There is this German expression of 'the storm in the drinking glass' – such a storm seems to hold Thailand's media and twitterverse in its grip. The reason for that is a performance at last Sunday’s edition of “Thailand's got talent”, in which a young Thai lady did a painting on a large canvas with her bare breasts. One of the judges, Pornitcha 'Benz' Na Songkhla, the only female judge didn't like this performance. After her two male judge colleagues voted “Pass”, Benz stormed out of the show, mumbling this performance was an inappropriate one. I didn't think too much about it, when I saw it happen on TV and had forgotten about it, when this morning the story cooked up again on Twitter (as it happens in parallel to Microsoft's presentation of their Surface tablets). After the usual foul-crying of ThaiMiniCult, there was one blog post by Kaewmala on the Siam Voices blog, which made me think once again about it.
In short, Kaewmala says that Benz had made a similar series of sexy photos, and that she couldn't cope with the fact someone was copying her idea but executing it far more amateurish.
I didn't buy this.
My immediate reaction to Benz' photos was, that they looked so dull and boring. At second thought, I realized that these shots were obviously taken by someone who knows how to use his camera and the whole flashlight setup. But it didn't trigger any kind of emotional response inside of me – unlike the performance at “Thailand's got talent”, which made me smile at least.
Apart from this I felt uneasy about establishing a relationship between the photos and the TGT performance, as they are two different things to me.
Whereas Benz' photos are part of an image campaign for herself, which means that the product is the important thing, the final painting on TGT doesn't seem to me important at all – it was a performance, so the process is what counts.
And then there was something else that I didn't like about Benz' photos – the way they portray women. To be successful image shots, they usually have to be within the boundaries of what's socially acceptable, or they could have an adverse effect on the model's popularity. In Thailand this means, that you have to be very selective which part of the female body you can show and which not. Especially the breasts are a sensible part – once I saw on TV news about a hi-so event, and one of the VIP ladies (of about 50 years of age) was wearing an elegant evening gown with a decolletés so big, it was blurred by TV censors. And then of course was the Songkhran scandal, in which some you Thai students publicly flashed their breasts during Songkhran waterfights at Silom Road, as Saksith S.... covered in his blog.
On the other hand, Thailand is a highly sexualized society – although society does its best not to realize. Just go to any 7 Eleven convenience store and check out the magazines on display. There will surely be a vast selection of titles targeted to successful males with loads of pictures of attractive young women in arousing poses, photographed in a way, that sensitive body parts like breasts are always covered. Similar photos you also find in Thailand's gossip magazines – or in computer stores. A large computer retail chain played a video file on all of their notebooks on display, that showed the photo shootings for one of these magazine titles mentioned above. In a western country, feminist outrage would have caused a stir surely, but in Thailand no one seems to have second thoughts about it.
And Benz' photos fall into the same category as just described. She presents herself to a male perspective, that sees women as subordinate rather than equal, being sexy and at the same time the conservative girl. This contradiction is pervasive throughout all of Thai society.
This is the point, in which the TGT performance crashes head-on with society expectations. Whereas it’s totally OK to portray women as sex objects as long as certain parts of the body are still covered, doing something that’s not really arousing with your breasts exposed, it crosses the border of into the realms of the socially unacceptable. It’s ไม่เพราะ (unfitting), as Benz called it – or not Thai, as it’s Thaiminicult’s preferred expression.
This can and must be questioned of course, as you can easily see in Thailand's past that less than 100 years ago it was still – at least upcountry – common for women to go bare-breasted. Richard Barrow retweeted one picture of a group of Thai women in Chiang Rai from the 1920’s, or pick up any book by White Lotus Press – they have specialized in re-issuing historic travel books on Thailand, or take a look at Kaewmala’s overview in her blog about bare-breasted Thai women in history.
So, there must have been a process in Thai history where this has changed. In “Thailand. The Worldly Kingdom” by Maurizio Peleggi I have learned a lot about these changes. Perhaps the most easily graspable point for this change is the 10th state edict from 1941, in which the Phibun regime had Thais wear western-style dress to propel the country into the world of ‘civilization’ - western civilization that is.
“To wear proper dress would show that we do not have barbaric minds as the wild people in Central Africa … Whether the mind is civilized or not is expressed through dress.” (quoted after Peleggi 2007, p.151)
as a radio programme at that time broadcast. I won’t discuss the obvious racism in here, but this quote shows how important the right kind of dress was seen. Nowadays western-style clothing is ubiquitous in Thailand, and Thais don clothing in traditional style during traditional festivals, and also there it’s only mandatory for a selected group of persons, mostly those who have an official role during the festivity.
To come back to TGT – by taking of shirt and bra, the artist – knowingly or unknowingly – challenged this aspect of Thai self-perception. Showing her bare breasts on TV, she did something ‘uncivilized’ and ‘barbaric’. This is how I interpret Benz’s reaction towards the act, more an expression of social conservatism than the question whether it’s art or not, or whether the male judges’ votes were gender-biased or not.
On Tuesday, first objections arouse that the act was fake, that the producers paid money to the contestant to undress. To me, this question of authenticity is a rather irrelevant one. Relevant is, that it started a discourse, and this discourse has emancipated itself from the performance, it has started discussion. But to be honest, this discussion is – as it would be called in Germany – a storm in the drinking glass. To my experience it’s an argument within the media world, and rather with the purpose to entertain than to educate or change.
But perhaps this isn’t necessary that much – the reactions of the live audience had been not only negative but also quite positive.
Maurizia Peleggi: Thailand. The Worldly Kingdom. Singapore 2007.