South African TV is rarely original. Often, you can watch a plot play out on three different shows in three different languages with three different characters. The resolution is usually the same. This is frustrating but it’s hardly anything new.
As a woman, as a feminist, it’s often hard to consume TV on surface levels because real life is really real* and putting it on screen as entertainment always blurs lines. (I enjoy Law & Order: SVU with the rest of the cult fans but it’s still triggering viewing.) Lately I’ve noticed a hardly-new way to tell stories crop up again in daily and weekly TV shows: girls and women being preyed upon.
My etv reception has always been dicey, so when Rhythm City's Mampho met a creepy man named Jabu who told her she was beautiful frequently but turned ugly on her, I often watched the plot on my twitter timeline. We all sat glued to our screens -- often times I chose my phone’s screen because my TV was just too grainy -- shocked and disgusted. First Mampho was the prettiest girl he’d ever met. Then she was a prude for being a flaky 17-year-old who wasn’t really sure she wanted to have sex just yet. Then she was one of many fish in the sea and needed to give him what he wanted or she’d be left alone. And so she did.
If I recall correctly the first time was at Kilo Watt in the back. Then he was gone. Soon after she tested for HIV. Then she was on post-exposure prevention treatment. Then she eventually tested positive for the HIVirus, post-window period. This could have been taken from many daily, REAL LIFE, situations. It’s happening out here IRL.
Generations 2.0 aka Generations: The Legacy was back all of two minutes when Cosmo’s newly-introduced niece was snatched from her bed by a man who had a score to settle with her mother. She disappeared with little trace (her mother and uncle suspected Kumkani "Gadaffi" Phakade had her but weren’t sure for days). Soon she was being used as a bargaining chip and eventually reunited with her family.
For two whole episodes Namhla was afraid to be back home or sit still. She was afraid she’d let something slip to her great grandmother or that the men would come back for her. Then it was over. She’s currently in therapy where she mostly talks about her out-on-parole mother and her destiny to end up working in the family tavern. The man who kidnapped her sometimes pops up in the background (or in her great grandmother’s kitchen) and momentarily scares her.
The fact that the man who kidnapped her remains a background threat to this girl -- though hardly addressed by the show -- is tense. It makes me think of girls who are abused by family members or neighbours and the abuse is swept under the carpet by the adults. The child’s mental, emotional and physical safety and health not taken into consideration while the grown ups “fix” the situation. Yes, on the surface the show and Namhla’s current storyline is annoying but I’m often caught thinking about the part of this character’s life the show is not talking about.
As a bargain for getting her daughter back, Namhla’s mother was forced to become a drug mule. After her second delivery she decides she’s too old for the task and convinces the man who’d kidnapped her daughter that she’ll find him other mules. And so she begins preying on poor, young women who’ve got families to feed. She coerces the first mule by kidnapping her son as leverage.
Back on etv, Bonnie Mbuli’s Traffic! is about a cop (strong Olivia Benson vibes, I love them) who is investigating the disappearance and murders of girls. Detective Lungi has a lot to deal with in her life but she (and her partner) seems to be the only one who cares that girls keep disappearing in the neighbourhoods within which she operates. I remember watching an episode and seeing a man revered by the community and deciding -- with dread -- that he’s got a hand in the girls disappearing. Human trafficking is real and it thrives in communities such as ours where poverty is rife. I haven’t watched a lot of the series but I hope there’s a whole lot more commentary than the other shows who use girls as devices and put them in bad situations seem to have.
Scandal!’s Dintle is not many people’s favourite character. She’s done a lot of shady stuff -- most of which can be traced to her impoverished beginnings. Personally I enjoy the character because seSotho is a lovely language and she feels like my generation’s very own young Ntsiki Lukhele. So when she was forced into sex work by a person she thought was a boyfriend I felt her pain. The character has no qualms about sex; she has used sex in the past and continues to use it today to get what she wants. The way in which she was forced into sex work took all her power away. That’s exactly the problem with this plot device: all these girls and women are stripped of their power and agency over their lives. And life (plotlines) just happens to them.
Power is the reason why all I thought when Mutual Friends’ Dani started sleeping with her friend’s father (and benefactor/mentor) Dr Zweli was“think about your friendship with Jabu and what could happen to your scholarship when the relationship goes sour!!!” but saw only red flags with Busi’s professor. Both men are much older and hold great power in the young women’s lives and both Badanile and Busi are 19/20. Busi wants The Professor breathless but all he does is mess her about. He then sleeps with her then messes her about some more. He gives her ground rules and records her without her knowledge or consent. The Professor seems obviously predatory and like he is grooming her in the way he gets in with her family and tries to control her. Why doesn't he have a name?
Badanile and Zweli on the other hand chill in bed and take selfies. Their sex thing feels consensual but let’s not gloss over the fact that he is paying for her life in Jozi and her school. He’s in a position of serious power and could be taking advantage. I missed the last few episodes of the season due to AFCON so I don’t know how Jabu finding out played out or what Badanile did in response to the inevitable shaming. Muvhango’s Busi is a wreck at present because she discovered the recording and the professor (seems to be) punishing her by giving her bad marks. When she stands up to him saying she feels manipulated, used he shames her.
Power. Charlie Holmes (of Isidingo) was drugged and raped at a party filled with only her friends. I remember feeling sick to my stomach the moment I realised what had happened. I cannot imagine being violated and having to deal with fact that it was done by someone I considered a friend. That period of not knowing which one of her friends was the predator was maddening and it was during this time that I started to take longer and longer breaks from Isidingo. It felt callous.
A week or so ago Benjamin Le Roux put sedatives in her coffee to get Charlie to fall asleep in his room. It was done in such a cazsh manner, while I sat there feeling triggered by proxy. We all know that Ben is a horrible person, we do, I hven't been surprised by anything the character has done since he locked his father in a wine cellar but the moment he put the pills in her drink I felt sick. Then Charlie woke up the next morning not knowing where she was or when she fell asleep. I cannot imagine that feeling ESPECIALLY in the context of her being a rape survivor. I felt her panic, which was written to last all of five seconds, and then glossed over yet again.
When abusive storylines (and storylines that take a girl characters' power away) play out on TV, badges of contact information for organisations like POWA can be found in the end credits. Is this enuf when other characters in the story barely lift a finger to help? Girls are powerful. Girls might not be safe even in real life but they are powerful beyond measure. I just wish TV would stop taking their power away.
Season one of Traffic is currently in repeats, you can watch it at 20h30 on Thursdays.
Original image belongs to Generations/SABC1 PR.