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China Pulls the Plug on <i>Super Girl</i> Singing Contest

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) of China took the country’s most popular talent show Super Girl off the air on Friday, September 16, 2011, apparently for running episodes that extend well beyond its 90 minute slot. The news has generated much discussion in and outside China. The New York Times, Variety, and the BBC each published a report about it.

For those who are not familiar with Super Girl, it first appeared on a channel owned by Hunan Satellite Television in 2004. Modeled after the popular reality show American Idol, it proved to be extremely successful among Chinese audience within its first season. 400 million viewers were reported to watch its second season finale in 2005.

But the runaway popularity of Super Girl and the pop culture that it had created soon doomed the show. In 2006, due to mounting pressure from the state broadcasting authority, especially a few top-notch government officials who openly calumniated the show for corrupting the youth, it was cancelled after the third season.

Super Girl only resumed in 2009 under the new name Kuai Le Nü Sheng, which can be loosely translated as Happy Girl in English, after its producers agreed with SARFT to adhere to new rules imposed on televised talent shows. But as its cancellation news broke out, the resurrection proved to be short-lived.

As many begin to join the discussion of this high-profile ban, the discourse seems to take a political turn. As Andrew Jacobs points out in his article, some people “suggested that the show’s reliance on voting by audience members was dangerously democratic.” The idea of becoming a star on one’s own eliminates the role of the state entirely. So it is possible that the call on tough moral values was used to cover up the fact that China’s ruling party was unnerved by the show’s popularity.

As opposed to the mainstream portrayal of the glamorous contestants and their giddy fans, Super, Girls! (2007) can be very quiet and smart at times. Though the footage has been edited, it is not hard to see that the camera has often stayed in one place in certain scenes where girls probably took as long as they needed to divulge the things on their mind. For examples, in increments, they elaborated on their life experiences, their value systems, and their dreams and aspirations. One girl talked about how she viewed participating in Super Girl as a calculated investment one could make. She understood fame as providing a possible head start on one’s career.

The most interesting vignette in the documentary is probably that of Wang Yu’nan. Yu’nan is a student from a vocational school in Shenyang. Both a participant and a follower of Super Girl, she stands out among the rest not because she is a celebrity-bound starlet, but because she is able to spot and seize interesting opportunities that others miss. For instances, she took charge in managing an online discussion board for fans like her, and she also did her pen-selling business among fellow contestants who needed to fill out application forms outside a local television studio. Of the money she made, she spent on a meal with her mother, and she also planned on buying her mother a new dress.

Jian Yi’s documentary could be an eye-opener for the government officials who condemned Super Girl on morality grounds. And unravelling the complexities of various cultural phenomena is indeed one function that documentaries rightfully serve. On this note, Jian Yi has done a great job by bringing forth the voices of the Super Girl fans and contestants. His documentary helps counter the conventional images people tend to associate with such talent shows.

Perhaps Super Girl will get a second chance to meet its fans on air after another hiatus. However, if the difference in perceiving what is culturally proper and morally valuable by the state authorities and by the Chinese people exists, the show will probably continue to have a hard time escaping being labeled as lowbrow and unworthy. Furthermore, it could also find itself in deeper troubles if it tried to fight with the authorities using its mass appeal and popularity. Banning it forever is not a feasible solution. Let’s hope that the Chinese state will soon find a better solution that meets the requirements of a true market economy, which the country is supposed to transition into.