Kill This Cluster
And I said hey, what's going on? Numbers are power, and Sense8's Chinese fan base may have been large enough to save the cult TV series from the ratings axe if the show could have been legally broadcast in the Mainland. Anti-homosexual censorship of media is damaging not only the LGBTQ community, but also a potentially massive market for queer film and television.
It was early morning on June 2nd. I opened my eyes, still bleary with sleep, to find the internet broken with the latest sad news of the week. Bloody hell. I wasn’t able to get out of bed. Glancing at me, my roommate blurted after a sigh, “Yep, for real. They cancelled Sense8."
It caught everyone off-guard. The day before, social media was still buzzing with theories and predictions as to where the cluster is going to take us next. And now, all of a sudden, this. It’s sad to see a show with imaginative plot lines not able to reach closure, but what hit us the most was the fact that yet another show with LGBTQIA lead characters had been put on the chopping board. Many of my friends, straight and queer alike, have been hooked on Sense8 since it came out. It was like a holiday when the second season dropped, and we binged our way through it ravenously, and engaged in heated discussion soon after.
Thanks to internet piracy, Chinese audiences were able to experience the diverse world of Sense8 (Netflix is currently blocked by the Great Firewall). In China, we thirst for diverse representations of the LGBTQIA community on screen. With LGBTQ characters exploring their identities within themselves and with each other as its focal point, the Sense8 experience revolutionized the screen for millions of people here.
Weibo, WeChat, Baidu Forum, Douban, Mtime (the Chinese equivalent of IMDB)…Chinese fans swarmed in their thousands to social media to revel in their common obsession with the show. People found belonging in the fanbase, forming a virtual cluster with everyone who watched, as so many people around the world did. People have told me that if Sense8 could have been legally broadcast in China, Netflix probably wouldn’t have cancelled it. The audience base here is huge, and if Netflix had had any idea its reach and popularity in this country, maybe they’d have thought twice about cancelling the show.
One can only dream.
But then, content like Sense8 would never have survived the censor’s scrutiny anyway. The much publicised web media guidelines published recently by the China Netcasting Services Association list homosexuality as an “abnormal sexual behavior,” banning it from the internet alongside incest, sexual abuse and rape. And even before these new guidelines, LGBTQIA content was vulnerable.
Last year, web series Shang Yin (Addicted) received record-high internet traffic, but was quickly taken down. Blockbuster Lie Ri Zhuo Xin (The Dead End), originally written with a homosexual sub-plot, went through rounds and rounds of negotiation with the censorship bureau, and finally made it to the big screen with the sub-plot reduced and altered - the character was only ‘pretending’ to be attracted to men. An editor bought the rights to translate and publish the original novel that inspired the Swedish gay mini-series Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, which was hugely popular among netizens in China, only to be delayed publication date for months, and told that there might not be a second or third one after the first book out of the trilogy finally came out.
Chinese netizens have been quick to fire back at the almost laughable list of CNSA guidelines, with countless articles from various respected sources inside and outside of the LGBTQIA community criticizing its backwardness. But this outburst of anger was gradually silenced as comments and articles started disappearing, one by one. It’s guerrilla warfare. Where a different voice is raised, a shot is fired. LGBTQIA-themed video content, and even some music and audio content, are starting to be removed from the internet. Further to this, we have learned this week that access to personal VPN services will be terminated by next year, shutting one of the last doors to a free internet environment. It seems like the gloves are really coming off this time.
The possibilities that Sense8 presented to us seem further and further away from our reality. When we were immersed in that world, we couldn’t help but believe that perhaps we didn’t have to hide anymore, that binary views on gender and sexuality were beginning to go out the window, and that labels might not mean anything anymore…we learned that we are never alone. We learned how to be proud of who we are.
But now, when our representation has been banned, where can our pride come from? These guidelines, and the powers behind them, are not unlike BPO, the organization that hunts down sensates in the show, eliminating us for our difference. The petition to revive Sense8 on twitter received a lot of support from China. With shitty VPNs (twitter is also officially blocked by China) and temperamental internet speed; with translation tools and broken English; we sent in our plea, word by word.
The petition was a success, and Netflix has finally promised a 2-hour finale to wrap up the story. But I’m now worried: behind an increasingly robust cultural firewall, will we still be able to watch the ending in the future?
Words: Xie Xiao
Translation: Will Dai
Article originally written in Chinese. Photos are from the internet.
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account.