When the Censorship Board plays moral guardian

When the Censorship Board plays moral guardian
By Zan Azlee

The media, or more specifically the entertainment media, plays a very important role beyond serving as a form of escapism and enjoyment. It serves as a reflection of society and, at times, becomes a tool to influence society as well.

In the past week or so, the local media has been blanketed with reports of Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ being “banned”. Well, technically it was never banned. Its release was delayed, then cuts were ordered by the Censorship Board, and Disney decided to pull it out from Malaysia.

The reason for this debacle is because there is an apparently gay character in the film by the name of Le Fou who sings a song that is suggestively gay and that he even lifts up his shirt and reveals a love bite on his body. I have not seen the film so I cannot confirm the existence of this scene.

But at the time of writing, it has been reported that the film will indeed be screened in cinemas here in Malaysia without any cuts on March 30. This has been confirmed by the country’s two largest local cinema chains, TGV and Golden Screen Cinemas.

It’s funny to see how cabinet ministers who come from the same ruling party have totally opposing views to how the Censorship Board responded to the film. It is, in fact, their party that put in place the people and the system that administers the Censorship Board.

Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz was very vocal against the Censorship Board playing moral police by seeking to ban and then censor ‘Beauty and the Beast’. He mentioned that homosexuals have been around way before the film was made.

However, Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed said that the government should stand firm on its decision to have the apparent gay scene cut from the film. According to him, if Disney would not accept the decision, then the film should not be screened locally.

Nur Jazlan told the news media that the Malaysian government will not allow any films containing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elements to be screened in the country because it could influence Malaysians.

And now that the Censorship Board has made a U-turn and is allowing ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to be screened in the cinemas without cuts (but with a PG13 rating), he feels that the government is succumbing to foreign commercial interests.

A reflection of ourselves

But back to my point as to the role the entertainment media plays in society. Like I said, it is not merely one that serves just escapism and enjoyment. It has a much more significant role that many people tend to overlook.

It allows society to see how it is behaving and to be able to adjust itself if it doesn’t like what it sees. People who see a reflection of themselves being portrayed in a movie or a television drama will have the opportunity to self-reflect.

For example, let’s say we watch a crime drama on television where a gay individual is a victim of a violent hate crime. It would cause us to reflect on this and see the kind of wrongful prejudices that we have in our everyday lives that we need to discard.

It can also be a way to influence societal behaviour. For example, if we want to promote inclusivity and eliminate prejudices against homosexuals, we would try to portray an ideal world in a television show or even a Disney movie.

Now, whether a television show or movie succeeds in its objective of either reflecting society or influencing it, is not for the show or movie’s producers to determine. The audience would be the ones who determine that.

An intelligent audience would be able to look through the escapism to dissect the messages in the movies they watch. They will then make an interpretation as to what they have seen and draw their own conclusions.

But what if the audience isn’t ready to interpret and make their own decisions? Would that then mean that we need an authoritative body to help with the interpretation and decision-making? Which is what is really happening in Malaysia right now, isn’t it?

However, the question now is, isn’t the Malaysian audience ready and intelligent enough? How does the Censorship Board know that our society isn’t mature enough to handle a little bit of self-reflection and societal conditioning?

That’s why it is important that no authoritative body plays the role of moral guardian, because if it does, then there will only be a single interpretation. It would create a homogenous society that would be closed to anything remotely different.

Censorship should stop and society should be allowed to make their own decisions. We need to encourage open-mindedness because this will promote discourse, debate and eventually, understanding, acceptance and inclusivity.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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