China’s open door policy has not only brought in economic reforms but as well as cultural and social influences from the West. The United States has been one of the biggest role model for China in terms of developing into a first world country. China has acquired from the United States different skills for developing the economy, but along with the inflow of foreign knowledge also comes foreign cultural practices. The McDonald’s to Hollywood blockbusters, it is evident that China has opened up to American culture and mass media.
In analyzing the influence of American culture in China, one must take into account the dramatic changes in Chinese television programs over the past decade. The Chinese reality television show Supergirl serves as an example of the American cultural influence and its impact on the Chinese youth. This paper argues that although reality television show such as Supergirl’s unconventional style and democratic voting system may pose a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party’s political position, there are nevertheless positive effects to the development of Chinese youth as well as the country on its way in becoming a globalized world power.
Reality TV in China Reality television is a form of television program that is non-scripted and involves real people doing different activities on camera. The types of reality shows include game shows, talent search, makeovers, and etc. Although reality television has been around for more than fifty years, it peaked in popularity in the early 2000s. Two reality shows in the United States, American Idol and Survivor, sparked the interest in reality television from household to household. The shows’ popularity not only reached American households, but as well as people from all over the globe.
China was not left behind along with other countries in creating spinoffs of the popular talent search reality show American Idol. China’s reality show in the past consisted mainly of outdoor adventure themes. Reality shows in the West that involved prying into someone’s privacy was not favored by Chinese producers due to cultural differences. Chinese producers believed that by pushing contestants to their limit through outdoor adventure games would allow those who do not like to express themselves to reveal their true emotions and feelings.
The reality shows became more personal when they started to focus on ordinary people’s lives through a narrative, storytelling approach. Shows like Supergirl came onto the screen in the early 2000’s in response to the influence of Western reality television. Supergirl Supergirl is a Chinese talent search reality show produced by Hunan Satellite Television. The show is inspired by the American talent search show American Idol. It holds auditions in five regions of the country for girls who like to sing and showcase their talent.
The contestants eventually narrow down to the top three, who will be named the most talented singers in the country. The filming begins during the mass audition and continues until the top three finalists are crowned. Much like American reality television, the camera follows the contestants everywhere, watching their every move. The top contestants all live in the same house, and the camera follows them from sunrise to sundown, allowing the audience to better understand each girl. Another aspect that is copied from the American show is the voting process.
Chinese audiences for the first time could interact with a television program through a democratic voting process using SMS. The contestants with the lowest number of votes each week would face off in PK, short for player kill, and the loser will be eliminated each week. Judges were selected from different parts of the country with different backgrounds and experiences in the entertainment industry, much like those on American Idol. The 2005 season attracted more than 150,000 contestants. The show’s popularity was also partly due to the lack of requirements and limitations for the contestants.
Women of any age, profession, or ability could audition. The first season of Supergirl aired in 2004, and has generated a lot of popularity by the Chinese audience ever since. The 2004 season was only aired in Hunan province, but later seasons were aired nationally, which dramatically boosted its popularity. The final episode of the 2005 season drew in more than 280 million viewers, dwarfing the viewership of American Idol. With over 400 million viewers, Supergirl 2005 surpassed the ratings of CCTV’s New Year’s Gala that year, making it one of the most popular television programs in Chinese history [Latham, 69]. Supergirl Phenomenon
Chinese culture and media experts called the tremendous popularity generated by Supergirl “Chaonv Xianxiang”, which means Supergirl Phenomenon. Supergirl’s popularity was partly due to its voting process duplicated from the American version of the show. Some experts say that the show has created a type of democratic entertainment in China. The competition is designed so that all audiences can participate, either on camera or off. Any woman in the country is welcomed to audition without any cost, and the rest of the country is able to vote for their favorite “Supergirl” through a text message on their mobile phone.
Author Rana Mitter wrote in her book Modern China: a very short introduction that “Supergirl is probably the closest thing that China has had to a free nationwide election since 1912”. The democratic voting system showed the average Chinese citizen that their opinion were respected and can make a difference in the outcome of the competition. It created power within the hands of the citizens through voting, and it is something that Chinese people rarely experience under the Central Party. Supergirl also created a platform for ordinary people to showcase their talents.
It made Chinese girls realize that becoming famous is not just a dream anymore; it is possible. Contestants are under the impression that if they tried hard enough and gave their best, their dream of becoming a star will eventually come true. The show made Chinese audience realize that celebrities are ordinary people, and ordinary people can generate the attention that only belonged to celebrities in the past. A wave of commercialism is also a significant phenomenon that the show has created, much similar to its American counterpart. The voting system involves people spending more than the average amount on text messages.
Some fanatics go as far as spending hundreds and thousands of RMB on text message on voting to support their favorite candidate. Also, the show is entirely sponsored by Mongolian Cow company. The company used the product placement strategy to advertise and promote. Much like how Coca cola cups were placed in front of the judges on American Idol, Mongolian Cow yogurts were served to the judges on Supergirl. Impact on Chinese youth Due to the influence of Western culture on China’s youth, Supergirl has created a massive fan base among China’s young generation.
