Posts Tagged 'feminism'

New tool for female empowerment: Turkish soap operas

By Harry van Versendaal

When the Turkish soap opera “Noor” revealed to Samar that marriage can be an equal partnership between two loving people rather than a state of misery and repression, she switched off her TV and got herself a divorce lawyer.

“I liked using the subject of soap operas to speak of the important issue of women’s rights. Doing so cast a different light on the story; it was also a happier way to tell the story,” says Nina Maria Paschalidou. Her latest film, “Kismet,” is screening at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) after making a well-reviewed debut at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November where it was nominated for the IDFA Best Mid-Length Documentary Award.

Fifty-four-year-old Samar, a Lebanese woman living for years in the United Arab Emirates, is not alone in finding inspiration in Turkish TV dramas. Samira, a victim of sexual harassment in Cairo during the recent Egyptian revolution, tells the camera how she found the courage, despite being pressured by her family to keep quiet, to take the perpetrators – army officers – to court after watching Fatmagul, a gang-rape victim in another Turkish drama series, fight for justice. She not only won her case, but also helped to stop the until-then mandatory “virginity tests” given to all females in police custody.

Paschalidou, a 40-year-old filmmaker, journalist and producer from Veria, a small town in northern Greece with a strong Ottoman imprint, became fascinated by how a medium that provokes much derision in the West has become a successful tool for female empowerment in the East.

“I was staying in Washington when a friend, who is from Turkey, showed me a Washington Post article on Turkish soap operas. I was intrigued and began to look into the subject,” says Paschalidou, founder of independent documentary and multimedia group Forest Troop.

Millions of viewers across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans are hooked on TV dramas such as “Gumus,” which is broadcast across the Arab world as “Noor,” “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault?” “The Magnificent Century,” “Life Goes On,” and “Forbidden Love.” During a recent survey carried out in 16 Middle East countries, three out of four said they had seen at least one of about 70 Turkish shows that have been sold abroad since 2001.

“The impact went beyond all expectations. People started to name their children after the main characters, women started to divorce their husbands because of what they saw on TV, tourist operators offered site-specific tours,” Paschalidou says.

Bad signal

The success of these shows naturally did not go down well with conservatives in the Middle East. In Iran, where shows are watched via smuggled satellite dishes hidden on balconies, authorities said soaps were “destabilizing the institution of the family.” Saudi clerics went as far as to issue fatwas against people watching the shows.

Apart from being an unintended cultural export and a unique brand of soft power, Turkish dramas also raked in cash – tons of it. The value of soap opera exports skyrocketed from a million dollars in 2007 to 130 million in 2012 as the country sold 13,000 hours of programming, according to data from the country’s Tourism and Culture Ministry.

Part of their appeal, the director says, was thanks to the good-old American recipe. “It’s the drama, the passionate love affairs, the nasty vendettas – a recipe first sold by the Americans with ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ in the 1980s,” says Paschalidou.

But, like most observers, Paschalidou also sees culture-specific factors at play. “It was no coincidence that these shows struck a chord with audiences in the areas of the former Ottoman Empire. There was something exotic, yet at the same time quite familiar, to them. People in this part of the world have many shared memories, a common past, similar food,” she says.

They also have similar ambitions.

“Viewers in the Middle East see the Turkish woman as a model of the modern Muslim female. This is a bit who they would like to be, who they struggle to become,” Paschalidou says. They want greater freedom and more rights. And more wealth. “What all these shows have in common is their penchant to show off designer clothes, nice homes and luxury villas,” she says.

Interestingly, while women in Arab countries appear in the documentary to be inspired by the modern, feminist narrative, their Greek counterparts are looking in the other direction as Turkish series have triggered in many a nostalgia for pre-modern values and ideals such as tradition and family ties. “I like these shows because they have morals and the girls don’t take off their underwear all the time like they do here,” says one elderly Greek fan.

Greece’s stubborn recession, now in its seventh year, has hit most people hard and at the same time influenced Greeks’ collective self-understanding. “The crisis has been widely associated with the West and many things modern. As a result, we have dug out old memories and turned to the Eastern part of our identity,” Paschalidou says.

“Perhaps there is also this longing for true love, for the type of man who stands by his wife and looks after her needs – even if he is a bit of on the macho side,” she says.

To be continued

Closer to home, these programs have inflicted some collateral damage by exposing Turkey’s internal contradictions: The narrative of a modern, prosperous Turkey is being challenged by a conservative, intolerant backlash. Once the darling of liberal reformists, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has criticized a historical soap based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, which depicts the sultan as a man in thrall to his favorite wife, as “an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect” – has fed concerns among secularists about his increasingly authoritarian style of government.

“Turkey’s efforts to promote a modern, Western face cannot disguise its huge shortcomings in the area of women’s rights,” Paschalidou says.

