Television soaps have clung to damaging cliches far too long
Anyone who admires art is loath to tell anartist what to do, no matter how irksome his art might have become. But there’s a particularly aggravating example in television content that demands change. Many of the dramas (read soap operas) on prime-time Thai television remain mired in cliches that were surely a part of their success formulas two decades ago but are now grossly out of date and offensive to modern sensibilities.
We’re speaking specifically about, first, the characters known as nang itcha – the “jealous gals” – whose role invariably involves seducing the hero and otherwise placing obstacles in the career and romantic path of the heroines. And, secondly, those effeminate male characters who do nothing but act ridiculously in a bid to generate giggles have got to go.
The horrendous rape and murder of a teenage girl on a train this month served to revive debate about male chauvinism in Thailand. Certainly our soap operas tend to make rape acceptable – the hero often rapes the heroine, as if to demonstrate his power and superiority, before becoming contrite and being forgiven. At the same time, any woman who seduces the hero is clearly depicted as a vile creature. The soap-opera industry thrives on such cliches, much to the dismay of women’s-rights activists at home and abroad.
It’s probably also time to do away with the nang itcha too. Their chief function is to get the audience on the heroine’s side and eager to see vengeance enacted. “Today is payback day for nasty Lek,” the fans titter to one another, meaning the villainess is going to get beaten up or sexually abused – possibly even killed.
The effeminate (read gay or katoey) male characters are almost completely harmless in these series, of course, but usually portrayed as stupid and sometimes sexually frustrated. They’re “good guys”, but the role such characters play in these plot lines is not. It’s time to rethink the depiction of homosexuality as comic relief.
To be sure, our soap operas and our movies have made positive progress over the years. There aren’t as many nang itcha these days as there were a decade or two ago, and the characters in general are more complex and better imagined. Nevertheless, not a day goes by without the shriek of a jealous gal on TV. The cliches are being toned down – just not quickly enough for our liking.
While this nonsense is allowed to continue, succeeding generations of young viewers are getting the message that only men are allowed to initiate sex and can do so with impunity. Children learn that women who attempt to do so will be punished as immoral, and that effeminate men are merely clowns with nothing beneath the surface, easily discarded or ignored.
It will be argued, yet again, that the producers of the soap operas are only giving us what we want to see. And some directors have yearned to try something fresh, but point out that the advertising money follows the cliches. If the sponsors want nang itcha, that’s what their money buys.
The buck, of course, stops with the artists, who are the trendsetters. Art and money, as we all know, can go in opposite directions, but at the end of the day it’s always the matter of who blinks first.
Over the decades, there’s never been any doubt about who was pulling the strings, which leaves only one question: Do artists have the will to change the status quo?