The visual culture in Urban Ethiopia
The 2015 American erotica romantic film, Fifty Shades of Grey, is one of the films that were able to stir controversy in recent times. This film depicts a college graduate involved in a sado-masochistic relationship (a sexual engagement which derives pleasure from inflicting pain) with a young businessman. The film has been highly criticized for depicting emotional, intimate-partner violence as a “healthy normalized sexual relationship.” Controversy aside, the film became popular with its high viewership and Box Office success.
With its strong sexual content that includes dialogues, some unusual behaviors, and graphic nudity, the film was rated R, meaning only those people who are 17 and older can watch it. But, the effectiveness of such ratings does not seem to carry that much weight when it comes to teenagers in the developing world including Ethiopia.
A couple of months ago in an internet café in the Summit area called “Monaliza internet café” two boys, both fourteen, came to rent a film of their choice. One was asking if new episodes are available from the popular adventure TV-series Game of Thrones, which is also known to depict extreme scenes of brutal and graphic violence involving gore and rape and strong language. The owner of the Internet café, paying no attention to the age of the boys, responded that a new episode is not out yet.
To make it worse, one of the boys asked if “Shameless” has any new episodes, which is again another series that depicts explicit sexual acts, occasional drug and alcohol abuses by children. This time, the boy was lucky and he gave his drive to procure the said episodes. While waiting for the film one, of the boys directed his eyes to the poster that is hanging on the wall of the Internet café; the one and only “50 shades of Grey”.
He asked the other boy if he watched it. The other boy told him that he didn’t and then the first boy continued to give him a synopsis of the film and strongly recommended the film. He proudly told him the soundtrack of the film was played by the Ethiopian-Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye a.k.a The Weekend.), “So you can watch any film you want?” “Yes,” said one of the boys to the question that was thrown at him by The Reporter. “Your parents do not care?” was another query forwarded by The Reporter. The boys shrugged their shoulders and answered that he had his own laptop and that he pretty much watches anything.
The two boys look to have understood the insinuation of that brief exchange and both smiled politely and left the small Internet café.
This was in no way a standalone case among teenage children in urban Ethiopia. In fact, it is a bit shocking to observe how Ethiopian underage teens consume TV, Internet and music video clips without any parental guidance.
This is not exclusively an Ethiopian problem either. For instance, an article entitled: “Sex Before Kissing: How 15-year-old Girls are dealing with Porn addicted Boys” expose a shocking reality of how the pornographic contents are molding and conditioning the sexual behaviors and attitudes of boys in Australia.
The article citing a recent survey conducted by Ipsos entitled: “Don’t send me that pic” argues that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators by acting out what they are seeing in porn films. The girls as well speak of being expected to put up with things that they don’t enjoy resulting in physical injuries from sexual acts inspired by pornographic films.
As a result, the Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around the 20 percent of all the rape in adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children.
In another research by Amanuel Teferi entitled: “The Influence of Exposure to Pornography among the Youth in Addis Ababa” highlights some of the impacts of watching pornography among the teens and youth in the city.
According to this thesis, scenes such as women depicted as sexual commodities; the normalization of rape; scene of women mutilated, bandaged, physically hurt, tortured; are part of the collection of video houses and internet cafes around the city. He further states that some of these video retailers rent movies and pornographic film without any age restriction.
According to teenagers and youngsters who were interviewed for the paper, the consequence of watching porn includes but is not limited to the introduction of some distasteful sexual practices, the urge to copy the sexual acts in these porn movies and overwhelming change in attitude towards women and the sexual experience.
In this digital age, the booming of the pornography industry and the expansion of access to Internet looks to have overwhelmed the urban youngster in Ethiopia. You want proof? Just refer to the 2012 Google Trend report, a public web facility that shows how often a particular search term is entered to the relative to the total search volume across various regions of the world, and in various languages.
According to the data, Sri Lanka is No.1in sex searches while surprisingly a country with one of the lowest internet penetration in the world, Ethiopia, stood fourth in this category. Psychologists warn against usage of pornography even in adults for it could normalize the brutal scenes depicted in such movies. The case is much more for teenagers, whose minds are at a very critical stage of absorbing a high amount of information.
Today, much of the middle class society in Ethiopian urban areas afford to pay for increased access to various films, video clips and games; consequently, many children are exposed to online contents which could easily affect their development in the long run. So the question becomes how parents do control the content and consumption habit of children and teenagers.
Berhane Shimels, in his mid-30’s, is comfortable when her 12- year-old boy, Ephrem, watches films that are aired by the national broadcaster, Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), and other stations on Arab Satellite, which usually are stringent on editing sexual contents before airing. Interestingly, these media platforms are not worried about bloodshed, killings, violence and other atrocities. Both do not employee formal ratings for films.