Despite a series of legal reforms over the past few years, Turkey did poorly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index. A recent survey found that a third of marriages in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces involved very young brides, many of them under the age of 15. In “Life Goes On” a young girl from Anatolia is married off to an abusive 70-year-old. The girl escapes her yoke, but in reality such happy endings are less common.

“Reality is not always like in the series. A girl who has been forced into marrying at an early age in Turkey will not have the support of her family if she decides to break up,” the director says.

“These series present an idealized image that Turkish society is mature enough to solve its problems, which is not always the case,” she says.

But the effort is there, and it is a genuine effort Paschalidou believes. The shows are mainly written by female scriptwriters who nudge the narratives into more feminist paths, and even attempt to involve their audience. When the final court scene of “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault? was filmed, the extras cast to carry banners and shout slogans in support of Fatmagul were real-life victims of sexual abuse.

“What really impressed me was that Turkish actresses are fully conscious of what it is that they are doing,” she says. Many of them have taken the effort outside the TV studio by participating in a campaign to stop domestic violence against women.

“It’s not just a marketing strategy. Some of them genuinely believe they can help.”

Advertisements

Orgasm Inc.

By Harry van Versendaal

Sales of Viagra, the famous blue pill used to treat male impotence, exceeded $460 million worldwide last year. Imagine how much money could be made from producing a pill for the other half of the globe’s population: women. It’s no surprise that the world’s pharmaceutical companies are locked in a race to come up with a pink Viagra.

Liz Canner joined the race in 2002. That was when the 42-year-old filmmaker from Vermont, in the USA, was recruited by Vivus, a small pharmaceutical company based in California. Her job was to edit erotic videos for women used as test subjects in the development of an “orgasm cream” designed to cure something called “female sexual dysfunction.” In the process, she discovered that “sexual dysfunction” was a catchall term with little scientific value. But there was little point in creating the drug unless the industry first created the condition. As a medical researcher says in the film: “We’ve come up with the drug. Now we have to come up with the disease.”

The fruit of her nine-year research, a 78-minute documentary called “Orgasm Inc,” exposes efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to medicate female sexual desire – from cosmetic vaginal surgery to Dr Stuart Meloy’s push-button orgasmatron – putting women’s health at risk for profit.

“Orgasm Inc” won the Best Feature award at the Vermont International Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary award at the Southeast New England Film Festival, while The Independent magazine last year named Canner one of the top 10 independent filmmakers to watch. The film will be screened at the Orpheas open-air cinema on Kos on Friday, September 3, at 8.50 p.m.

Canner spoke to Athens Plus about the industry of female pleasure.

How did you get involved in this project?

After over a decade of producing documentaries on human rights issues such as genocide, police brutality and world poverty, the violent images from my movies were giving me nightmares and making me depressed about the state of humanity. In order to change the script in my head, I had decided my next project would be about pleasure; specifically, the history of the science of female pleasure.

Then, strangely, while I was in the middle of shooting the movie, I was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women. The videos were to be watched by women during the clinical trial of their new drug. I accepted the job and gained permission to film my employers for my own documentary. I thought the experience would give me access to the secretive world of the pharmaceutical industry and insight into the latest scientific thinking about women and pleasure.

I did not set out to create an expose but what I uncovered at work compelled me to keep filming and investigating. This insider perspective allows the film to scrutinize the culture within the pharmaceutical industry, which has been perverted to place the drive for profit above our health. So much for pleasure…

How easy was it to make this film? What were the main obstacles you had to overcome?

It is not easy to make a documentary about the secretive pharmaceutical industry and the media’s collusion with it. It has been quite stressful.

You spent nine years on this project. Has it given you a new perspective on the issue of female orgasm – or lack thereof?

The biggest secret about orgasms is how rarely women actually have them during heterosexual intercourse. One of the women in my film, Charletta, underwent painful surgery to have an orgasmatron device installed in her spine. The only thing that it did was make her leg kick out uncontrollably. Needless to say, it did not work. It turned out that Charletta actually had no trouble climaxing but wanted it to happen during sex with her husband in what she considered a “normal” way. She was thrilled when I told her that most women don’t climax through intercourse alone.

According to Charletta, her idea about what her sex life was supposed to be like came from the movies. In our society, we’re constantly bombarded with images of fabulous sex in the media and the message that we should have orgasms every time. This is just not accurate. Researchers have found that 70 percent of women actually need direct clitoral stimulation in order to climax.

