Despite Thailand’s free-spirited image, there are a number of subjects a person can’t talk about openly, unless they are speaking in hushed tones behind closed doors. Even in some classrooms, opinions aren’t encouraged, training teenagers to suppress their own thoughts from an early age.
Recently, film directors in Thailand have offered a safe way to encourage discussion of these issues by exploring taboo subjects on film.
A recent new series called Hormones (or Hormones: The Confusing Teens) gives Thai teens a chance to learn about issues surrounding sex, violence, and homosexuality. The series isn’t available on public access television, but can be found easily on YouTube with some of the episodes racking up millions of views. With English subtitles, the series is also watched in other Asian countries, as fans in Vietnam and Indonesia have attested online.
A liberal-minded viewer may wonder what is really new about this, since Thais can easily access shows like Sex and the City and Gossip Girl.
The New York Times ran an article recently on college hookups, insinuating that girls today have more power to choose whoever and whenever they want to sleep with.
Comments after the article lament the waning morality of teens and the so-called sexual revolution. That is the Western media speaking, and reveals that part of the population doubts whether a culture that condones hooking up offers women real liberty.
By contrast, in Thailand there is a trend towards creating more rounded characters in television scripts, but for the most part the heroine in most free-televised soap operas is a classic archetype: a virgin Thai girl who gets raped or coerced into bed.
The implication being that a good Thai girl never sleeps with a man until she is married. That is, of course, unless the Thai girl in question is a jealous wench vying for the attention of the main male lead. I have close Asian friends whose first words in a conversation about their relationships with their boyfriend is, “I am still a virgin.”
Despite all the bravado and coyness that surrounds the topic in the 2008 film Hormones – which planted the seed for the current hit television series – director Songyos Sugmakanan cuts right to the chase. The film brings explores a number of different archetypal characters: high-school teens who have sex because they want to, those who had sex because they thought it was love, as well as those who are wondering which gender they should have sex with.
One of the characters named “Sprite” is a teenage girl who gets involved in casual sex. After she finds her true love and stops sleeping around, however, the guy dumps her when he can’t come to terms with her sex history.
Another girl named “Dao” is a day-dreamer with overprotective parents. Dao falls in love with a guy she has just met. All seems well until her mother finds out they are dating and tells her to focus on her studies. Since they can’t see each other, the guy crawls through her window, Romeo and Juliet style, and sleeps with her. Young Romeo, however, turns out to be a Lothario, and the guy escapes, never to be seen or heard from again.
Dao, scared of getting pregnant, goes to get emergency pills from a drug store, where the store vendor reprimands her and shames her to tears about the consequences of pre-marital sex. She goes on to have nightmares about getting an abortion in an illegal clinic. Meanwhile, her mother is in the dark about what’s going on with her daughter.
Another popular character is gay, and experiments with a close male friend. Adults in the film also have problems. Some of them are single parents, while others are trapped in marriages with spouses who are having affairs.
The fact that Asian teens are twittering and talking about Hormones reveals the contrast between attitudes towards sex in the East and West. Although similar Western series portray a degree of so-called liberation, Asia is still struggling with relatively small issues like birth control and pre-marital sex. When teens can’t talk about sex with adults or even feel normal about getting birth control pills, it speaks volumes about the upbringing of children in Asian societies.
To be sure, criticisms have been leveled at the film and television series. Many adults fear that seeing these behaviors on screen might encourage their children to reenact the characters.
Last month, Hormones lead actress Sutatta "Punpun" Udomsil was caught using illicit drugs in a photograph that was leaked online. The father of the 16-year-old said at a press conference that he had confronted his daughter about the incident. He said that she admitted to experimenting with the drugs once and said she was sorry.
In the meantime, for fear that the serious could have a negative influence, National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission board members have called for a meeting with Grammy, the producer of the show, to discuss the program’s content.
Although there are concerns to be addressed, Hormones offers proof that if a film or television series is educational and thought-provoking, there is no stopping it.