Dis­ap­pear­ances of scenes make them feel duped and guess­ing

New Straits Times - - World -

NO­BODY told me that the for­mat of The Ellen

DeGeneres Show had changed, so imag­ine my sur­prise one re­cent af­ter­noon when the cred­its ap­peared af­ter only 30 min­utes of danc­ing and funny videos. I dis­cov­ered later that the sec­ond half of this episode fea­tured two seg­ments with celebrity guests that did not sur­vive the Sin­ga­pore cen­sors’ scru­tiny: Jane Fonda wield­ing a vi­bra­tor and Asia Kate Dil­lon dis­cussing her non-bi­nary gen­der iden­tity, both con­sid­ered too taboo for day­time tele­vi­sion here.

The feel­ing of be­ing duped was fa­mil­iar; dur­ing my child­hood, dis­ap­pear­ances of en­tire scenes were dis­cussed with quiet out­rage. Ru­mour had it that Ross’s ex-wife mar­ried her girl­friend in an episode of Friends that didn’t air here.

It took a for­eign ex­change stu­dent’s re-en­act­ment of the best scene in When Harry Met Sally for us to un­der­stand why it was ex­cised from lo­cal screen­ings. We grum­bled and moved on. Gaps in sto­ry­lines were facts of life in a coun­try where au­thor­i­ties be­lieved “un­de­sir­able con­tent” could cor­rode con­ser­va­tive Asian val­ues.

If cen­sor­ship was per­va­sive, our cu­rios­ity and re­source­ful­ness were re­li­able an­ti­dotes. In pri­mary school, an epi­demic swept the play­ground in the form of Judy Blume nov­els and pil­fered copies of our moth­ers’ mag­a­zines, dog-eared to the dirty scenes and sex ad­vice col­umns. We passed our con­tra­band from desk to desk and scram­bled for our turn to stand on the school bus seats to read the raunchi­est pas­sages aloud.

From these ses­sions, I learnt that kiss­ing was part of some larger strat­egy called fore­play, and women could be on top dur­ing sex. What sex was, I wasn’t sure, but even­tu­ally an older girl ex­plained the tech­ni­cal­i­ties. It was the fi­nal piece of the puz­zle, but that’s all it was — a piece. Nov­els added lay­ers of com­plex­ity, ren­der­ing the plain facts al­most ir­rel­e­vant. Lush de­scrip­tions filled the gaps in our imag­i­na­tion where our knowl­edge of me­chan­ics fell short.

I was start­ing to be­come a writer then. I had a folder of sto­ries, mostly con­tin­u­a­tions of tele­vi­sion episodes (there was a lot of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air fan fic­tion in my early ca­reer). While do­ing my home­work one evening, I had an idea: If ro­mance sto­ries were in such high de­mand, then I should write my own to dis­trib­ute to my friends! In­spired by scenes from an om­nibus pub­lished by that favourite of bo­som-heavers, Mills & Boon, I found a fresh piece of paper and be­gan.

My tales of cou­ples “tus­sling be­tween the sheets” en­joyed an en­thu­si­as­tic fol­low­ing, which lasted about a week, un­til the sto­ries landed in the hands of the class tat­tle­tale. I no­ticed her whis­per­ing to the teacher and nod­ding in my di­rec­tion as we lined up to go out­side for phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

“Leave your bags here to­day, girls,” the teacher called out. Her gaze flashed briefly in my di­rec­tion. Through­out a course of jumping jacks and sit-ups, the knot in my stom­ach tight­ened. When we re­turned to class, I made a bee­line for my bag. The folder was gone.

In my trav­els as an adult, I’ve come across clum­sier forms of cen­sor­ship. On some Turk­ish chan­nels, an an­i­mated flower re­places cigars. (Let me con­firm here that Don Cor­leone cuts a much less in­tim­i­dat­ing fig­ure when ad­dress­ing his men with a car­toon daisy be­tween his fin­gers.) I watched an episode of The Simp­sons in Thai­land in which Homer got drunk on a can of pix­els, pre­vi­ously a Duff beer. Per­haps the most labour-in­ten­sive cen­sor­ship was in Saudi Ara­bia, where I came across print ads of women whose ev­ery inch of bare skin was cov­ered up by scrawled black marker.

As ridicu­lous as they are, I won­der if I’d pre­fer such crude mod­i­fi­ca­tions to Sin­ga­pore’s slick sur­gi­cal cuts. At least, when you see a black bar strik­ing out gen­i­talia in a Judd Apa­tow com­edy or a blurred bag of weed on a cop show, you know what’s be­hind the mys­tery door.

The scalpel used to slice out scenes from my TV shows in Sin­ga­pore is more vi­cious in its pre­ci­sion. It was the same tool that em­pow­ered my teacher to re­move the sto­ries from my bag and never re­turn them to me or ex­plain why they were taken in the first place.

Would I be sat­is­fied if Fonda’s vi­bra­tor was shown but pix­e­lated, or if Dil­lon’s voice was muted as she ques­tioned gen­der norms? Of course not. But at least I’d know what I was miss­ing.

The cen­sor­ship I’ve grown up with is more in­sid­i­ous, and un­set­tling. In 1992, it made a girl bury her love for sto­ries in a se­cret, shame-filled space for years be­fore she de­cided to write again.

In 2017, it leaves a woman puz­zled as the cred­its roll be­fore she re­alises that there are still things she is not sup­posed to know. NYT


In Sin­ga­pore, gaps in sto­ry­lines of TV shows and movies are facts of life as au­thor­i­ties be­lieve un­de­sir­able con­tent can cor­rode con­ser­va­tive Asian val­ues.

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