This past year, I have developed a new relationship with OTT shows. Never before in my adult life have I watched full-fledged shows and followed their plotlines! What started off as something to do to keep myself feel like I had a social life during the first few months of lockdown in 2020 while by myself, descended into an all out sociological unpackaging of reality TV. It threw me back to when I was in high school and watched a lot of ‘Fabulous Life of’ on VH1; but only alongside Wife Swap on Travel & Living (not what it sounds like) and As Told By Ginger on Nickelodeon. Have you guessed yet, that I just whatever was on TV when I was able to get my hands on the remote?
Fast forward to now, I have watched most seasons of Selling Sunset, after which I watched the first season of Housewives of Beverly Hills. Bear with me as I express surprise at the barrage of misogyny that they were. Confused as to why we were documenting and consuming these specific people’s lives on-screen, I looked up the early cast of Housewives of Beverly Hills. That’s when I learnt that one of them had survived a marriage of domestic violence, and her former spouse had died by suicide amidst bankruptcy. This issue was not confronted directly as part of the show, which unironically marketed itself as reality TV.
My autistic brain is obviously puzzled, but I now realized that these are games of power dynamics. Armed with that understanding, after a few months’ hiatus, I decided to watch Bling Empire. One character that stood out to me was Kane, and the Netflix after-party. Stay with me for a bit longer – my interest in them was for 2 very different reasons.
Over the past few years, my interest in modern manifestations of colonialism has grown. It began with a small article in the Editorial centerspread of The Hindu from when I was in middle school about neo-colonialism in the African continent. Slowly, I saw the systemic seeds sown by white colonialism rear its ugly head in all sorts of places – education, urban planning, and in ideas of cis-het-monogamy as way of life. Today, it’s well-accepted that the oppression of queer rights across the globe stems from the trauma of having lived through generational abuse at the hands of oppressive states. That’s where Kane’s story stood out to me – there seem to be several hints at his sexuality over the course of the show. He has alluded to his family owning malls in Singapore, while avoiding moving back there to live with them. In the final episode, it seems like he is ready to date again, and in the same breath, says something along the lines of embracing who he really is.
Something tells me that cis-het people likely don’t feel so liberated about dating around.
Connecting the dots back to ideas of Chinese supremacy in Singapore, it is safe to say that Kane’s family is likely politically influential in the region. Moreover, Singapore’s government, although incredibly invested in promoting the city-state’s technocratic and commercial interests, has often shown intolerance for all forms of dissent, including Pride marches. Queer people struggle to access civil rights there, despite a growing Pink Dot movement championing the cause. In fact, the most recent Pink Dot event, which was in June 2019, was attended by the Premier’s brother, along with his family.
I do believe that this could be an important moment for political theater (different from the lived politics) of queer rights in Singapore, that is downplayed amidst a caricature-ish portrayal of rich Asians living in California, USA. When the gaze on them is contrasted against that on the Housewives of Beverly Hills, the difference is evident. For instance, the ‘After Party’ is hosted by David Spade, for some reason, along with 2 others, neither of whom are ethnically Asian. Constant jokes are made at the expense of the cast member’s bodies and indulgent lifestyles, which I am not a fan of either. To me, this seems very different from the treatment of white or white-adjacent reality shows. The exoticization of Asian people and the representation of the continent’s cultures through a diasporic monolith, feels like an extension of the orientalist gaze.
At a time of great political churn and tense international relations in Asia, OTT platforms are helping corporations conquer new markets through these aspirational narratives. Among OTT shows in Indian languages, Indian Matchmaking and Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives were criticized for their blatant promotion of casteist practices and professional nepotism.
It’s almost as If, during a year when most of us have been confined to our homes and these black screens, our only option to meet the challenges of these times is to entertain (and shop) ourselves to spiritual death.