Comedian Leap Sophorn almost always plays an “innocent” woman, she says. Her roles are varied: daughters, mothers, farmers, even KTV workers. But for the most part, she needs to nail a certain submissiveness.
It’s a sensibility perhaps at odds with her career trajectory. She is a member of a troupe affiliated with comedy supergroup Pekmi; their sketch shows air on CTN and MyTV, two of Cambodia’s most-viewed broadcast networks, which share a studio lot. “Society gives value to women,” she says. “In my experience, I share the same rights as a man.”
Before a live filming one night this week, Sophorn and another female comedian, Sreng Sokanda, seem a bit desensitised by the Cambodian television industry, which routinely subjects its fictional women to verbal, emotional and even physical abuse.
The word mi, a pejorative when paired with a female name, is peppered throughout their routines – but Sophorn says it must be viewed in context. “Some people think that mi is an impolite word to call people,” she says. “But we understand each other well.”
Sokanda says she feels empowered by her job – and does not see herself as limited by her gender. She goes a step further. “As an actress, the performance is always with a kiss scene, or with a wife who got hit by her husband,” she says. “But it is not a big deal. The men perform and hit women, but they use fake materials.”
“It’s just a performance; it hasn’t affected my feelings at all,” she continues. “We are on television to make people laugh and wear good clothes.”
As an actress, Sokanda does not believe it is her “right” to tell people what to think, she adds.
On television, Chem Chandara goes by the name Neay Pekmi, after the group he leads. He rode a wave to national celebrity along with the comedy show, which began airing in 2010.
Before, he toiled as a construction worker in Svay Rieng province. Now, he lives in a villa just north of the CTN studio on National Road 5. A 30cm exotic fish swims idly in an aquarium in his living room. An oversized portrait of Chandara with Prime Minister Hun Sen and first lady Bun Rany hangs on the wall above.
Chandara is recognisable nationwide. He recalls a performance at a disability centre. “Even the blind people know my voice, and the deaf people know my gestures,” he says with a laugh.
Likewise, he has become representative of a particular sort of brash comedy. Pekmi’s groups take licence with the jokes they make about serious issues: elections, sex trafficking, incurable diseases, domestic violence.
Such topical episodes are often “requested” by government ministries or NGOs, Chandara says, because they include short, educational messages. But there are only a few rules for what comes before. “We don’t attack the King, religion, or sponsors – and we try to avoid using obscene words,” Chandara says.
“And we always include a good message at the end,” adds Lok Ta Victor, Pekmi’s scriptwriter. “If we have a show where a husband commits violence [against his wife], the husband realises his mistake in the end.”
In an episode focused specifically on domestic violence, the protagonist is trapped in a marriage – arranged by her parents – with an alcoholic who beats her. When her parents come to assist their daughter, her husband beats her mother, too. She falls to the ground in an act of physical “comedy”.
Ultimately, the neighbours stop the abuse and blame the behaviour on the alcohol. (The Cambodia beer advertisement in the background betrays one of the network’s sponsors, an almost too-obvious irony.)
It’s one of many Pekmi lessons on abuse, cheating or relationship issues where violence is used as a ploy. But there is always an apology for offensive language at the end, something the comedians are quick to point out.
It’s not always well-received. “There are different types of audiences,” Chandara says. “Some admire, and some blame.”
An industry problem?
Pekmi’s programs are not an anomaly – violence against women is pervasive on Cambodian television. In Khmer dramas, advertisements and music videos – as well as a host of foreign shows – women are represented as submissive to whichever man is onscreen, and are often a recipient of his abuse, whether from his mouth or from his fists.
Cambodia has no television rating system, and it is local producers who select the content.
Media monitoring research conducted by the Asia Foundation shows that on the five largest national broadcasters – TV5, MyTV, CTN, Hang Meas and Bayon – 31 percent of aired programs contain violence against women (defined as physical, sexual or emotional). Those five channels account for nearly 80 percent of Cambodian viewership, according to a 2015 survey.
The data come from June, July and August. During those months, media monitors watched 1,304 hours of television – three days each week, says research officer Seila Sar. MyTV aired the most violent programming, while Bayon, which is owned by Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana, contained the least.
The data – part of an Asia Foundation project focused specifically on intimate partner violence in media – also found widespread victim blaming in news reports, and pervasive alcohol advertisements.
There are efforts to reform the sector: The Ministry of Information, along with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, is drafting a code of conduct for broadcasters, which it hopes to make compulsory with a prakas.
But for now, industry programming remains a free-for-all. “If a producer or programmer understands the code of conduct, they would reduce the offensive content,” says Phos Sovann, the director of the broadcast department at the Ministry of Information. “But right now, we are limited.”