China’s young generation is very accepting and welcoming of the inflow of American culture. Supergirl programming style is almost an exact copy of American Idol, thus allowing Chinese youth to experience a Western, democratic style of reality programming. The multi-level interactivity was what sparked the massive popularity of the show. Young people can watch, vote, or even be on the show. The show allowed them to democratically vote and create their own role model, which is uncommon for a country under Communist ruling.
Young people created fan clubs for each of the top contestants, and they created different nicknames for the fans of different contestants. They would organize activities to visit their idols and send them gifts. The fans felt a connection with the contestants because the success of the idols almost completely depends on the fans’ support, therefore the audience idolized the contestants because they were picked by the audience, creating a personal connection between the audience and the contestants. Some media experts have criticized Supergirl for exerting a negative influence today’s youth in China.
Some say that Supergirl has made the values of today’s youth profane and full of worldly pursuits and pleasures. The traditional Chinese values of pursuing knowledge and good virtues have been overtaken by the constant search of immediate wealth and the fleeting “15 minutes of fame” without the preceded diligence and perseverance. Some argue that Supergirl has created a platform for fickle young people who are bored with their mundane lives, and who believe that one shot at fame will permit them to break away from their ordinary lives and begin a fantasy life of the rich and famous.
Many girls take time off of school to enter the competition, hoping that their temporary leave will turn permanent after being on the show. Parents have commented that Supergirl provides a stage for the young generation to showcase their rebellious nature through distorting the traditional aesthetic standards for female beauty. Many top contestants have the appearance of a boy; short hair, flat chest, and deep voice. Many say Supergirl also caters to the youth’s wishes to temporarily escape the world of education and to enter society early through shallowly displaying their individuality and maturity.
Government Response The Chinese government has not shown much approval for the program ever since the beginning. China’s broadcasting regulator has said that the shown could be cancelled if it does not correct its “worldliness”. CCTV critics have called the show “vulgar, boorish and lacking in social responsibility” [Macartney, 2005]. The Chinese government perhaps believes that the show’s democratic voting process and massive rallying could be a challenge to the party’s powers and foreshadows the “emergence of meaningful elective politics in China” [Yarkley, 2005].
Others are more concerned about the erosion of traditional Chinese culture as more and more “garbage programs” start to plague the screens of Chinese households. China’s chief broadcast regulator of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television said that Idol-inspired shows should focus on “constructing a harmonious socialist society “, and “must not make a hubbub about things as they please and must avoid creating stars” [Jakes, 2006]. Some authorities worried that voting for an idol contest would spark people’s interest in voting for something else, such as an election for government officials.
The harshest criticism came from Liu Zhongde, who is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. He claimed the show was “low culture” and “poisoned the minds of Chinese youth”. Liu said that Supergirl was putting on a false appearance of advocating for success through proactive effort, and its true identity was to promote the idea of quick fortunes without hard work [Guo, 2006]. He said that the girls lining up to audition for Supergirl is a mirror image of how Chinese citizens formed long lines outside the first American fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing in 1987.
Liu encouraged the program sponsor to be more socially responsible, and suggested that the government should execute more strict regulations to prevent future television programs from making the same mistake. Advantages for China’s Young Generation Although Supergirl seems to be a challenge to the Party’s regime, there are many positive social benefits arising from the program. First, although the program seems to construct a dream world of fame for young girls, it actually teaches them valuable social skills and gives them a picture of the cruel reality thought light entertainment.
Not every girl gets to be the next pop idol in China; only the ones with real talent stay in the competition. Without hard work and effort, this dream will not come true. The program oftentimes discourages girls due to their lack of talent, giving them a picture of the fierce competition in the real world. It also teaches young Chinese people to be more individualistic and outgoing, which are important traits in the globalized world where self expression is triumphed. The inflow of Western culture has created a disconnection between China’s young generation and the old Party ways.
The program creates a community for the young generation to find others like themselves, others who are feeling the same disconnection. The show serves as a stage for young people to express themselves and to meet others who share the same interest. Not only does it provide a stage for those who just want to have fun, it is also opens up a possible career route for those with talent but did not know how to reach the industry due to the limited opportunities in China in the past. Also, the fans of Supergirl feel a sense of belongingness to a group that understands and identifies with them.
Auditioning in a televised talent search program shows the character of Chinese girls nowadays. Being able to put yourself in front of millions of viewers and not feeling embarrassed when others laugh and judge you shows that modern Chinese girls have a lot of self confidence and acceptance of who they are. Rarely do contestants walk out feeling angry or depressed; most of them are determined to learn from the judges’ suggestions and try harder next time. The Supergirl stage is a good practice and simulation for future setbacks that the girls will be facing in the real world.
Conclusion The emergence of reality television in China has generated popularity among the audience but also trouble with the central government. The democratic voting system for the talent search show Supergirl poses a challenge to the communist ruling in China. The program’s impact on youth is significant, and many have criticized the show for having a negative influence on the young generation. All forms of entertainment have positive and negative impact on the audience, and Supergirl has demonstrated positive influences among its young audience despite the harsh criticisms.
Western cultural influences will not end with reality shows like Supergirls, and people should try to notice more of the positive influences it has rather than perceiving it as a challenge to its power when it’s just pure entertainment.
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