It’s no surprise that daytime television in Pakistan is abysmal. It seems like across the network board, people have sat down to brainstorm the best ways in which to reduce millions of viewers to drooling idiots by blasting the most inane, thoughtless and frankly crass content possible at them, every morning, all week. If it’s not some hapless audience members being given bride makeovers, its some kind of fiendish aerobics. If it not  making your audience stand on one leg and bark like a dog for a motorcycle it’s someone shoving a mango in your face. Daytime television in Pakistan makes American daytime television look like it won an Emmy every year. Jerry Springer hasn’t got a patch on Nida Yasir, for example. On Springer, all of America’s weirdest people congregate to scream about how they love their sibling and “nothin’s gonna keep us apart”, or some similar nauseating proclivity. On Yasir’s show, they parade kids around to get cheap laughs. With adults it’s still not so bad—cringe-worthy, but ultimately adults get to decide whether or not they would like to be national laughingstocks. Children? Not so much. How much agency does a five year old have, when his parents decide to send him on national television, or producers on a show encourage the host to tease him for on-air kicks? Ahmad Shah is just a little kid, but Good Morning Pakistan has kicked the hornet’s nest with this.

It’s astonishing how big a mirror one child can become. Let’s start at the beginning: what business does a talk show host have badgering children on a show? Anyone who has kept company with a child knows that taking a doughnut away from one—that too with sprinkles—is never going to end well. Add to the mix several bewildered children, too polite to openly be aghast at the combination of Yasir and Shah brawling with each other, then being asked to imitate the yowlings of the child! The poor boy being goaded by Yasir to imitate Shah looks like he would rather drink joshanda mixed in tea (arguably the world’s most revolting beverage) than comply. It’s disgusting to see producers for a show manipulate children so openly and in such a humiliating way. Scores of children appear on daytime television shows all over the world—Ellen DeGeneres, for example, has children on her set regularly. Most of them are there because they are talented in some way, and DeGeneres sends them home with gifts and applause. For many, she arranges amazing surprises too—a scholarship for college, or to meet their favourite singer or actor. You can have a charming child on your show to boost ratings, but there’s a way to do it. When children are involved, anything short of kind and encouraging is unacceptable.

The second layer this Good Morning Pakistan fiasco should teach us is how we behave around our children. Ahmad Shah yelled and pointed a threatening finger at Yasir, taking a stance that was shockingly adult, and very masculine. One recognises it from all the times one has seen men intimidate someone. Gadhay ka bacha, he said. Child of a donkey—a mild insult, but entirely inappropriate for a small child to be saying to anyone. Remember when we were young, and were told if we misbehaved it would reflect poorly on our parents? Nobody seems to say it any more, but our children do in fact reflect the values being demonstrated at home. Our boy-indulgent society loves to encourage little boys to behave badly because they have conflated “manly behaviour” with “obnoxious and entitled”, and rude, spoilt boys grow to be foul, substandard men who think the world is theirs for the taking and a tantrum will fix everything. Then their mothers and aunts shake their heads and wonder what went wrong (and blame their wives for ‘ruining’ their princes). One can’t presume entirely about someone’s parenting methods, but a child that is behaving in an extremely particular manner is not method acting. The child is copying what he sees around him the most, and in this case it is a significantly poor way to deal with conflict and anger. It is disappointing to see how little boys, from the very beginning, are denied emotionality. This tiny child didn’t know how to verbalise his confusion and frustration with the strange woman teasing him—he only knew that his feelings could only be expressed as anger. When we tell boys that feelings are stupid and ‘feminine’ and thus not for ‘men’, we are robbing them of their humanity. Of course boys and men will feel fear, empathy, terror, confusion, sadness, joy and so many more of the feelings that we all have. But they aren’t allowed any response other than anger.

It’s not cute, it’s not cute at all. There is nothing endearing about a child who has an ungovernable temper or is emulating toxic adult behaviour. It’s not about manners either—it’s about how we disrespect the dignity of children by thinking of them as empty vessels who see and hear nothing. Children are intelligent and observant. They are not stage props or potted plants who don’t hear the curse words you use in front of them, or don’t see what you’re watching on your phone when you’re near them. Ahmad Shah’s behaviour should be a warning to all parents who think they can say and do whatever they like in front of a child, because ‘bacha hai’.

There is nothing amusing or clever about another adult actively manipulating a child on national television either. My friends at PEMRA who read this column, please do us a massive favour and regulate the trash that is daytime television in Pakistan. One thinks one can speak for a large swathe of viewers in saying that this juvenile programming is a waste of time and dignity. And in the meantime, viewers: stop watching. Programmes stay on air and produce particular kinds of content based on how many people are watching which show; the one great power one has to change that is to just stop watching. When ratings drop, producers sit up. It’s the only way to get them to listen—get them with the money, and maybe one day we can actually have shows that are warm, entertaining and kind.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

 m.malikhussain@gmail.com