On September 3, Amazon released its highly touted remake of “Cinderella” featuring Billy Porter in the role of a genderless fairy godmother.
In China, a production like this just became illegal.
That’s because the country’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) announced Thursday that it has instituted new measures to keep “effeminate” men off Chinese screens.
Using the term “niang pao” or “girlie guns” — a slur for men who exhibit womanly characteristics — the officials called for “resolutely [putting] an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics” on television. To that end, they introduced an eight-point plan designed to address the kind of entertainment they said is responsible for “severely polluting the social atmosphere” and wielding a bad influence over China’s youth.
One of the key avenues, it appears, regulators are pinpointing for keeping the girlie men off screens is by barring broadcast and TV companies from showing talent competitions and “idol development programs or variety shows.”
The kinds of reality programs that find and establish new boy bands and pop singers are especially popular in China, as TV networks there have sought to copy the British and Korean shows to which young Chinese viewers flock. While the announcement didn’t explicitly reference K-Pop bands, whose members tend toward a slight, androgynous aesthetic, the government blaming effeminate reality performers for “failing to encourage China’s young men to be masculine enough” seems like a direct allusion to groups like BTS and a warning to their Chinese fan base.
The Party also instructed entertainment producers not to cast actors with “lapsed morals” and “incorrect political positions.” Finally, they banned reality shows that feature the children of stars, arguing that these promote an “unhealthy” preoccupation with “vulgar internet celebrities,” as well as admiration of wealth and celebrity.
Those were the “Don’ts.” On the “Do” side of the ledger, regulators want Chinese programming to “vigorously promote excellent Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture, and advanced socialist culture.” And they called on TV and internet trade associations to offer entertainment that focuses more on training and self-discipline.
The move is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s broad effort to realize President Xi Jinping’s plans for “national rejuvenation” by creating a more “patriotic atmosphere” for viewers.
Just last week, this same aim led to thousands of fan groups getting de-platformed from the social media site Weibo. And only a few days ago, the CCP announced it was tightening restrictions of videogame playing — which it has called “spiritual opium” — saying it will now only allow youth to take part in this activity three hours a week.
All of these moves are likely to be sounding alarm bells in Hollywood.
The American movie industry has spent the better part of a decade building bridges to the Chinese market, notoriously shaping productions to pass muster with CCP censors. Those U.S. releases that did make it to the Middle Kingdom faced significant censorship from regulators eager to block the influence of the kind of men they deem “girlie.” For example, the cinema oversight board removed all scenes that explicitly dealt with Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality from the biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
For some years, despite the ire it earned them at home, studio machinations to court China paid off. Big Hollywood blockbusters raked in even bigger earnings thanks to Chinese audiences.
But recently, the tide has begun to turn.
China’s entertainment industry has been experiencing a boom, and in 2020, it overtook the U.S. to officially become the number one movie market in the world.
Flush with this newfound dominance, the CCP has suddenly started reducing the number of American films it allows to play on Chinese screens — going from 22 titles at this time last year to just 13 titles in 2021 so far.
Regulators’ new commitments to patriotic values that have no place for less-masculine men may not prove a problem for Marvel’s past catalogue of Iron Man and Thor movies, which played very well in the Middle Kingdom. But it could pose a problem for Marvel chief Kevin Feige’s commitment to LGBT representation going forward. Already, rumors are swirling that Feige is facing off with Disney executives over their desire to make films China will show and his promise to entertainment media that future MCU films will be more “inclusive.”
This week’s “girlie men” ban demonstrates how quickly the issue is coming to a head.
This isn’t the first time China has officially addressed the concern. Since 2015, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has prohibited any television show and film from depicting “unnormal sexual relationships” like homosexuality. And three years ago, the CCP’s official news agency Xinhua denounced the “bad social consequences” of effeminate male celebrities, saying that to “cultivate a new generation that will shoulder the responsibility of national rejuvenation, we need to resist erosion from indecent culture.”
The unspoken concern that may underlie these attempts at culture control is the falling birthrate that many older generations in China blame on a lack of traditional masculine values among young men.
That culture, and a culture where studios invite LGBT activist groups like GLAAD to consult on scripts in order to ensure gay, lesbian, and trans characters are present in acceptable numbers can’t easily co-exist. The Chinese government’s latest moves will make it that much harder for the kind of entertainment that wins applause in the U.S. to pass muster with CCP censors.
If China isn’t willing to let its own productions put effeminate men on its screens, it’s highly unlikely that it will continue welcoming Hollywood in to do it for them — especially now that the Chinese box office has become the biggest game in town.