Numlock Sunday: Mandy Zou on censored television
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Mandy Zou, who wrote The Big [CENSORED] Theory for The Pudding. Here's what I wrote about it:
When the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory was released in China, it was lousy with plot holes and cut jokes. A new analysis of the first 100 episodes of the show released after state censorship on Youku found that 77 episodes had at least one edit, with the overall number of cuts hitting 206 removed scenes accounting for about an hour of content on the censors’ cutting room floor. Of those, scenes involving the topic of sexuality accounted for 139 of the cuts and 43.1 minutes. Again, this is a TV-14 show that ran on CBS, so we’re talking mild stuff at best. The remainder of the cut stuff either alluded to the existence of LGBT people, or are scenes that mentioned North Korea, China or Russia.
This is such a cool story, it involved a ton of assiduous legwork, and as a result we’re able to get a one-of-a-kind look into what’s actually on the minds of censors. It’s a super innovative story and it’s really visually striking as well.
You can follow her on Twitter.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You wrote a really excellent story for the site The Pudding. You watched a hundred episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and you did this to figure out something about how China censors different stories. Do you want to just back out and tell me a little bit about what got you interested in this topic?
I have always been a big fan of The Big Bang Theory because that's the first American show that I've ever watched, and I'm a sitcom fan. It's just my go-to show whenever I feel super stressed out, and I constantly feel stressed out. That's why I ended up with watching this show just over and over again. And earlier this year, I found that on Youku, it's an Alibaba-backed Chinese video streaming platform, I find that Youku has run the show there. I have their paid membership, so I go to Youku and start watching the show.
I cannot help myself in noticing some weird jumps and cuts on the show. I don't want to be paranoid or crazy about my hypothesis, so I sit down, I think I watch the first season of the show side by side with the original version. I watched the show, I took some notes, I made a spreadsheet. By that time I was like, "Okay, there are some things that have been cut out," and I figured that I can categorize it and it will become a very great data piece. I have been a data journalist in China for about five years, so this is kind of like my instinct. I just put up a pitch and sent to The Pudding, so that's how this piece began.
It's so funny how you just found it, and I really loved how assiduous you were tracking down what changed. And so can you tell me about what that process was like? What was the process like of reporting out of the story?
Basically it's a very stupid method. I don't use anything like AI, the fancy text stuff, just on my laptop, I put the Youku version of the TV on one side and I got the original version of the video on the other side. I hit the button at the same time so that they can play simultaneously so that I could know where is the difference, and when I see a difference, I will just stop the clip and then I will take down what's the line that has been cut out. Like, what's the time stamp of the video, and who is the character who says something. Then I will categorize all this different content into different categorizations. First, sexual content, anything that's explicit with body parts, or just the verb “have sex” or something like “cell,” “sperm,” those kinds of things.
Then LGBTQ content, like if anyone said “gay” or “lesbian,” this kind of thing. Then some political related, anything related to China or North Korea or Russia, this kind of thing. I just go through every clip and try to categorize them. After this process, after I compiled all the data, Rob helped me check if every categorization is reasonable. We talked about what would be a better name for this type of content, if a better categorization fits for this content, this kind of conversation.
Let's talk a little bit about some of the categories because I think we do want to say before we get into this, the show aired on CBS. It's not graphic, right? It is just, when you mentioned sexual content and whatnot, these are just perhaps an off-color joke. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you found?
Yeah. Yes. I'm glad that you mentioned that because this show, for me it's just so healthy. I watched the show in high school when the show first was exported to China. At that time the show was uncensored, and I noticed there's some sexual content because I think this might be a cultural difference where Chinese culture is more conservative than American culture. I think there's some culture difference there, but overall the show, it's very minor-friendly, but still I find that there are 206 things that were removed. That's spread out in 77 episodes out of the first 100 episodes that I watched. Those things amounted to about over an hour in time length. And that would be about three episodes of The Big Bang Theory, because I think every episode would be like 21 minutes-ish. That's the amount of content that has been cut out.
