A husband and wife are preparing to go out to dinner. Angered by the way his wife is dressed, the husband gives his spouse a rough shove. “Make a note of it! You should do whatever I want!” he yells. “When will you understand that you have no right to oppose me?”
If this sounds like some kind of a Saturday Night Live spoof or a Fawlty Towers sketch, it isn’t. It’s a standard scene from one of Armenia’s top-ten television shows, “The Carousel of Life,” a domestically produced drama that features repeated portrayals of violence and discrimination against women. Some experts fear that the popularity of the show, and others like it, is contributing to the abuse of Armenian women in everyday life.
“TV is flooded with violence. Women … are [shown] being humiliated, beaten and crying. … TV represents them as weak and weak-willed, and this is becoming commonplace,” commented Marine Margarian, a project coordinator for PINK (Public Information and Need of Knowledge) Armenia, a human rights advocacy group. “The image of men as tyrants is becoming similarly commonplace, and this cannot but have a negative impact.”
“Hard Living,” another Armenian-made series, is watched by 35 percent of the country’s urban viewership over the age of four (980,300 people), according to one recent survey. If anything, it pushes the limits even further than The Carousel of Life. The show’s “hero,” Gor, a 25-year-old student and the son of a wealthy, influential man, does not scruple to slap his sister in the street, or to beat his wife when she criticizes his father. “One [blow] for yesterday, and the second for today,” Gor proclaims in one episode as he strikes his wife. “Who are you to demean my father?”
Another “Carousel of Life” episode offers up the story of a girl who is raped by her boss after making the “shameful” decision to work in an office to help her down-and-out brother.
For many female viewers, the violence does not detract from the appeal of these stories about people’s “ordinary” lives. “Carousel of Life” fan Armine Harutiunian, a 23-year-old Yerevan homemaker and mother of two children, says she sees no unusual treatment of women in the drama. “Well, this is our life,” Harutiunian said. “Anything can happen in a family, and a man may also beat [a woman].”
Pollster Aharon Adibekian described the ho-hum reaction to such shows as “primitive naturalism.” “The broadcasts describe life without aesthetic embellishments, and since the majority of Armenian families experience domestic violence in general, most women accept that a man has the right to behave so,” said Adibekian, who heads the Sociometer polling and market research institute.
Data on domestic violence incidents was not immediately available from the Armenian police’s Criminal Investigation Department. But police spokesperson Ashot Aharonian underlines that “a serious survey” is needed to assess the impact of such television dramas on domestic violence. “No doubt, it does influence the mentality of young people, and this issue should be taken seriously,” Aharonian said.
Such abuse has only recently become a topic for public discussion. Cases like the 2010 death of 20-year-old Zaruhi Petrosyan, who died from a brain hemorrhage after regular abuse from her husband and mother-in-law, accusers say, seem to have contributed to bursting the bubble of silence, particularly on Facebook.
Some women’s rights organizations say that they have noticed recently a greater willingness among Armenian women to speak openly about physical abuse suffered at home. "Calls to our hotline have increased by almost 30 percent this year as compared with last year,” commented Lara Aharonian, founder of the Women’s Resource Center. Other activists say the same.
Flooding the airwaves with TV shows packed with violence against women and story lines that depict them as subservient to men, though, can undermine that trend, as well as hamper initiatives to promote gender equality, said sociologist Zaruhi Ohanjanian, president of the Armenian Center for Integration and Democracy.
“Everything shown on TV has a direct impact on people’s mentality,” Ohanjanian said. “As a result, women may experience problems with self-esteem and become more tolerant [toward abuses of their rights]; or just the opposite -- this may cause aggression, especially among teenagers. As for men, they can get used to achieving their goals through violence towards women.”
Adibekian, the pollster, agreed. Scriptwriters, he added, should “think a bit more [about the consequences]” of what their dramas portray.
The scriptwriter for “Hard Living,” however, dismissed the notion that the show may influence viewers’ behavior toward women. Reality, she claimed, is much harsher than what the series depicts. “If society and reality are good, no series can cast a blemish on society,” Diana Grigorian said in an interview with MediaLab.am. “Anything, anywhere in this life, be it a market, a supermarket or a street can influence our life. And I don’t think any programs broadcast on TV can have a greater impact than the reality which surrounds us.”
There are regulations on the books that govern the portrayal of violence on television, but representatives of the National Commission on Television and Radio were not available to address questions about depictions of violence against women.
Psychologist Nelly Haroian argued that some form of “censorship” should exist for such portrayals. Shows like “Hard Living” and “The Carousel of Life” “are broadcast again and again; they gradually shape tastes and the pattern of relationships between people,” Haroian said. She fears that, in Armenia, where, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, an active interest can be taken in what “the neighbors” are doing, that impact could be even stronger.
Diana Sargsyan, spokesperson for the Women’s Rights Center, which has worked with domestic violence issues for 14 years, cautioned that further study is needed to measure the real impact of such shows on the status of women in Armenia. "[S]urveys are needed to … draw conclusions,” Sargsyan said.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am