Paramount Pictures announced a new partnership with two Chinese firms worth a reported $1 billion on Friday. The deal demonstrates Hollywood’s continued efforts to make profitable films for both domestic and Chinese viewers, as China represents the second largest movie market on the planet.
It also means China just bought an even larger say in how the world is depicted in American films.
Whereas America utilizes a film rating system in the form of the MPAA (an honestly discriminatory and broken system, but one that isn’t state owned) China utilizes government censors to determine what films are suitable to be shown in theaters across their nation. Chinese officials can ban a film for any number of reasons, but prominent among them, is if they don’t like the way China is being depicted in the story. Studios have long been aware of this, and it’s already started to shape the films we watch.
“Iron Man 3” was meant to introduce one of Iron Man’s greatest foes: the Mandarin, but concerns about Chinese censors resulted in the studio choosing Sir Ben Kingsley to play the traditionally Chinese villain, and significant re-writes regarding the character itself (I’ll spare you the spoilers, but comic book nerds know what I’m talking about).
The 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” was actually filmed in its entirety using China as the movie’s primary antagonist, but when it became apparent that the Chinese government wouldn’t permit the movie to be released within their borders, the studios went back and digitally altered every flag to add North Korean insignias, and used voice overs to change any references to China.
“Pixels,” a movie both Adam Sandler and I would like to forget, was originally scripted to include a scene that destroyed the Great Wall of China, but again, issues with Chinese censors led to the scene being omitted. The Chinese government saw the scene as depicting China as week, despite numerous other landmarks in other nations being destroyed throughout the film.
Most recently, Marvels’ “Doctor Strange” forced the studio to take yet another large departure from Marvel’s source material by moving the location of Strange’s spiritual training from Tibet to Nepal. Marvel did not want to incite China’s censors to block the film due to questions regarding the sovereignty of Tibet – they also cast a white woman as the traditionally Tibetan character of “The Ancient One,” prompting a backlash among many in the Asian community for “white-washing” the film.
These examples, though far from exhaustive, demonstrate Hollywood’s fear of Chinese censors preventing movies from reaching their markets, but I can imagine that many of you might be thinking, “so what?” None of the changes were particularly dramatic and one could argue that China has every right to exercise any influence they can on the films they permit to be released within their markets… but my background is in studying mass communications, and I can assure you that American culture will inevitably be effected by the forcefully positive depictions of China we’ll see in the films Hollywood produces.
“Prove it,” I can hear you shouting at your computer screen (probably) – so allow me to give you a few examples of things we see as simply inherent to American or Western culture that you may not realize were actually the products of marketing and popular culture.
Most women in the United States devote a fair amount of time and effort to removing body hair, but a good number of us may be surprised to learn that shaving your legs and arm pits wasn’t a real sticking point for Americans until after World War I. The fashion of the day simply didn’t call for much of the female anatomy to be exposed to the public, so women weren’t particularly concerned with how hairy their hidden parts remained – that is, until advertisements started surfacing in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, depicting models with hairless armpits. Suddenly it was all the rage, and the stars of the time embraced it as a means to accentuate their femininity… fast forward a few decades, and we all simply accept it as a part of life.
You know how you simply cannot get engaged without picking out the right diamond ring for your spouse to be? Yup, pop culture got you again. Up until the 1930s, the idea of exchanging a diamond to represent your impending marriage wasn’t a common one at all. But a few decades prior, South Africa–based cartel, De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. (now De Beers) discovered a giant diamond mine. In 1938, Harry Oppenheimer, the De Beers founder’s son, hired a New York–based ad agency called N.W. Ayer to promote the use of diamonds in engagement rings in every way that he could: including integrated advertising in popular culture.
The world we live in is directly shaped by the culture we consume, and that’s far from a contemporary issue. The color blue was never referenced in ancient writings we’re aware of. In “The Odyssey,” Homer refers to the color of sea as “wine-dark.” Why? Because blue hadn’t been invented yet. The was no word for the color in ancient Greek, Chinese, Japanese or Hebrew. This has prompted a debate among scientists and scholars as to whether or not our ancestors even saw blue – if their perception of the world was so intrinsically tied to language that their brains simply made the ocean appear to be the color of wine, because it’s what our highly-advanced monkey brains could make sense of.
I have a bit of trouble wrapping my own monkey brain around the concept, but as I’ve said here before, I’m rarely the smartest guy in the room.
So what does this tell us about China’s influence on the movie industry? To be succinct, it means we’ll likely see a new generation of Americans that think of China as much cleaner, fairer in rule, militarily powerful and all around good guys in the future. Even those of us old enough to spot propaganda when we see it rarely consider how a passing shot of Shanghai rooftops could affect how we think of China, but that didn’t stop Chinese investors from forcing Mission Impossible 3 to change just such a scene because it clearly showed people using clothes lines to dry their clothes in the city. Is it accurate that most Chinese families don’t have access to washers and dryers even in their skyscraper homes? Yes. Is China willing to allow that to be shown in an American film? No. And that concerns me.
As China invests billions into defense, growing their military and the influence it expends in the South China Sea and elsewhere, Chinese investments are also working to shape the way we think of their nation. From an academic standpoint, I have to applaud their tenaciousness. From an American perspective… I have to worry. Especially when they throw a billion dollars toward producing the movies that are already influenced by Chinese censors.
So when our culture had no word for blue, we may not have actually been able to see it as it was, even right in front of our faces… I ask, if we’re no longer able to control how we depict China in one of our largest pop-culture arenas, will we see China coming as it will be, even when it’s right in front of ours?
Image courtesy of Marvel Studios
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