With all the controversy surrounding the continuing entry of women from the entertainment industry, including several actresses and at least one pop singer, into politics, a comment by the chairperson of a leading women’s organisation, published in a Sunday Sinhala newspaper, caught my attention.
While pointing out to a basic contradiction in seeing ‘actresses as women and women as actresses’ (in the context of women’s representation in politics), she proceeds to say that ‘there are good actresses, and there are actresses with good character. Things being such, I wonder if a selected number of actresses have been put forward for this purpose (electoral nominations) with the insidious aim of embarrassing all women in general.’
Inadvertently or not, she had put her finger right in the centre of a deep-rooted cultural problem by her use of the word ‘character.’
"This is a society which tries to keep up with the rest of the world while hanging on to outdated concepts in morality and politics. It doesn’t work"
When this word (or its Sinhala equivalent of ‘charithaya’) is used by a Sri Lankan, it refers to the morals of the person in question (‘his/her character is bad’ or ‘eyage
charithaya honda ne’). In the case of both men and women, what this means is that he or she has sex out of wedlock in heterosexual relations. If unmarried, their character is such that they are unlikely to get married or remain married for long if they ever take the trouble to do so. This, in short, is good or bad character in our Sri Lankan context.
Looking up the Oxford dictionary for a definition of ‘character,’ one can find four principal meanings, and several subsidiary ones.
“All the qualities and features that make a person, groups of people, and places different from others: to have a strong/weak character, traits/defects.
1. “The book gives a fascinating insight into Mrs. Blair’s character. Generosity is part of the American character.
“The character of the neighbourhood hasn’t changed at all.
2. “A particular quality or feature that a thing, event or place has – the delicate character of the light in the evening buildings that are simple in character
3. “(Approving) strong personal qualities such as the ability to deal with difficult or difficult situations. Everyone admires her strength of character and determination.
4. “(Usually approving) the interesting or unusual quality that a place or a person has. The modern hotels have no real character.
“Strange interesting person /a person, particularly a strange or unpleasant one.”
“Reputation – the opinion that people have of you, particularly whether you can be trusted or relied on. She was a victim of character assassination.”
“Character reference – a letter that a person who knows you well writes to an employer to tell them about your good qualities.”
Remarkably, none of the above contains the definition which covers morality, the context used by the above-quoted woman columnist (‘there are actresses with good character’). If we look up a British dictionary during Victorian times, it would have contained that definition. In other words, the use of the word ‘character’ to define good and bad as pertaining to sexual mores is now out of date. But we hang on to it, along with much else of the Victorian era moral petticoat psychology (the Malalasekara English-Sinhala dictionary includes ‘pudgalayekuge gathiguna’ and swabhawaya’ which implies character traits and habits rather than morality, along with charitha sahathikaya, charithaya and karattuwa. The latter meaning brings us closer to the morality of ‘good or bad character).
"Our actors, while living inside pressure cookers, have to moralise like priests"
During conversations in both Sinhala and English, whenever ‘character’ cropped up as subject matter, I have found out the context to have been someone’s morals 90% of the time. The remaining 10% covered character assassination or character reference. This, even the staunchest defender of Victorian morality will have to admit, is very limited in scope. I have only rarely come across anyone referring to the character of a building, or say that generosity of spirit is part of the Sri Lankan character, or something to that effect. It simply doesn’t occur to people, who are always going on about so and so having such a ‘bad character’ (i.e, a slut or a compulsive
Perhaps this is because, as a nation, we have become devious sexually. A generation ago, Victorian puritanism was the governing ethical and moral principle. Those who deviated from it went to great lengths to cover their tracks. But today’s politician, businessman (often, the two are indistinguishable), doctor, lawyer, school principal, policeman or bureaucrat (to name but a few categories) have been shaped by the post 1977 ‘liberal economy’ mindset with its globalised, cyber-sourced outlook.
This is a society which tries to keep up with the rest of the world while hanging on to outdated concepts in morality and politics. It doesn›t work.
In the marriage market, the emphasis is still on the usual stereotypes of nice men and women of good character, where the morality issue (along with money) dominates other vital factors such as intelligence, education, aptitude, tolerance, a wide culture and even health. Good looks get priority, but that puts people in a real pressure cooker because beauty is usually more attractive to the opposite sex. To be handsome or beautiful and virtuous is a tough act in the modern world.
The worst offences against women are committed by politicians, not criminals. Statistically, this may be hard to prove. But that’s because their victims are less likely to lodge complaints out of fear or a psychosis of being under a social obligation to satisfy the whims of the ruling class. Besides, offences against women aren’t limited to the blatantly sexual. Forcing them into cultural straitjackets (thus limiting their freedom of expression) is highly damaging in the long run.
No wonder that politicians are keen on keeping the lid down. This is why we have a never-ending war on pre-marital sex, women’s dress, or intimate relations outside marriage, sex education and now, increasingly, the internet. Our culture today is a modern façade (hi tech phones, email, SMS, Face Book etc) with coat tails and petticoats.
People in public life have to look like saints. Since we have no statistics to go by, it’s hard to know if the average person has more sex on average than he or she did 100 or 50 years ago. But it’s a safe bet that people think more about it. This is hardly surprising just how much of it is available as images in cyber space or even in advertising. Awareness levels have increased by leaps and bounds.
They are, by and large, people of ‘good character’ compared to the aforementioned actresses (and actors) who may have been admired on screen but rarely, if ever, invited home or to the club to dinner and a polite conversation.
The result is that today, actors of both sexes too, have to look like saints. That’s obvious when you read their press interviews. Our actors, while living inside pressure cookers, have to moralise like priests. But then, this is the reality most people in high-profile professions face.
I am opposed to our actors and actresses entering politics. But that’s entirely due to reasons other than their ‘character’. Former American President Bill Clinton survived an impeachment and was re-elected despite having a blatantly ‘bad’ character. Some of our politicians are much worse than Clinton, and yet we continue to elect them while harping on the ‘bad character’ of our film personalities. I can’t think of anything more hypocritical than that.