I recently had the opportunity to view a training film on gender relations in Thailand. Produced by a government agency, it adopted the format of a domestic drama, with acting and dialogue as dire as any Thai soap.
The dramatis personae are a nuclear family of the globalized world, comprising Khun Pho (white collar job, brings work home so does no housework), Khun Mae (stay-at-home who takes responsibility for the family’s housework and worrying), and Nu Di (an incorrigibly positive little brat who goes to sleep when told with the cheery smile of privilege on her lips).
Minor roles feature the divorced neighbour, who smokes, wears an un-ironed shirt with no tie and scowls, but who, surprise, surprise, turns out to be the villain despite having no moustache. His son suffers a debilitating lethargy brought about by the tension between filial obedience and having a dickhead as dad. And finally Nu Di’s teacher, female, naturally, with complexion a shade darker than Khun Mae; her clothing is appropriately less fashionable and her car less expensive than Khun Pho’s.
The proper place of women in Thai society is exemplified in a flashback where Khun Pho is waiting at a red light with his sister (younger, of course) at the wheel. She takes the opportunity to express her profuse thanks to Khun Pho for persuading their parents to let her learn to drive. Khun Pho is visibly gratified by this show of respect for his superior authority and wisdom.
Then the right turns green and Khun Pho helpfully guides his sister by instructing her to engage first gear and so on, for which he is rewarded with more gushing praise.
Now at this point I must fault the soundtrack. Someone stupidly edited out the cacophony of impatient honking that inevitably occurs if there is a delay of more than 5 milliseconds in responding to a green light, and I fear that the dramatic realism suffers for it.
Alas, when she does eventually move off, sister drives right into the path of a truck. From this, Khun Pho draws the proper conclusion. Driving is not for women.
But then one day Khun Pho is late picking up Nu Di from school. (No, of course children of this social class can’t use public transport.) (And of course there’s no school bus, do you think this is some namby-pamby international school?). Nu Di is missing! And she’s missing her own smartphone! (Again something that could have been tightened up, plotwise.)
The crisis is resolved but Khun Pho has rethought his ideas about female driving. He resolves to teach Khun Mae so that he has one less job to do.
In one scene he comes home to find Khun Mae completely baffled by two traffic signs in the handbook. One glance is enough for Khun Pho to sport his superior smile. Ah, he says, quoting the text in the book which Khun Mae seems to have missed, that is a railway crossing with a barrier and that is one without. Khun Mae reacts as if this were the supreme insight into the universe and all that surrounds it.
Then there is the practical lesson. Before they start, Khun Pho tells Khun Mae that the driver’s seat can be adjusted so that her feet can reach the pedals, as can the mirrors, and on some cars, even the steering wheel! Khun Mae accompanies all this with those obscure grunting noises that you see on daytime Thai TV where one boring old fart imparts factual trivia while another boring old fart reacts as if it were the revelation of the second coming.
As a demonstration of the proper subservience of middle-class Thai women, I thought the video was first-rate. What I couldn’t quite understand was why it was compulsory viewing for people like me who just wanted to renew their driving licence.
As a driver training video, on the other hand, it was a complete joke. Take, for example, the scene where Khun Pho gives Khun Mae her first lesson behind the wheel. After all the condescending waffle, Khun Mae pulls away from the kerb.
Now Thailand has no such thing as a provisional licence, but if you drive on a public road, you must have a licence, which Khun Mae clearly does not have since she’s just learning. So the only legal way to learn is on some mickey mouse circuit at a driving school, where the only traffic is other learners inching round in second gear. (This of course is ideal for learning how to negotiate Ratchaprasong at 5 o’clock of a rush hour.)
And if you look closely, when they drive off, neither know-it-all Khun Pho nor know-nothing Khun Mae have put on their seat belts. Tut-tut.
This worried me. Clearly audiences would get an excellent lesson in proper gender roles, but the misinformation about correct driving practice was disturbing.
Now as you wait outside there is a sign telling you not to use your mobile phones. Inside the viewing room this message is repeated on the wall. Twice.
I looked round at my fellow trainees out of concern for their proper education as future drivers. My apprehensions were misplaced. Those that hadn’t dozed off were engrossed in their phones.
And we all got a licence in the end.