This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
In 2016, Cartoon Network UK drew criticism for censoring an episode of Steven Universe, a popular American children’s series about a young boy and his family of alien women protecting the world with kindness (and, occasionally, punching). A scene that depicted a romantic connection between two characters who are women was edited to downplay the relationship—a surprising move for a show noted for its LGBTQ themes, and whose characters are largely Gems, an alien race, who are also functionally queer women. The series’ fans were not pleased; a Change.org petition to end the censorship got 9,738 signatures.
In a comment to PinkNews, Cartoon Network UK cited a rule that all content aired must be suitable for all ages: “The U.S. broadcast system requires that shows are marked with a rating—in this case PG (parental guidance necessary). In the UK, we have to ensure everything on air is suitable for kids of any age at any time. We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents.”
The nature of what it means to be a “local” kid these days is itself up for debate. In 2019, global media production is more interconnected than it has ever been. In particular, the rise of streaming makes it possible to access more and more international film and television. Gone are the days when only certain movies selected by studios and distributors would reach people on other shores, or when a show had to be successful enough in its own country to get international syndication. When everything eventually makes its way to an online platform, does it even matter where and how it’s available first?
Consider the argument made by Cartoon Network UK: Like the supposed universality of media access, the “suitable for all ages” judgment is easily abstracted to allow the position of the individual censor to stand in for any possible viewers, away from both children and the “local” families who are supposed to be protected in the first place. The Steven Universe case highlights the way that such a phrase is, ultimately, a subjective standard that is often used to mean “free from LGBTQ content” specifically.
Svetlana Mintcheva, the director of programs for the National Coalition Against Censorship, said this phenomenon is related to censorship within schools: “Very subjective claims of something being age appropriate or not age appropriate are covered to invoke some parents’ views about what their religious or other beliefs tell them is right to teach kids.” As she put it, “Some parents don’t want their kids to learn about homosexuality. And they’re using this sort of age-appropriateness standard, which is exceedingly vague.”
Concern about international depictions of LGBTQ characters on American series has dogged children’s entertainment for years. In 2014, Olivia Olson, the voice actor who played the character Marceline on the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, recounted a conversation in which the show’s creator Pendleton Ward explained why the series hadn’t cemented the long-rumored relationship between Marceline and the character Princess Bubblegum. As Olson put it, “In some countries where the show airs, that sort of thing is illegal. So that’s why they’re not putting it in the show.” To be fair, progress was made on that front: By the time the series finale aired in 2018, the romantic connection was made explicit with a kiss, though according to anecdotal reports from fans, the kiss was still censored in several countries.
Adventure Time may have made strides in depicting queer relationships, but there are still geographic regions where depictions of those relationships are made inaccessible to children today, even in the United States. Earlier this year, Alabama Public Television (APT) used the “suitable for all ages” excuse to justify its decision to not air an episode of the long-running children’s show Arthur in which Arthur’s teacher Mr. Rathbone marries his male partner. In an email to AL.com, APT’s director of programming Mike Mckenzie argued that the choice was made because “parents trust that their children can watch APT without their supervision.”
The nebulous nature of the “suitable for all ages” standard forms the basis for the world’s largest, most consequential censorship regime, in China: All films screened in the country have to be “suitable for all ages,” including Western films imported for Chinese release. This law has only recently been relaxed, allowing certain movies to premiere with a warning about content that may not be suitable for children—first the superhero western Logan, then the sci-fi thriller Annihilation—though even Logan was still censored before release. And again, “suitable for all ages” means the excision of LGBTQ content: the decision to make Hikaru Sulu gay in the movie Star Trek Beyond was substantially watered down, while the Chinese release of Bohemian Rhapsody excluded all references to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality.
The nebulous nature of the “suitable for all ages” standard forms the basis for the world’s largest, most consequential censorship regime, in China: All films screened in the country have to be “suitable for all ages,” including Western films imported for Chinese release.
According to Aynne Kokas, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, who has studied the Chinese media market extensively and published a book, Hollywood Made in China, about the subject, Bohemian Rhapsody “was censored under the guise of [upholding] general social norms,” though she also notes that nearly all sexual content is eliminated from films screened in China. The censorship of Bohemian Rhapsody caused what Kokas described as a “huge uproar” in China, angering some moviegoers.