“We don’t control each channel. It’s the channel owner. And sometimes they forget to think about the content of the program.”
Locally made television programs are far from alone in their depiction of violence against women.
Cambodian producers often fill timeslots with foreign shows. As a result, Thai and Korean programs were among those with the largest percentage of violent content on the Kingdom’s five most popular channels, according to the Asia Foundation’s media monitors.
Thailand’s primetime soap operas – usually adapted from popular novels – frequently depict rape as an acceptable means of seduction, according to the Southeast Asia Globe. As with Cambodian heroines, women are often cast as naïve on Thai television, making male characters “necessary” aggressors.
An online petition earlier this year – launched by a Thai man – demanded that Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) take a closer look at the content. It gained nearly 60,000 signatures, and a set of “ethical” guidelines for producers, directors and actors was presented by the NBTC in April.
Women on Korean dramas rarely fare better. The “innocent girl pursues cruel man” trope is a common one. The men are belittling and humiliating; the women, by turn, are quiet. This sort of plot frequently lends itself to depictions of verbal or emotional abuse that are resolved with a “happy” ending.
It’s not that gendered violence should be a taboo for mass-market entertainment; experts say that certain handling of the subject can effect real, positive change for women.
Consider an example from the UK. In a storyline that aired earlier this year on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers – the longest-running radio soap opera in the world – pregnant character Helen Titchener endures repeated emotional abuse and gaslighting from her husband. In the end, it turns physical. She stabs him (and this season, faces trial).
The daily drama, which aired over the course of a few months, prompted a national conversation about abuse in the UK and an online campaign that has raised over £170,000 for a domestic violence charity in the name of the character. (“For every fictional Helen, there are real ones,” it says.)
For some, the portrayal still left a sour taste. As the Guardian points out, “In real life, escaping an abuser doesn’t end with a cheery soundtrack.”
Cultural and legal gaps
Off screen, Cambodian women – 22 percent, according to a 2013 UN women report – continue to suffer violence, often rooted in a culture of misunderstanding.
Sokanda, the Pekmi comedian, admits to witnessing her father hitting her mother, but ascribes it to women’s inherent weakness.
“It is rude that men slap women, because women are weak, emotionally and physically,” she says.
Some experts suggest that Cambodian media – and especially television – shapes these perceptions.
“This happens mainly in the comedies. They portray it as a joke,” says Thida Khus, the executive director of NGO Silaka. “That makes people confused about the situation.”
“And it does matter, because the actors have this responsibility to the public. And the television editor also bears responsibility for that, for putting these kinds of shows in primetime,” she says, adding that seeing such violence on television is traumatising for real victims in Cambodia.
A report published in 2014 by Dr Katherine Brickell, of Royal Holloway, University of London, found a troubling trend toward misinformation: 90 percent of women didn’t know they had a right to be free from domestic violence. Ninety-five percent had learned about Cambodia’s Domestic Violence Law on television.
Brickell thinks there should be a change in how domestic violence is addressed. “There should be a greater use of ‘edutainment’ and mass media in Cambodia, to promote role models in radio and TV dramas that the audience can identify with,” she says.
There is also a legal gap. The 2005 Law on Domestic Violence – which is currently under review – only applies to cases involving married couples and those in the household.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, who was instrumental in its passage, agrees that the law should be reexamined, especially as it pertains to legal cases, many of which are settled out of court, if at all.
“[The law] leaves out a lot of different kinds of relationships,” explains gender expert Robin Mauney. “For example, if a man is married and having an affair, and beats his girlfriend” – something that has happened in soap opera plots.
The law also undermines non-physical violence, and leaves the definition of “criminal” up to the interpretation of local police, Mauney says. “I’ve heard, many times, where the woman says the police won’t file a report. It might be a case where an axe was thrown at the woman [but she hasn’t been injured]. It’s in the absence of real guidance, I think.”
It affects even those in the television industry.
In July 2015, a CTN host, Ek Socheata (better known as Ms Sasa) was the public victim of domestic violence. Her attack at the hands of real estate tycoon Sok Bun was captured on security camera. Video footage shows Bun dragging her on the floor before punching her, repeatedly, in the head. A bodyguard waves a handgun in her face.
Socheata ultimately dropped her legal complaint against Bun and settled out of court, without testifying. (The case went ahead, and in February, he received a suspended three-year sentence and a fine of $1,500.)
Chea Sudaneth, the executive director at the Women’s Media Centre, says it’s this sort of public example that worries her the most. “[Violence on television] can be a model to audiences, easily,” she says.
Asked for shows that she finds particularly worrisome, she betrays her frustration: “Honestly speaking, I never watch television.”