- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
In China’s battle between cupcakes and Communists, the cupcakes appear to be winning. While Chinese President Xi Jinping promotes the "Chinese Dream" of national rejuvenation with mixed success, the U.S. sitcom 2 Broke Girls has drawn Chinese audiences by depicting a more modest dream: the chance to open a cupcake shop.
First airing in the United States in October 2011, 2 Broke Girls tells the story of Max and Caroline, two 20-something women who wait tables at a diner in New York City while saving to open their own cupcake shop. The show’s first season appeared on Youku, China’s YouTube, in August 2012, and has risen to become the most popular U.S. sitcom on the site, with over 81 million views.
Perhaps Chinese viewers prefer 2 Broke Girls because they can empathize with the characters, who work hard for low pay. In 2012, the average Chinese took home a little less than $4,000 of income, according to official figures. One fan commented on Weibo, China’s Twitter, that she wanted to be like Max and Caroline. "Although they are poor," she wrote, "They work hard together to achieve a shared dream."
While wages are much higher in China’s urban areas, the country’s income gap and the rising cost of living have many worried that hard work will not translate into success, or even security. For these people, 2 Broke Girls represents the dream of a meritocracy. One Weibo user wrote that she felt 2 Broke Girls was about girls "at the lowest tiers of society" pursuing their dreams "with bravery and determination." Millions of Chinese, especially university students and recent graduates facing a tough job market, admire the protagonists’ optimism and positive attitude in the face of adversity.
The show depicts a more avowedly individualistic aspiration than the Chinese Dream, which Xi defined in November 2012 as "the national rejuvenation of the Chinese people." The Economist noted in May 2013 that the Chinese Dream contains elements of the American Dream, but also "a troubling whiff of nationalism and of repackaged authoritarianism." On Weibo, some have criticized the official definition, maintaining that the Chinese Dream should focus more on improving overall quality of life and less on the country’s GDP.
The Chinese Dream and what can perhaps be called the Cupcake Dream are not mutually exclusive. Numerous senior officials have emphasized the importance of an entrepreneurial spirit, but in the service of nationalism. By contrast, 2 Broke Girls has not appealed to Chinese nationalist sentiment. If anything, Chinese viewers might be offended by the show’s stereotyping of its Asian character — the New Yorker described 2 Broke Girls as "so racist it is less offensive than baffling."
Yet fans of the show in China are drawn in by its feel-good message. "I don’t just watch 2 Broke Girls for fun," one viewer explained on Weibo. "I am studying the spirit with which they pursue their dream. At the end of every episode, when they count how much they’ve saved, I feel an indescribable positive energy. The girl who grew up rich can pick herself back up even though she lost all her money. The girl who grew up poor still has a positive outlook and sharp tongue." The viewer concluded by asking, rhetorically, "Why on earth shouldn’t I pursue the life that I want to live?"