Netflix has cancelled its latest Turkish drama original ‘If Only’ amid pressure from Turkish government authorities who wanted the removal of a gay character. Rather than acquiesce to the government’s demands to censor content, news reports said the streaming service has decided to drop plans for the production entirely.
Scriptwriter Ece Yorenc said that on the day the drama was scheduled to start filming, the Turkish government refused to grant the production company the required license. The Financial Times reported that in an interview with Turkish film news website Altyazi Fasikul, Yorenc said: “Due to a gay character, permission to film the series was not granted and this is very frightening for the future.” Netflix later confirmed that the show had been cancelled due to government censorship. ‘If Only’ featured some of Turkey’s biggest actors including Birkan Sokullu and Özge Özpirinçci.
This comes at a time when LGBTQ rights in Turkey have faced criticism from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party AKP and pride marches and events have faced crackdowns. Under Erdogan, observers believe that Turkey has become increasingly conservative.
What was this incident about?
Online news outlet Dizilah, that focuses on news pertaining to Turkish celebrities and television dramas called dizis, told indianexpress.com that the Turkish government only started interfering with online entertainment portals since 2019. Governing body RTÜK, the Radio and Television Supreme Council of Turkey, that sanctions, regulates and monitors television shows, had largely stayed away from regulating online platforms till late 2019, Dizilah said. “Once they received authority from the powers that be, they could then regulate online platforms like Netflix and required that all sorts of media outlets obtain permission to be able to continue running smoothly in Turkey without disruptions,” said Haley N, Editor-in-Chief and founder of Dizilah.
“The problem that arose here, however, is Netflix wanting to include a gay character in one of its forthcoming original series. As per other journalists in Turkey, the character just made a mention of being gay and that in itself was a problem.”
What is the status of LGBTQ representation in Turkish television entertainment?
Although Turkey is more liberal than some of its neighbours when it comes to LGBTQ rights, and homosexuality has been legal in the country’s modern history, activists say the scenario has been changing under the present government. In many ways, the impact of this is being witnessed in the cultural content coming out of Turkey. Months before its broadcast, ongoing teen drama ‘Ask 101’, another Netflix Turkey product, found itself in the midst of a controversy with rumours claiming that the lead character was gay.
Turkish social media users took to various platforms like Twitter and spewed homophobic slurs at ‘Ask 101’ and its team. Among the abuse hurled at the dizi were also statements calling for the drama to create characters who “act like a man”. Turkish news publication Duvar English reported RTÜK chairman Ebubekir Sahin as saying: “We are determined not to provide a free pass to immorality.”
Beren Saat: “Netflix’i kapatsanız da eşcinseller var ve bizler, kabul edeceğiz, seveceğiz, hikayelerini anlatacağız.”pic.twitter.com/H3v70UImxb
— Filmlerden Kareler (@filmdenkare) July 19, 2020
Following the censorship, one of Turkey’s leading actors Beren Saat stated in an interview: “Even if you shut down Netflix, gay people will exist and we will continue to accept them, love them, and tell their stories.”
The LGBTQ community in Turkey has not found itself adequately represented in dizis. “In our years of watching Turkish dramas, there has been zero representation of LGBTQ characters to our knowledge –– ever,” said Dizilah’s Haley.
In the case of ‘If Only’, Yorenc had said there were no depictions of gay sex scenes or other displays of physical intimacy between the gay man and other male charcaters. The story itself was a tale of a mother of twins, unhappy in her marriage, who finds herself transported to the night her now-husband had proposed.
Following the controversy, on Monday, Mahir Unal, deputy chairman of Turkey’s ruling party, tweeted: “I believe that Netflix will show a higher sensitivity towards Turkish culture and art with deeper cooperation.”
#NetflixTurkey ne siyasi düzeyde AK Parti Tanıtım ve Medya Başkanlığı ile ne de resmî düzeyde İletişim Başkanlığı ile görüştü.Türkiye’den gitmeyi neden düşünsünler? Netflix’in daha derin işbirliği ile Türk kültürüne, sanatına dönük daha yüksek hassasiyet göstereceğine inanıyorum.
— Mahir Ünal 🇹🇷 (@mahirunal) July 20, 2020
Why are fans criticising Turkey’s censorship of LGBTQ characters?
Over the years, Turkish television dramas have gained a large number of international fans. One topic of conversation most frequently seen on social media channels dedicated to Turkish dizis is the troubling depiction of violence against women that appears to be almost normalised in the scripts. Although accurate figures are hard to find, there have been increasing cases of domestic violence in Turkey.
