The country’s infamous censors have come for one of the most basic sitcoms of all time.
China and the United States have at best been cordial frenemies, and one of the most beloved TV shows is now caught in the cultural crossfire. Recently, Friends reappeared on major Chinese streaming platforms Tencent, Youku, Bilibili, and IQiyi, but scrubbed clean of discussions of sexuality.
As part of Chinese censorship, a pivotal portrayal of homosexuality on Friends is glaringly erased. In the episode where Ross reveals to his parents how he’s no longer married to his ex-wife Carol because she’s decided to partner with another woman who she planned to co-parent with, China censored out any mention of Carol’s queerness. Instead, Ross simply begins to tell them the reasoning for his divorce before the edit quickly cuts to his parents’ shocked reactions. Additionally, the entire scene that features Ross telling the main Friends cast about Carol’s sexuality in the series is completely deleted.
The censorship is a result of Chinese officials’ ordinances released in September 2021 — aimed, in part, at maintaining their view of morality in the country’s mainstream media. According to a translation of the ordinance, Friends may have violated the rule that entertainment “whose words and deeds are immoral and unethical will never be used.” To China, it appears that strip clubs violate that guideline, since Joey’s suggestion to visit one was translated for Chinese subtitles to say “going out to have fun.” The same must be true for women’s sexual pleasure, since dialogue about women having multiple orgasms is translated to “women have endless gossips,” which has to make one wonder if Chinese officials think the female orgasm is a myth passed around among women.
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, sexual freedom in China has been treated as immoral and unethical to a deleterious degree, threatening the stability of the country’s LGBTQ community. The ordinance under Jinping’s rule also banned “niangpao,” a phrase used to pejoratively refer to gay men as “sissy men.” That would explain why a scene of Joey and Chandler sharing a New Year's Eve kiss on Friends was also reportedly removed. The anti-LGBTQ guidances have gone deeper than removing comedic depiction of sexual fluidity. Iconic rockstar Freddy Mercury was a trailblazer for gay communities around the world, but if you watch his Academy Award-winning biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, the scene of Mercury telling his fiancée he was gay was removed.
Not that it is any concern of a Chinese government that’s historically limited its citizens from fully expressing themselves, but the recent alterations to Friends have caused a huge uproar. On the Chinese social media site Weibo, the hashtag #FriendsDeleted was viewed more than 54 million times, according to CNN. The hashtag was predictably removed from the social media site on Monday, but not before droves of users expressed their dissatisfaction. One user suggested the government’s censorship of lesbian characters on Friends was due to their desire to keep women from knowing they can also love women, in an effort to ensure women will “help the men to carry on the family line,” according to a New York Times report. Another user echoed the same sentiment in a message explaining how the Chinese government “reinforces the gender stereotype of women,” according to a CNN report.
It’s extremely difficult to view the actions of the Chinese government as anything but state-run propaganda. The anarchic closing scene of the 1999 classic Fight Club, in which character Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator watches the destruction of buildings containing everyone’s debt, was adjusted in China to instead show a title card that changes the entire ending. Chinese officials thought it was a good idea to allow its citizens to spend over two hours watching a split personality anarchist plot a revolution, and simply ending with a message saying how the police were smart enough to stop his plan and have him committed to a lunatic asylum. But, that’s to be expected from a government whose ordinances explicitly forbid the depiction of “incorrect political stance” in its media, referring to any political positions that don’t fully and completely support the current administration.
After decades of controlling every facet of the lives of its citizens, the least the Chinese government can do is let them enjoy Friends in all of its quirky, harmless glory.