Apart from detailed economic analysis of the control of resources by private and state-run companies and the super-exploitation of the workforce, if anything should persuade you that China is a fully capitalist country, it would be viewing its popular soap-style television products. A case example is the cute series My Girlfriend Is an Alien aired on Tencent Video and WeTV in 2019, now on Netflix. A second series is now on the books. It’s about the super-rich, for those who aspire to climb out of poverty, and it was quickly dubbed into Hindi to do the same kind of ideological work in India as it did in China.
The soap genre is a convenient one for selling the lifestyles of the rich and famous, with the series, My Love from the Star setting a high standard on South Korean TV back in 2014, sparking a new wave in South Korean soap-style across Asia, also now on Netflix. My Love from the Star was sold or plagiarised, with big court battles over rights drawing all the more attention to it, in Japan, Thailand and The Philippines, among other places.
The series revolved around the plight of an alien Do Min-joon who is stranded on earth in 1609, and only now is contacted by spaceships from his home planet to return. Do has made a packet buying land back in the time of the Joseon Dynasty, and lives in a penthouse apartment when, just in the last months before he is to return, he encounters a kind of reincarnation of a young girl he had protected and loved in the seventeenth century now in the form of a spoilt actress Cheon Song-yi.
There’s a lot more going on, of course, as Do and Cheon sort out their love lives. Because it is a soap, the tragic-comic romantic entanglement of the two is interwoven with murder and rivalry that outdoes anything from Dallas. What we also notice, however, is that these two high-fliers and the network of wealthy families running corporations or bidding to be celebrities are selling us viewers something as well as living the hi-life.
You would not, if you were an alien, believe that there are any poor people in South Korea from watching this series. There are hangers-on, cowed dependents of the celebrities, but they love their humiliation as much as their masters; but actual workers are invisible, sometimes glimpsed in the background doing the washing up at the sink of a high-tech expensive family kitchen.
This is the point, the ideological point of the series, and in contrast to more politically-radical South Korean series like Squid Game, in which competition is the product and driver of desperation and fear, or Crash Landing on you, in which a South Korean heiress plummets by accident into North Korean territory (and Korean comrades tell me that the depiction of life in the DPRK is quite accurate, employing some defectors as helpers and extras in the series).
Crash Landing on you was in the top three rated South Korean TV dramas ever in cable television, and it was scripted, surprise surprise, by Park Ji-eun who wrote My Love from the Star. The critique of capitalism in the more progressive South Korean soaps is contained, and the attack on the North quite cynical, and the lifestyles of the rich are still celebrated. My Love from the Star wipes away any critique.
My Girlfriend Is an Alien mimics these productions, and sells the same image of society, reflecting back to the viewers a life that is not theirs as if it is the only life, and along the way relations of power between those who have money and those who do not is drummed in as something normal, natural, unquestionable.
The format of My Girlfriend is an Alien is very reminiscent of Bewitched which ran on US-American television from 1964 to 1972, and which I avidly watched in black and white, amazed to see that it was actually in colour when I picked it up again on DVD. Bewitched, with Samantha as a witch who promises, I don’t know why, not to use her magical powers to her husband Darrin, is set in suburbia. Darrin is constantly being pressed to ask his boss Larry for a ‘raise’ – and I didn’t know what was going on there, didn’t know what a ‘raise’ was – and he is worried about upsetting clients at the advertising firm where he works, losing his job.
So, there is an edge of anxiety in this nice middle-class family, one that is rounded out in later series with the appearance of their daughter Tabitha, but the home setting is comfortable, the wobbly sets showing us characters who want more but want for nothing. If Samantha the witch is in some ways ‘alien’ it is that she is of a different kind rather than from a different planet, and there are hints at the nature of her difference from the normal naive folk through subtle hints and in-jokes, such as the placing of a menorah on the hallway table in early episodes; perhaps the sub-text is that this is about Jews marked out and having to fit in.
The girlfriend who is an alien, Chai Xiaoqi, who is stranded here on earth from ‘Cape Town Planet’ has a different cultural context to deal with, though the political-economic underpinnings of the situation are strikingly similar to that of Bewitched if you fast-forward fifty years or so. Like Do Min-joon in My Love from the Star, Chai Xiaoqi is not only stuck here on earth but stuck on super-rich Fang Leng, the CEO of a massive corporation – the series was shot in the free-trade zone of Shenzen in the south of China.
Chai is, in some ways, like Samantha in Bewitched, for she has powers, and it will be wise for her to conceal them, and those powers are also what attracts Fang to her, but she is not the kind of suburban housewife that Samantha is. Not only is Samantha determined to be ‘normal’, but she can be assertive and stand up for her rights. Chai, on the other hand, plays all of the games of the feminine underling, as if she has read the toxic guide to cis-etiquette The Rules, playing hard to get one moment and completely subjecting herself to what others want the next.
Not only does Chai subject herself to Fang, but also, in the guise of a fast-food delivery worker, for example, to her employer. The employer, a woman, is driven by the need to maximise profit, and that means that Chai has to race around at her bidding. In fact, profit motive is at the heart of what Fang is doing as the CEO of his corporation – and this is supposed to be in ‘socialist’ China remember – and what Chai becomes part of when she is here on earth. She adopts the role of the precarious workers who have spear-headed strikes in China in recent years, but she is set against any collective action, and individual in outlook and action, as is her employer the consummate entrepreneur.
Chai, note, does not even have to work, and not because she is a suburban housewife. She zips around as a tiny loveable winsome sprite, the perfect neoliberal subject, as if she was free, free of the chains of work. The Japanese term for this cuteness is ‘kawaii’, and much of the bright multi-coloured texture of My Girlfriend is an Alien is drawn from Japanese imagery; much of the time you could imagine you were watching a Japanese soap set in capitalist Japan, not something Chinese at all. That itself is a giveaway.
It is as if work is an unnecessary game, and for Chai it is a pretext for getting close to Fang. Meanwhile, the systems of patronage and power and double-dealing are all about suppressing competitors so that some may succeed in this fantasy free market. Profit drives everyone around Chai, but labour as such is invisible.
You have to look at it closely to see the cracks, to see what labour is necessary to make this world of the super-rich function. You won’t see any direct evidence of the workforce, of the poor, or of resistance in this Chinese soap, just as you won’t see it in My Love from the Star, or even in Crash Landing on you where the poor people are simple benighted peasants stuck in the past. You’ll have to look to films like Parasite to see something of that in Asia.
There is a curious and symptomatic part of the narrative of My Girlfriend Is an Alien which grounds all this patriarchal capitalist life-style nonsense in biology, so it is as if not only are the relations between exploiters and exploited completely normal and natural, but they replicate and signal the underlying unchangeable truth of relations between the sexes, two sexes.
Chai, the alien, is overwhelmed by the ‘hormones’ emitted by earthmen, we are told, and all the more powerfully, of course, by those given off by Fang. And Fang, who first encounters Chai when she lands on earth, forgets this encounter. Fang is afflicted, we are told, by a medical condition, ‘heterosexual amnesia on rainy days’. So that’s that, what can they do? Production and social reproduction, work and patriarchy, are screened out by soaps like this, with those phenomena only flickering into life when you have an analytic framework to make sense of what is missing and what you are being sucked into.
All this is part of the destiny of the characters, wherever they are, destined to meet with a partner, and destined to be part of rampant free-market capitalism in which some win and some lose, and in which we gaze upon the marvellous success of those who win. This is pure ideology, and exposes, if you read it carefully, critically, what China is today.
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