Ode to Joy: A breath of fresh air on Chinese TV that turned toxic
Meet the characters of China’s hit show, Ode to Joy:
A former Wall Street executive who returns to China in search of her lost brother. Despite her beauty and intelligence, Andi has social phobias and no experience with relationships.
Qu Xiaoxiao 曲筱绡
Born to an affluent family, Qu is bold, fierce, and good at making drama out of ordinary life.
Fan Shengmei 樊胜美
A senior HR executive in a foreign company, Fan is constantly exploited by her financially strained family, which once made her believe that the only way to escape her miserable life was to marry someone from society’s elites.
Qiu Yingying 邱莹莹
A girl from a small city who comes to Shanghai to pursue her dreams. She is simple but often acts recklessly, especially when it comes to dating.
Guan Juer 关雎尔
A stereotypical good girl who was born to an academic family and is always obedient to her parents. Guan is quiet, restrained, and sensible.
When Ode to Joy premiered in April 2016, it was immediately popular among Chinese TV fans. This show features five twenty- and thirtysomething women — Andi 安迪, Qu Xiaoxiao 曲筱绡, Fan Shengmei 樊胜美, Qiu Yingying 邱莹莹, and Guan Juer 关雎尔 — starting their careers, dating, and hanging out in Shanghai. The show appealed to Chinese TV watchers tired of propaganda-loaded anti-Japanese War TV serials and monotonous historical dramas.
The first season of Ode to Joy was a smash hit and was among the highest-rated dramas of 2016. Online, the show generated an astounding 10 billion views by the end of the first season. The show’s unparalleled ability to stoke controversy of all kinds on social media made it a cultural phenomenon that dominated the list of most-discussed topics on the Chinese internet.
The show’s second season began broadcasting in May. Its popularity is undeniable, but like many other shows that fail to live up to their debut success, Ode to Joy seems to have lost its edge, and has become — for me at least — just another mundane show.
Does virginity matter?
In the second season’s most pivotal scene, Qiu organizes a dinner party to introduce Ying Qin 应勤, her new boyfriend, to her four friends. The night is amicable and full of laughter until Qu accidentally exposes Qiu’s secret with her boyfriend present — Qiu is not a virgin. Ying gets furious and asks Qiu to step outside, after which she returns to the dinner alone, sobbing in Fan’s arms. “He dumped me,” Qiu says. “He asked me whether I am a virgin.”
The plot triggered a wave of criticism online about Ying’s retrograde obsession with women’s virginity, with many calling him a “pervert.” However, it turns out that Ying is not only adamant about his attitude toward women’s virginity; he also has strong opinions about how women should behave in general. When confronted by Fan and questioned why he considers it to be disgraceful for a woman to have premarital sex, he replies, “Don’t you feel ashamed to discuss sex with a man you barely know?”
Ying is indeed contemptible. In fact, almost everyone in the drama expresses some degree of disgust after acknowledging his disrespect for women. The only exception is Qiu. Although she has every reason to lash out against her “pervert” ex-boyfriend or just simply move on, Qiu opts to retreat into self-introspection. “This is all my fault,” she yells after her friends with regret, describing her loss of virginity a “stain” on her life, in the same breath that she explains her definition of a healthy relationship: “A happy relationship is based on mutual respect.”
Flip-flops and double standards
It is astonishing and annoying to see how quick Qiu flip-flops when it comes to men, and what’s more jarring is that she is not the only character in the show who lacks a consistent outlook on relationships. For example, Qu, at the outset of the show, expresses her abhorrence of women who steal other women’s boyfriends. But right after meeting her crush Zhao Qiping 赵启平 and learning that he might be in a relationship lasting for seven years, Qu shows no resistance to becoming the kind of women she claims to hate the most. “Why should I care if he has a girlfriend or not. I am entitled to get him since I like him,” she declares.
The inconsistency in these characters, or the double standards displayed by them, to some extent reflects the show’s lack of an overarching vision to guide all the controversies that it has stirred up. Ode to Joy seems to have been designed to provoke an online essay war over every episode. Public opinion about each character and their acts are so divided that even on issues like virginity — a concept that the overwhelming majority of Chinese internet users don’t care about — there still exist a small fraction of people who defend obsolete values. But these arguments don’t result in thoughtful debates, and it is painful to see a show with a distinct voice that could make an impact never manage to progress past screaming on social media. Marketed as a serious exploration of womanhood in modern China, the show, has morphed into a portrait of a group of people living their own purposeless, pathetic and selfish lives.
