China's 'Sex and the City' Film Is a Great Leap Backward for Women

The hit movie portrays Shanghaiese women as shallow, vapid, and beholden to bad men. So much for gender equality.
tinytimesbanner.jpg
(Le Vision Pictures)

Tiny Times, a Chinese feature film set in contemporary Shanghai, made headline news on its opening day in late June by knocking the Hollywood blockbuster Man of Steel from its perch atop the domestic box-office and breaking the opening-day record for a Chinese-language 2D release.

The film follows four college girls as they navigate romance and their professional aspirations, but the bulk of the film is about the female longing for a life of luxury in the company of a good-looking man. Tiny Times is not a women's film, though it does feature female characters, draped from head to toe in designer clothes and easily mesmerized by the presence of supposedly visually stunning males -- not the usual, muscle-bound Hollywood types, but Asian boys of androgynous demeanor with compact frames, exquisite facial contours and the look of perpetual youth.

At first glance, Tiny Times might be mistaken for a Sinicized Sex and the City, but soon it becomes clear that the four boy-crazed, mall-loitering characters in Shanghai have little in common with the fiercely independent career women in Candace Bushnell's New York. Positioned in the market by Le Vision Pictures of Beijing as a coming of age story, the rite of passage for one dazed girl in the film is to grow into a competent personal assistant to her oh-so-handsome male boss whose aloof demeanor and penetrating gaze constantly destabilizes her. Another girl from a nouveau riche family, showers her boyfriend with expensive clothes and accessories. The third girl -- chubby, suffering from stereotypically low self-esteem and emotional eating -- is made fun of throughout the movie as she obsesses over young tennis player, the one man in the movie who actually possesses something resembling muscle. The fourth girl, a budding fashion designer from a humble background, is trapped in an abusive relationship with yet another good-looking boy.

Taking a page from the book of popular East Asian "idol dramas" that cater primarily to youth in their teens and 20s, the film features popular singers, actors, and actresses, cast regardless of any actual acting ability. Good idol dramas frequently feature teen romance, in which brooding characters with dark secrets and painful pasts elicit pathos and real emotion. Tiny Times, however, has done away with complex story arcs and character development. The film looks great but ultimately lacks substance.

The film speaks to the male fantasy of a world of female yearnings, which revolve around men and the goods men are best equipped to deliver, whether materially or bodily.

The four characters' professional aspirations amount to serving men with competence. The film is a Chinese version of "chick flick" minus the emotional engagement and relationship-based social realism that typically are associated with the Hollywood genre. The only enduring relationship in Tiny Times is the chicks' relationship with material goods. The hyper-materialist life portrayed carries little plot but serves as a setting for consumption, and is more akin to MTV or reality TV than real drama. With its scandalously cartoonish characters, the film would have worked better as a satirical comedy, except that the director is too sincere in his celebration of material abundance to display any sense of irony.

We were caught completely off guard, stupefied by the film's unabashed flaunting of wealth, glamor, and male power passed off as "what women want." Its vulgar and utter lack of self-awareness is astonishing, but perhaps not too surprising. It appears to be the product of full-blown materialism in modern, urban Chinese society. The film speaks to the male fantasy of a world of female yearnings, which revolve around men and the goods men are best equipped to deliver, whether materially or bodily. It betrays a twisted male narcissism and a male desire for patriarchal power and control over female bodies and emotions misconstrued as female longing.

Ying Zhu and Frances Hisgen

Dr. Ying Zhu, a professor in and Chair of the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island-CUNY. Frances Hisgen is a high school student at the Brearley School in New York. 

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