“I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.”
These were the words confidently spoken by 20-year-old Mao Nuo, a female contestant on the Chinese dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao — better known in Australia by its English alias, If You Are the One. Since its launch in 2010, the program has grown into a global phenomenon with more than 50 million viewers per episode, and Ma Nuo’s words are no less relevant to modern Chinese society than they were eight years ago.
The set-up is always the same: 24 Chinese women, 24 podiums that light up blue or red, and a single bachelor. First impressions are brutal and introductory videos are strange.
“I’ll prepare special and mysterious love tea for you,” one man promises. Another, looking right into the camera, states with a frightening solemnity, “Your child will be mine.” The girls are no less direct. “I’m not attracted to chubby uncles,” one declares. “Hello,” another says brightly, “When you came on stage, you looked like a noodle. Sorry.”
The show has been a surprising hit in Australia. Its format is even inspired by Taken Out, an Australian dating show that crumpled after a single season in 2008. But cultural differences between the two are stark, and questions from female contestants are pragmatic and unapologetic: Do you have a respectable job? Are you willing to move in with my parents? Will you relocate to my city? When are you buying an apartment or getting a pay rise?
Everything is fair game with the exception of explicit financial details such as bank statements, a change engendered after several controversies, including Mao Nuo’s statement, and the Chinese government’s subsequent accusation that the show promoted ‘wrong values’.
Indeed, If You Are the One is a huge wake-up call from the dreamy bullshit in Bachelor in Paradise or Love Island. In fact, it’s more than a dating game—it’s a microcosm of the milieu surrounding modern Chinese youth. The program perpetuates the idea of shengnu and shengnan (a derogatory term for those ‘leftover’ men and women still single in their late 20s and 30s). It makes no effort to sugar-coat the materialistic values it blatantly promotes, or the heavy emphasis on looks, social status and other desirable requirements. “[Chinese youth] have grown up in a society that is quickly accumulating material wealth,” says critic Chen Zhigang. “They are snobbish. They worship money, cars and houses because the highly developing economy has made them do so.” Its realistic attitude ingrains a kind of humaneness that makes us uncomfortably aware of ourselves.
But in spite of the above, he show also endorses the importance of self-love and healthy relationships. Host Meng Fei advocates for suitability over “having a good personality” and beauty, which he believes is a subjective standard despite being a universal requirement for men. In one episode, upon hearing a male contestant declare he could tolerate any shortcoming a girl may have, Meng Fei replies, “The question is whether the girls can tolerate your shortcomings”. In another episode, he refuses to defend cheating and says, “Men with high IQs have affairs as often as other men.” This calm assessment is hugely divergent from the toxic drama in The Bachelor where an entire episode was once dedicated to slut-shaming Leah Costa for hiding her past career as a stripper .
While it’s easy to condemn If You Are the One as simply fucked up, we we continue watching the show—and not just because the constant humiliation of the contestants has us sniggering on our sofas or in front of our laptops. We watch because everybody on that show seems to say what most people will only think. Its realistic attitude ingrains a kind of humaneness that makes us uncomfortably aware of ourselves. Yes, praising wealth, successful careers and conventionally beautiful looks might not be idealistic but don’t we all do it anyway? Just like everyone brave enough to go on the program, aren’t we all scared of being alone? And in the end, if we’re the same as those we’re laughing at, then If You Are the One isn’t evil. It’s just honest.