Beating a beauty for entertainment
27 June 2005
She was raped twice. She was abducted against her will, and kept locked up with chains. She was hit several times, throttled, punched in the stomach, thrown to the floor, and threatened with guns and other weapons. She was tricked into a fruitless jungle trek equipped with a pair of sandals. She appeared week-after-week with bruised face, tearful eyes, or blood trickling from her mouth.
This was not some poor defenceless victim. The character was supposed to be an ultra-modern women with an overseas PhD. Nobody in the story seemed to live in a house smaller than an airport terminal.
Phloeng Phayu (Firestorm), the prime-time drama serial that ended last week, was an epic on the theme of the abuse of women. The lead actress, Patchara Chaichua (Um) has been voted the country's prettiest and sexiest star. The series was about watching someone this lovely and famous getting beaten up, over and over again.
There was a labyrinthine plot about disputed inheritance and sibling jealousies, but that was just there to spin things out and keep the usual character actors in paid employment. There was also a Fatal Misunderstanding to explain away the bad behaviour, but it was a very thin excuse.
There was also a little bit of moral relativism. The really nasty rapist (he drooled like a mad dog) got his come-uppance by shooting himself while trying to rape her again and murder his own daughter at the same time. Instead it was the not-quite-so-nasty rapist who eventually got the girl.
The two suitors who didn't enjoy beating her around got nowhere. One disqualified himself by being a farang, and the other by being too nice to be true. When she threw him over, he took it out on the sea rather than hitting her around the head. What a wimp.
And what a message.
For viewers upset this series has ended, the channel ran two trailers of its successors. In one, a father was beating his daughter around the head. In the other, a woman was throttled, punched, threatened with guns and sharp objects, and then had her throat slit.
This is family entertainment. It runs in prime time. The prime minister told the nation how much he enjoyed it, which is a kind of endorsement.
This epic on the abuse of women was running at the same time as the Big Brother reality show which caused controversy. Two of the young people in a group closeted together in a house seemed to fall in love. The self-appointed keepers of national morality objected to scenes of them having a cuddle as “un-Thai.”
Firestorm attracted no equivalent complaint. We should not be allowed to see a little cuddle reflecting young love, but multiple rape, abduction and sundry violence reflecting male domination are fine. The cuddle appeared on a cable channel with few viewers. The multiple abuse was on prime-time free-to-air with a huge audience. The cuddle was apparently spontaneous. The multiple abuse was brought to us through the talents of a large group of writers, directors, actors with the help of a lot of expensive equipment. The cuddle is “un-Thai”, but …
The display of violence against women in TV dramas is not new, but has increased sharply. Other TV shows follow the same trend. Game shows often have one male comedian dressed up as a woman beaten around by the others. An ad showing a woman repeatedly slapping herself for having oily skin is among several that have flirted with violence against women.
What is going on here?
In part this probably reflects a general increase in social violence under the current government. The drug wars, extrajudicial killings, repeated assassination of activists, and unexplained disappearances create a climate in which the public display of violence as entertainment becomes more acceptable.
In part, it may reflect the general dumbing down of the media. The government has successfully drained the electronic media of any social and political content. Five years ago, script-writers were able to build drama series around real issues including “influence”, corruption, Burmese refugees, and even the abuse of political power. Now they are limited to the stale old genres. It is no surprise that family dramas are becoming more labyrinthine, ghost stories more outrageous, and thrillers more violent.
But is there something else which focuses this dramatic violence so much against women?
The social power of women has grown significantly over the past decade. There are more women in parliament than before, and significantly more women at the upper levels of the public service. Some like Khunying Pornthip and Khunying Jaruvarn have bigger public profiles than possibly any predecessors. Women have overtaken men in the enrolment and exam results in universities. A few more high-profile women have appeared in big business. Women rather than men brought the medals back from the last Olympics. The first pop singer going out from Thailand to the world is female.
Of course, the male-female imbalance is still huge. What is important, though, is the trend.
The television media seem to reflect a deep male anxiety about all of this. One of the persistent themes of TV dramas in recent years is about women who come to a sticky end by being too ambitious in business, love, or the gangster world.
Chang Noi would like to propose a new reality TV show. A group of TV producers, directors, script-writers, and channel executives is closeted in a house. An SMS vote is held to select a two-hour segment of prime-time viewing. Each participant is then subject to the same acts of violence against women which are portrayed on screen. On the evidence of the final episode of Firestorm, complete with its prelude and trailers, they would each suffer being raped, manacled in chains, thrown to the ground, threatened with guns and sharp objects, hit around the head several times, punched in the stomach, throttled, and having their throats slits.
Of course, nobody would win.