WHERE VIEWERS FILL IN THE GAPS
Disappearances of scenes make them feel duped and guessing
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.