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Let’s Talk about Sex

By Stephanie Foul

On September 29th Breaking Bad came to an end with a highly anticipated finale that captivated nearly 11 million viewers.  Masters of Sex That same night, a new TV series premiered on Showtime called Masters of Sex. Promoted as a serious TV drama, Masters of Sex can startle with its Mad-Men-like retro atmosphere coupled with its real-life story of Dr. Bill Masters and researcher Virginia Johnson.  They were two passionate scientists in St. Louis at Washington University set on uncovering the mysteries and taboos of sex in 1956.

Masters of Sex makes sense in what is now considered to be a golden age in TV and its troubled anti-heroes .  HBO ignited the pattern with its mafia drama The Sopranos, which originally aired from 1999-2006.   Tony Soprano paved the way for the undertaker Fisher family in Six Feet Under (2001-2005), serial-killer/cop Dexter (2006-2013), advertising executive Don Draper in Mad Men (2007-).   School teacher/methamphetamine cooker Walter White perfected the genre with Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

All these characters were men with split personalities: a façade torn between projecting a strong confident and secure presence in the private sphere while nurturing a dark and threatening Mr-Hyde-side that threatens to ruin his social and personal stability.

Bill Masters totally corresponds to this prototype.  The gentle and caring obstetrician not only holds a curious obsession about the mechanics of sex, but also a represses  a desire that does not allow him to express any emotion nor sexual desire towards his wife Libby.

British actor Michael Sheen, best known for his pitch-perfect performances as Tony Blair in three film and TV productions, plays Masters with immense gravitas and restraint. Sheen gives his character a great deal of complexity.  He depicts excitement as Masters embarks on new sexual discoveries in the course of his study, while keeping a straight face.

Dr. Masters

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as Dr. Bill Masters and his research assistant Virginia Johnson

Sharing top billing with Masters is Virginia Johnson, an ex-nightclub singer turned rookie secretary who shares the same interest as Masters in the secret sex study.  Johnson, played by Lizzie Caplan, is the total opposite of Masters.  She’s a bold, sensual, provocative woman who embraces her sexuality. Her take on love and sexuality is almost modern by today’s standards, but Johnson struggles,  juggling an ambitious career drive with her personal life as a twice-divorced mother of two children.

The show brilliantly covers their explorations of sex that would later pave the way for their best-selling book in the late 60s sexual revolution and a better understanding of sexual psychology and practices.  Each episode reveals common taboos and misconceptions of that time which seems ludicrous today and demonstrates the naivete and inhibitions of that era.

Yet as the show develops, characters who could have appeared as stereotypes – the perfect 50s housewife, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the severe female doctor – develop more complex aspects. Their secret desires, sexual frustrations and inability to express them are due to social and sexual limitations of the period.

Many cable shows have come to prominence thanks to their almost exploitative use of sex – here’s looking at you True Blood (HBO), Game of Thrones (HBO) and Californication (Showtime).   Masters of Sex indulges that tendency, but this time sex serves the purpose of the show and showcases the characters’ difficulties and constrains.

Each sex scene reveals a plot point that shows the disparity of sexual knowledge, lack of resources and guidance available to educate people. And the technique gives more insight into a character’s psyche than extra dialogue.

The topics cover so many aspects of sex, from gender history to gender roles, to telling one’s coming-of-age story to discussing the true implications of each and every character.  Ever since watching the pilot and awaiting each new episode with growing interest, I’ve realized that this kind of series sparks a more frank dialogue on sexuality, which can be ironic in today’s society.

Other than its retro aspect, Masters of Sex bears little obvious resemblance to Mad Men, although both shows highlight how far society has come from sexism, racism and taboo issues. While watching previews and watching the series, a film came to mind that could be linked to Masters of Sex: Bill Condon’s Kinsey (2004).

Kinsey was set almost a decade before 1956.  It chronicled the sexual breakthroughs led by Dr Kinsey, a sexually repressed university professor and scientist who went on a quest to discover Americans’ sexual practices and later expose what was considered forbidden back then.

While Kinsey’s discoveries bordered on tragedy and a darker tone, Masters of Sex plays out as more of an empowering show.  The series provides a great deal of fleshed-out male and female characters, with women taking center stage and coming to terms with their social roles.

