PEMRA is now encroaching on the culture, entering the public sphere, reaching out through the TV screens and attempting to influence the audience, like a chiding father telling you what you can and cannot see
There is a certain nostalgia associated with television. For Millennials, who are now aging and have been replaced by Gen-z as the number one demographic to be marketed to, TV is permanently linked to childhood when your mother would sit you down with the remote and a snack after school, so she could get some work done. You saved the TV Guide in the Sunday newspaper to check what time Popeye would be on. It would usually air exactly one hour before school on PTV Home. My mother would turn it on to wake me up.
It was a classic story. Olive Oyl was the damsel in distress, whose lanky frame and noodle-like limbs waved in hysterical, serpentine motions when she was kidnapped in some marvellously inventive fashion by Bluto, Popeye’s big brute of a nemesis, the Goliath to his David. These are the three main character archetypes interacting with each other, there is nothing particularly new or original about them: the forces of good versus the forces of evil, order against chaos, locked in an endless battle, doomed to repeat the cycle for eternity. In every episode, Bluto stole Olive away from Popeye, who, with the superhuman strength he gained from consuming a can of spinach (the archetypal elixir of life), always managed to win her back. Every single time, Popeye would execute a nearly impossible rescue and would be rewarded by a kiss from the heretofore distressed damsel. There can be no hero’s journey without a dragon to slay; and overcoming the obstacle is rendered meaningless without the reward. A tale as old as time: the hero must both be willing to face and defeat the monster before he can claim his reward. Every episode in that cartoon from the ’50s that would air on Pakistani public television in the ’90s ended with a kiss (or some other form of child-friendly romantic gesture) for a reward – which the Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority considers too indecent to be on television in 2021.
Even at the age of twelve, this archetypal story made sense on a primal level. Popeye needs to eat his spinach to face Bluto (which perhaps for the parents of the show’s target audience is a useful lesson), as he earns Olive’s affections through his bravery. Popeye and Bluto are primordial binaries, destined to always be at odds with one another, so the cycle begins anew each morning. The central conflict of the show (the love triangle) is resolved by the heroine, who, even through the eyes of a child, appears to enjoy Popeye’s kisses and not Bluto’s, making one root for Popeye to end up with Olive. The cartoon does not underestimate its juvenile audience’s capacity to distinguish between love that is reciprocated and coerced affections.
In the adult world, subjecting someone to unwanted advances is called sexual harassment, which a director general of the PEMRA has been dismissed for committing. This farcical twist of fate is rendered all the more ironic as it comes at the heels of a notice from the PEMRA “advising” TV channels against airing “bold dressing” or romantic scenes between couples, raising once again the age-old question of who will watch the watchdogs. For a state that asserts a commitment to ridding public domains of all sorts of corruption, there seem to be a great deal of politically (and morally) corrupt soldiers within its ranks.
The ‘advice’ faced an immediate backlash on social media, because it feels like it is targetted more at the audience than the platforms. Like humanity being cast out of the Garden of Eden, the public faces the disapproval of a paternal authority figure. You cannot be trusted not to engage in depravity on the internet and therefore you must be prevented from accessing porn sites, or any other websites that the state deems immoral. A similar notice was issued in 2019 and the ground-breaking show Churails, which was internationally hailed as a game-changer for its use of strong female leads and treatment of gender issues, was banned in Pakistan, ostensibly for including a frank conversation about a sexual act.
The show, which cut across the norm of how female characters are treated in TV shows, was banned because it clashed with the predominant narrative. In a state that seems to be taking inspiration from neighbouring Afghanistan, where the Taliban have put the women back in burq’as and banned foreign currency, any piece of art that challenges the prevalent narrative or threatens the status quo becomes verboten. In the history of literature, banning a book has been the best way to make it a bestseller. The show enjoyed a healthy viewership both here and abroad, with people watching the show through VPNs and third-party pirate sites. It’s human nature to desire that which is forbidden. Eating from the tree of forbidden knowledge is humanity’s original sin and ultimate fate.
