Wednesday, June 15, 2005

T and A and Tsunami

Express Staff Writer

The inappropriate juxtaposition of the expressions "T and A" and "tsunami" may seem obscene to the casual reader. But they popped into my mind as I channel surfed TV offerings recently, happening upon the final 20 minutes of the Miss Universe Pageant broadcast live from my beloved Bangkok, Thailand. I was stirred by mixed emotions.

The most obvious conclusion I drew is that both the pulchritude of beauty contestants and the pathos of an overwhelming disaster like the December 2004 tsunami are subjects of endless coverage. The media is not immune to the prurient or voyeuristic appeal of the repetitive replays of the tsunami hitting Phuket along with parading perfectly shaped women as icons.

Consider the pageant itself. I tuned in during the bathing suit segment of the competition. Clad in identical white bikinis, the final 10 women were strutting their charms, almost all with long legs and large breasts that, natural or not, seem to appear on even the most humble reality-show participant. By the time the final five were standing for applause, I was struck by how they were almost clones: five tall brunettes, possessing full and long tresses, the same made-up doe eyes, pouty, full glossy mouths and even similar noses. I couldn't tell them apart. Perhaps it was a coincidence four of the five were from Latin countries, but the winner, Miss Canada, hardly varied a hair in her appearance. I really don't care who becomes Miss Universe, but I thought it worth noting that standards of beauty promulgated through the constant barrage of the media have become so consistent throughout the world. Bewailing the fact that I don't look remotely like any of the women on the screen that night, and never did, is because I have bought into some of the cultural requirements I have been absorbing over the decades.

However dismaying that reality, I was aghast when the audience was asked to observe a moment of silence and light candles for the victims of the tsunami. My displeasure was not over the impulse to honor the dead, but for the inappropriate way it was orchestrated. First we saw beauty queens frolicking on the pristine sands of Phuket and Phi Phi island. I couldn't help but imagine the bodies still lost in the turquoise waters. Then the announcer praised the Thai government for erecting a new tsunami warning tower, and the pageant for donating $250,000 for disaster relief. The cynic in me recoiled at the $250,000 commercial and at the misplaced PR thrust of selling the tsunami as mere footnote in the history of the overwhelmingly successful Thai tourist industry.

I do know that Thai philosophy has to do with life going on, with living the present day to the fullest and with not dwelling on the past. Thais responded to the tsunami with rapid and generous help and recovery efforts. There is a reason Thailand is called the Land of Smiles. When I taught there a decade ago, my English department chairman heard at lunch one day that her father had died. She began sobbing loudly. Later, one of my Thai associates apologized for her unseemly show of negative emotion. I respect that cultural value, but I think we should not so quickly forget the horrible grief behind some of the happy Thai faces.

Maybe I should either lighten up or turn off the TV. I am certainly angry at myself for wasting precious time watching even 20 minutes of the show, or for that matter my own fascination with trivia or meaningless television shows in general. While I also play music and listen to book tapes, I do indulge in the escape television offers: I can listen to stories even though my eyes are on my latest obsession, my fabric art. I am as guilty as anyone.

Before I sign off with a mea culpa, I am wondering if anyone else was offended by a recent Gatorade TV commercial that hopefully is now off the air. It is, to my mind, the worst example ever of bad taste. The ad showed people without the benefit of Gatorade actually crumbling to pieces. Happily running over bits of skin and clothes are other athletes nearing victory. Again titillation, a "T and A-tsunami" connection, seemed the point. Gruesome and hideous, the commercial inspired in me a vow never to touch Gatorade.

How about a fresh glass of water instead? Maybe the bad taste in my mouth will be washed away.

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