Photo credits:  Courtesy Showtime via Refinery29

Promotional photo by Craig Blankenhorn/ Showtime

Posted in Cable Television, Films, Hollywood, Media, Social Media | Leave a comment

Burma’s media: dramas in the transition

This AFP photo shows Burma’s journalists walked as they wear shirts displaying their campaign slogan "Stop Killing Press" and tape across their mouths during a rally in Yangon on Aug 4, 2012

Burma’s journalists walked as they wear shirts displaying their campaign slogan “Stop Killing Press” and tape across their mouths during a rally in Yangon on Aug 4, 2012. PHOTO: AFP

By Ye Kaung Myint Maung

Burma’s (Myanmar) media industry was crippled by repressive censorship rules of the dictatorship government for more than two decades. So the ruling military’s recent U-turn decision to allow democratic elections and restore civilian government surprised the world as well as its own people.

Last year, the media in this newly democratized country witnessed a series of milestones by the newly elected quasi-civilian government. The country’s parliament officially disbanded the decades old Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) on 24 January 2013 and granted permission for the daily newspapers that have been deterred since the 1990’s.

With the end of harsh censorship rules, return of daily newspapers and the guarantee for media freedom, it seems the country’s media industry is at the end of tunnel.

A military coup that followed nationwide revolution in 1988, allowed the ruling regime to tighten its grip on the media. It placed all broadcast media and three daily newspapers under the Ministry of Information and established the notorious Press Scrutiny Board to oversee publications. It required every printed media in the country to present their contents for approval, usually one week in advance, thus, making private run daily newspaper publication impossible.

The move towards greater press freedom is one of the centerpiece efforts towards democracy.  After half a century of authoritarian rule, the regime’s corruption and mismanagement reduced the South East Asian country with 60 million people from the most promising economy of South East Asia into one of least developed countries in the world.

The Burmese President Thein Sein, an ex-general who was appointed as the prime minister in 2007 and became a civilian president after 2010 election,  recalled Burma’s political exiles to the country and to help in its development. This included a number of civil rights activists, foreign journalists, dignitaries and anti-dictatorship media working in exile since 1988.

Most prominently, Delhi-based Mizzima news, Chiang Mai-based magazine The Irrawaddy and Oslo-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) are now on back in the country to join in burgeoning local media.

Another positive sign in Burma’s media landscape is the emergence of provincial and ethnic journals in different parts of the country.  For example, in the Shan, Mon, Karen and Chin States and in the Bago Division, provincial news journals focus on news of their respective regions and regional interests.  Some have separate sections in ethnic languages, which are vital for sustaining their ethnic cultures and languages , which are usually not covered by mainstream publications..

On the other hand, Burma’s new media environment has greatly affected the state-owned media.  They must choose between shifting away from their established role as government mouthpieces or becoming obsolete among competitive private run media.

In October 2012, in an attempt to maintain the dominant position, the Ministry of Information, announced that existing state-own media would become “public service media”, which will maintain the privileges in state sponsored news operations and use of media infrastructures.

Vendors sit at a roadside newspaper and journals shop in Yangon April 1, 2013.

Vendors sit at a roadside newspaper and journals shop in Yangon April 1, 2013. Despite the end of government censorship, the state own media still holds on their privileges to overshadow the private media. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

In the post-censorship period, the struggle for press-freedom in Burma continues.  A number of government officials and private citizens have demonstrated discomfort with the freer media environment.

Warnings and suspensions were imposed for news or opinion articles for writing critical of governance or questioning the corporate responsibility of businesses with military ties. Lawsuits against media for defamation are on the rise.  There are more incidents of reporters being attacked, assaulted or threatened for trying to report on corruption and inferior public works.

Even the public fails to see the media as a Fourth Estate or a reliable institution in nations building.  It was apparent when the famous actress physically assaulted a reporter for asking provocative questions on her marriage. Despite being assaulted physically in public, the people blamed the press for being inconsiderate and overwhelmingly showed their supports to the actress. The reporter took her case to the court.  The trials took over a year and finally ended with a fine of 1000 kyats ($1.20 US) to the actress.

Lacking an organization that represents the media industry makes journalists somewhat helpless in the time of assaults or lawsuits. The government founded Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association (MJWA) as sole the legal journalist association, but its functions were just perfunctory to please the regime and not to back press freedom.

MWJA dissolved last year.  Three new journalist organizations have emerged. First, Myanmar Journalist Association (MJA), is intended to replace the role of MJWA with most of its key members coming from MJWA.  Second, the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) is mainly composed of young reporters and editors.  MJN started in late 2011 as a self-help journalist group. Finally, the Myanmar Journalist Union (MJU) was formed by Zaw Thet Htwe, a famous journalist imprisoned for many times.

