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Whenever my wife is watching a lakorn (Thai soap opera) and I deign to make a comment on the absurdity of the “plot”, she sighs in contempt at my stupidity, rolls her eyes toward the lakorn gods, asks them for the strength to suffer dimwits like me, and then assumes her most patronising tone to remind me, once more, that: “It’s not real. It’s just a TV show.”

I have always hated soap operas, preferring instead to live my own life rather than derive some voyeuristic pleasure from watching dramatised and sensationalistic parodies. These Thai “dramas”, as they are known, have galvanised my distaste. I have tried to watch them, hoping to get more of a cultural and social insight, as well as hoping to improve my Thai. I have failed on all fronts.

They typically run for a few weeks with a standard storyline involving hi-so, unnaturally-white-skinned, materialistic women shouting, screaming, pouting and crying for dramatic effect. Add a liberal sprinkling of petulant foot stamping and the spoilt-little-rich-girl tantrum is complete.

I could never understand this. Before coming to Thailand, I had read in a number of guide books about the cultural dos and don’ts in the Kingdom. High on the list was displays of public emotion, which would result in the Asian phenomenon of losing face. Either the guide books were all part of some conspiracy to turn farangs into submissive tourists, or the soap opera script writers were flouting the rules.

Both Pim and my ex-girlfriend typically watch two lakorns at the same time, switching channels during the commercial breaks. I can’t really tell the difference between one and the other, and I suspect neither can they.

Even Shakespeare knew that there are only a handful of stories in the world but countless variations thereof. The Thai soaps have been milking the same mad cow dry for years.

It was inevitable that sooner or later there would be a lakorn about flight attendants and in January, 2008, the doomsday prophecy was fulfilled. Songkhram Nang Fai (Angel Wars) caused quite a stir amongst Thailand’s very own flying waitresses who felt that it painted an unrealistic picture of their profession by showing bitchy flight attendants fighting (sometimes literally) over the affections of a dashing pilot. However, rather than laughing off the inane parodies as superficial tack, their overreaction merely serves to suggest that the fictional view may be closer to the truth than anyone realised. In fact, the beautiful irony is that their reaction is pure lakorn. This is turning into a psychological war.

The Thai Airways International Labour Union (TAILU) lobbied for a suspension of sponsorship to the show unless it was changed to reflect the true professionalism of flight attendants. Somsak Srinual of the TAILU asked whether the shows would improve society or benefit viewers. Well, erm, no, Khun Somsak. It’s a lakorn. They are all BS. Even my wife knows this. Somsak went on to claim that the shows, “introduce violence just to improve the series’ ratings”. No shit, Sherlock. Welcome to the brain-dead world of consumer-driven TV and movies. Here, Somsak. Try this. TURN IT OFF!

The makers of the show, aware that violence is only half of the recipe for TV success, hit on the golden formula by adding a hint of sex. This led to flight attendant representatives also complaining that the uniforms worn by the TV angels were too sexy and revealing. OK, so now I’m a little bit interested.

In defence of the series, the actor who played the pilot, Nawat Kulrattanarak, in a surprising display of intellectual thought, pointed out that, “affairs of the heart can happen in any profession.” True. We see endless lakorns set in the business world with the exact same (lack of a) plot and no-one complains.

In addition to the hi-socialites and business people of Bangkok, many ethnic, cultural and social groups are stereotyped, parodied and belittled, yet nobody protests. What makes the flight attendants think they are any different?

In the soaps, Isaan people are always portrayed as dark-skinned and stupid. Their characters are invariably maids, taxi drivers, criminals or general undesirables. Isaan people never complain about their portrayal and indeed the soaps are extremely popular with north-easterners. Every lakorn has a token ladyboy for comedic effect. They are always portrayed as overly camp… Ok, you’ve got me on that one. Nevertheless, there are no rallies of katoeys dictating how the pulp media should depict them. Likewise, dwarves seem to make for good comedy in Thailand. Farangs, blacks and all foreigners are generally shown to be either stupid or lacking in moral values, yet nobody makes a fuss.

It might be as politically incorrect as Hitler telling gay jokes at a bar mitzvah but it’s just a TV show. This is Thai society in the 21st Century: openly and unashamedly bigoted. If anyone wants to start a campaign against ALL lakorns, they’d get my vote, but it makes no sense to pick on just one on moral grounds.

The very fact that the flight attendants have been so anal about this makes them look far worse than any soap opera ever could. If they had ignored the problem, as is the usual Thai want, it might just have gone away without anyone noticing. However, their public petulance has simply had the effect that the show’s producers undoubtedly intended in that now everyone wants to watch what started out as a show with low ratings. There’s no such thing as bad publicity.

So what do I really think of the show? While the thought of women in tight-fitting uniforms bitch-slapping each other appeals to some primal and sub-conscious fetish, I am afraid I can’t answer that question. Unlike the soap addicts and media-swayed cheap thrill seekers, I have steered well clear of it, preferring instead to spend my time on more productive pursuits, such as helping young Thai girls prepare for the TOEIC English test so that they can get a job as a flight attendant. Hey, the piranha’s gotta eat.

Paul Snowdon – February 2, 2008

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04 Jan 2013, 11:25
That's rlealy thinking out of the box. Thanks!
07 Jan 2013, 05:30
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