As vaguely termed as the letter from the PEMRA is, it raises more questions than it answers about the role of the authority in public life. What are the barometers for “indecent dressing”, for example? Such vaguely termed policies allow the authorities to practice selective censorship under the guise of public decency, under the cover of complaints from the general public. The PEMRA has been making political moves with impunity for far too long; it is now encroaching on the culture, entering the public sphere, reaching out through the TV screens and attempting to influence the audience, like a disapproving father telling you what you can and cannot see. Like the goddess of war descending from Mount Olympus to help Achilles win the Trojan War, the PEMRA, as a smokescreen for the censorious state, is taking a side in a culture war that seems to be reaching a boiling point.
How we collectively define decency and morality is for us to decide on the community level, not for a media regulator sitting on high determining what content is too indecent for our eyes, while CCTV cameras are being installed in its offices as guardrails against workplace sexual harassment.
The horrific murder of Noor Mukhadam and the reports of her attempts to escape being foiled by the murderer’s minions felt like our George Floyd moment. The watershed moment for violence against women might have signalled a positive cultural shift. Yet the system abets and apologises for the aggressors; the PM is engaged in his usual victim-blaming. A week or so ago, I saw a story on Instagram about a woman setting herself on fire outside a courthouse because she didn’t have the means to continue to pursue a case against her husband, who had allegedly been raping their 15 year old daughter. This case, unlike the motorway incident and the Noor Mukhadam case, didn’t capture as much public attention; cases involving lower-class, rural and minority women (who are the most vulnerable) rarely do.
Incidents like these flash so regularly across our news feeds that they have ceased to have an impact. That this is a terrible place for women is slowly becoming a mundane fact of life, just like terrorist attacks went from being shocking tragedies to one of the routine risks of daily life in the early 2000s. The fact that we all consume our news from social media feeds makes this desensitisation all the more rapid. It’s in the nature of addiction; it takes more and more to have the same effect. There has to be more outrage, more fury, more vitriol, until both sides are ready to kill each other.
Social media’s propensity to fuel radicalisation has been used by the TLP to recruit foot soldiers. The state, which rejects any form of romance on the small screen, takes a curiously reconciliatory tone towards some banned outfits. The PEMRA has forbidden TV channels from covering the outfit, depriving people of accurate information about what is happening in their streets. Once again, forbidden knowledge becomes desirable, and fake news and propaganda abound on social media, in the absence of accurate information.
The relationship here, between culture and politics, is not entirely straightforward. By giving such “advice”, the PEMRA is influencing the culture. This will inevitably influence politics. As is usual for the paternalistic state, we are told that such measures are for our own good. How we collectively define decency and morality is for us to decide on the community level, not for a media regulator sitting on high determining what content is too indecent for our eyes, while CCTV cameras are being installed in its offices as guardrails against workplace sexual harassment.
This, too, is a classic archetype, the father, the king, the spiritual leader, the sage, driven mad in his role of upholding social order. Without order, a society descends into anarchy, too much and it crosses the line into tyranny. It begins with a state that wants to have a monopoly on information, fact and opinion, and wants to control how you think and what you say, not just what you are able to see. It bleeds into the curriculum, better to start proselytising at an impressionable age. The slow-moving coup eventually encroaches on every facet of public life. In a paternalistic state, you have no autonomy on the information you choose to consume, or the opinions you may form on it. Like a teenager, confined to their room in punishment, you are made to feel ashamed of consuming content that does not meet with the approval of the archetypal father. And like a rebellious teenager, you find ways to circumvent the guardrails of authority: download a VPN, scramble your IP address, use an unregistered iPhone… until the PTA blocks your number.
When I was a child my mother would convince me to eat my vegetables by telling me that doing so would make me just as strong as Popeye, the scrawny yet resilient hero who was undefeated against the big villain. What passes for public decency and what constitutes the social contract requires a collective consensus. As the culture is pushed evermore towards right-wing radicalism, the dragon grows stronger.
The author is a writer and academic based in Lahore.