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Linh & Phuong in 2009. Source: the couple

“Recurring and stereotyped news stories portray a dynamic world of change while disguising old ideological understandings and solutions as social truth.”

–  W. Lance Bennett & Murray Edelman, Towards a New Political Narrative

Human beings are fascinated by stories, whether we are in them or not. Stories and narratives are easier to read than other types of prose, more relatable, better at triggering imagination, and therefore more persuasive. Feyerabend’s criticism of Derrida as someone who “can’t even tell a story,” despite the deconstructeur’s huge influence and popularity among intellectuals, probably comes down to these very reasons. Both storytelling and story-reading are purpose-filled activities: we learn about others from their stories, and through our own stories we express and even understand ourselves. Stories are not just beginnings, middles, and ends; they are reality in the making. Stories are, therefore, to be taken seriously.

And within the story family, news stories may be the most influential relations with regards to raising popular awareness and shaping public opinion. Complementary to our post last week on Vietnamese people’s reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on gay marriage, which is essentially a story that happened “elsewhere,” this week we aim to “go local” with a news story about a lesbian couple that generated heat among the Vietnamese online community. Every narrative is manufactured, and how stories like this one are made, as well as how people react to them, says a lot about Vietnam’s evolving feelings on this issue.

The story in question, “Happy ending to a 10-year lesbian love story,” was published on June 18 at vnexpress.net (one of Vietnam’s top news websites), where the attention and comments it generated quicky spilled over onto other social media platforms, particularly Facebook and several popular local discussion forums. The article appeared under the “Family” heading, which might not sit well with a person if she’s an average American political conservative. But this is Vietnam, and there are no political parties openly battling over whether or not Vietnam should legalize gay marriage and redefine family values. Indeed, as recently as four years ago such a story wouldn’t have stood a chance of being mentioned (much less featured) in a mainstream media outlet here at all.

Yet the way a narrative such as this one is covered by popular media and received by the public says a lot about the current state of homosexuality as a topic in Vietnam, especially given the country’s recent progressive development on the issue, not just among the grassroots but in the political realm as well. There was, for example, the consideration earlier this year by the National Assembly to legalize same-sex marriage, which earned significant local and international coverage, partly because of its supposedly counter-intuitive suddenness – Vietnam has zero track record of any sort of gay rights movement: no public debates, no rallies, no openly gay celebrities, no gay icons, no outspoken gay advocates, no strikes, no nothing. Over the past five years, however, development of the institutional variety has been significant. Within Vietnam, a non-profit organization called Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE) has recently taken an upstream approach by conducting research and organizing workshops, exhibitions, and dialogues on LGBT rights issues with an aim to influence policymaking. Information Sharing and Connecting Group, an iSEE initiative with funding from the Ford Foundation, has been taking more of a downstream approach in “promoting a positive image for the LGBT community” by educational and outreach initiatives. Initiatives include, for example, a parade in Hanoi this year where people sported wedding costumes to support gay marriage. The group also conducted educational activities for families to help them accept and get comfortable with their children’s sexuality.

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But enough background. The now-10-year romance between the two girls, Linh and Phuong, started with Linh, who says she was aware of her “true sexuality” since she was a kid, flirting online with Phuong, who had a male fiancé at the time. Linh, however, initially faked her online identity as a boy named Duy Khang, supposedly studying abroad in Singapore. Linh then cooked up a story that she was the “best friend” of Duy Khang, which allowed her to spend physical time together with Phuong. Phuong gradually developed feelings for Linh the girl, and when Linh finally found the courage to reveal the secret to Phuong. Phuong broke up with her fiancé and the two girls officially became a couple. The drama took a turn when Phuong later capitulated to an arranged marriage with another man, and moved to Australia with him. But, unable or unwilling to keep up the pretense, Phuong left her husband and Australia, returned to Vietnam, and moved in with Linh. The two girls’ families, enraged, estranged them. For over two years they struggled on entry-level jobs and drifted from home to home.

But, as the news story’s title suggests, the couple came to what it calls a happy ending. Eventually earning acceptance from both families, the pair now leads a pleasantly domestic life of semi-wedded bliss, in which Linh “plays the husband,” taking care of Phuong and the family, fixing broken appliances in the house, and being the traditional Vietnamese male head of household: deciding, for example, what Phuong should study for her postgrad degree. The news article ends with details on the romantic things Linh does for Phuong, including classic features such as 99 roses and a box full of coins. Concluding that the relationship seems as beautiful as an Arabian Nights tale, the article ends by quoting the pair’s plan to go to a sperm bank next year to have children and build a “real family” together.

