Women's lib? It's all in the mind

Kitty Poon

Although Sex and the City, a highly popular US comedy series, has already ceased to be a topic of discussion in America, its influence lingers in other parts of the world. A recently released mainland television production, Wanting to Fall in Love, draws on a similar plot, but minus the sex element in the storyline.

The mainland series contains 32 half-hour episodes. The stories unfold around four women in their early 30s: a nostalgic and intelligent bookstore-pub owner, a TV producer who supposedly has feminist inclinations, a stylist who claims men are like clothes that can be easily disposed of, and a software programmer who hopes to beat her biological clock and have a family.

These four beautiful, well-dressed and well-heeled women seem to be dating men day in and day out. Not only that, the men they meet are all smart-looking, trendy and in reasonably admirable professions. The characters drink lots of wine in the coolest pubs in town, dine in five-star hotels and, of course, display the anxieties and joys of their love lives.

The director and producer have apparently made enormous efforts to keep the production as 'Chinese' as possible, so much so that there are no sex scenes at all. Even kissing is not allowed on screen. However, the comedy somehow still managed to stir controversy.

Critics say the comedy paints a distorted picture of single women on the mainland. 'It is so unreal,' as one viewer commented in an internet chat room. They questioned how young women could change boyfriends as frequently as they changed clothes. Some warned that if a girl lived a life similar to the onscreen characters, she would be condemned in most mainland cities.

But, fans of the soap believe it depicts the modern-day love experience, which could hardly be appreciated by traditional Chinese. It promotes feminism, they argue, and it encourages young women to be emotionally and financially independent. This argument seems to be well grounded.

One woman viewer confessed in a chat room that the comedy made her married life unbearable, and she was prepared to leave her misery behind to pursue happiness elsewhere - alone. She said the comedy taught her to treat herself better.

The director tried to defend the series. He said the true intention of the soap was to analyse women's general weaknesses and to reveal the perplexities of life. After all, the lead characters are all looking for, even subconsciously, suitable partners for life, throughout the series.

The leading character concludes, after experiencing a series of novel love adventures, that men are like pillars: without them, the lives of women would fall apart. This twist suggests that the true message of the soap is about the value of family, not women's liberty - a sharp contrast to the core values depicted in Sex and the City.

Why did the director choose such a radical way to convey such a conventional message? Well, the reasons lie in the fact that the show projects a fantasy that cannot possibly be realised by most mainland women.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has reported that China's middle class accounted for only 2.8 per cent of the total population last year. Even if career women accounted for half of that number, only a small fraction of them could afford to pursue a decadent and carefree lifestyle like the onscreen heroines.

Today's modern women in the mainland do not live in a social vacuum. They have to deal with the beliefs, values and customs of the rest of the population. So the comedy should be treated only as a virtual adventure. Those who try to take it seriously, and create a similar lifestyle, might bring themselves more, rather than less, misery.

Kitty Poon is a Hong Kong-based commentator