Chinese regulation has an outsize, often-hidden impact on the current state of popular cinema: The massive Chinese audience, which may soon overtake America as the world’s largest movie market, creates a particular incentive structure for studios, one in which the biggest blockbusters are engineered to get through the censorship regime. As Kokas puts it, “The organizing principle is how to get the biggest potential box office. So that means animated films and superhero films are the central fare that gets exported.” It makes sense then that Marvel movies are subtly tweaked to appeal to both Chinese censors and audiences: Tony Stark’s character uses a Chinese cell phone brand in Captain America: Civil War, the Chinese actress Fan Bingbing was added to Iron Man 3, while the Chinese villain the Mandarin, long depicted in an almost comically racist manner, was made a Western actor, and the Tibetan character the Ancient One was rewritten as Celtic. These recasting decisions in part appeal to the changing sensibility of Western audiences, but helping the movies get through Chinese censors is, at the very least, a bonus.
Who actually establishes these invisible borders? For the most part, according to Mintcheva, it’s the production companies and studios themselves, who make internal edits and offer versions of their material they hope (or guess) will be approved by various international censors and regulatory agencies. Sometimes this entails conjecture; often it means conversations between studios and regulators before a film’s release or international distribution. An early version of 2018’s Red Sparrow was run by UK regulators, who informed the studio it would likely receive an 18 rating (roughly equivalent to an R in America). The movie was edited to partially defang a scene of what the British Board of Film Classification termed “sadistic violence” in order to get a 15 rating with a broader audience.
Often, the approximate nature of regulatory decisions means that rules are imposed by assumption, calcifying into “guidelines” as everyone forgets to ask what they can and cannot do. In some respects, the rise in LGBTQ characters in children’s TV comes from testing these limits, as in the case of Avatar: Legend of Korra, which ended with its protagonist in an implied relationship with a woman. Bryan Konietzko, one of the series’ cocreators, described the process of making the character queer in a post-finale Tumblr post: “How do I know we can’t openly depict that? No one ever explicitly said so. It was just another assumption based on a paradigm that marginalizes non-heterosexual people.” Still, there was, according to Konietzko, a “limit” to what they could do, which ended up being the characters holding hands and walking into a portal.
Where do viewers go to bypass the censorship regimes of their home countries? They go to streaming services, which generally speaking are far less restricted. Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes that all of Netflix’s branded Originals are available worldwide—for example, Queer Eye in Saudi Arabia. Still, Saudi Arabia is behind one of the few instances of Netflix removing its content: The government made what Netflix deemed a “valid legal request” to take down an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act that focused on the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a crime widely believed to have been ordered by the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Even for globally available streaming services, borders and licensing agreements still establish what movies and TV people can and can’t watch, and in what form, including cases where the provider is a single company. The series Star Trek: Discovery streams on Netflix in most of the world, but is only available on CBS’ All Access streaming platform in the U.S. and Canada. (The Netflix licensing deal reportedly paid for the CBS show’s budget.) To use one particularly bizarre example, Zoolander: Super Model, an animated film based on the 2001 comedy Zoolander, was released exclusively on Netflix UK. American Zoolander completists are, tragically, out of luck.
Still, even as the lines determining who watches what have become less visible, access has broadened. “I talk so negatively about the internet most of the time, it’s almost hard to find the positivity. But I lived in Morocco in the mid 2000s, and there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t have any access to,” York recalled. “Ten, 15 years later, everyone in the world has access—with a handful of exceptions.”
And for people who work on broadening access to material, the differing levels of availability in various territories isn’t a huge issue. Worst-case scenario, most consumers with an internet connection can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which allows them to access the internet from a server located in a country where the content is legally available. (Viewers without any idea of what a VPN is or how to use one are, unfortunately, out of luck.) Functionally, it’s as if they’re logged on in a different part of the world.
From a bird’s-eye view, VPNs are not that interesting, just a useful tool. Still, there’s something disorienting about working through a VPN, a service that essentially makes it so that an American in New York is, in a sense, accessing a streaming service through the United Kingdom or Germany. Whatever barriers remain, York said, “With a VPN, a little bit of knowledge, and a little bit of cash, anyone can get around that.” Well, as long as you can still pretend you’re somewhere else.
If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.