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‘Friends’ fans in China complain of censorship after LGBTQ plotline axed

“The edit-out is so over the top, and I will not watch it anymore,” said Benjamin Zhao, 22, a student in Hong Kong.
The hugely popular sitcom has become the latest victim of a censorship campaign on Chinese streaming platforms.NBC Universal / via Getty Images

HONG KONG — Chinese fans of the TV sitcom “Friends” are complaining of censorship after noticing changes in a version of the show newly released in mainland China, including the removal of an LGBTQ storyline. 

Most noticeably, they said, the show is missing scenes and dialogue that refer to the sexuality of Ross’s ex-wife, Carol, who is a lesbian. In the show’s first episodes, Ross learns that Carol is pregnant and that she plans to raise the child with her female partner, Susan. 

“Friends” has a huge following in China, where it has informed several generations’ understanding of the United States and helped many learn English. The first season of the show, which aired on NBC for 10 seasons from 1994 to 2004, was re-released last Friday by major Chinese streaming platforms including Tencent, Baidu’s iQiyi, Alibaba’s Youku and Bilibili. 

Fans complained that some subtitles had been changed to avoid sexual innuendo, and that the cuts had in some cases made the plot incoherent.

Scenes from Friends that included Ross’s ex-wife Carol, right, were removed. NBC Universal / via Getty Images

“The edit-out is so over the top, and I will not watch it anymore,” said Benjamin Zhao, 22, a student in Hong Kong.

By Friday night, the hashtag #FriendsCensored was a top trending topic on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. In a comment on Weibo that earned thousands of likes, one user said that if censors were going to make such drastic edits, “there is no reason to broadcast the show domestically.”

The backlash also appears to have been censored, however, with the hashtag now removed from search results.

Some fans said viewers should boycott the censored version of the show, sharing pirated copies including from Sohu Video, which was the first platform in China to obtain a broadcast license for “Friends” and aired it unedited from 2012 to 2018.

Tencent and iQiyi did not answer phone calls. Representatives for Youku and Bilibili could not be reached for comment.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has increased censorship of both domestic and foreign entertainment. In 2016, the broadcast regulator issued guidelines prohibiting “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content” on screen, which it said included homosexuality, adultery, smoking, drinking and sexually suggestive clothing. Rules were further tightened last year, with officials announcing a ban on “effeminate” men.

Although younger Chinese are generally more socially liberal, China has a long history of cultural conservatism, and sexual content is still frowned upon by the government. Some “Friends” fans like Xiang Siyu, 24, say the show provided an outlet they couldn’t find elsewhere.

“The show meant a lot to me when I first affirmed my sexual identity as a lesbian,” said Xiang, a part-time teacher in Jiangsu Province who has watched “Friends” since 2011. “The storyline of Carol and Susan worked as an encyclopedia to me when information about LGBTQ was not that available on China’s internet. They made me realize that my sexual orientation is not weird.”

Although homosexuality is not a crime in China, members of the LGBTQ community say they are facing greater restrictions and censorship. Dozens of groups have been shut down on WeChat, a popular messaging platform, and events like Shanghai Pride are no longer held. In November, a major LGBTQ advocacy group in China said it was suspending all activities.

Xiang said the burial of Carol’s sexual identity on “Friends” is a missed opportunity to promote understanding and tolerance.

“For a normal viewer, it may not matter that a lesbian character was removed as she is not the main character,” she said. “But I think by setting up a lesbian character who has connections with main characters, ‘Friends’ wants to tell us that such people do exist around us. And she might just be one of your acquaintances.”

This was not the first time the show has run into Chinese censorship. When a “Friends” reunion special was streamed on Chinese platforms last May, it was missing scenes featuring Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and the South Korean boy band BTS, all of whom have crossed Chinese authorities.

Last month, Tencent Video uploaded a version of the 1999 film “Fight Club” that changed the ending to show police foiling the protagonist’s anarchist plot, although the original ending was later restored.