Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The imagined world of Thai soap operas

A striking feature of most of the Thai soap operas is the extremely stereotyped social milieu they represent. 90 % of the soap operas are set in upper bourgeois milieu, displaying very wealthy families living in palatial homes surrounded by a bevy of maids and servants. It does not actually represent an existing social milieu, but is more an imagined high class-society, where young men and women devote their whole time to romantic intrigues and, seemingly, are disencumbered from the contingencies of professional life. This idealization of the social setting is reinforced by the endless reproduction of the same features from one series to another. The wide diversity of the life situations in the country is obliterated and replaced by a narrow range of models.

Another trait is the constant reminder of the rules of social hierarchy. There are often two sets of people, the “masters” and the “servants”. Within the masters’ world, there is strife and competition, joy and tears, unions and break up. The servants are only shown as a reflection of their masters’ world : they gossip about them, assess their behavior with a childish naivety in the secret confines of the kitchen, but their own life and destiny have no interest in the plot. There is only one kind of interaction between the two groups : the servants are attending, with submissiveness and obedience, their masters. They cater to their every whim and never revolt. They are there to enhance the social greatness of their masters.

The characters are as much stereotyped as the social milieu. There is the mother, sporting a khunying-style hairdo, wise and protective, who has long accepted the vagaries of her husband. There are the daughters - either the dutiful one, pride of her parents, who has only one aspiration : to lead a quiet and moral life with her husband ; either the bitch-type, inclined on stealing husbands and destroying the life of harmonious couples. The sons follow a similar dual pattern.

The locations in which the plot is developing are also limited : the splendid living rooms where discussions within the families or with a few selected visitors – often prospective fiancés – take place in the comfort of leather sofas or mother-of-pearl inlaid Chinese furniture at the foot of extravagant neo-classical winding staircases, the VVIP hospital rooms where one of the character will recover from some ailment, the sport cars where the trendy teenagers will tease each other or quarrel… You won’t see them walking in a normal street among normal people, or shop at Big C. They are living on a higher plane, like demi-gods on the flanks of Mount Meru.

One of the messages of these series is that the existing social hierarchy is a fact of life, a natural evidence which does not need to be justified. The idealized setting is presented as a model to get inspiration from or even to copy. Verbal expressions, physical attitudes, type of furniture and indoor design, dressing style and life situations are being reproduced in real life, not by the actual upper middle classes, but more by a petty and middle bourgeoisie avid to project the image of them playing in a superior category.

Interestingly, the few series which are taking place in the “countryside” are also set in a unreal, idealized world : sprawling traditional wooden mansions where the up-country masters would wear traditional costumes. Servants in Rama IV clothing style would prostrate themselves at their feet. Probably nowhere in today Thailand you can see such scenes outside of theaters and cultural centers. Don’t expect here to have a glimpse of the half urbanized provincial small towns where rice fields are fast replaced by housing villages, and which constitute the current reality of much of Thai countryside. Again, reflecting the real world is not the aim, but rather to influence the real worlds with imagined models.

Perhaps, the creators of these series consider that they have to make their audiences dream or aspire to higher materialistic success and that they must not be reminded of their real situation in life. Perhaps, the words of the consumer products companies which sponsor these series are dictating the rules of the game. The extreme focus on syrupy romantic intrigues leave no space for hints of social issues (drugs, inequality, poverty, aids, relation between various ethnic communities, between Thai and Farangs…) and even less for political content. Nobody expects a soap opera to deal with being and nothingness, but it would be imaginable that it stays enjoyable and, at the same time, treats his viewers as more adult.

Arnaud Dubus

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