“I hope that every female can be her own compass in life,” said a teary Xu Mengtao , China’s first woman aerial skiing Olympic champion and now a star of the country’s hit reality television show Sisters Who Make Waves . Xu, 32, took home one of two “breakthrough role model” awards – alongside 54-year-old disco icon Zhang Qiang – in the latest season of the show, which centres on female celebrities over the age of 30. “We have firm ambitions and the courage to overcome difficulties. We can live carefree, we can live confidently, because we love ourselves,” Xu said, as she accepted the award. Xu dominated national headlines in February, when she won gold at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Three months later, she was showing off her singing and dancing skills for millions of viewers each fortnight in the show, a mirror of the popular pop idol format. The twist of Sisters is that the contenders chosen to debut in a singing group, after months of televised competitions and eliminations, are already well-known public figures, with varied and thriving careers. The show’s motto is to “bravely be yourself, regardless of age” and its third season – tagged “30 and happy” – featured its most diverse cast yet, with contestants ranging in age from 29 to 54, and drawn from the worlds of film, music, opera and sport. They included K-pop idol Jessica Jung Soo-youn, Cantopop duo Twins, and actress Ning Jing, all with sizable international fanbases as well as the homegrown largely female, middle-class audience. Nostalgia for the artists of a bygone era, as well as the growing interest in feminist discussions among Chinese audiences meant the show had all the prerequisites for a hit. Its success was assured with sponsorship by the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), under the National Congress of Women. But, while the programme showcases female talent from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even South Korea, some have questioned whether it achieves its purpose of empowering women. The hit Chinese TV reality show inspiring women to make waves Regular viewer Tess Chen Tianzi, a graduate researcher of social cultural anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the series was a “successful commercial project” that lacked depth. “The show came out of social discourses about women’s workplace experiences as they age into their thirties. The show tapped into them and gained traction,” Chen said. It also drew its cut-off line at 30 from the concept of sheng nu – leftover women – which is applied to urban, educated and unmarried women as young as 27, she said. “The show places great emphasis on competitiveness and personal excellence, with the stars invited being already established in their relative fields, and the theme of the show is for them to ‘break through’ even further … What about the so-called unestablished women?” Chen said. Xie Kailing, lecturer of international development at the University of Birmingham and author of Embodying Middle Class Gender Aspirations, said it was not unusual for mainland productions to cash in on the “pink economy”, consumers who were not heterosexual men. Xie said the social changes of recent decades had helped to create the popular demand driving shows like Sisters. “There is the unexpected consequence of the one-child policy, which created the most educated female population ever due to the lack of competition from male siblings for family resources … They aspire to be successful outside the heteronormative family sphere,” she said. “This form of women’s empowerment is very much in line with the commercialised neoliberal approach, which focuses on individualism, self-development, and the you-can-do-it-yourself mentality.” Mainland China firms have more female CEOs but lag in board representation But the show does not radically challenge the structural barriers of sexism and ageism and even erases women from popular representation who do not fit into the tropes of neoliberal success, according to Xie. These include urban, low-income cleaners and elderly migrant workers – known as mingong. “The visual representation of women in different shapes and forms is helpful to extend our imaginable boundary of who we can be, but [the show] represents a particular kind of imagery that is not necessarily in line with feminist politics and the way I understand it,” Xie said. In fairness, the show does shine a light on women from other walks of life, including soldiers, doctors, scientists and engineers. Tang Limei, the first Chinese scientist to join deep-sea and Antarctica expeditions, and Zhang Weishe, head doctor of obstetrics at Xiangya Hospital, Central South University, were invited to the season finale to present some of the awards. “The funny thing about success is that it often needs to be socially recognised. The definition of success is very much dictated by the mainstream cultural discourse,” Xie said. “[In China], if you want to be viewed as successful, you need to have a happy and complete family, which is a path that is much more difficult for women than men to follow, given the earlier deadlines to be married, give birth and so on.” Xie said the pressure on women was exacerbated by the celebration and encouragement in some parts of Chinese society for them to have a “high-quality birth” – a suggestion circulating since the 1970s that claims, with some scientific evidence, that mothers in their 20s are more likely to have healthy and intelligent children. Familiar barriers put China’s women scientists a long way from the top For Lily Yu Zhongli, who leads the gender studies group at the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the response of viewers to the show proved the “male gaze” – or patriarchal worldview – still dominated. “In looking at the discussions on [Chinese review forum] Douban, I find that much attention is paid to the female body – whether the participants are slim and attractive enough – and the accuracy of the celebrities’ age,” Yu said. One example she noted was the number of questions about the real age of model and actress Zhang Tianai, who was listed on the show as 33. Tangshan attacks reopen China’s difficult debate on gender-based violence Yu also pointed out that the numerous resources available to the women on the show. In addition to the ACWF sponsorship, many businesses also see the programme’s commercial value. “Ordinary women can admire the celebrities’ success from afar, but it is not practical to draw comparisons between the two,” she said. Yu said the show’s metrics – such as regarding 30 as a starting point for maturity – mirror the “intersectional” barriers faced by ordinary women, making it unclear whether it challenged or reinforced ageist expectations. “Age discrimination and age anxiety are very pervasive in China, and women are more disadvantaged than men [in this conversation],” she said. “Many job advertisements state their age and gender preferences, and during interviews, female candidates are often asked about their personal lives – whether they’re dating or married, if or when they plan to have children, and how they would balance work with family responsibilities.” Women with a tertiary education, such as PhD students, are often on the receiving end of these invasive questions. They are usually nearing 30 when they graduate and start their careers – the very age when they should have already settled down, according to societal expectations. Yu said she had supervised many masters students who wanted to pursue a PhD, but were unable to because they needed to take care of their families. “Many would simply abandon their aspirations of professional development for a more ‘stable’ path,” she said, adding that men were less constrained by these traditional views. Chen, in Seattle, also noted the different attitudes towards men in Chinese society, pointing to a male version of Sisters Who Make Waves which has been well-received by the similar audience it attracted. ‘Not just women’s work’: brothers start all-male domestic cleaning agency Call Me By Fire has the same lower age limit of 30, but most of its contestants are in their 40s and 50s. Its second season premiered in August. “It’s really interesting when you put the two shows side by side. You see that the women were encouraged to overcome themselves, while the men were asked to simply discover themselves,” Chen said. She said the differing themes reflected the social requirement for women to “go the extra mile” to be acknowledged, while men could be more passive thanks to a belief “in their inherent excellency”. China has very few women in power despite a commitment to gender equality While social discourse will continue to drive demand for gender-centred productions, Chen said it was debatable whether that would equate to more progress for women. “I don’t see history as progressing in a linear fashion so I don’t think of the future as necessarily brighter or darker … but where there is tension, there will be resistance. Gender discourses are a dynamic battleground where different voices and groups are constantly negotiating,” she said. Xie said Chinese society was “vibrant”. The temporary lack of diverse representation in popular media would not diminish the existence of diversity, she said.