In addition, to access TV, Ephrem has a phone, which he uses, after school and also on the weekends since many schools have a strict regulation on the usage of the cell phones in their premises. Though she believes in openly discussing the media contents such as pornographic materials and sex, she does not believe in privacy. She checks his phone constantly following on the contents that he is drawn to. “Parents should not condone everything and close the doors for engagement. Children are exposed to a lot of things and you can not protect them by denying their right to know; rather they have responsibility to engage them properly,” states Berhane.
When he was a kid, she used to buy Cartoon and karate films from Mercato and also rent from the video store nearby. His love for actions figures like Spiderman, Batman, Ghost Busters and other action figures was deep. According to Berhane, he was obsessed with Karate films at some point. Explaining how kids could impressionistic, she remembers a time when he actually asked her if he could change his face to look like a Chinese man so that he can be able to do Karate. She explained how Karate is not associated with being Chinese; and she recalls how watching action movie stars like Wisely Snipes and other African-American actors started to change his attitude.
She controlled most of his media contents focusing on prohibiting sexual scenes and cruelty; but the fact that most of these action movies have killings, violence, and murder scenes have not made her job any easier. Though she tries to filter what is viewed by her son, Berhane also understands her limitation; since even News shows and animated kid movies these days depict violence and rape.
Whether influenced by a film or not, it is shocking to hear some stories involving children recently. Stories of kids making out, having sex at school and even in classrooms, in extreme cases in the presence of their teachers is rampant these days. In addition to that, what happens to high school day parties and carnivals is becoming highly explicit and shocking to hear.
Serkalem Belay, a mother whose child was expelled because of the sexual act in the school premises, says that the school did not want to correct kids rather wants to leave everything to parents. She says she had noticed some behavioral changes in her child prior to the expulsion. “He always locks his room when he watches films on his laptop with his friends,” she says. Since she does not spend the whole day at home, she also does not know his whereabouts on weekends either. Recently, she found out that her 13-year-old son smokes marijuana and cigarettes. “When the school was closed he says he spends time with his friends but his clothes smell like hashish (marijuana) and cigarettes. We advised him and tried to cut his relationship with his friends but he still did not change,” says Serkalem.
Since his father died three years ago, she says she spoiled him and gave him access to anything he wanted. “Raising a child with a stepfather and pleading to accept him was not easy. So, he was able to get whatever he wanted and now I blame all the films he watched for his behavior,” says Serkalem.
Some old school parents choose to prohibit anything by switching off TVs, not providing cell phones or a laptop until certain age. But, there are people like Getnet, a father of four daughters, who believe in certain freedoms. He believes it is very difficult to control what they watch all the time since one cannot watch then 24/7. But, he says TV channels that are accessible to his daughters, the EBC and channels on Arab SAT, do not screen a bad movie that is a relief for him.
It is not only parents who have a responsibility in raising children in Ethiopia; brothers and sisters are gatekeepers when it comes to their younger siblings. Bethlehem Lemma, 26, who has a sister aged 13, says it is very difficult to control the content of what her sister watches.
In addition to that, she says there is also peer pressure which is highly influential in teenagers. Her parents have lost their energy to control her younger sister, according to Bethlehem; and now the job has fallen to her and her other older sister. She says, the parent were exhausted in raising her and her older sister, who was especially obsessed with TV and eventually started to get bad grades because of that.
Testimonies of parents show that the visual culture and the popular cultures are not contested. With the absence of alternative teaching mechanism and informal platforms to deconstruct, popular cultures that emanate from TV, Internet, Video Clips, games and the like it is largely left to the children to consume what they want.
Many parents are bothered by their children’s consumption habits which include contents of nudity, sexual scenes and violence in some instances. However, they don’t deeply dwell on the impact of popular films depicting teenagers being disrespectful, drug abuse, cartoon meditated disobedience; bullying, yelling and other scenes which fills most of the teenage appropriate movies these days.
Edna Mall is one of the cinema houses that cater to the interest of many teenagers in Addis Ababa with its blockbuster movie collection and modern cinema facility. According to Elias Abraham, head of the cinema department at Enda Mall, all movies screened at Enda have rating systems regarding issues such as violence, sexual content, strong language which follows the label of Motion Picture Association of America, MPAA.
Even following the regulation of MPAA is not enough in some cases, according to Elias, because it could sometimes contradict Ethiopian culture and values; and in such conditions even if it’s costly they are forced to drop the films.
Especially when it’s a blockbuster, the audience would still have expectation; it could be culturally inappropriate to an Ethiopian audience depicting scene such as homosexuality. One of the cases he mentioned was the screening of Neighbors 2 that, according to Elias was highly inappropriate and only was viewed for one day. He says canceling this show cost them highly. Especially when they try to show films on the same opening date as that of the U.S. and had to be canceled, the cost could be higher. Despite that, they have supervisors at every gate of the hall to control the crowd but he does not deny the gap that exists where teenagers managing to get past the supervisors by commissioning older people to buy them a ticket to see movies not appropriate to their age. Especially a couple of years ago it was very difficult to control the crowd based on the rating but now he says they are making the system much stricter.
(Mehreteselassie Mekonnen has contributed to this story)