This week, after the body of Pinar Gültekin, a young university student in the southwestern province of Mugla, was found by police, her boyfriend was named as the main suspect in a case of domestic violence. Following the news of Gültekin’s murder, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party in Turkey, said: “Pinar Gültekin was killed. We all have to be sensitive on violence against women. The government should respond: Why is violence against women rising?”
Following the censorship of ‘If Only’, many international fans pointed to the Turkish government objecting to the depiction of homosexuality than addressing how depictions of violence against women in dizis may be contributing to rising rates of domestic violence in the country. “Violence against women has seemingly been normalized in traditional Turkish TV. It is so heavily prevalent that watching a show without it, always comes with its own level of shock value,” said Haley. “The most upsetting aspect of it all is that a lot of those shows are the ones that top the ratings, day in, day out. The scripts do indeed show prevailing attitudes in Turkey as we have seen in the dizis. Toxic masculinity is at the forefront of a lot of the stories and that is very much the case in some parts of Turkey.”
Ne Ayasofya, ne Netflix, ne eşcinsellik, ne sosyal medya yasası. Bizim birinci derdimiz bu gülüşlerin kana boğulup soldurulmasıdır! Kadınlar parça parça edilirken uygulanmayan sembolik İstanbul Sözleşmesin’ne bile tahammül edilememesidir. Nur içinde yat #pinargultekin pic.twitter.com/0cps2yG2jh
— Rahşan Gülşan (@rahsangulsan) July 21, 2020
It may also be a case of large numbers of conservative domestic audiences in Turkey being unprepared and unwilling to see unconventional storylines. This spring, when the dizis ‘Azize’ and ‘Zemheri’ were broadcast, they rapidly acquired a large international fan-following, in part because they both featured strong women leads unwilling to be pushed around by the men in their lives. In less than 10 episodes, both series were shut down due to low ratings despite their global fandom.
YETER ARTIK….BU İĞRENÇ MİKROPLARDAN KURTULMAK ZORUNDAYIZ…Bir günlük meseleler değil bu…her gün…HER GÜN OLUYOR! YETER…bir şey paylaşmakla çözülmüyor…ataerkil toplumların lanetidir bu… #pinargultekin ailene sabır diliyorum…dualarımdasın
— Kerem Bursin (@KeremBursin) July 21, 2020
“In the end, the complaints that RTÜK receives are from domestic viewers. As a matter of fact, just yesterday after the news broke, “Thank you RTÜK’ was trending high on Twitter in Turkey. There is honestly nothing as unpredictable as the TV habits of Turkish viewers,” said Haley, pointing to Twitter trends following RTÜK’s ruling on ‘If Only’.
Haley pointed to how many of Turkey’s top television stars commemorated LGBTQ Pride month in July, only to be at the receiving end of abusive comments from fans, some of whom claimed that this stance was anti-religious. For the past five years, Istanbul Pride has been banned by Turkish authorities.
What does this mean for Netflix Turkey?
Netflix first entered the Turkish market in 2016 and has been steadily expanding its presence there ever since. Two years later, Netflix broadcast its first Turkish dizi production ‘The Protector’, a fantasy drama based in Istanbul, featuring one of the country’s top television stars Çagatay Ulusoy. By the end of 2019, the Financial Times reported, the streaming service had 1.5 million subscribers and more dizi productions in the pipeline.
Netflix is important, Haley believes, because these kinds of streaming services create space “for diverse stories that are not altered week-to-week to increase their ratings,” unlike domestic television channels.
Following the criticism against the Turkish government’s moves, FT quoted Mahir Unal saying: “Must we collectively apologise to Netflix?….What do they want from us? Do we have to bless everything Netflix makes, find it proper and sanctify it? Is there no subject where we have a right to raise reservations?”
Netflix Turkey has incurred major losses and has paid the team of ‘If Only’ despite the show being cancelled. The company indicated that it was by no means exiting the Turkish market despite the censorship of its content. In a statement released by the company, Netflix said it “deeply committed” to its subscribers and that they “currently have several Turkish originals in production – with more to come – and look forward to sharing these stories with our members all around the world”.
In many ways, Netflix Turkey’s productions don’t fit the regular mould of dizis. “The die-hard dizi fans haven’t been all too crazy about Netflix’s productions so far as Netflix is yet to make a show that can be considered a traditional dizi. Right now, they’ve produced a lot of genre-bending series in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre, which is something that has never really aired on traditional Turkish TV,” said Haley.
Last year an episode of ‘Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj’ was censored for being critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but the company didn’t exit Saudi Arabia. Despite the Turkish government’s crackdown on the company’s productions, Haley said it is unlikely that interest from fans and even stars hoping to work on new projects will wane moving forward. To keep its hold over approximately 1.5 million subscribers, Netflix may just be willing to stick to rules for now to be able to continue operating in the country.
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