The American sitcom Friends holds a unique place in Chinese pop culture.

It is one of the most beloved foreign TV shows in China and watching it was many Chinese fans’ first exposure to American culture.

“I started watching Friends in sixth grade and it means a lot to me, just like a companion I grew up with,” said longtime fan Amy Jing.

“Before going abroad, I practiced my IELTS (English language test) by watching Friends over and over.

But fans like Ms. Jing were outraged this week by the censorship of re-edited episodes of the program.

Major Chinese streaming sites including Tencent, Baidu’s IQiyi, Alibaba’s Youku and Bilibili recently began streaming a version of the show’s first season, its first re-release in China in several years.

A scene in which the character of Ross Geller, played by David Schwimmer, makes reference to his wife being a lesbian has been deleted.(Warner Bros.)

But viewers quickly noticed that parts of the long-running program were different from what they had seen before, including the removal of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-related content, as well as translation errors.

Fergus Ryan, a senior China researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the censorship reflected Beijing’s concern about the country’s declining birth rate.

Head shot of Fergus Ryan wearing a white open collar shirt, gray suit and glasses
Analyst Fergus Ryan says the censorship in Friends is indicative of China’s renewed emphasis on traditional gender roles.(ABC News)

Mr Ryan said the Chinese government’s efforts to spur population growth by “getting rid of the one-child policy and introducing two- and three-child policies” were not working.

“[The censorship] is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s renewed emphasis on traditional gender roles, targeting non-traditional family values ​​and culture,” he said.

Mr Ryan added that the censors may have wanted to suppress discussions of gender roles that do not focus solely on procreation, which could be motivated by the representation of gays and lesbians.

‘Multiple orgasms’ becomes ‘women gossip all the time’

The biggest change in the new version of the series is the complete removal of Ross’ lead character’s ex-wife, Carol, who is divorcing after coming out as a lesbian.

In one scene, in which Ross initially tells his parents that his wife is living with another woman, he simply opens his mouth before the camera cuts out his parents’ shocked faces.

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“The deletions made are so crude and the plots sometimes don’t even connect or make sense after the edits,” Ms. Jing said.

Other changes included mistranslations of slightly sexually suggestive references.

In one instance, a reference to women experiencing “multiple orgasms” is translated as “women gossip incessantly” in Chinese.

“The show first aired in 1994, it’s ironic to think that a show made over 20 years ago still needs to be censored today,” Ms Jing said.

Pan Wang, a senior lecturer in Chinese and Asian studies at UNSW, said she believes the censorship has more to do with the government’s desire to “control social stability” rather than the birth rate of the country. country.

A woman in a blue top stands in front of a wooden wall.
Dr. Wang says the Chinese government sees the media as a tool to speak on behalf of the party.(Provided: Pan Wang)

“Censorship is about the role of the media that the government wants to define for control and governance,” she said.

“China wants the media to vigorously promote and advance socialist culture…anything the party considers vulgar, unhealthy or deviant from mainstream content should be banned.”

She said the growing LGBT and feminist movements in China could be viewed by the government as sources of social instability warranting censorship.

Dr Wang said media censorship of LGBT and sexual content was also part of China’s broader political agenda to “build the country’s masculinity” in the sense of “being powerful and strong”.

“For example, the government wants boys to be ‘truly like boys,’ instead of being girlish or effeminate, because that reflects the strength of China’s power,” she said.

Deliberately Ambiguous Censorship Standards

People wearing face masks sit in a cinema in China.
Movies and TV shows are subject to strict censorship before they can be shown publicly in China(PA: Mark Schiefelbein)

It is unclear whether the cuts were made by the Chinese government or the show’s distributor in China.

Chandler, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his identity, previously worked in China’s film and TV copyright industry and said that while Beijing has “red lines” that don’t clearly could not be crossed, it was sometimes difficult to know what the government would censor. .

He said such ambiguity has led media organizations to cut material before sending the shows for government review.

“The ambiguity creates a problem, which is that the platforms that own the copyrights to the shows can just remove anything that might be censored in advance,” he said.

“Sometimes if copyright societies send a movie or show to reviewers but it doesn’t pass the censorship process, that movie or show will go ‘blacklisted’.

“Then you will need to remove the ‘inappropriate content’ and also change the show’s Chinese name and send it back.”

Chandler said it was a complicated and time-consuming process that involved “a lot of paperwork”.

In January, David Finch’s dystopian Fight Club ending was changed on Chinese streaming platform Tencent to an ending where the establishment wins.

An image from the film Fight Club
There was an uproar when the Fight Club movie ending was changed in China.

The police “quickly figured out the whole plan and arrested all the criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from detonating,” the new ending says.

However, after causing a huge public outcry on social media, the original ending was restored.

Workers in China’s entertainment industry have been calling for a ratings system as a solution to the problem of ambiguous censorship standards for many years.

However, Mr Ryan said the ambiguity suited the government because it allowed “the flexibility to deal with whatever happens”.

“It is in the interest of the Chinese Communist Party not to precisely codify what is appropriate and what is not,” he said.

Nothing new for the Chinese LGBTQ+ community

Andy Lyu, founder of Love & Voice, an LGBTQ+ community group in China, said the censorship was “nothing new or surprising”.

“But of course we are still very disappointed to see this happen again,” said Mx Lyu.

A rainbow is drawn on a man's face.
The LGBTQ+ community in China faces increasing censorship and pressure from the government.(Reuters: Aly Song)

“Content related to homosexuality is often linked to obscenity and pornography [in China].

According to China’s official guidelines, shows that “express abnormal sexual relationships and behaviors…such as homosexuality” and “display or promote unhealthy views about marriage and love, such as extramarital affairs, dating ‘One Night Sexual Freedom’ may not be made or broadcast.

Muriel Qiu, an LGBTQ+ advocate from Shanghai, said that in portraying the “harmonious relationship” between Ross and his lesbian ex-wife, Friends “presented an opportunity for family diversity” that is rare in today’s China.

“It’s a shame for the wider audience in China who can only watch Friends through these streaming platforms,” ​​she said.

Mx Lyu said media censorship is just one form of control among various other forms of censorship faced by the LGBTQ+ community in China.

“Around 2015, you might start to see the development of LGBTQ+ community groups limited in many ways,” they said.

“Events are cancelled, funding is cut and radical activists are arrested.”

Watching friends through the ‘wall’

A collection of Friends DVDs displayed on a shelf
Ms. Jing’s Friends DVD collection for all seasons. (Provided: Amy Jing)

For Chinese viewers, film and TV censorship is not uncommon, but that usually won’t stop people who want to see the original versions from doing so.

“The wall is there, but there are many ways to view the uncensored version,” Ms. Jing said.

“For example, when the ‘wall’ wasn’t so high and thick before, most fans would have already downloaded the pirated but uncensored version of the show to their online drive.

“Another way is to use a VPN to break through the wall and watch the show on overseas platforms.

“I think the oversight bodies are just using censorship to state their official positions, but they’re actually not going to do anything to people who use these alternative means.”