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SEXtember: Why censorship in Asian countries can be damaging

Stevi Lee

Thu Sep 29 2016


WHAT effect does film and adveritisng censorship have on Southeast Asian perspectives on sex, sexuality and gender? Stevi Lee discusses. 

You’re watching a film and it quickly gets to the raunchy stuff. The couple on screen are passionately kissing and things are about to get hot and steamy and then… nothing. Suddenly, it’s the morning after and someone’s in the kitchen making breakfast, a total contrast of what happened just seconds ago and you’re left thinking, “What just happened?”

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve likely experienced censorship in Asian cinema. Southeast Asian cinema in particular has been well-known for its high level of censorship which extends to all levels of film distribution, production and exhibition.

There have been many cases in Southeast Asian countries where scenes have been cut completely due to its perceived message of “immorality”. Cut scenes that censors may consider “immoral” most often include sex scenes but can even sometimes include kissing scenes.

In denying audiences these types of scenes however, what kind of effect might the censors have on these Asian societies?

Emmelyn Vincent, a Malaysian international student argues censorship has created a culture of misinformation around sex.

“[Censorship] creates the impression that [sex is] something restricted and shameful, something that only happens in the underbelly of society,” Emmelyn said.

Though censorship exists to protect the moralities of its people, it can also be argued that limiting what people can do and see in this day and age is futile. With the internet, information about anything, including sex, can be found and original cuts of censored films could easily be pirated. While the internet is certainly a powerful resource for those who want to know more about sex, this too can cause problems, as Singaporean student Sarah How explains.

“If one is just learning about sex through the Internet, which would most likely be through porn, there would be detrimental problems,” she added. “Without proper sex education, boys and girls would expect sex to be the way it is portrayed in porn.”

By skirting around the issue, censorship only creates further curiosity in viewers and alters their perspectives on what sex is or what it should look like once they begin looking elsewhere. Of course, that isn’t to say that all sex in films are faithful depictions of the act — they aren’t mostly — but denying audiences these scenes does reinforce a very negative attitude around sex.

So why do it at all? In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia where the majority of its population are of faith, one can argue that these cuts are made to uphold those religious beliefs and to, again, protect the moralities of its people. But censorship also goes beyond cutting out sex scenes in films.

In a more recent example, not long after the premiere of the Marvel comic book blockbuster Suicide Squad, advertisements for the film spotted at a train station in Malaysia depicted one of the anti-heroes, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, with a digitally altered knee-length skirt. In the film, she sports a pair of booty shorts. In the same billboard, Katana — played by actress Karen Fukuhara — has her midriff covered as well.

So if women are not allowed to be seen wearing short pants, and the images are being censored and edited by the Censorship Board, what then does it say about the society that we live in? Does covering women up in public objectify them even more?

It is therefore important to consider what role governments and censorship bodies are really playing. Are they really protecting their people or do their actions harbour even more misinformation around sex, sexuality and gender?

Emmelyn perhaps puts it best. “Making it a taboo topic only spreads more ignorance on ways to be safe.”