Back in late 2015, the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) issued a hitlist of 'vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content' that it wished to see eradicated from broadcast media.
'No television drama shall show abnormal sexual relationships and behaviours, such as incest, same-sex relationships, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and so on,' ran the regulation. While censorship of 'sexual' content is par for the course, the authorities’ equating same-sex sexuality with deviancy and perversion spread alarm.
First on the chopping block was Addicted, known as Heroin in Chinese, a bittersweet drama documenting a romance between two high school-age boys. The show was abruptly pulled from Chinese video sharing sites in March (it survives on YouTube), much to the chagrin of millions of loyal viewers.
Back in February, online video sharing platform LeTV released a list of what it called 'ten inappropriates' – content deemed unsuitable for broadcast – which included a prohibition against 'incorrect perspectives on love and marriage, for example: homosexuality and extramarital affairs'. While the list was later amended, a consensus is emerging that China’s censors are taking a harsher line on queer content.
Not a great time to debut a bawdy, all-gay reality TV show, you might think, and yet the production team behind Stand By Me, China’s queer answer to Big Brother, have already wrapped up a hugely successful first season and are auditioning cast members for a second. Hosted on the paywalled entertainment app Fangtang, which is also broadcasting the third season of Will & Grace-inspired sitcom Rainbow Family, Stand By Me has racked up a per-episode average of 5 million views (more than twice as many as the average episode of Westworld gets). Production company Madness Culture reckons the show has close to a million regular viewers.
At 1.5RMB an episode, Stand By Me is affordable, easily digestible entertainment. The cast are a fresh faced blend of up-and-coming live-streaming personalities, gogo boys, students and loafers from all over China. Sharing a mansion in the Beijing suburbs, they bunk together, cook for each other, participate in games and complete team tasks, and, at the end of each episode, vote off one of their fellow housemates. The main tweak to the format is that a new cast member arrives to replace whoever was voted off,
before a final 16 are whittled down to a core group for the finale. That, and the entire cast are openly gay men.
'This show was a completely new venture for us,' producer Sha Yuchun tells Time Out at the company’s shared-space office in Chaoyang district. 'It’s the first time we’ve done a 100 percent reality TV show.' 'We chose cast members who corresponded to archetypes that gay people like,’ he says of the show’s choice of participants, listing the mix of prissy 'big sisters', cute boys-next-door and muscular, well-groomed gym bunnies as the perfect ratings cocktail.
Beyond its format, Stand By Me is remarkably mainstream in style, with conflicting personalities propelled towards situations doomed to end in a catfight.
That said, there are flashes of genuine poignancy, particularly in one episode when cast members call and speak to their parents, many of whom have no idea of their child’s sexual preference. Two cast members even become a couple over the course of the series (their most intimate moments are carefully edited). Such genuine attempts to demonstrate changing attitudes and ongoing challenges to equality are broken up with drag, lapdancing and Speedo-heavy antics in the mansion’s pool. Judicious camerawork allows as much skin on show as is legally defensible.
Perhaps the show’s paywall acts as a shield against both haters and censors, or maybe the producers have simply figured out how to toe the line while hovering just on the razor edge. 'The online market is very discriminating,' says Sha Yuchun. 'People seek out what they want, and only pay for what they want. Plus it’s generally a younger audience, so people are more open-minded. It’s also a small platform, so regulators don’t pay much attention – if we were iQiyi, we’d be more noticeable.'
For the most part, the cast are natural performers, and each has collected a strong fan following, with every episode’s comment threads dominated by pitched battles between, for example, 'Team Benji' and 'Team Zizheng'. There are also some seriously wince-inducing clashes (in the first episode, a vicious argument between two cast members, both insisting the other is 'too ugly' to share a bed with, is particularly grim). Cliques form, and cheeky gossip occasionally morphs into vicious backbiting. It’s easy to see why the online commentariat have, to put it mildly, strong opinions about certain cast members. It’s also easy to see why the format is so popular.
'The success of the show is a reflection of the change in society,' agrees showrunner Xiao Zhang. ‘The cast members are willing to stand up and be seen, they don’t care what others think. Most actively want to be famous, to become stars in their own right. This show provides that platform.'