Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Menace to (Thai) Society?

I've previously ruminated on my observations about Thai movies and television, so this post is both a follow-on and another commentary about Thai culture/society.  I will give advance warning, however, that as our time in Thailand draws to a close I have allowed myself to become increasingly irritated rather easily.  It's actually a defense mechanism, a sort of denial that I will actually miss this place a great deal.

Thailand's Ministry of Culture of late has been getting their knickers in a twist over a couple of incidents that they claim have eroded the glorious culture in the Land of Smiles.  The first incident was the case of some young women dancing topless on Silom Road (a popular tourist spot in Bangkok) during Songkran, the traditional new year festival in mid-April.  Let me be clear that I am NOT condoning the behavior of these young ladies, especially when subsequent reporting revealed that the girls were underage and this was not the first time they had done something like this.  What I find gloriously hypocritical about it is the fact that immediately adjacent to Silom Road is the infamous area called Patpong, renowned for its bars and, how do I put this delicately...other forms of adult entertainment.  When the YouTube video first appeared officials at the Culture Ministry even said their initial suspicion was that the young women were employees of one of Patpong's finer establishments and had made their way to the Songkran party on Silom Road.

The second major cultural scandal, at least according to the Culture Ministry, has been the wildly popular evening soap opera Dok Som Si Thong (ดอกส้มสีทอง or "Golden Orange Flower").  Like many Thai soap operas, it deals with some uber-rich guy and his relationship with both his wife and his mia noi (เมียน้อย or minor wife).  The danger to Thai culture here, apparently, is that the mia noi uses some pretty coarse language and is quite the schemer, something the Ministry of Culture says that no self respecting Thai would ever do (can you hear me rolling my eyes?).  In addition, the ministry fears that many Thais would not be able to discern that this is entertainment, not reality (again, my eyes are rolling quite loudly here).

Imagine, then, my shock today when The Nation--one of Thailand's two major English-language dailies, widely read by Thai elites and the expatriate community--had an article with the following headline:

Really?  Those brilliant folks at the Culture Ministry, those guardians of all that is pure and virtuous in the kingdom just figured out that there might be some inappropriate stuff on TV here?  Where are these paragons of virtue, these scions of purity when HBO and Cinemax are running an all-day Saw marathon on Saturday, starting in the morning/afternoon when kids have easy access to the tube?  Yes, I know those examples are from premium channels, but really, is it that hard to delay the back-to-back-to-back showings of the Friday the 13th flicks until at least maybe 7 p.m.?

What about the trailers for horror movies, complete with zombies attacking and the occasional blood spatter, shown before films marketed for children?  I’m absolutely gobsmacked that it’s taken the uproar over the soap opera to bring the issue of what may or may not be appropriate for media that is readily/easily accessible by minors.  And don't even get me started on the inordinate number of Steven Segal movies shown on television here...I believe there's something in the Geneva Convention about that.

Fortunately I had this story from *Not the Nation, which sarcastically beat the mainstream media to the punch by four months.  It's funny, mostly because it hits so close to the mark.

Please don't misunderstand me: I love Thailand and I know that most Thais are genuinely decent people who in fact are quite capable of discerning that the lifestyles of the super-wealthy depicted in Thai soaps do not represent reality for most people, just as most Americans understand that many of our television shows are not indicative of the daily life for most people in the United States.  Well, except for Melrose Place and The Wire--I'm pretty sure those are documentaries.  And, like most Americans, I am confident that the Thais that do enjoy these soap operas see them merely as (mindless?) entertainment, not as blueprints for successful, happy living.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to stumble off my soapbox.

*For those of you uninitiated to the brilliance that is Not the Nation, it is a parody of Thailand's news, very similar to The Onion.  Wickedly funny, with bitingly sarcasm and irony that quite often shines a glaring spotlight on the various idiosyncrasies of Thai politics and culture.  Excellent reading, I highly recommend it.

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