There is a fascinating article in The New York Times that explores the increasing level of coordination between Hollywood studios and Chinese censors. The studios – like all other industries – want access to China’s vast population, which has newfound disposable income and a greater desire for Western entertainment and material goods. But the Chinese government rigidly filters what elements make their way into theaters, generally censoring extreme sex scenes, religious criticism, and lukewarm sentiments about China itself. These limitations are unsurprising, given the government’s ban on pornography, wariness of religion, and repressive maintenance of a positive national image.
But what makes the cooperation between Hollywood and Beijing both interesting and concerning is not only the censorship of content – which is to say, simple omission of a scene or line of dialogue – but of the degree of creative input which studios now give to Chinese censors. The article notes that Disney’s Ironman 3 “proceeded under the watchful eye of Chinese bureaucrats, who were invited to the set and asked to advise on creative decisions.” The result, then, is movies that are actively, texturally shaped by the political and social mores of the Chinese government.
Hollywood, like Detroit or Silicon Valley, has begun to tailor its offerings to a newly consumption-oriented Chinese public. But where Buick has a design studio in Shanghai and Apple’s iPhone 5 is compatible with China Unicom, Disney’s alterations to the substance of its films threaten to reduce whatever artistic, social and political import they might otherwise have – a cost far greater than a redesigned LaCrosse or an Asia-friendly SIM slot.
The collusion, however begrudgingly necessary, between Hollywood and Beijing immediately brings to mind the Hays Code (1930-1968), the film studios’ self-imposed limitations on depictions of violence, sexuality, profanity and crime. The limitations declawed many of Hollywood’s offerings, considerably reducing the films’ entertainment value, and more importantly, social effects. Consider clauses 6 and 10 of the Code, which prohibited interracial sexual relationships, and “ridicule of the clergy.” And if the eventual violence in Bonnie & Clyde and sexuality in The Graduate could only come at the twilight of the Code, so too was the racial progressivism in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner delayed until the Code’s penultimate year, 1967. One is left to wonder what messages of democracy or criticism or openness are left left unsaid in China.
It’s easy to criticize Hollywood for its sacrifice of artistry and effect for box office sales and government approval. But it is also important to remember that China’s cultural censorship exists alongside its other shortcomings – lack of free speech, filtered internet, a corrupt judicial system, misuse of eminent domain, currency manipulation, industrial barriers to entry, and so on. It’s no wonder, then, that since Disney couldn’t beat ’em, it joined ’em.
And after all, Jake, it’s Chinatown.