Eastern Beauty and the Western Beast: Cultural Issues

Beauty and the Beast has been the movie in the to-watch-list of almost everyone since probably last year. Yet, what the reader probably has known is the hostility towards the movie, not only Russia’s, but also Malaysia’s. Is this rejection justifiable?

Both authorities argue similarly: the ‘gay’ scene is a strand of Western propaganda. Beauty and the Beast contains, according to a Russian legislator, “blatant, shameless propaganda of sin and perverted sexual relationships.” In Malaysia, an official of the censorship board thinks that the cutting is crucial as “it is inappropriate because many children will be watching this movie.”

What is the grassroots response? Anti-ban voices have been resonant: watching gay scenes and becoming a homosexual do not have a direct causal link. By thinking that the scene could directly ‘transform’ or ‘trouble’ the sexual orientation of any spectator, both authorities might have accidentally revealed their two ungrounded notions.

First, they think that moviegoers do not bring along their brains while watching movies. Second, they have decided that being a homosexual (or not) is a conscious, reversible, and rectifiable choice.

The issue with homosexuality is however not simplistic. On the one hand, it is true that certain religions may not espouse homosexuality. On the other hand, it would seem too impulsive to directly embrace or denounce homosexuality especially when it is prevalent in our current world. I suggest, how about a tolerant attitude towards the LGBT community as the world gradually works it out?

But apart from the two, I think this issue implies another subtle yet perennially relevant idea: easterners are cautious about Western influence.


Easterners against Western Culture

Consider Fifty Shades of Grey (2011): there are no homosexual scenes, and it would have been rated ‘18’ in Malaysia. Thus, the homophobia of the authorities and the fear of ‘children watching’ – as such in the case of Beauty and the Beast – could have been resolved. Yet they had other reasons for banning the film. The same Malaysian censorship official believes that the film “is more pornography than a movie.” Similar treatments went to other Western films, including The Danish Girl (2015) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

Source: Celebuzz

My idea is, although the censorship boards of eastern countries may have understandable reasons for rejecting those films, banning them could also be a silent form of protest against globalisation and western cultural influence.

Meanwhile, there is another interesting side to this case. I initially thought that perhaps only the Eastern world is cautious towards Western cultural imperialism, especially from the U.S. (any American friends here in UNMC?). But after a friend of mine – who is fond of Japanese culture – informed me of the unfair treatment of a Japanese film by the U.S., I suddenly thought otherwise: the fearful relationship may be reciprocal. Westerners might be rejecting Eastern culture too.


Westerners against Eastern Culture

The film was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). I’m not a major fan of Japanese culture, but I guess my dear readers who are fond of it may know (and love) this film very much.

Source: Pinterest

In fact, there are three issues vis-à-vis the release of the film in the U.S.

First, the name of the film was changed to Warriors of the Wind (1984) prior to its release in the U.S. Second, a major 22-minute segment of the film was cut by the U.S. censorship board, and no concrete reason was provided. Third, the original film was substantially ‘Americanised’ by the American production company. James LaPierre, a UW Cinematheque film critic, said:

The plot of the film was modified to more closely resemble a traditional children’s action-adventure movie, and all promotional images featured a slew of male characters, none of which appear in the film. Many of the film’s character names were changed (including titular character Princess Nausicaä who became Princess Zandra), and the voice actors working on the film were not told the film’s plot line before recording their lines: simply put, Warriors of the Wind was an inferior and distorted version of Miyazaki’s original masterwork.

Global Culture(s) at War

The idea of the cultural war indeed has little evidence; after all, these are only films and standardised censorship in specific sovereign regions. Yet if we apply the same ideas to other aspects of culture, the assumption that Eastern and Western cultures are at a war does make sense.

Consider terrorism: the terrifying term has been claimed by scholars to be a synonym of anti-Americanism. Instead of being falsely labelled as ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, these terrorists could have been against Western dominance in the Global South – the Middle-East, in particular.

Source: Gawker

Yet cultural competition could also be something less political – say, the universal standard of beauty. For example, do we often think that westerners are intrinsically more attractive than us? If it is a yes, it may be due to the ugly history of Western colonialism. As Olivia Yeoh (International Communication Studies, Year Three) points out in her blog entry:

Today’s dominant beauty ideals are still very much based on Eurocentric ideals of beauty. As such, despite having racially diverse models on runways and magazines, these models still meet a particular cultural standard (i.e. high cheekbones, sharp noses, etc.). If these non-White models have been playing by the rules of the game all this time, it baffles me why they still aren’t winning.


How about a global culture of tolerance and diversity?

 In spite of all the controversies with films and other socio-cultural differences, one truism however is that globalisation is an increasingly pervasive phenomenon.

Thus, if a country – Malaysia, the United States, or any other alike – is not willing to accept cultural diversity, the current state of demographic movement (refugees, immigrants and otherwise) will only intensify the politics of fear: the US president (do not remind me of that joker’s name, please) and Brexit are two vivid images of that fear.

Above all, we shall remember that there is a reason underpinning the recurring predictions that China will soon replace the U.S. as the world leader in the face of globalisation. Guess what: while the U.S. is gradually showing the fear of the Others, China is already embracing the outside world. An openness to diversity, hence, could actually be a better way forward.

These opinions do not claim whether censoring Beauty and the Beast or having nationalist sentiments is justifiable, they instead intend to suggest some food for thought to the reader. If the reader thinks that cultural (and homosexual) tolerance should not be sought, the freedom to make decisions is still perfectly that of the reader’s.

But hey: loving Twilight (2008) does not make me an impeccable vampire; having watched The Theory of Everything (2014) does not make me a theoretical physicist; and having seen Focus (2015) does not make me a good-looking professional fraud. I want to watch Beauty and the Beast, that’s all.


Written by Teoh Sing Fei

Update: As of the 21st of March 2017, it has been announced that Beauty and the Beast is slated for release in Malaysia with a rating of PG13 from March 30 onwards, with no cuts.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the editorial team at IGNITE.

Featured Image Source: movies.disney.co.uk

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." (George Orwell, in Animal Farm, 1945)

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