Talk about a tale as old as time! Censorship is certainly nothing new, and though many societies have made enormous progress in this arena, efforts to ban books, films, and works of art still take place today.
The most recent victim of censorship run amok is the latest studio release from Walt Disney, which the owners of one small-town cinema in the US refused to show. However, these rural Alabama theatre owners weren’t the only ones throwing a tantrum over Disney’s live-action remake of the classic animated film Beauty and the Beast. The inclusion of a gay character with what director Bill Condon hinted would be a “nice exclusively gay moment” in the film also had the Malaysian Censorship Board up in arms. Curiously enough, the film’s explicit theme of bestiality seems to be perfectly okay with everyone. But two men dancing? Well, that was apparently just too much for some to tolerate, including the fine folks on the Malaysian Censorship Board.
Consequently, a back-and-forth tussle erupted between the Censorship Board, the film’s local distributor (Disney Co Malaysia Sdn Bhd), Malaysia’s Home Ministry, and Disney USA. The American entertainment powerhouse flatly refused Malaysia’s demands to cut the ‘offending’ scene, making the decision to forego potentially millions of dollars in ticket sales here in Malaysia in the name of artistic integrity and freedom of speech.
The Censorship Board was unmoved, with Chairman Datuk Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid declaring, “Movie companies cannot impose conditions … we will not budge.”
Yeah… except movie companies can impose one rather meaningful condition: We own the film. Show it without cuts or don’t show it at all. And that’s pretty much the directive Disney USA gave.
And it seems the Censorship Board did budge… with perhaps a bit of persuasion from the Home Ministry’s Film Appeal Committee.
Support in high places
Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz was a particularly vocal supporter of the studio and felt they were well within their rights to deny the screening of Beauty and the Beast with edits. He (and others who screened the film) also noted the so-called ‘gay moment’ was quite innocuous, with Nazri pointing out that had it not been for the controversy caused by the Censorship Board, he wouldn’t have even noticed anything. The gay character in question merely lifts his shirt to reveal a ‘love bite’ on his tummy, and there’s apparently a brief moment in the film’s closing moments of two men dancing together.
Much ado about nothing? It seems so. In the end, all it amounted to was a two-week delay over this ‘moment of gay.’
However, within days of this controversy dying down, the Censorship Board ginned up another one, announcing they were considering banning the upcoming kids’ action movie Power Rangers over a possible lesbian character included in the film – the Yellow Ranger, Trini – who seems to be dealing with her sexuality in one minor scene where another character assumes Trini is having ‘boyfriend problems’ and comes to realise that perhaps she’s actually having ‘girlfriend problems’ instead.
The law of unintended consequences
This scene is apparently what set the Censorship Board on its latest crusade, seemingly not having learned anything from the Beauty and the Beast fiasco. Perhaps the members of the Malaysian Censorship Board should look up the ‘Streisand Effect’ on Wikipedia, which refers to a social phenomenon in which the attempt to hide or censor something has the unintended consequence of drawing far more attention to it. The effect was named after the popular singer-actress Barbra Streisand, who in 2003 sought to suppress photos of her home in Malibu from being publicised and by her efforts, ended up only drawing far more extensive publicity and attention to the photos.
This is precisely what has happened with Beauty and the Beast. In the US, the decision by a small-town theatre to not screen the film drew considerable national media attention and doubtlessly helped propel the movie to staggering box office numbers, setting an all-time March opening weekend record with US$170 million, the seventh-largest domestic opening weekend in American movie history. You can bet a lot of those tickets were sold to viewers curious to see for themselves what all the controversy was about.
It’s likely to be the same here in Malaysia, with people who ordinarily wouldn’t have gone to see the film doing so just to see what all the fuss was about. So to all the hand-wringing cinema owners and Censorship Board members, we’re pretty sure Disney is really grateful to you for all the free publicity you’ve given to their movie.
Artistic integrity wins out
That said, we’re happy to see censorship – particularly over such a trifling scene – defeated and hope for a similar end to the Power Rangers ban attempt. It seems Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri feels likewise, saying at a press conference on Tuesday, “I am really depressed with what’s happening with our Censorship Board. We never appointed the Censorship Board to be our moral guardian.” He added, quite correctly, that in the age of the Internet and widespread file-sharing, such bans would not stop Malaysians from seeing these movies, as they would just watch them online. He also noted that attempts to censor films only serve to draw more attention to scenes that would have otherwise flown largely under the radar. We feel confident Ms Streisand would agree.
Beauty and the Beast opens in Malaysian theatres – in its full and unedited form – on March 30.
UPDATE: The Malaysian Censorship Board officially cleared Power Rangers for unedited release, despite its ‘lesbian’ concerns, it was announced on Wednesday afternoon. The movie will open on Thursday, March 23.