AFTER his father committed suicide, vengeful businessman Pathavee knew the enemy family was responsible. Years later, he avenged his father’s death by enslaving Chidchaba, his foe’s only daughter. Pathavee, who already had a fiancé, harassed and raped Chidchaba. At one point she got pregnant and almost killed herself trying to abort the child. Pathavee is the kind of guy you’d report to the police, but in the business of Thai soap operas, he makes a perfect protagonist.
Rapist-turn-lover Pathavee and objectified Chidchaba later fell for each other in ‘Unending Fire of Passion’, one of the 10 most popular Thai soap operas in 2015, according to Nielsen ratings. But ‘Unending Fire of Passion’ wasn’t the only guilty party. At least five from the same list also romanticize rape, violence and sexual harassment to create an extreme emotional twist.
Despite campaigns to end such practice, Thai soap opera industry today still fails to overcome its tradition that promotes rape culture and sexism against women.
Scenes of violence and sexual harassment between male and female protagonists are common in the immensely popular Thai soap operas, or lakorn. They use haters-turn-lovers relationships so often it has become normal for the viewer to see the male lead grope or forcefully grab the female lead against her will. “Slap-kiss,” for example, is a term for the selling cliché scene in Thai drama in which the lead actress would slap the lead actor who would then forcefully kiss her. The perception of “a good woman” was one of the reasons producers used to justify using rape and coercion as an act of love.
“They would say that it’s because, traditionally, good women characters cannot initiate, which is obsolete, dehumanizing and far from reality,” says Nitipan Wiprawit, who launched a campaign against romanticized harassment and sexism in Thai soap opera in 2014, said. “The station reports rape as a crime during the day and broadcasts it as entertainment at night. There clearly is a problem here.”
It made big news that year when a group of boy scouts were filmed sexually harassing a girl scout in a primary school. The boys’ parents later, though, ridiculed and scoffed at the charges. Such indifference triggered Nitipan to launching a petition on Change.org, which has gathered over 400 thousand signatures.
“I am not linking rape scenes to sex crime rates, but it indirectly promotes sexual harassment as a form of entertainment and punishment,” he said. “It promotes the ideas that rape victims should be embarrassed and that a man owns a woman after they had sex.”
In traditional Thai soaps, not only were none of the rapist male protagonists charged or prosecuted, but also none of the female victims, dehumanized by the sexist plot, did anything about it. Besides portraying sexual assaults as acceptable, these dramas also promote them as an act of romantic punishment. Looking at General Prayuth’s infamous “bikini” remarks on Koh Tao murder victims and last year’s case of a raped British woman in which a police chief blamed the assault on the victim, are these dramas the result or the cause of an ignorant society? Either way, it doesn’t help in cultivating the awareness of women’s rights among Thais.
In an interview with Prachatai, Thammasat University’s professor Chanida Chitbundit said that although Thailand, ranked 76 in the Gender Inequality Index by UNDP in 2014, is ahead of many countries in the region in passing the laws for women rights, but there are still many limitations in law enforcement, suggesting it is inevitable that feminism has to progress along with democracy, to change the chauvinistic cultural perception.
Social critic Lakkana Punwichai also pointed out in a feminism talk two years ago the paradox in promoting feminism in Thai society, resulted from nationalism steering Thai society from western ideology and concepts such as human rights, democracy, and liberalism.
“We have many who deal with women problem but do not dig into the ideology behind it, or who are into the ideology but turn their backs on institutional politics,” Lakkana said. “We have feminist activists who at the same time support authoritarianism and conservatism. We have gays protesting for absolute monarchy.”
Last November, media professionals and academics addressed women’s rights in the media, raising points about regulation models, media freedom and media literacy. Meanwhile, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication commission (NBTC) was working on an ethical code for TV media, but the NBTC, however, has a track record of dubious judgement. It made headlines after pulling politically-charged drama Nua Mek 2 from the air and was recently criticized for being used as a political tool to silence the junta’s opposition. Although it has implemented a rating system, shows that have been rated for adults were able to rerun during prohibited daytime periods.
The arrival of internet and digital TV, including newly announced Netflix, means Thai viewers have more choices than ever. Channel 3 and Channel 7, the two major soap opera suppliers, are being challenged; the average ratings for the three most popular soap operas dropped around two points from 2013. Online Thai series Hormones, for example, reflects teen sex life in reality and has been proved by a study to promote better perception of sex and contraception. But can open competition and new initiatives shake the tradition of romanticized rape in Thai dramas?
“It’s unrealistic to think the change will happen naturally or by competition,” Nitipat said, “when the understanding is not in place in Thai society.”