Although there were criticisms for forming separate groups instead of a consolidated one, all of these journalist groups claim common goals for development of the media industry:  safeguarding press freedom and enhancing journalist’s rights.  Many journalists hold overlapping memberships.  The groups take part in government initiatives, conduct media training, and work with media organizations abroad to exchange information on the local and international media industry.

Now Burmese journalists are using their new freedoms to cover issues of internal violence and ethnic strife that had long been censored.

The rape and murder of a Rakhine girl by three Rohingya men in western Rakhine State in May 2012, led to revenge killing of ten innocent Muslims and rapidly escalated into deadly communal riots in June and October 2012.  The Rohingya issue is always a sensitive one.  Local media were once barred from publishing anything about Buddist-Muslim tensions.

This communal violence has starkly divided the local media and the formerly exiled and foreign media.  They frame the conflict from different perspectives. Local media were accused of fueling the ethnic conflict by taking sides with the majority Buddhist ethnic Rakhine and discriminating against the Rohingya, who are not recognized as indigenous people of Burma and widely considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

At the same time, local media criticized the formerly exiled and international media of taking sides with the Rohingya, internationalizing a local issue, portraying communal violence as genocide and undermining national sovereignty over human rights.

During the height of conflict, both sides were accused of issuing biased or even fabricated reports and misleading photographs of the violence in their printed and online social media pages. People rallied in front of the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which published a map of Myanmar labeling the Rakhine State as land of Rohingya.

A group of Rohingya wait for their breakfast at a temporary shelter in the Idi Rayeuk district of Indonesia's Aceh province in this February 5, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Tarmizy Harva/Files

Rohingya are stateless minority group from western Burma and portrayal of Rohingya is always controversial among Burmese media. Photo Reuters

The Rakhine conflict has altered alliances among media and concerned parties. Traditionally, all media in the country stood together with political parties and UN organizations against the government and military to condemn the abuses in the ethnic conflicts. But the Rohingya issue gives local media and political parties (both Burmese and ethnic parties) common ground.  Local media hailed the military as safeguarding national sovereignty and criticized the international press as being in favor of illegal immigrants.

Often, the divided media industry is reunited whenever restraints fall upon the industry as a whole. The solidarity of journalists was displayed when the local journalists staged the street protests on 6 August against the suspension of two weekly journals. The results: the authorities reversed the suspensions.

Moe Thu Aung, young promising reporter for Radio Free Asia, passed away after motorcycle accident.

Moe Thu Aung, young promising reporter of Radio Free Asia, passed away after motorcycle accident to leave the colleague in grieves. Photo: RFA Burmese

In November 2013,  a young gregarious reporter working for Radio Free Asia was severely injured in motorcycle accident.  As he lay on his deathbed, journalists across the country came together to arrange for his brain surgery and collect funds for urgent medical treatments. Although the young journalist passed away with head injuries on 25th November 2013, Burma’s journalists found themselves united, praying for recovery of their fellow journalist and showing support on social media.

Finally, despite the end of censorship,  public distrust, limited capacities, few resources and an unfavorable atmosphere make people wonder what more challenges will come to Burma’s media industry.   Burma’s newly democratized government and its vulnerable media in transition must figure out how to handle the society’s fragile ethnic conflicts and communal tension.  At this point, it is certain to say that there will be more dramas.

Photos:

Ref: [Myanmar] Gains need consolidation in landmark year for change by South East Asia press Alliance

Posted in BBC, Burma, Censorship, Corruption, Democracy, East Asia, Ethics, Free Speech, Freedom of Expression, Human Rights, Human Rights Campaigns, Immigration, International Affaris, Journalism, Laws, Media, Media Framing, Myanmar, News Websites, Violence | Leave a comment

Sacrifice Triumphs across Generations in Chinese One-Child Families

By Violet Jiang

The old Chinese saying “I will do whatever it takes to serve my country, even at the cost of my life, regardless of fortune or misfortunes to myself”  is a virtual reflection of one-child families of China.

Certificate of the Only Child: each couple will receive a red certificate as a reward and proof of obeying one-child policy
(by Chang Ting, this picture is retrieved from http://roll.sohu.com/20130426/n374065516.shtml)

When China’s population was approaching 1 billion back in the 1980s, the one-child policy was put in effect as a basic state policy to effectively restrict population growth.

People followed their father’s, grandfather’s and great grandfather’s footsteps to make sacrifices for collective interests by bearing and raising only one child. This policy shows  collective human sacrifice in historic proportions pursuing sustainable civilization goals.  One-child families set the pulse of economic growth for China.

There is only one opportunity per family to have a child.  The birth of a child requires permissions from employers and the government.  Children need to be certified before they are born in order to receive legal state identities. Without ID’s, government benefits pertaining to education, healthcare and housing are not available. 

