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Bewilderment as China censors parts of ‘Friends: The Reunion’

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Several Chinese networks seem to have found parts of the newly released “Friends: The Reunion” episode not quite in line with communist China’s ideals.

There were around six minutes of offending content removed from HBO Max’s debut of the show this week, according to the censors at three of the country’s major streaming platforms including iQiyi, Alibaba’s Youku, and Tencent Video.

The offending material included an appearance by Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, gay fans, and a shot of Matt LeBlanc in his underwear and a band who purportedly “insulted” China according to a report by Variety.

“Friends” has been widely popular in China and Chinese fans were excited for the release of the HBO special, though many were reported to be “bewildered” by the censorship. Many others were apparently supportive and thought that those who had previously insulted China had been rightfully banned.

Several musicians were axed from the Chinese version of the show. In the original HBO Max version of the show, Lady Gaga sings “Smelly Cat” for almost three minutes with Phoebe, played by Lisa Kudrow. At the end of the song, Lady Gaga expressed gratitude for Kudrow being, “the different one,” and “the one who was really herself.”

Apparently, Lady Gaga is cut out of the Chinese version entirely. Kudrow instead appeared solo and sang a verse of the iconic song for around 45 seconds before the scene abruptly ends.

Lady Gaga wasn’t cut out of the scene for her poor singing or hideous attire. Although she did once wear a distasteful dress made of raw meat, she was presumably censored because she had the audacity to discuss compassion with the Dalai Lama in 2016.

Justin Bieber got the boot from the episode because he apparently insulted China in 2014 when he took a photograph of himself at Yasukuni, a Japanese war shrine in Tokyo. In the full-length version, Bieber strutted down a catwalk in a potato costume.

Ricardo, a gay “Friends” fan, was also reportedly cut from the Chinese version. His offense appeared to be not only that he was gay, but that he expressed gratitude for the show providing him a sense of belonging. “I was a gay man who wanted to have hair like Jennifer Aniston, so you can imagine how lonely I sometimes felt,” he said.

Youku reportedly omitted another scene depicting a lesbian who said, “like every Chandler, I found my Monica.”

Youku also left out a scene where Joey, played by Matt LeBlanc, opened his bathrobe to reveal he was only wearing his underwear with a photo of Ross stuck to the front. Maybe instead of censoring the image, Youku should just be thankful he wasn’t going “commando.”

The Chinese streaming services tend to overshoot censorship instead of deal with potential repercussions from content that might be considered politically sensitive. Some rely on in-house teams to slash possibly offensive content and others outsource the task to third-party firms.

The original HBO Max episode ran 1:43:50. iQiyi’s originally released version was 1:37:34, Tencent’s was 1:39:23 and Youku’s was 1:40:16, according to Variety.  However, about eight hours after the initial release, the latter two networks didn’t appear to want to be outdone by iQiyi’s oppressive censorship and made further cuts to their versions so they were in line with the iQiyi version

Censorship of generally benign topics is not new for China. In 2017, China banned the cuddly Winnie the Pooh for having a resemblance to the pudgy Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Ashley Hill

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