If the latest television ratings are anything to go by, a critical element to a show’s success is to have at least one gay character. There’s Jamal Lyons on Empire, an R&B singer who has struggled his whole life with his homophobic father. And then there’s Cyrus Beene, the chief of staff to the US president, on the political-drama Scandal. Needless to say, one of the most famous gay couples on TV is Mitchell and Cameron in Modern Family.
But in China, the portrayal of gay characters is virtually nonexistent. In fact, being gay was considered a “mental disorder” until 2001. Some medical textbooks described homosexuality as an affliction and recommended “conversion therapy” involving electric shocks.
So imagine the surprise when an internet TV series about the lives of four gay high school students appeared. The 15-episode drama, called Addiction, was aired on online video sites like iQiyi and Tencent Video. when it launched last month it was viewed more than 10 million times on its first day, says Beijing Business News.
But its run was short-lived. The series was yanked offline by the state censors with three episodes still to go. Fans of Addiction complain that they will never find out what happened in the end. Some die-hard netizens say they are considering travelling outside of the country so they can access YouTube, where the series is still available.
So why was it such a hit? One reason for its success – apart from tackling a traditionally taboo subject – is that the show is surprisingly well produced. Unlike most gay-themed programmes, which receive little support from mainstream media, Addiction is backed by Huace Group, a leading TV drama and film producer. Audiences say the production values and intricate storyline are what attracted them to the series.
“In terms of production, many internet dramas are usually a bit malnourished: that is, they suffer from bad acting, poor screenplay and lousy production because of the low budget. But Addiction doesn’t have these problems. It is one of the most well made internet series ever,” one netizen gushes.
While the show is about young gay men, it also appeals to a wider demographic because it is ultimately a story about the romantic lives and friendships of high school students. “Even though the series is focused around the love between two men, it brings back all the memories of what it is like to be in high school: the anticipation of what the future may bring and the dreams of becoming grown-ups. Its accurate portrayal of those themes is what makes it so unique,” another netizen writes.
When the two lead actors Huang Jingyu and Xu Weizhou appeared in Shanghai for a promotional function, they were mobbed by fans, many of whom were female, says Southern Metropolis Daily. The actors were so popular that some were willing to pay as much as Rmb10,000 ($1,539) for tickets to events where they could meet them, reports the South China Morning Post.
Chinese media regulators, however, showed less appreciation. Late last month, the show was taken off the Chinese internet without explanation. On Douban, the TV series and film review website, previous discussions and reviews for the show disappeared.
“Why did the censors take away this drama?” one netizen asked on weibo. “The truth is that they are afraid of gay [issues].”
“I anticipated that it would be banned from the internet, but I still feel sad. When will our society become a multicultural and more tolerant one?” another sighs.
It is certainly not the first time a gay-themed programme has been axed. For instance, one episode of the online talk show U Can U Bibi – during which a gay host cried and called for social understanding – was spiked last July. Similarly, filmmaker Fan Popo’s documentary Mama Rainbow – about mothers learning to accept and love their gay children – was also removed from Chinese websites.
Still, the fact that Addiction was even put into production was surprising. Some say it suggests a growing open-mindedness when it comes to homosexuality. Indeed, interest in the topic among the younger generation has been increasing.
Last year a show entitled From Dark Night to Daytime received enthusiastic reviews online. It recounted the stories of 48 gay men and women and their families across China.
The country’s media watchdog says it will now impose tougher censorship on internet-streamed dramas. While China’s satellite TV stations are already heavily censored, online video sites were previously left to monitor the content on their sites themselves. But late last month, Li Jingsheng, head of the television drama management division of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), told reporters that the watchdog is looking to step up regulation of shows produced and broadcast on the internet.
“What cannot be aired on television must not be shown on the internet,” Li declared at the National Television Industry Annual Conference. New rules announced late last year say depictions of homosexuality, extramarital affairs and the supernatural are not allowed on Chinese television dramas.
TV shows, according to the new regulations, should “promote the excellent traditional culture of China,” “spread positive energy” and “contribute to the achievement of the Chinese Dream”. To that end, anything that exposes viewers to content which “could have a harmful effect on them,” like “underage love,” and getting into fights should not be shown. Clothing that is overtly sexual or extravagant is also not permitted.
Some have derided the new rules. A netizen, for example, lambasted their limitations by referring to the four great classical works of Chinese literature: “So we can’t watch Journey to the West because there’s gods and demons fighting each other, we can’t watch The Water Margin because it’s too bloody, we can’t watch Dream of the Red Chamber because there’s underage love, and we can’t watch Romance of the Three Kingdoms because there’s scenes of people committing crimes.”
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