Once the favourite of Chinese television industry, reality talent show has found a new life in the digital transformation from linear television entertainment to personalised and interactive Internet entertainment. Since 2017, leading video streaming sites like iQiyi, Tencent Video, and Mango TV have each launched their own hit reality talent shows that help popularise new music genres and enhance the name recognition of new artists. The recently concluded reality talent show Idol Producer, aired exclusively on iQiyi, is particularly successful in introducing promising young male entertainers and mobilising fan passions.
Through a highly commercialized voting system similar to AKB48’s “general election” (Galbraith and Karlin 2012: 22), the iQiyi show invites fan viewers, so-called “producers,” to select nine members from a pool of 100 trainees to form a unit idol boy band. During its broadcast from January 19 to April 6, the show had accumulated 2.76 billion views and aroused tremendous interest among female netizens, many of whom have put a huge amount of time, effort, and money into supporting their favorite picks. Cai Xukun, the first place in the show, received a total of 47 million votes in the last round of voting alone. His Weibo following soared from 1.6 million before the show to nearly 6 million by the end of the show. Other top contestants also rose from obscurity to fame because of the show, gaining both admirers and work contracts.
For the past two decades, Chinese entertainment industry has been more or less under the sway of the Korean Wave, as K-pop artists and idol groups have drawn a huge following in China. With the sole exception of the home-grown teenage boy band TFboys, no Chinese pop music groups could rival the popularity of Korean groups. Yet the ban on South Korean entertainment contents in 2016, following disputes over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, the surge in nationalist sentiments among Chinese youth, and the rise of online entertainment platforms have brought new opportunities for domestic idol groups.
An unlicensed copy of the Korean TV show Producer 101 (2016- ), Idol Producer has thoroughly imitated the grooming, training, and performing style of K-pop boy bands and adapted it to local context. Using the example of 2PM, Sun Jung (2011:165) claims that South Korean idol boy bands represent a “manufactured versatile masculinity” that is “multi-layered, culturally-mixed, simultaneous contradictory, and most of all strategically manufactured.” This artificial, manufactured aspect of male idols, however, has been considerably toned down in the Chinese web show, partly because no Chinese entertainment company has fully implemented South Korea’s rigorous, factory-like system to produce pop stars. Although frequently criticized by Chinese K-pop fans for their inferior singing and dancing skills, compared to K-pop artists, contestants of Idol Producer compensate their insufficient training with more authenticity and individuality. Unlike K-pop members who often have homogenized looks and are difficult to tell apart, top contestants of the show all display rather distinct physical and personality traits.
K-pop boy bands are famous for two “predominant male prototypes,” the delicate and androgynous “flower boys” and the mannish, muscular “beast idols” (Oh 2015: 154). These polarized male types might be a response to women’s psychic split between a romantic drive, represented by their desire for refined and sexually undemanding gentlemen, and a sexual drive, “brute and impersonal, demanding to be ravished ‘anonymously’” (Haskell 1974: 166). While many idol candidates of the Chinese show fit nicely into the category of beautiful boy or present themselves as boyish, cute, and clean, the best ones have managed to reveal more layers behind their androgynous personae. Take the 19-year-old Cai Xukun for example. Clad in fishnet top, velvet bomber jacket, and tight ripped jeans, and wearing a long single earring and heavy make-up, he made quite an entrance in the first episode by parading as a seductive pretty boy. Yet when he dances on the stage, he could be both cute, playful, and wild, manly. The fascinating contrast between his versatile and powerful performance on the stage and his modest and easy-going personality off the stage has helped him win over a great many of loyal fans.
Like male idol groups in Japan and South Korea that tout the homosocial relationship between group members to attract female fans, Idol Producer has been nicknamed “large-scale same-sex dating scene” and accused of queerbaiting from the very beginning of the show. The voting format of the show explicitly encourages trainees to build and exhibit camaraderie. In the first two rounds of voting, each viewer is allowed to vote for a maximum of nine trainees per day. In the third round of voting, they are allowed to vote for two trainees. Only in the last round viewers have to do “one pick,” that is, vote for only one person. Hence, during the first three rounds of voting, many viewers would vote for one favorite contestant, plus his good friend(s). It is possible for low-rank contestants to improve their ranks by riding on the popularity of top contestants.
The conspicuous friendship and “skinship”—the expression of closeness through casual physical contact such as holding hands, hugging, and groping (Glasspool 2012; Oh 2015)—among trainees has inspired many shipping (i.e. pairing up two trainees as a romantic couple) activities among viewers and give birth to a substantial number of queer fanfics and fanvids. Moreover, both fans and the show producer have used shipping strategically for diverse purposes. In the early stage of the show, suspecting that the show producer unfairly favored a Taiwanese trainee, fans of the top four Mainland trainees banded together and invented a ship label for the four contestants to demonstrate alliance and campaign for more votes. The producer also attempted to add drama to the show by giving extra screen time to the interaction between Cai Xukun and his friend Wang Ziyi, resulting in the creation of the most popular ship in the Idol Producer fandom.
Due to the spread of queer fan culture on Chinese Internet (Lavin, Yang, and Zhao 2017), shipping has become a common practice in media and celebrity fandoms and even evolved into an intricate power game between producers and fandoms, and between different factions of the same fandom. Despite its conventionality, shipping does provide alternative viewing positions and pleasures for female audience. In the case of Idol Producer, while many female fans are devoted to only one trainee and treat him as their ideal boyfriend, shippers are interested in more than one trainee and often declare themselves as “players,” as if they were playing an online game.
Besides, it is only through a queer lens that some trainees look more charming to female fans. For instance, Zhu Zhengting, the sixth place of the show, is an accomplished dancer with a delicate face and a lean, toned body. Yet in the first half of the show he was perceived to be a prudish bore and an awkward speaker, lacking a strong personality to stir up fan devotion. It was not until some netizens identified him as a “silly, simple, and sweet” heroine of old-school heterosexual romance that he gained intelligibility and sympathy among viewers. Zhu’s unaffected skinship with multiple trainees also makes him a darling among shippers. Fan works centered on him generally depict him as an alluring and tender uke (bottom in male-male same sex relationship), a perfect object of desire, waiting to be ravished and possessed by female fans if they vicariously assume the seme (top) role.
Currently, the top nine contestants of Idol Producer have formed a new boy band aptly named “Nine Percent” and created a lot of buzz on social media. Backed by fervent fan support, the band is poised to harbinger “the first year of the idol era” in China. Just as the androgynous (zhongxing) appearance of Li Yuchun in the 2005 Super Girl show has questioned traditional femininity and enhanced the visibility of lesbianism, the appropriation and adaptation of K-pop masculinities in Idol Producer has also permitted a more diversified and less heteronormative understanding of masculinity.
Ling YANG is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Xiamen University, P. R. China. She is the author of Entertaining the Transitional Era: Super Girl Fandom and the Consumption of Popular Culture (China Social Sciences Press, 2012), and the co-editor of Fan Cultures: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2009), Celebrity Studies: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2013), and Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017). Yang has published extensively on fan culture, Internet literature, and young adult fiction. Image credit: An official poster of Idol Producer