Homosexuality and sexual violence on prime time Turkish television: there is a lot of shocking stuff being broadcast in Turkey these days. And Turkish conservatives are horrified.
On September 16, about one-third of all Turkish television viewers tuned in to watch one of the country's most popular young actresses being gang-raped in the first episode of a new drama series. A couple of days later, a television channel bought recently by a businessman close to the former Islamist government televised the first ever Turkish-made soap opera to show two men in bed together, naked.
Such scenes have caused outrage among traditionalists belonging to all shades of the political spectrum.
"This isn't broadcasting, this is social engineering in immorality," columnist Nuh Gonultas thundered in the conservative daily Bugun on September 21.
A columnist for the radical Islamist daily Vakit, Arzu Erdogral was blunter: "Fatmagul's crime is that she is immoral", she wrote, referring to the victim of the gang rape.
The Western press has taken a very different view. On September 18, two days after the gang rape portrayal, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published an opinion piece praising the way Turkish soap operas, hugely popular in the Arab world, "are revolutionizing the culture of the region" with their image of "a new, freer type of woman."
In June, the New York Times described the same phenomenon as a "triumph of Western values."
All this talk of social revolution makes some Turkish analysts, all of them considerably closer in their world view to American “East Coast” liberals than to Ms Erdogral and the readers of Vakit, somewhat skeptical.
Allowing yourself to be wowed by the attention-grabbing sex scenes, the 'taboo' subjects and the plunging necklines, they argue, is to make the same mistake as secular Turks who believe that all women who cover their heads are Islamist bigots.
Look past the glitzy surface of these television dramas, they say, and the underlying message the shows convey is often deeply conservative.
Take Ask-i Memnu, a hugely popular series that topped the Turkish ratings last year, and which has an estimated 85 million viewers across the Middle East.
The script-writers and director can't be blamed for the final scene, when the adulterous female lead, full of self-disgust, commits suicide: that's the way it ends in the book that inspired the series, an Ottoman novel written by a man with a fondness for Flaubert. But they have had a hand in more subtle instances of conservatism. Take, as an example, what could be described as the symbolism of kissing: the series is peppered with sultry scenes showing the seductress, Nihal, passionately kissing the hero. The demure girl who eventually marries him doesn't get so much as a kiss on the cheek. Instead, at the very end, when the hero proposes to her and she accepts, she is rewarded with a kiss ... on the forehead.
One of Turkey's leading cultural critics, Orhan Tekelioglu says forehead kissing has "spread like an infectious disease" across Turkey's television screens. "These series belittle women by granting only 'wicked' women the right to kiss," he argues. "You cannot modernize women - we are not talking about little girls here - by infantilizing and pacifying them. What do you suppose these screen heroes, who decorously kiss their girls' foreheads when they are pleased with them, do to them when they are angry?"
Meanwhile, a columnist for the secular daily Milliyet, Can Dundar is disturbed by the tawdry tone of the extended advertising campaign for the series depicting the gang-rape. "For weeks," he said, "we were softened up for the big day with advertising spots asking things like 'where will [actress] Beren [Saat] be raped', 'who will rape her', ... 'was she raped better or worse than Hulya [Avsar],'" a well-known actress who starred in a 1980s version of the same series.
What makes this doubly tasteless, Dundar asserts, is that the series is based on a novel about a rape victim who is blamed for what happens to her. "By using the rape scene to sell the series, you are strengthening the macho culture that the book was criticizing," Dundar said.
The face off between pure-hearted provincial Turks and the immorality of the West and urbanized Turks has been a major theme of Turkish literature since the pace of modernization accelerated in the mid-19th century.
Orhan Tekelioglu discerns the same theme in conservative responses to television series these days. People are perfectly happy to watch characters in Western films behaving 'badly', he argues, because of the "folkloric belief that foreigners have a penchant for this sort of thing." They only kick up a fuss when Turks show they are no less predisposed.
Interviewed about The Day of the Sword, the new series with the homosexual scene, producer Osman Sinav used a similar argument to justify the controversial scene. "In our plot, we talk about the palace of the Pharaoh and such things happen in the Pharaoh's palace," he told the private television Haberturk. "To show goodness in all its beauty, you need to show darkness in all its nakedness."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.
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