The sexual content category is the type that gets cut out the most. I'm not sure if you're familiar with The Big Bang Theory, but there's a character called Howard. His lines just get cut out a lot because he's the kind of character that likes to joke about sexual things. He's the one that got cut out the most.
But also the LGBTQ category is the second-most cut type of things that are being removed. Anything that's slightly related to the LGBTQ content gets removed. There's one fascinating clip. It's about the character Sheldon. He's looking, he's reading children's books in the bookstore and he's like murmuring, "Oh, I think the rabbit has two dads." This kind of content gets cut out. I was like, "What? This is very cute?" Just like, a character murmuring, but no, anything related to LGBTQ or unusual relationships just gets cut out right away.
I want point that out, because sometimes I notice that there is some sexual content that still gets left in show and not strictly cut out, but the LGBTQ is strictly cut out. That has something to do with the Chinese government trying to convey the message like, you have to be married as a straight couple.
The third type of content is any disrespectful jokes about China or an ally like North Korea or Russia, anything related to that. Even though there are some jokes that I think are not that harmful, they also get removed. There's one example, they were talking about how a Chinese restaurant in California might have replaced the meat with something else. That's also getting cut out. I don't really understand why, because I feel like it's just one specific Chinese restaurant. It doesn't really mean that all Chinese restaurants are bad or something.
But another thing that's very interesting to me is after the piece published, there's very heated discussion on Hacker News; people were discussing what kind of joke they think is harmful or what kind of joke they think harmless. Some readers think that the Chinese restaurant joke was offensive. I guess that just varies from people to people.
It's interesting because it's again, you mentioned that some of it is really unambiguous, that they are really pretty much black and white when it comes to censoring LGBTQ content. But there can be a tasteless joke about a restaurant and it's a maybe case if it would be censored.
You alluded to some other shows on the app, Youku, that had more substantial scenes of sex and sexuality than The Big Bang Theory did.
I just noticed that in some domestic-produced shows, it would have some things said more sexual than in The Big Bang Theory, but those stay in the live show. I just noticed that there's a difference between the treatment to this American TV show and the domestic-produced TV shows. I don't know why, I have looked at the policies by China's National Radio and Television Administration; the review rules for international shows or domestic shows are basically the same in what kind of content they cannot show in the episodes.
They're basically the same, but I can see how the streaming websites treat them differently. I guess that is because those companies don't want to take a risk, and American TV shows or British TV shows might be the ones that get more censored than others because they just don't want to get into this rabbit hole of reviewing. They don't want to have to send the piece to the regulators again and again to win the approval. They just want to say, "Hey, we're going to cut this out and save us the trouble and we can run the show immediately."
I do love how you approached it from a position of, "I'm not really interested specifically what the reasoning was, but here's just precisely what they cut." It is just kind of remarkable how you're able to get inside the head of a censor from a very database perspective.
Yeah. I think it's very interesting because there are a lot of discussions, even in China, about the censorship. The censorship just everywhere. It's in online comments, it's in TV shows, in movies. It's even in, when people sing some songs on TV, they have to change the lyrics because of the censorship. We have been, on the Chinese internet, we have been talking about this issue for a long time, but I feel like The Big Bang Theory would be a very good example to demonstrate that content censorship.
Yeah. It's a really excellent story. Just wrapping things up, looking back on the project, what do you think was the most surprising thing that you found?
The most surprising thing? I feel like how sensitive they can be toward some content that's not that harmful or offensive to me, but they're like, they cut those out. Especially, I think they are very restricted towards LGBTQ content. In part because there's literally no real gay or lesbian couple in The Big Bang Theory, at least in the first 100 episode that I watched. I feel like they might be going way too far for that. It's very strange, in the way that I understand why the Chinese government is super strict about this, but on the other hand, I feel like if you cannot allow even a little joke or mention gay or lesbian on TV? They just showcase how far the censorship can go.
Where can folks find you? Where can folks follow your work?
Thank you. Well, I'm currently in graduate school. I was hoping that I can come up more from data stuff, I'm not majoring in journalism anymore. I'm majoring in Computational Social Science. I guess it might help me to have more ideas about how to look into society with data.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.