of women in modern-day Shanghai. Andy, Qu Xiaoxiao, Fan Shengmei, Qiu Yingying and Guan Ju’er are styled according to their individual types. Andy, for example, embodies ‘executive realness’ – a style often associated with established businesswomen. Fashion has the potential of (re)defining certain assumptions about Shanghai women. However, it also can lead to characters re-emphasising stereotypes about young urbanites. There is nothing wrong with styling the five main individuals according to their personality traits, since they need to be distinguishable, and serve the show’s storyline. But that does not mean their wardrobe should consist solely of one basic stereotype. Andy could be more than a set of high-end suits. Yingying could be more than hyper-girly. And the smart and nerdy Guanguan’s style could be more than just school girl chic.
Despite the fact that they describe themselves as 'strong women' (女强人), the show embroils its five leads in endless emotional and romantic dilemmas. What is more, their costuming reflects stereotypes over selfhood, and reinforces social clichés. We are told that, regardless of their different backgrounds and career pursuits, all women want only one thing – a prince on a white horse. I wonder how many episodes featuring these quasi-independent female characters would pass the Bechdel test.
The real Shanghai is an explosion of self-expression through fashion. Look around the streets and you'll see gender fluidity and androgyny, a brilliance of colors or all-black-neo-goths, styles that flirt with K-pop opulence or Berlin techno underground nonchalance. None of these are featured in Ode To Joy. Fashion is an extension of our bodies and personalities, a means of projecting the complexity of the self. But the message the show's creators are conveying is that we aren't people, we are types. Put on your uniform and play by the rules.
The creators of the show missed the mark on portraying real Shanghai women; women who do not depend on a man’s support, who work hard, have dreams and strive for their own unique self-realisation without looking back. Ode To Joy's five distinctive characters are, under the surface, under the layers of clothes, facsimiles of a limited creator. It puts women into categories, instead of exploring the possibilities of representing them as actual 'strong women,' women who know who they are and are bold in their lives. This vision puts its hooks into the real world too, with fashion magazine spreads promoting the characters as icons. They're stylish, sure, but style is so much more than just wearing the best clothes.
Shanghai's urbanites have been failed in honest representation of their multifaceted assemblage, not only in terms of fashion, but also in terms of challenging society’s expectations and norms, for they are known to be daring and fierce on their way to success, regardless of how they define it.
On-screen fashion choices tell the viewer in one shot who a character is. It is important to address what kind of a message a show is conveying. It is vital that fashion is a fully developed part of the characters’ image and of the show as a whole. As a mainstream TV-series, Ode to Joy is a perfect platform for embracing diversity, for giving the public a vision of people that is more colourful than what is currently offered by the show’s stylists. By giving the characters looks that do not feel pre-packaged for each girl, the audience would be confronted with a set of truly modern women, who could embody Shanghai’s unpredictability and challenge the stereotypical femininity shown on Chinese television. Until then, they stand naked, wearing little more than the empress's new clothes.
Words: Madeleine Chuchracka
Translation: Annabel Lee & Will Dai
Originally written in English. Images are from the internet.
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