Thai TV Shows Won’t Stop Trivializing Rape

Aggressive male leads usually force women into submission, or shun them after they are sexually assaulted by another man.

03 March 2021, 9:42am

For many, sexual assault is an extremely difficult subject to broach, especially with friends and family. But the mishandling of this delicate topic still runs rampant in Thai media. In February, an episode of the Thai drama Wife on Duty featured a scene where a woman is chained and sexually assaulted by a kidnapper. Then, after being rescued, she is shunned by her husband who’s disgusted by her experience. Thai viewers took to social media to air their frustrations at the problematic scene after the episode aired, but this is far from the first time abuse was trivialized on national television.

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Despite growing public backlash, sexual assault plot lines are common in lakorns, the soap operas that typically dominate Thailand’s primetime television. In fact, they’re so common, that they’ve become a trope. Like on Wife on Duty, victim-blaming figures in many of these shows. “Slap-kiss,” a popular lakorn genre, also usually features revenge plots, sexual violence, and mental abuse against the female leads. Thai shows are becoming increasingly popular across Asia — including mainland China, Japan, and Southeast Asian countries — which means the disturbing portrayals of sexual assault are now exported to foreign audiences.

Many Thai dramas “reproduce domestic violence,” said Wipavee Phongpin, a sociology lecturer at Thammasat University. “Especially sexual abuse…rape [as] punishment, [and] disdain for rape victims. These [forms of] violence are normalized in everyday life through drama.”

Slap-kiss dramas almost always involve aggressive manhandling of the female lead by male characters, supposedly to force her into submission. Fervent kisses and even sexual assault inflicted by the male lead on the female lead are often justified by his ‘love’ for her. Despite the rocky (and rapey) start, they eventually develop mutual love as the story progresses.

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2015’s A Woman's Trickery is one such show. In the series, a woman is sold to a rich family by her debt-ridden father and forced to have a baby with a stranger. Despite initially being trapped in an arrangement against their will, the pair later fall in love.

Meanwhile, 2019’s Man of Vengeance, another wildly popular slap-kiss drama, tells the story of a man who was presumed dead as a child but returns decades later to take revenge on his childhood tormentors. However, his plan is complicated by an unexpected reunion with his childhood sweetheart, with whom he develops a tormented love affair, which includes forced kisses and threats of rape.

For many viewers across Thailand, the melodramatic plot lines of lakorn make for highly addictive entertainment. But the problematic treatment of sexual assault on TV is especially disturbing, given the severity of the country’s longstanding problem with rape and gender violence. According to the Public Health Ministry, there were an average of 87 rape cases per day in 2013 — or one every 15 minutes. Meanwhile, a study by Thailand’s Health Promotion Foundation revealed that themes of rape and sexual violence were found in 80 percent of lakorns in 2014.

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Nitipan Wiprawit, the founder of the Facebook group No More Rape On Screen, told VICE that sexual assault tropes were even more common in lakorns about 10 years ago. While the appearance of such scenes has decreased over the years, Wiprawit said that they still exist in today’s soap operas.

In 2014, Wiprawit started a petition called “Stop Portraying Rape as Acceptable,” which aimed to raise awareness about the disturbing prevalence of victim-blaming in portrayals of sexual assault on Thai TV. According to Wiprawit, rape remains a highly stigmatized subject in Thai society. 

“The idea about victim-shaming is all around,” said Wiprawit. “Many feel like [the] victim [has] some fault that [makes] the rapist want to rape.”

However, Wiprawit also noted that attitudes among the “new generation” have “changed a lot.” Thai youths are now vocal about their disapproval of such portrayals.

The controversial scene from Wife on Duty drew massive backlash from the Thai public, sparking what some are calling a #MeToo movement in Thailand. #NoMoreRapeOnScreen and #banwifeonduty became trending topics on Thai Twitter.

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Among the show’s critics was Miss Universe Thailand 2020 Amanda Obdam, who wrote an impassioned tweet about the problematic treatment of sexual assault in local media.

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According to the country’s Broadcasting Act, TV programs may be penalized for offending “good morals” or “causing serious deterioration of the mind or health” of viewers. TV programs found in serious violation of these rules could be suspended.

But as sexual assault remains a stubborn element in lakorn, the teams behind them usually get away with just a slap on the wrist. In 2016, a television channel was fined a mere 50,000 Thai baht ($1,652) for violent scenes in the drama Club Friday to Be Continued. The soap, which was rated “suitable for all ages,” includes a scene where a woman is raped in front of amused onlookers. She is also tortured with a boiling hot motorcycle exhaust pipe pressed against her face.

Wife on Duty aired its last episode on Feb. 21; no legal action has been filed against its producers. However, in light of the recent uproar, Phongpin is hopeful for social change.

“Netizens’ anger about this latest incident revealed viewers’ awakening,” Phongpin said, adding that these viewers are now expecting “quality content” instead of “cultural violence.” This could lead producers to rethink gratuitous scenes of sexual assault in TV shows, and, perhaps, finally get rid of the trope.

Tagged:

Culture, violence, Thailand, sexual assault

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