How “American Idol” Introduced Democracy and Tomboys to China: “Super, Girls!”
A candid documentary about the most popular TV show in China.
This week American Idol rounds out its first decade as the Season 10 finale airs tonight and tomorrow. As the top rated TV program for the sixth straight season, with its ratings ticking upward thanks to new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, the show is apparently as strong as ever. The concept of the amateur competitive singing program, originated by the British show Pop Idol, inspired franchise spin-offs and copycats the world over, from the Philippines’ Pinoy Idol to SuperStar Kazakhstan. But perhaps nowhere did the format make a larger societal impact than in the People’s Republic of China, where, to put it bluntly, it introduced the practice of electoral democracy to hundreds of millions of people.
Super Girl (once officially known as the Mongolian Cow Yoghurt Super Girl Contest, after its brand sponsor) launched in 2004, just a couple years after Pop Idol and American Idol. Originally a local TV production, the show took advantage of a newly formed nationwide satellite network to broadcast across China, and quickly became a runaway success. By its third season the show drew over 400 million viewers, exceeding not just the total number of American Idol viewers, but the entire US population. Whether due to this alarming display of voter mobilization or the runaway popularity of a show that glorified pop idolatry, the Chinese government shut down the show after three seasons (though it has since been revived).
Perhaps the most bizarre trend that emerged from Super Girl was sparked by its first champion Li Yuchun, whose retro-David Bowie androgyny and huskily belted renditions of male pop songs stood miles apart from the twee stylings of conventional Chinese pop girls. While American Idol gets criticized for promoting middle-of-the-road blandness, Li Yuchun was breaking all the rules on a national stage, in a society that values conformity. Astonishingly, audiences couldn’t get enough. Millions of girls started cutting their hair and dressing like boys as a wave of gender-bending swept through Chinese youth culture.
But a more profound phenomenon came through the ability for audiences to vote for their favorite singers via text message, just like its Western counterparts. In a land where Communist Party officials elect leaders mostly through closed-door proceedings, this was an unprecedented large-scale opportunity for Chinese citizens to get out the vote. By the third season, over 800 million text messages were sent (outpacing American Idol’s single season record of 624 million), quite possibly the single largest display of the democratic electoral process in Chinese history.
All of this is captured in Super, Girls!, a vividly ground-level documentary that follows several contestants at different stages of the competition. We see hundreds of girls line up for their shot at stardom in the first round auditions, dressed in a wild variety of identity iterations: frilly pink debutantes straight out of Japanese manga comics vs Li Yuchun wannabe tomboys; a blinged-out rapper freestyling in Chinese; and a farm girl in a Red Army outfit straight out of the 1960s (and who quickly realizes that she doesn’t stand a chance). Losers of each round are devastated, but quickly redirect their energies into massive fan clubs for the remaining contestants. They parade in street rallies and scream their lungs out in scenes not seen since the heyday of Beatlemania.
It’s apparent that independent filmmaker and one-man film crew Jian Yi was unable to gain inside access to the show behind the scenes, which turns out to be a blessing. By spending all of the film’s time with these aspiring singers trying to crack into the inner circle of superstardom, we identify with their charismatically underdog spirit. But the more time we spend with them, we sense dark shadows of confusion and insecurity creeping in. These kids, fresh out of high school or college, are facing an increasingly competitive job market and immense pressures from their families to succeed. When not practicing their songs, they obsessively check horoscopes and online messages, and talk at length about what it takes to make it big, emulating a roster of role models that includes not only Li Yuchun but Bill Gates.
The irony is that for these girls, Jian Yi’s camera becomes their own reality show in which they take center stage. The results are far more candid and revealing about their lives, values and problems living in China than the Super Girl program could ever be.
Kevin B. Lee is the Editor of Keyframe at Fandor. His email is kevin *at* fandor *dot* com.
WATCH SUPER, GIRLS! ON FANDOR.