Once again, censors in a number of countries in the Middle East are targeting a major motion picture based upon LGBTQIA+ content.
West Side Story, the new Steven Spielberg adaptation of the classic 1957 Broadway musical, has run afoul of censors in a number of countries across the region due to the presence of a transgender character.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, will now no longer screen the film.
Anybodys Looks For Acceptance
The countries have taken offence to the character of Anybodys, a transgender character, played by Broadway actor Iris Menas (Jagged Little Pill), who identifies as non-binary.
In promotional interviews Menas refers to Anybodys using “he/him” and “they/them” pronouns.
“He’s kind of been disowned by his family … and is following the Jets closely. We see this kind of lost soul hoping to join this gang of brother, not only to be accepted into a family … but to be accepted for who they are as a person and accepted in their own skin.”
‘I Ain’t No Goddamn Girl!’
David Saint, the executor of the estate of Arthur Laurents, in the film’s production notes, said, “Arthur was ahead of his time with this. He said, ‘Anybodys is a character who was a man born in a female’s body.’ End of story. If it were today, he would be a transgender.”
In the early stages of production on the original stage musical, Anybodys sang a song where they sing, “Why can’t I be male? / Why can’t I be big, tall, male /Like everyone else?” The song was later cut prior to the show making its premiere.
Anybodys historically has been depicted as a “scrappy” tomboy with “energy and heart” who follows the Jets around and is desperate to join the gang. Anybodys is rejected by the Jets until the end when they are allowed to join because of their unwavering allegiance.
In the film, Anybodys is central to a scene in a police station where the Jets have been brought. The Jets call Anybodys a “dickless wonder” and say, “The girl wants to be a Jet.” Anybodys replies, “I ain’t no goddamn girl!”
Original Script Was Problematic
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called the new film adaptation “a vividly dreamed, cunningly modified and visually staggering revival,” while A.O. Scott in The New York Times says, “it’s a dazzling display of filmmaking craft that also feels raw, unsettled and alive.”
Screenwriter Tony Kushner, who penned Angels in America, has updated the original book by Arthur Laurents, to reflect twenty-first century sensibilities. The film has cast Latinix actors for the Puerto Rican characters, several of the show’s main roles were expanded and no subtitles are used when characters speak in Spanish.
The original script has been widely seen as ‘problematic’ due to its stereotypical depictions of Latinix characters. Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics to the musical, was himself highly critical of his work on West Side Story.
Studios Stand Up To Censorship
Countries across the Middle East have strong laws against indecency, and regularly censor films of swearing, nudity and depictions of drug use as well as homosexuality.
Recently the Eternals, from Marvel Studios was banned in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait due to a same-sex kiss between Phastos, played by Brian Tyree Henry and his husband Ben, played by out actor Haaz Sleiman.
The film did screen in United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, State of Palestine and Syria, however all scenes of intimacy, both heterosexual and homosexual had been removed in a cut of the film which was made as a standardised version for the region.
Disney, who also distributed the Eternals, refused to make specific cuts as demanded by censors. The relationship between the two men was still evident in the version released in the region.
Pixar’s animated film Onward, which was the first Disney film to feature an openly LGBTQIA+ character, was also banned in Saudi Arabia and Qatar because of a reference to a lesbian relationship.
Disney has refused to cut any of the queer content in its films in the last few years. The studio’s 2017 blockbuster Beauty and the Beast made headlines when Disney refused to cut the film for Malaysian censors.
It is unclear if West Side Story will be released in China, which has a long track record of censoring LGBTQI content. Disney hasn’t released any films in the country in the past year, including its Marvel Studios content.
West Side Story, starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, is scheduled to open in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2021. The film has already generated stellar reviews and significant awards buzz.