Charletta had been told by the doctor that she had female sexual dysfunction because she was not having orgasms during intercourse. The idea that there’s sexual dysfunction implies that there’s a norm. However, there is nothing that says what functional is. There is no norm — no medical study that says that women should be having five orgasms a month during intercourse or 10 sexual thoughts a day in order to be healthy. So this idea that you can be dysfunctional is problematic. If you create something that makes it appear that there is a function that women should be living up to, it’s quite dangerous. I think that all of us have complaints. I mean, who doesn’t want to have an orgasm whenever they want?

Your film contradicts past reports that some 43 percent of women suffer from sexual dysfunction. Do you think the figure is arbitrary?

All over the media you hear that a shocking 43 percent of women suffer from female sexual dysfunction. I first heard this statistic when I was working for the pharmaceutical industry in the early 2000s and it surprised me. If so many women had female sexual dysfunction, why didn’t my mother tell me about it and why weren’t my friends talking about it? In fact, I had not even heard of the disease until I took the job with the pharmaceutical industry.

In “Orgasm Inc,” I investigate the history of the 43 percent statistic. It turns out that it was taken from a sociology survey that was conducted in the early ‘90s to find out what people’s sex lives were like. It was never meant to measure the number of women with a disease. Using exaggerated statistics like that manipulates women. It also says to Wall Street that there is a large market for this drug.

Do you think this is a case of disease mongering, as it were, i.e. of the industry trying to convince people there is something wrong with them?

The media talks about female sexual dysfunction as if it always existed — when in fact it was a term that came about in the late 1990s. When Viagra was released, it was such a blockbuster drug for men that companies like Pfizer began to think that there was also a big market for women. The problem was, in order to develop a drug, the FDA required that there be a clearly defined disease. Pfizer and a number of other drug companies sponsored the first meetings on FSD. In the end, 18 of the 19 authors of the definition of the disease had ties to 22 drug companies. This definition is extremely broad: Almost any sexual complaint you have, whatever causes it, will fall into this disease category.

It’s a bizarre disorder, because you have to self-diagnose and you have to be distressed by it. So in other words, if you never felt an iota of sexual desire in your life but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. If you never had an orgasm but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. There are real physiological conditions that can cause sexual problems such as hysterectomies and diabetes. I think we can’t ignore that. But for the most part, most of women’s sexual problems are caused by sociocultural conditions like past sexual abuse, relationship problems and stress due to overworking.

Could it be that men are simply looking for ways to make up for their failure to stimulate women?

In the United States, part of the problem is the lack of comprehensive sex education for both men and women. In most sex ed classes, the full genital anatomy is not taught. The clitoris, the most sensitive part of the female body, is not mentioned because it is taboo to talk about pleasure. It was surprising to me how many women and men do not know where the clitoris is.

While shooting your documentary, you witnessed the development of a number of treatments. Did any of them seem to work?

In “Orgasm Inc,” I followed the pharmaceutical industry over a period of nine years as they raced to develop a female Viagra. I kept hoping that they would discover a magic bullet but most of the products currently in clinical trials do not work much better than a placebo (sugar pill) and the side effects for many of them are quite horrific – including breast cancer and cardiovascular problems. Part of the problem is that sexual experience is really complicated and based more on context than biology.

In the press you read: “Men have their Viagra, women want theirs too.” I’d love to know which PR firm came up with this slogan, because it is very effective. The question is what do women need Viagra for? Most of women’s sexual problems are not caused by a physical medical condition but are the result of sociocultural issues. So, I think the only way that most women will be satisfied with their sex lives will be if they can take a product that makes them feel comfortable about their bodies; that ends sexual abuse toward women; that creates equality in the workplace; that creates equality in relationships; that gives women good sex education so they can fully know about the clitoris and about how their bodies function. Why can’t we take a pill like that?

Isn’t there a percentage of women, however small, that do suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction?

The thing about sexual experience is that our sense of satisfaction comes from our expectations. In other words, if women think that they should be having an orgasm every time they have intercourse, then a lot of women are going to believe they have sexual problems. If women think they should have the same libido at 60 as they had at 20, a lot of women are going to think they have a disease.

Right now, there is a cultural shift going on and medicine is changing our expectations but this is not a new phenomenon. In our grandmother’s time, women with low desire were said to suffer from frigidity. During the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, the pathologizing and medicalizing of woman’s sexual experience was challenged and resisted. Terms such as nymphomania and frigidity were no longer used. Recently, the clocks have been turned back. Low desire is now called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (a subset of FSD) and there are quite a number of drug companies racing to find a nose spray, pill, cream or patch to cure it. By the way, I find it very curious that they’re working on a desire drug for women. Would anybody think to develop a desire drug for men?

It is important to note that some women do suffer from a real physiological problem when they experience a lowering of their sex drive. Radical hysterectomies and some antidepressants affect libido. However, the majority of women do not suffer from a disease. For many of us, our libidos are influenced by everyday life experiences such as aging, our sense of body image, the health of our relationship, stress, and past sexual encounters.

