A heavily censored version of the American sitcom “Friends” has been released across Chinese streaming platforms, eliciting derision and despair from millions of fans who fell in love with the original, un-cut version of the show. Originally accessed through pirated DVDs and then later through illegal downloads subtitled by competing teams of dedicated volunteer captioners, “Friends” developed a massive cult following in China—even inspiring the construction of an exact replica of the café where the eponymous friends hung out. The cuts to the newly released version of the show primarily target LGTBQ+ content. At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo reported on the censorship of a beloved classic that most fans had already seen uncensored versions of:
Clips posted by upset viewers on the microblog Weibo showed the new Chinese version of the show — centered on six friends living in Manhattan — had cut scenes or changed language related to homosexuality and sex. The site Bilibili appeared to have excised references to the ex-wife of main character Ross being a lesbian.
In other cases, the Chinese subtitles differed from the English-language dialogue. When Joey recommends that a lovelorn Ross, recently left by his wife, go to a strip joint, his advice is translated as encouraging Ross to “go out and have fun.” In another episode, a reference to “multiple orgasms” is turned into a comment about women “having endless gossip.”
[…] The creative editing of the show, which had previously been broadcast uncensored on the platforms Sohu and iQiyi before the streaming agreements expired, comes as Chinese regulators ramp up their policing of media, including censoring LGBTQ content and banning depictions of effeminate men. [Source]
The below Tweet shows the clip where censors removed Ross’ reveal that his ex-wife is lesbian, rendering the scene incomprehensible:
— Chris 𓃠 (@notmyChris) February 12, 2022
News of the censorship rocketed to number one on Weibo’s trending search list, receiving over 50 million views before it was censored. By Saturday morning, the day after the show’s re-launch, Weibo searches for “Friends cuts” returned only: “In accordance with relevant laws and regulations, this topic is not being displayed.” One Weibo commenter noted, “A sitcom shot in the ’90s gets censored in 2022 … kinda funny.”
In May of 2021, “Friends: The Reunion” was censored along similar lines: Tencent, Youku, and iQiyi censored a gay man who described the confidence the show gave him, and Youku deleted a scene where a woman said of her girlfriend, “Like every Chandler, I found my Monica.” State news service Xinhua published fawning coverage of the reunion without mentioning the censors’ extensive cuts.
Chinese authorities have recently made a priority of enforcing heterosexual norms on society and culture. A raft of measures taken in late 2021 included shutting down university LGBTQ+ student groups, closing WeChat public accounts, blocking LGTBQ+ search results as “harmful content,” and ordering that “sissy boys” not be featured on Chinese television shows or video sharing sites. The campaign was celebrated in a fiery essay, republished by major Chinese state media sites, that declaimed: “[C]ultural markets will no longer be heaven for sissy-boy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in the position of worshipping western culture.”
Censors target posts that criticize this policy. After China News Service (the second largest state media outlet behind Xinhua) reported on Beijing’s ban on casting effeminate men, it censored the comments section below its Weibo post to display only 10 comments out of 6,000. CDT was able to preserve this choice reaction to that bout of censorship: “Pretty awesome—they managed to scrounge up 10 messages of ‘support’ out of 6,000 comments.” The reaction to the censorship of “Friends” was similarly negative. At The New York Times, Alexandra Stevenson reported on the online backlash to the censors’ heavy hand:
“Mostly they don’t want the women in their own country to be awakened,” one person wrote on Chinese social media. “They don’t want them to know women can love women. Otherwise who will help the men to carry on the family line.”
Another commentator pointed out that the writers of “Friends” helped to normalize the L.G.B.T.Q. community with the episode. “And this is something that ‘Friends’ managed to do in 1994,” they wrote, questioning why homosexuality was being censored in China decades later.
[…] One person wondered how the censors would handle the season in which Phoebe becomes a surrogate mother to her brother. Another quipped that they were willing to bet the equivalent of $15 that the episode in which Monica, Chandler and Rachel discuss seven parts of a woman’s body for pleasure would be deleted.
“I bet 100 yuan,” the person wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. “That ‘Seven Seven Seven’ is absolutely deleted.” [Source]
Censors did not limit themselves to excising LGBTQ+ content. A globe in the background of one scene was blurred out for reasons that remain unclear. While any display of Taiwan as an independent country is taboo—Hollywood executives recently removed the Taiwanese flag from Tom Cruise’s iconic Top Gun jacket to ensure that the reboot could air in China—the globe did not appear to display Taiwan at all:
In addition to censoring gay & lesbian plot lines in Friends, it looks like the censors have also blurred this globe.
Weird. I can't even make out Taiwan in the original version.https://t.co/Ioy1radRVO
— Fergus Ryan (@fryan) February 13, 2022
“Friends” originally won millions of fans in China for its candor and down-to-earth dialogue, much of which was rendered faithfully by volunteer subtitling groups. Those same groups—once compared to Prometheus and hailed as China’s “greatest teacher of cultural exchange in the past 50 years”—are now being targeted by authorities for copyright infringements and, crucially, their ability to provide unfettered access to global culture. In November 2021, Liang Yongping, the founder of the popular streaming site Renren Yingshi, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. The tightening of China’s media space means that even a three-decade-old sitcom such as “Friends” is now considered too sensitive to be left uncensored.