Backlash over Thai soap operas: It’s not romance, it’s rape

In a famous scene from Thailand’s award-winning soap opera “The Power of Shadows,” the handsome protagonist gets drunk and rapes the leading lady. He later begs her forgiveness, and the producers say they will live happily ever after in the sequel.

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 5:45 am, Thu Nov 27, 2014.

Associated Press | BANGKOK

In a famous scene from Thailand’s award-winning soap opera “The Power of Shadows,” the handsome protagonist gets drunk and rapes the leading lady. He later begs her forgiveness, and the producers say they will live happily ever after in the sequel.

Boy Meets Girl, Boy Rapes Girl, Boy Marries Girl. The premise is so common in Thailand’s popular primetime melodramas it could be called a national twist on the universal romantic plotline. But calls for change are growing.

The real-life rape and murder of a girl on an overnight train in Thailand this summer has focused national outrage on messages in popular culture that trivialize — and some say even encourage — rape.

Many in the soap opera industry continue to defend sexual violence, in part, as a key to high ratings in a fiercely competitive industry that draws more than 18 million viewers a night to network television, nearly a quarter of Thailand’s population.

Award-winning director Sitthiwat Tappan even describes some rape scenes as a sort of public service.

“There might be a scene where a woman is dressed sexy, and she walks past a man who has been drinking, and it shows on his face that he’s aroused and wants her,” Sitthiwat said. “In the end, she succumbs to the physical power of the man.”

“Scenes like this try to teach society that women should not travel alone or wear revealing clothes,” the director said. “And men shouldn’t drink.”

But rapists are seldom punished in TV melodramas, and their victims rarely talk about it. That much, at least, is reflected in real life.

Last year, the Public Health Ministry said its hot lines received 31,866 calls from victims of rape or sexual assault. But police that year filed only 3,300 rape cases, and made just 2,245 arrests. Even the hot line number is believed to be far lower than the actual number of assaults in this Southeast Asian country of 67 million.

Public concern about rape in Thai society grew this summer, after a 13-year-old girl was raped on an overnight train, then suffocated and thrown out the window. A 22-year-old train employee has been convicted of the attack and sentenced to death, and the rail authority has introduced a women-and-children-only sleeper carriage with policewomen as guards.

Indignant newspaper editorials and TV talk shows have triggered a national conversation, and an online petition asking soap operas to stop romanticizing rape has attracted more than 30,000 signatures.

“I’m not saying soap operas are the cause of rape in Thailand. But I believe they are part of the problem,” said Nitipan Wiprawit, a 36-year-old architect who launched the petition. “Soap operas send the message that rape is acceptable. This is something that needs to stop.”

As a result of Nitipan’s petition, the national broadcasting commission has organized roundtables that bring directors and screenwriters together with health and human rights experts to discuss the messages soap operas deliver. The latest one focused on how TV sexual violence influences Thai children, who are often raised on a steady diet of nighttime soaps that parents switch on after dinner.

“Some producers might say that what they’re producing doesn’t have an impact on people, but I assure you it does,” Kemporn Wirunrapan, of Thailand’s Child and Youth Media Institute, told the forum. “The more children see repetitive images of violence, the more it will be reinforced in their minds.”

In a poll of more than 2,000 youths conducted by Thailand’s Assumption University in 2008, more than 20 percent of 13- to-19-year olds said rape scenes were their favorite part of TV shows. The same percentage of teenagers said they found rape to be a normal and acceptable act in society.

Yossinee Nanakorn, producer of one of Thailand’s best-known soaps “Prisoner of Love,” said rape scenes are sometimes essential to plotlines.

“Soap operas are all about conflict. Without conflict there’s no story,” she said. “We try to avoid rape scenes, but if it helps drive the story then we keep it.”

The idea that some forms of sexual violence are acceptable is reflected even in the Thai language.

The word “blum,” which translates roughly as “wrestling,” is how Thais describe unconsenting sex that a man initiates to make a woman fall in love with him. It is considered different from “khom-kheun,” the criminal act of rape.

“Blum” is what transpires in “The Power of Shadows,” said Arunosha Bhanupan, producer of the soap, which aired in 2012 and recorded the highest ratings in the history of its network.

“In theatrical terms, it was an act of love,” the producer said, referring to the scene where the lead actor grabs the heroine and rapes her after she slaps him and screams, “Let me go!”

“It wasn’t rape. It was more romantic, because they were in love.”

That is one type of soap-opera rape scene: the seduction of a “good girl.” Thai soaps also have “bad girls,” for whom rape is depicted as punishment for behavior deemed immoral, like dressing provocatively and promiscuity.

Feminist scholar Chalidaporn Songsamphan said rape fantasies in Thai culture stem in part from traditional beliefs that it is improper for women to show sexual desire before marriage.

“When men initiate sex, women have to try to reject it, or say no, to show they are innocent sexually,” said Chalidaporn, a women’s studies professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “Rape scenes on television reflect this kind of thinking.”

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