Friends, Lesbianism, and Censorship

Image: Friends Logo by NBC. Source

Author: Sandrine Spycher

While discussing the episode 19 of season 4 of the memorable series Friends (David Crane & Marta Kauffman, NBC, 1994-2004), a friend and I realized that a particular plot element had been radically changed in the translation from English to French. Two main plot lines are developed in the episode “The One with All the Haste” (Kevin S. Bright, David Crane, Marta Kauffman, 1998). First, the evolution of the relationship between Ross (David Schwimmer) and Emily (Helen Baxendale). And second, the apartment switch between Monica (Courtney Cox) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on the one hand and Joey (Matt Le Blanc) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) on the other. The girls have been living in the guys’ apartment for a while after losing a bet, but are getting sick of it and want to switch back. They first try to charm Joey and Chandler with year-round tickets to go see the Knicks, but when that doesn’t work they propose a second bet. They end up losing both the apartment and the tickets. However, while the guys are at the match, Monica and Rachel move back into their apartment. (Read the script here)

The scene that interests me here is when Joey and Chandler come back from the basketball match and discover the new apartment switch. Chandler is quite upset and hammers on the door of what he deems his apartment but where Rachel and Monica have just moved back in. They guys, especially Chandler, feel cheated, but the girls refuse to listen. After a few minutes of quarreling, Monica and Rachel finally open the door to Chandler and Joey. To convince them to let them have the apartment, here’s what they propose (watch it here):

Rachel: All right. We figured you might respond this way, so we have a backup offer.

Chandler: Oh no-no-no, no more offers. You can’t offer anything to us!

Rachel: Let us keep the apartment and…

Monica: As a thank you, Rachel and I will kiss for one minute.

As the viewer can clearly understand, Joey and Chandler have accepted to watch Monica and Rachel kissing for one minute. Joey even brags about it at the end of the episode, telling Ross that “Monica and Rachel made out.”

The gender cliché of men being aroused when they see women kissing is so obvious that it won’t be analyzed here. What rather interests me is the translation and rewriting of that short moment of lesbianism into the French version (I’m using this subtitles version by Stéphane Levine and Marie-Laure Fauvart, but the doubling by Jacques Dualliac is pretty similar). The rest of the plot is identical, but here’s what the offer sounds like in French:

Rachel : On s’attendait à cette réaction. On a une offre à vous faire.

Chandler : On ne veut plus de vos offres.

Rachel : Laissez-nous l’appartement et…

Monica : Pour vous remercier… on s’embrasse pendant une minute.

The francophone viewer thus understands that Monica and Rachel will kiss Joey and Chandler for one minute. And again, this is confirmed by Joey at the end of the episode when he tells Ross that “Monica et Rachel nous ont embrassés.”

The guys are therefore not aroused by seeing the girls kissing but by being kissed by them. The choice of this translation puts a radical change in the plot by censoring any hint of lesbianism. Yves Gambier tells us that a translator “cherche à éviter d’offenser les sensibilités des récepteurs” and the translation is most often than not ideological and takes into consideration what is politically/morally correct. (Read the article here, the quote is from paragraphs 34-35)

Consider now the following question: What is usually taken out of dialogues because it “offends the sensibility of viewers”? My spontaneous answer would be sexual content. Following this instinct, I would argue that the conversation (not even the act!) about a kiss between two women is considered by the French translators to be sexually loaded and therefore offensive and/or politically incorrect.

But then why is it not censored in the original American version? Thinking about this kiss in terms of a to-be-censored sexual act brings me to this: sexualized women are the norm in American TV shows and thus their portrayal does not offend the viewer. Oh come on, they’re not sexualized, we don’t even see them kissing, you say. The kiss itself would offend the viewer, so of course it’s not present on screen. However, notice Chandler’s and Joey’s behavior as they walk back into their apartment and straight to their respective bedrooms, slamming the door behind them.

So. What have we learned today?

First, that the best way to convince a man of anything is to offer him some sexual entertainment. Second, that a lesbian kiss is always considered sexual. Third, that American TV producers/directors don’t hesitate to oversexualize their female characters by having them exhibit a kiss for the male characters. Third still, that French translators are too shy to allow lesbianism on TV and would rather deal with the issue by deleting it altogether.

I also learned that comparing the translation to the original made me realize the connotations of Rachel and Monica’s negotiation with the guys for the ownership of the apartment. Translation is more important than one would first think, and it can certainly be creative and change the meaning of a story instead of being bound to the original plot, as we have seen with the case of “The One with All the Haste.”

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