Comments at the news site supporting the couple and showing admiration for their love story abound. “I admire you guys,” writes one. “You guys are really cute, always be happy!”, gushes another. And there’s, “A moving love story, wish you guys happiness and peace.” But the haters are plentiful: “These homosexuals need to be injected with hormone so they can become normal again. I’m disgusted by the idea of gay or lesbian sex.”

Not all comments take a clear stand. Some appear merely confused. “So … Phuong wasn’t gay before she met Linh. Linh turned her into a lesbian and this is still considered a beautiful love story?” reads one comment. “How will they live when they become old?” Another begs, “Please think about your children – what will they do when someone comes and asks them who their father is? Please don’t be selfish.”

“So … Phuong wasn’t gay before she met Linh. Linh turned her into a lesbian and this is still considered a beautiful love story?”

Acceptance comes in different shapes and forms: “They already are miserable leading their lives as homosexuals, would you guys please leave them alone?” “Gay people also are human beings, they really don’t want to be born that way. The society really needs to accept them. As for the confusion young people face with their sexuality these days, if it is just a phase it will pass.” Yet nearly every negative comment is rebutted by a long thread of positive sentiment defending same-sex love with arguments along the lines of equality, human rights and advocating acceptance as the modern and moral attitude.

As the story was shared widely on Facebook, more light-hearted comments joined the mix: such as “Pretty girls – as rare as they are to come by these days, they even fall in love with each other. What is the future for us men?” Responses such as “That’s why we men should stick together – we’re the only ones who can make each other happy now” lifted some of the seriousness surrounding a sensitive and quickly evolving topic in contemporary Vietnam.

What to make of this diversity of opinions? Well, diversity of thought is good (though not all members of Vietnamese society would agree). But the point here is not necessarily about how the story has been received; it’s about how the story has been told.

It goes without question that all stories are constructed. Interpretations may vary, but the materials that make a story what it is — the selective, highly subjective way it is organized and shuffled according to the writer’s (and the editor’s and often the media outlet’s) will — are choices. Choices regarding what to include, what not to include, how to frame the story, what spin to put on it, what conclusions to draw from it. And as Vladimir Propp pointed out, stories tend to follow a common structure where characters hold designated roles to play. In its most basic form, stories tend to have a villain who fights with a hero in order to claim a princess or a prize, and sometimes false heroes would turn up and make the story a bit more complicated by trying to take credit from the real hero’s deeds. In the story we just discussed, it is not clear whether Linh is a heroine in her own right, a false hero, or even a villain. Did she or did she not fool Phuong into loving Duy Khang – supposedly the real hero – and steal the princess away from him? Did she or did she not play the villain against Phuong’s fiance and husband in a narrative where, unfortunately, the hero and the princess did not end up living happily ever after? It is this very blurry plot that caused confusion and in some instances, fury among the readers. And while this arguably “reflects” the reality of this particular story, it fails to introduce new and constructive insights into social life, which is the purpose of good news stories. One of the limitations of narrative, or stories, as a genre, is that it cannot be generalized because it describes only a certain event.

Paradoxically, that is not always how readers see it when they come into contact with a story, especially one written on an “Other” about whom they have little adequate understanding. News stories can motivate belief and actions from the outsiders “towards the actors and events caught up in its plots,” as Bennett and Edelman put it, not just mask old ideologies and perpetuate the status quo. This is not to say that the writer of the vnexpress piece is to be blamed, however. In trying to capture a holistic view of reality, he or she must have confused him/herself as well. Making sense of and coming to terms with Otherness is a learning process where old beliefs are challenged and appropriated. In this process, the author’s ambivalent voice prevails – which is not helpful – but understandable. When you add the pressure to craft an exotic and interesting story about a subculture of people who’ve been underrepresented in the media, the Proppian narrative was born almost naturally. It should have been a black sheep in the family, except it was not. News stories are meant to shock, amuse, arouse, and on a lucky day, reassure or gratify its audiences, write Bennett and Eldelman. And depending upon the reader, outcomes differ.

As stories of this nature get featured on the media more frequently, it is important that they get crafted in a way that open up the conversation in a productive way by igniting creative ideas, meaningful intellectual discussions, and resolution of conflicting thoughts – as Bennett & Eldelman wisely advised. It is not enough to entertain the audience with superficial amusing details that form a supposedly “good story”; representation of real human beings, who are themselves actors in a much larger and very real cultural drama, requires a commitment to substance, not to formula. As Vietnamese views on homosexuality change, media stories play a vital role in shaping what the next generation and the general public’s opinion on the issue will look like.

– Nguyen Hong Hai Dang