I am my parents’ only child and grew up believing I was their first and only baby. But it turned out two others could have preceded me.

When the policy change to loosen one-child rules was announced on Nov. 15, an undercurrent of pain surged through my heart.  I was mourning for my lost siblings, who rested in my mother’s womb before me, but got “taken out” for the lack of legal identity.

Though I knew they had used some anti-pregnancy techniques that prevent women from having extra children, I was unaware exactly how lucky I became as the only child. The policy offered me many privileges.  But I saw little dark side until I understood why I have no siblings. 

I was entirely stunned when told there was once a boy, a big brother who I’d have been keen to share with my parents.  And the lonely hole in my heart belongs to him.

After 3 decades, when individual sacrifices are rewarded with increasing national power, once again, single child families are experiencing a twist of fate.  After rumors about loosing it, lifting the one-child edict finally received government endorsements.

Now, it’s time for the only-child generation to decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice for the policy shift. Embrace the second kid and shoulder responsibilities of taking care of 6-8 persons’ well-being (grandparents from both sides, 2 children and 2 parents) , or keep having only one child and duplicate lavish, but lonely childhoods for their own kids?

China’s future will evolve with family decisions made in the next generation.

Photo by Chang Ting. this picture is retrieved from http://roll.sohu.com/20130426/n374065516.shtml)

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12 Years A Slave: A Film Review

By Tim Allan

12 Years A Slave is based on the true life story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was illegally sold into slavery and shipped to a plantation down South. For 12 years he was held captive, gaining a firsthand look at the horrors of the slave trade and the brutal life his fellow black workers were forced to endure.  Yet the central theme of this story is ultimately not about slavery, but opportunity. The well off and influential who have it and the poor who do not. Such a message make this project truly universal and applicable to audience members in all walks of life.

Northrup is lured away from his family and home in New York to Washington D.C.  He leaves with an offer of paid work for his fiddle playing skills. The whole thing turns out to be a sham, a mere excuse for his employers to drug him and sell him to slave dealers. Interestingly, despite the fact that the fiddle proves to be the catalyst for his capture, it also proves to be his only source of comfort when he is in chains.

His first master, known as Ford, immediately recognizes his slave Solomon’s intelligence. Before long Ford gives him a fiddle showing thanks for his hard work and sacrifice. Solomon is deeply touched and defends Ford to the other slaves as doing his best “under the circumstances”.  It is an uncomfortable moment for the audience as his counterparts stare back at him in disbelief.  When Solomon begins to offer ideas for how the shipping of goods may be improved many begin to see Solomon as some sort of collaborator.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) attempting to compose a letter to his family. Fox Searchlight Pictures, copyright 2013

Later Solomon is transferred to another plantation. The most violent moments of the film occur in graphic detail on his second master’s watch.  If Ford was “doing his best under the circumstances”,  Edwin Epps did his best to make the lives of the slaves as miserable as possible. Whip lashings, beatings, and rape are all aspects that Solomon is forced to witness and sometimes take part in when Epps demands. Solomon does his best to keep his head down and not attract attention but as always, he stands out.

Solomon’s intellect and demeanor are perfect symbols for how being given chances early in life pave the way for more chances later.  These chances eventually manifest themselves into his freedom. When he is finally able to prove that he is not legally a slave, (I will skip over the details to avoid spoilers) there is a tragic moment when he climbs into a carriage to leave his life on a plantation behind forever.  He turns back to gaze at the other slaves who look at him with a combination of shock, confusion, and in a sense betrayal. Why is he so special? How does he get to escape a life of perpetual servitude?

12 Years A Slave is a powerful, captivating and unflinching look at slavery. It features stand out performances from its actors and naturalistic editing choices that help to make the audience forget they are watching a movie. The tendency to hold onto camera angles for a long time before cutting to different shots allow the viewer to watch a scene as it plays out with few distractions. Yet as Solomon begins his journey back home to New York and the lights began to come up, I started to wonder what it was all for.

Solomon Northup faced horrors and challenges I will never know.  But he eventually returned home to a life of comfort and financial security. All I could think about were the countless other slaves who were not so lucky. If Solomon deserves a film to be made about him for being enslaved for 12 years, surely lifelong slaves deserve multiple films.

I guess in the end Solomon Northrup was the subject of a film not because he suffered more, but because he could write about his experience, an opportunity that most slaves never had the opportunity to learn.

Posted in Africa, Culture, Films, Hollywood, Human Rights, Slavery | Leave a comment