Portions of a reunion episode of the American sitcom Friends were censored for Chinese audiences this past week. Friends was once wildly popular: grassroots subtitling groups translated episodes into Chinese and many fans credited it with teaching them about American culture and helping improve their spoken English. One diehard fan even crafted a nearly exact replica of the show’s Central Perk café in a Beijing high-rise. Seventeen years after the show last aired in 2004, the cast regrouped for a special that featured a number of cameos from celebrities—including David Beckham, Cindy Crawford, Mindy Kaling, and Malala Yousafzai—and fans. At The New York Times, Paul Mozur wrote about the celebrities excised from Chinese streams, the mechanics of censorship, and fans’ reactions:
Lady Gaga has been verboten in China since she met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, in 2016. Justin Bieber’s troubles with China began in 2014, when he posted a photo from the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead, including war criminals from World War II. And the South Korean music group BTS neglected last year to mention the sacrifice of China’s troops when recalling the pain of the Korean War — even though the troops fought on the side of North Korea.
[…] Some fan accounts on social media noted that the lengths of each version of the special varied, depending on which streaming site users watched it, a likely indication that the online video platforms had cut the show on their own to avoid any potential grief with China’s watchful internet regulator.
[…] “This is insane, if you introduce the show to China, don’t cut the scene. If you have to cut it, then don’t introduce it. What’s the point of eating this castrated content?” wrote one fan. [Source]
The censored celebrity cameos:
WHO COULD’VE SEEN THIS COMING: Lady Gaga performs ‘Smelly Cat’ with Lisa Kudrow in the ‘Friends’ reunion. pic.twitter.com/KBrgkrZbad
— Def Noodles (@defnoodles) May 27, 2021
210527 Friends : The Reunion – BTS CUT pic.twitter.com/tiNtLpz0jw
— 브리이에 (@BRILLER__613) May 27, 2021
justin bieber pic.twitter.com/wkpXrapoee
— friends scenes (@scenesofriends) May 22, 2021
Internet platforms often “work towards” authorities’ censorship directives, anticipating them in advance of their actual issuance. The Friends reunion put this self-censorship in stark relief, as the three internet platforms that hosted the episode each made unique censorship decisions. The original HBO-version of the episode was 104-minutes long. The episode aired on Youku was an even 100 minutes, on Tencent was 99 minutes, and on iQiyi only 97 minutes. At Variety, Rebecca Davis noted that platforms all censored LGBTQ+ content, but to differing degrees:
Even more troubling, perhaps, is China’s erasure of LGBTQ references. All three platforms deleted the testimony of German “Friends” fan Ricardo, who described how the show gave him a sense of belonging.
“I was a gay man who wanted to have hair like Jennifer Aniston, so you can imagine how lonely I sometimes felt,” he says.
Additionally, Youku deleted a subsequent scene in which a woman pulls her girlfriend on camera. “Like every Chandler, I found my Monica,” she says.[Source]
Chinese censors cut ~6min of the seemingly utterly innocuous #FriendsReunion, deleting footage of BTS, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber (all "insulters of China"), gay fans, and, weirdly, that scene about the boys peeing on Monica's jellyfish sting (??): https://t.co/AoqwlF4Imb
— Rebecca Davis (@rebeccaludavis) May 27, 2021
China has long censored LGBTQ+ content. Censors removed homosexual content from the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” eliding mention of lead singer Freddy Mercury’s AIDS-related death. Weibo has censored LGBTQ+ content by classifying it alongside porn and violence, until the site backtracked in response to widespread backlash.
Hollywood studies are keenly aware of China’s censorship demands and explicitly mould films to conform. Television studios allegedly engage in similar practices. A landmark report by PEN America found that Hollywood: “[envisions] the desires of the CCP censor when deciding what film projects to greenlight, what content these films contain, who should work on the films, and what messages the films should implicitly or explicitly contain.” Celebrities in danger of being banned from China but who wish to avoid the fates of Lady Gaga, Beiber, and BTS, often offer public apologies to appease both censors and the Chinese public. Earlier this week, Fast & Furious 9 star John Cena provided the latest iteration of the celebrity mea culpa without specifying his “mistake”:
Per popular request, here's Mr. John Cena's apology video with English subtitles. I kept all the incoherence in the video, as well as the curious absence of what he's actually apologizing for pic.twitter.com/WmJlRcyOID
— Tony Lin 林東尼 (@tony_zy) May 25, 2021
Orwellian: You are forced to make a grovelling public apology for thoughtcrime…
Kafkaesque: … but you can’t say what the crime was.
— Julian Sanchez (@normative) May 25, 2021
At the Associated Press, Huizhong Wu reported that Cena was apologizing for calling Taiwan a “country”:
In his interview with TVBS, a Taiwanese cable channel, Cena was also speaking in Mandarin when he said Taiwan would be the first “country” to be able to see the film. That led to an uproar in China, which considers the self-governing democracy its own territory to be taken back by force if necessary.
[…] It was unclear if Cena’s apology worked, as many comments on Chinese social media in response to his video were negative. Likewise, Cena was also facing scorn back in the United States, where Sen. Tom Cotton called the apology “pathetic” and others lashed out at him on social media as a “coward.”
[…] Meanwhile, “Fast & Furious 9” — the latest in the Hollywood franchise — appeared to be doing well in China despite the uproar. The film has taken in $155 million at the box office in China since it opened on May 21, according to local media reports. [Source]