And Finally

Bowdlerised by Beijing

Complaints as Chinese streaming sites censor iconic US sitcom Friends

Friends w

“The one with the stuff cut out...”

“The one with…” That’s how the episode titles of the Nineties’ sitcom show Friends usually begin. “The one with the Cat”, “The one with Ross’s Wedding”, “The one with the Cake”.

However, in China it might now be more apt to begin the titles “The one without…”

That’s because the country’s censors removed key scenes and purged sexual references ahead of the series’ re-release last Friday.

Gone is the explanation of why Ross’s first wife left him, for example. Note: she fell in love with another woman. Similarly, a discussion about female sexual pleasure is changed from “women can have multiple orgasms” to “women like to gossip endlessly”.

The 20 year-old show has a huge following in China with many Chinese having burnished their English skills by watching it on repeat. Previously it was widely available on cheap pirated DVDs and video sharing websites. At one point the series was so popular that several Chinese cities had “Central Perks” – replicas of the shabby-chic café from the show.

The new edits come only a few weeks after Chinese censors changed the ending to another Nineties classic – the Hollywood movie Fight Club (see WiC572).

Now as then many viewers questioned the point of redacting material that has already been around for so long. “Don’t they know we know these shows by heart anyway?” asked one Friends fan who tuned in to watch the re-released series on Tencent Video. “Why import a classic if you intend to butcher it?” asked another on Sina Weibo.

The topic #Friendsdeleted accrued over 50 million views before, ironically, the censors moved in to end the debate.

In recent years Chinese content regulators have issued various edicts limiting “non-traditional” expressions of gender and sexuality. Male singers and TV stars have been ordered to ‘man-up’ after officials began to worry many looked too effeminate (this debate began in 2018 over niangpao or so called ‘sissy boys’, see WiC424). And in July many university LGBTQ groups were removed from WeChat.

In 2019 China also removed all mentions of homosexuality and AIDS in the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody ahead of its belated cinematic release.

The much-awaited Friends Reunion special also fell foul of censors last May due its musical guests: Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and K-Pop band BTS.

Lady Gaga has been banned in China since 2016 over her views on Tibet. Prior to that several of her songs including “Born this Way” and “The Edge of Glory” already went onto the no-play list for being “too vulgar”.

Bieber has been on the blacklist since 2017 when Beijing’s culture bureau denounced him for engaging in “a series of bad behaviours, both in his social life and during a previous performance in China”.

Though his crimes weren’t listed they are thought to include a 2014 visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and having his bodyguard carry him on the Great Wall (instead of walking) while in China in 2013.

BTS, for their part, angered Chinese fans in 2020 when the band appeared to thank America for fighting alongside South Korea in the Korean War that took place between 1950 and 1953. China, of course, fought on the opposing side (with North Korea) and sustained at least 180,000 losses.

The BBC points out that the censored versions of Friends were released not only on Tencent Video but also streamed on Bilibili, Sohu, iQiyi and Alibaba’s Youku.

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