爱很美味 Ai Hen Meiwei Delicious Romance by Taiwanese director Chen Zhengdao and Xu Zhaoren was released in China in November 2021 and got raging reviews on Douban, the Chinese IMDB. Douban's user-base is known for being highly critical, especially of Mainland productions, but Delicious Romance, despite its questionable title, lived up to its promise of depicting young Chinese women in a realistic way. In a sea of cheesy and unimaginative “sweet-romance dramas” (甜宠剧tianchong ju), the series represents a breath of fresh air and, hopefully, will lead the way for better representation of romance in Mainland productions (国产 guochan).
A healthier narrative of beauty
The genre of “female-centric urban drama” (都市女性剧 dushi nvxing ju) is increasingly popular with Chinese audiences, but it often fails to portray what it means to be a young Chinese woman living in the city. Released in 2020, 三十而已 Sanshi Eryi Nothing But Thirty marketed itself as a cutting-edge series focusing on women’s stories, but largely disappointed Chinese audiences, who deemed it as “unrealistic” and “enforcing stereotypes around what it means to be a successful woman.”.
On the contrary, drama fans immediately engaged with Delicious Romance and praised its diversity when it comes to representing young women. The three leads are indeed beautiful, but in very different ways, and the way beauty is talked about feels refreshing and realistic. The show touches upon a range of not-so-cliché topics, such as food disorders (one of the leads, Xia Meng has been struggling with body image since her teenage years), workplace harassment, and pretty privilege (another character, Fang Xin is more of a “traditional beauty” and enjoys both the benefits and drawbacks of her appearance). In a country where unrealistic female beauty standards are the norm, an open conversation around the obsession with physical appearance and its consequences is very much needed, and Delicious Romance is leading the way in the quest for a healthier approach to beauty and its relevance in interpersonal relationships.
LGBTQ+ characters slowly make their way on the Chinese screen
Besides the thoughtful narration of female experience, another pleasant surprise was the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and even drag performances (!) in the show. Yes, you read correctly. In the current climate of crackdown on LGBTQ+ activism in the country and a tendency of mainstream media to be extremely heteronormative,1 the representation of a homosexual character left many astonished.
Huang Yu is introduced as a charming middle-aged man, who meets Fang Xin while they are both finalizing their divorces. At first, she believes he is hitting on her, but it is only when they have dinner together that we come to know that he is gay and that his marriage with a woman was fake (the character never comes out explicitly, but his carefully-crafted lines and the scene being set in what appears to be a LGBTQ+ bar are enough to make us guess). This phenomenon, known as “marriage of convenience” 形式婚姻 xingshi hunyin, is all but uncommon in China2 and speaks of a society where marriage and childbirth are still considered a universal need by older generations, who often push their offsprings to marry (催婚 cuihun) regardless of their opinions.
This painful reality is famously depicted by American-Taiwanese director Ang Lee in his 1993 masterpiece “The Wedding Banquet,” telling the story of a Taiwanese man living in New York who struggles to come out as homosexual to his parents and fakes a marriage with a Chinese woman to hide his long-standing relationship with an American man. Almost twenty years have passed since this film hit movie theaters, but if characters such as Huang Yu are still representative of the pressures many LGBTQ+ Chinese face, it probably means the situation hasn’t improved enough—at least in mainland China.
In conclusion, Delicious Romance is not perfect and, at times, watching it still provokes physical discomfort (the amount of patriotic content about fighting COVID-19 gets a bit too overwhelming towards the end…), but it certainly stands out in the current panorama of largely unwatchable Mainland romance drama and deserves praise for being grounded and comedic at once.
References / To go further
Yang Yi, “Not Quite a Rainbow: How Chinese Media Tells LGBT Stories”, Sixthtone, May 17, 2021, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1007486/not-quite-a-rainbow-how-chinese-media-tells-lgbt-stories.
Juan Miguel Ortega Quesada. 中国同性恋者的形式婚姻[D]. 厦门大学, 2018.