You have taken your film to many film festivals. What has been the response to your work?

It has been exciting taking “Orgasm Inc” to film festivals. We have had many sold-out shows and received a lot of positive feedback. There have been quite a number of times when women have come up to me in tears after a screening and told me that they learned things about their sexual response that they did not know and they feel relieved to discover they are healthy and normal.

Have you had any reactions from the pharmaceutical companies?

When we showed “Orgasm Inc” at Lincoln Center in New York, a woman who works for the pharmaceutical industry stood up and denounced the film. The audience grew annoyed with her and booed her down. It was quite a tense moment.

Are you working on a new project?

My next project is finally going to be about female pleasure. It is called “The Hidden History of O.”

Crossing a desert for dates

By Harry van Versendaal

“European women are not beautiful. They have small noses,” jokes an African woman watching a Western soap opera with her friends in Bilma, an oasis town in northeast Niger. There is a lot in Belgian director Nathalie Borgers’s latest film to suggest that everything in life is relative. But, again, there’s even more to suggest it is not.

“Winds of Sand, Women of Rock,” which was screened this week at a packed theater at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, follows three women of the Toubou tribe, in south Sahara, as they undertake their annual, 1,500-kilometer on-foot journey across the desert to collect dates and earn money for their families. Domagali, Amina and Mariama must guide a caravan of children, camels and goats through extremely inhospitable terrain braving draught, heat and sandstorms.

Looking back on the exhausting and perilous three-week journey, Borgers, a striking figure in her mid-40s, keeps no secret of her admiration of these female nomads.

“I was struck by the self-empowerment, their capacity to resist different things like their social system, the patriarchal structure, the adverse environment,” she said during an interview with Athens Plus in the northern port town. Borgers flew to Thessaloniki from Paris, where she has lived for the past 10 years, to present her documentary which is screened here as part of the festival’s Africa section.

Living in a culture where men are camel breeders, while they are reduced to their household routine, the annual caravan is these women’s only chance to break a rather suffocating, male-dominated pattern. In a place where camels are the measure for all things, women are apparently worth just half the price of men. The strenuous path to Bilma is also a path to economic independence, pride and self-confidence. Money collected from the dates will allow them to feed their families for a year and they can spend some of it to treat themselves some with some womanly stuff like new clothes and jewelry.

But first they have to get there. We watch them walking in the desert, taming the rebellious camels, praying, cooking, educating their kids, resting. And then back on their feet.

Beautifully crafted (excellent panoramic landscape shots – kudos to director of photography Jean Paul Meurisse), the movie also does a good job in exposing the women’s daily stresses and hopes. Amina dreams of a less arduous life in the city, while Mariama, who has run away from her husband whom she married in an arranged wedding, wants to go back to school and become a nurse.

Were the Toubou women as interested in the Belgian as she was in them? “Probably not,” Borgers said, describing how the protagonists were rather skeptical of the pant-wearing female crew members. “They don’t understand why we dress like men. They just don’t get it. They don’t envy us that much. They want to have a bit more comfort in their life, material comfort, but they are not so eager to look like us in any way,” she said.

Few would blame the Toubou women, however, for having felt a bit envious under the particular circumstances. The mainly-Austrian crew was traveling in five cars and a truck so that they could carry their 1 ton of equipment, which included everything from film cameras and lights to coolers for the rolls of the film. Despite previous agreement, the nomads were soon tempted to rid themselves some of the load.

“We said: ‘Sorry but this is our deal: We do our thing, you do yours. If we start doing this [helping you out], we will no longer be filming what this is for you,’” Borgers said.

Involvement with the subjects is a very delicate issue for doc makers but in a few rare cases the crew found it hard to resist. “If someone got sick and we needed to run or when there would be a delay because of us and they were lacking water, then we would give some to them. But that only happened once or twice,” Borgers said.

“It’s not 100 percent pure in that sense. It is a complicated situation because you have more means than they do,” she said.

This is where bourgeois guilt usually kicks in with the privileged western observer. Although Borgers couldn’t help it when she first visited the place in a Jeep to do research before the actual shooting, the uncomfortable feeling gradually faded.

“You can hardly feel bourgeois when you do all that work. We carried a lot of equipment but we hardly carried any equipment for ourselves. We had one cook with us but there was not much to eat anyway. Nor did we have better conditions to sleep. We were in the heat, working as hard as they did.”

“Winds of Sand” is an interesting, even inspiring movie. But is it a feminist one?

“In a way I would say ‘yes’ but it’s not made in a holding-up-your-fist kind of fashion,” Borgers said.

”For me it’s more like ‘let’s look at these women, see what we can learn from them’. I don’t know if this is feministic.”


Latest Tweets

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 31 other followers

Advertisements