A Thai soap opera is facing an unprecedented backlash on Social Media by the #MeToo movement over a sexual assault scene. An outcry activists hope may spur change in a country which has largely avoided the glare of the #MeToo movement.
Each night, millions across Thailand tune in to watch prime time soaps, “known as lakorn” for their story lines of salacious romance, bitter domestic power struggles and violent revenge.
Despite years of complaints, the shows have proved resistant to criticism, and still commonly show women being sexually harassed and physically abused. Female characters often have kisses forced upon them and are hit by men who they later fall in love with, while rape is used as punishment for “wayward” women – whose remorseful attackers are quickly rehabilitated for the audience at home.
In the past, even the most egregious story lines have attracted only small fines for breaching decency laws and what criticism there has been has rarely dented ratings. That was until this week.
On Feb 7, Channel 3’s Mia Chum Pen (Wife on Duty), showed a scene in which a chained woman was the victim of an attempted sexual assault. The character escaped, but was then spurned by her disgusted husband rather than being treated as the victim.
Within minutes of the show airing, #NoMoreRapeOnScreen, in Thai, was trending on Thai Twitter over the apparent victim-shaming, as a beauty queen joined the admonishment of Mia Chum Pen’s producers.
“I’ve been seeing this on TV from a very young age. This is NOT OK,” said 27-year-old Amanda Obdam, winner of Miss Universe Thailand 2020, in a tweet with a screen grab of the offending scene, adding: “WE NEED TO STOP NORMALIZING RAPE”
— Amanda Obdam (อแมนด้า) (@amanda_obdam) February 9, 2021
A post on the Facebook page of an anonymous Thai ex-cabin crew member, who shares talking points about society and politics to their 200,000 followers, also railed at the story line.
“Why do they have to portray a victim of rape as a despicable person?” said the post. “The rest of the world has evolved, perhaps we should too.”
For campaigners, Thailand’s soap operas reflect many of the embedded, pernicious social values holding back women in Thai society.
“They strengthen the value of men, while degrading that of women,” said Galevalin Tummaratchai, 37, a researcher on structural violence at Thammasat University. “This show is simply a reproduction of the mentality that men have more value than women – this is why our society hasn’t gone anywhere in terms of gender equality.”
Deep in Thai culture
Despite grim daily media reports of rape and sexual assault, Thailand’s patriarchal society – where women are by convention expected to play second fiddle to the men occupying centre stage – was only grazed by the #MeToo movement.
At the top of the kingdom’s power structure sits King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who upon ascending the throne took a royal consort known as Sineenat in addition to his Queen Suthida, a royal right which had laid dormant for decades under his predecessors.
Meanwhile, the culture of men maintaining their “small house” – a euphemism for a second wife – is widely accepted in Thai society. And core institutions, such as the police and army have very few women in their top ranks.
Common sayings such as “women are expected to be as neat as a folded cloth” underpin ascribed roles for women to be polite, well presented and demure.
Yet younger Thais, who are more outspoken and connected to global discourses, are demanding equality. A widening strata of celebrities, entrepreneurs, CEOs and other prominent women have also lent their influential voices to the calls for change – though they tend to come from wealthy backgrounds and are elevated beyond their gender by their family names.
Thailand’s TV regulator, the National Broadcast Telecommunication Commission, is yet to comment on the Wife on Duty controversy.
“That the state agencies haven’t done anything about this, reflects who is in charge,” Supinya Klangnarong, a former NBTC commissioner, told This Week In Asia. “This patriarchal power is like sediment. As much as ‘Gen Z’ tries to get away from it – it is deep in our culture.”
Supinya, who in 2016 helped drove through fines of 50,000 baht (S$2,217) for Thai media conglomerate GMM Grammy over rape scenes in its Puen Rak Puen Rai series, said there are no women left on the NBTC board.
Weak rule of law
Routine depictions of rape and abuse in Thai soap operas show that they “embrace violence against women” according to Galevalin, the university researcher. “It’s a visual reference to say that rape is a norm.”
How this affects society at large is difficult to say, as comprehensive statistics on assault against women in Thailand are unavailable, and the country’s weak rule of law discourages women from making complaints.
Activists say those who work in the kingdom’s vast sex and entertainment industry – and are routinely exposed to danger – are unlikely to seek justice, or receive a fair hearing if they do raise allegations.
According to the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security’s One Stop Service Centre, in 2018 there were more than 5,000 calls to a hotline reporting allegations of sexual or physical abuse against women.
D One TV Series, the producers behind Wife on Duty, have shown little remorse in the wake of the social media uproar, sharing screenshots of the backlash and boasting of having millions of views for the episode.
“We invite you all to forgive him [the husband in the series],” they said in a Feb 8 tweet. “Fans don’t miss it next week.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.