A cast of narcissists
Among these characters, some behave so badly from the start that it’s impossible for the audience to root for them. The leading role in this category is Qu, a second-generation scion from a wealthy family. In her own words, she is the only one among the five protagonists that has “a clear sight of life,” which gives her the confidence to burst out with whatever is on her mind or do whatever she wants to do. Throughout the show’s run, Qu lies from time to time only to serve her own purpose, yet she suffers almost no consequences of her dishonesty. Her most notorious moment came in the first season, when she secretly gives her phone number to Qiu’s boyfriend Bai without her consent. Though Qu explains that it is merely an act to test Bai’s loyalty, her friend Fan is not convinced at all and gives a more solid explanation: “You just want to test your attractiveness.”
Unlike Qu, others in the show have gradually tipped over from being occasionally hysterical to embracing self-dramatizing narcissism. Andi is an example. While the other women in Ode to Joy initially have flawed qualities that make them seem more real — Fan’s troublesome family business; Qiu’s problematic dating history; and Guan’s timidity in shattering her “obedient good girl” image — Andi is seemingly physically, intellectually, and professionally flawless. She grows up in America, has a college degree, a decent job in finance, and two high-class men begging for her attention. When the show starts, Andi has no obvious outward deficiency to convince the audience that she’s “just like us,” so in the second season, to make her more relatable, the show begins to add spice to her nearly perfect character, transforming her into some sort of monster and fool mixture.
In the second season, after watching her being baffled by her past — and attempting so hard to hide it from her friends, boyfriend Bao Yifan 包奕凡, and future mother-in-law for the entire first season — viewers are eager to know Andi’s family background, arguably the biggest mystery in the show. The truth is revealed that she comes from a ultra-rich family and will inherit a large fortune, but she also has a mentally ill brother whose existence haunts her every single day because she believes that she has a congenital mental disorder that will drag her down sooner or later.
If this is Andi’s long-awaited revelation about her history, it’s a relatively mild one: no trauma, no violence, no existing problems, just some fear of suffering a possible mental illness that has no signs so far. And what makes Andi annoying is that her alleged fear in no way justifies her indifferent and cruel attitude toward her ill brother, nor does it explain why she intends and manages to wage a financial war on her mother-in-law by taking advantage of her position in a company that she works for.
A diehard fan of Ode to Joy may argue that these characters were not supposed to be likable and that the show at its core is just a celebration of “female friendship,” a phrase that has become trendy over the past few years — even though most works claiming to be about female friendship are actually about the thousands of ways in which female friends can hate each other. Ode to Joy, unfortunately, is one of those works.
The “friendship” among the show’s main fivesome begins with the fact that they live on the same floor in an apartment building. It is a valid and promising start of a friendship, because for women living in a city as overwhelming as Shanghai, they are inclined to connect with those who are around them. But as the show advances, it is apparent that the start represents the pinnacle of their collective friendship. And when the second season winds to a close, the glue holding these women together has lost most, if not all, of its adhesiveness.
Among them, Qu is obnoxiously unqualified to be anyone’s friend. As for the other four, unlike Qu, they can be friend material as individuals. But when they are together, they appear to share nothing in common but clashing views of life, which obviously stem from their distinct backgrounds. In the second season, there is one moment when Andi and Fan are on the brink of having a substantial conversation, yet Andi concludes it in a condescending position, simply saying, “It’s a waste of time to argue with a fool on some issues,” referring to Fan as a poorly educated woman from an inferior social class. That seems like a solid encapsulation of why these five women have never fit together since the first episode, and the fact that they are still hanging out can only be attributed to TV’s magical thinking.
Stuffed with endless trivialities and disputes among the five protagonists, the second season of Ode to Joy at some points is reminiscent of Tiny Times, the blockbuster series directed by China’s richest writer, Guo Jingming. To be fair, Ode to Joy depicts a world way more realistic than where characters in Tiny Times live, where the only things spinning around them are love affairs. But Tiny Times’ excessively dramatic plot constantly reminded viewers that the characters only live on the screen, and that their lives by no means resemble those of ordinary people. Ode to Joy, in contrast, meticulously crafts five women coming from five distinct social classes to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It used to be the show’s greatest strength that viewers could easily find a character to live through. But two seasons in, as the main five characters take turns unleashing their inner monsters and exhibiting their deficiencies, it has become impossible for me to see myself in any of the characters or my actions in their vile machinations.