Verbal harassment of women continues with impunity in the media in Sri Lanka. Recently the spectacle of a judge at a TV contest casting obscenities at a young performer has led to heated discussions on the issue. Cat’s Eye joins the debate and makes a distinction between acceptable banter between equals and harassment in a situation of inequality which amounts to verbal and emotional violence against women.
What is ironic is that while these kinds of incidents go without any consequences for their perpetrators, the patriarchal Sri Lankan state is promoting a public discourse on morality which appears to only target women’s behavior and bodies. The attempt at some universities to impose a dress code which targets only female academics and female students, or the decision by the Children’s and Women’s Bureau of the Sri Lankan Police to publish, on a court order, headshots of porn stars, which has already had far reaching negative consequences for the women concerned, as compared to the men in the photographs. There is no doubt that while assertions of sexual morality are increasing, new forms of sexual exploitation and expression reveal themselves and is further facilitated by the media. This was the paradox and the lesson of the episode that unfolded at the TV reality show.
The vulgar display of sexism towards a contestant on the part of this powerful male judge and that this was televised without interruption is all the more contradictory when TV shows today are replete with censorship of scenes of kissing (even those which display everyday affection), alcohol consumption and smoking. Even a bottle of alcohol is checked out! Yet the verbal sexism against women in the media grows rampant. Cat’s Eye wonders whether this is allowed because, unlike the ‘foreign’ liquor, kissing and tobacco, this is a ‘home grown’ and therefore acceptable to the authorities? In all fairness it must be said that one of the female judges on the show protested against the sexism expressed. But where her dissent should have been highlighted, the scene was quickly cut, an embarrassed TV host tittered and the powerful male had his day on the stage.
Neither did the contestant who was the target of attack question the perpetrator. This country has a long history of witty sexual repartee, one notable example being the 18th Century poet Gajaman Nona who responded in spirited verses to Elapata Dissava’s ribald suggestions. More recently in politics, strong feisty women politicians like Vivienne Goonewardena have been able to trade insults and reply in kind to male politicians who indulged in vulgarity. Women politicians have to be always mindful that half of their constituencies are women. What did female viewers of the TV show think of what unfolded? How did they feel when the contestant/victim was silent? Her silence could have been a reflection of the unequal power relations between a contestant and a judge, or a younger vs senior colleague. Yet women watch their so-called role models closely. Gajaman Nona and Vivienne Goonewardena gave as good as they got. Their reputations did not suffer because of it. In fact they and many others have gone down in the annals of history as women who were able to hold their own and we respect them for it.
Duty of Politicians
Women politicians need to give back as good as they get, this is both their right and the right of the constituency they represent. Politics places upon them a special duty, indeed a responsibility to ensure that discriminatory practices are not tolerated and institutionalized and that rights of women are protected as well as promoted. Women politicians have a special role to play in not condoning to discrimination and male politicians must support the right to non-discrimination, not derogate it.
However the majority of today’s women politicians, are subservient, appear to have no political autonomy and in particular are often cowed by the sexism leveled against them by their male colleagues. Male politicians in turn have no compunction in blatantly using verbal sexism or sexual abuse against women on campaign trails; rile women politicians with sexual innuendo and sexist comment within and outside parliament. In the political power balance women are often in the position of unequals and the closing of ranks by male politicians of all shades and stripes to keep women from increasing their number in formal politics institutionalizes this discrimination.
Reality TV and its Ethics
Reality shows on local TV seem to be following global trends in that they are becoming more and more ‘ultra-real’. In other words, the participants featured in these shows are expected to ‘perform’ an ultra-real version of reality replete with entertaining dialogues, emotional ‘action’, inter-personal politics and fake personality clashes. This is not only aimed at individual/political image building but also at boosting viewership in order to increase advertising sales. It seems that the viral politicization of virtually all aspects of Sri Lankan life has been further endorsed by the television media by featuring politicians turned entertainers – as if there were no other worthy individuals and sections of Sri Lankan society to be given prominence. Even if the characters featured on these shows are incapable of being restrained, should not the talk show hosts as well as TV companies abide by a code of ethics: one which does not discriminate, abuse or demean others for the purpose of public entertainment?
In Sri Lanka there is no framework that regulates broadcast media nor is there a body to which disgruntled or unhappy viewers could complain for a number of reasons including if a programme incites violence or demeans women. In the absence of a code of conduct, TV stations which compete with each other to attract more viewers, blithely disregard degrading portrayals of women. On the contrary, violence against, and harassment of women appears to be a staple of programming content and is used quite liberally to titillate viewers and thereby boost the popularity of the station and increase sponsorships/revenue. Cat’s Eye checked some of the popular TV stations. They claimed that there was a code of ethics which everyone ignored!. While a media policy does not necessarily have to be restrictive, it has to be conceded that drafting such a policy/ legislation in the current context is not without complications as such an initiative is most likely to be used by the government as a means through which to further restrict media freedom. Hence, we have to walk the tightrope to ensure that while advocating a policy that sets out guidelines for responsible programming on the part of the media, the initiative is not appropriated by the government to crack down on freedom of expression.