1999 – the year of the body
1999 has been the year of the body. Mostly Luk-Ket’s body. And most of Luk-Ket’s body.
Some months ago, Methinee (Luk-Ket) Kingphayom appeared on a magazine cover clad in angel wings and a very small amount of silver foil. A few weeks ago, she was draped across the full width of Thai Rath’s front page wearing only a stick-on tattoo. Last week she graced the same front page, languorously teamed up with Pathumrat (Helen) Woramali and no visible sign of clothing.
Thai Rath’s front page is arguably the most public place in the kingdom. Half the urban population pays a visit every day. This page has always given its readers an occasional malai (garland) of a pretty girl. But over this year, the shots have become noticeably bolder. This is part of a trend. There are more and more magazines (like ‘M’) targeting male readers with risky cover shots. The underwear ads decorating Bangkok’s bus shelters have adopted more of the soft-porn techniques of multiple images, headless torsos, and very young models looking vulnerable. The hit film Nang Nak spent much of its footage caressing the naked skin of its beautiful stars. The TV knock-off is repeating the technique in a toned-down version. Matichon Weekly, one of the leading current affairs magazines, has a regular column reviewing nude and semi-nude photographs. Its subjects include Luk-Ket and the usual starlets, but also society figures and Japanese school-girls. The prose is a mixture of art criticism and heavy breathing.
Something is changing—something about taste, ethics and public acceptability. Does this mark a shift away from "traditional values"? Not really. There is a great local tradition of appreciating the female form. Many believe Thai court dances and dramas were performed so agonisingly slowly to give the audience time for a good inspection. The enthusiasm for beauty contests is a direct descent from this tradition. It’s no surprise that the Miss Thailand contest has been run by the alumni association of Vajiravudh College, the Thai aristocracy’s adaptation of an English public school. Flesh-watching is traditional. The Thai Rath front page is just a democratic adaptation.
But over recent decades, the growth of a big commercial sex industry on one hand, and of a new middle class on the other, has seen a strict division between "good girls" and "bad girls". Bad girls do things for money. Good girls dress and behave in ways which ensure they can never be mistaken for bad girls. Codes of dress and behaviour have been developed to enable good girls to distance themselves from bad.
These codes are complex. And changing. Exposing lots of flesh is something usually only bad girls would do. But girls who are so obviously good (as proved by their surname, behaviour, track record) can show a lot and get away with it. Exposure is only one part of the equation—albeit a very important part.
So even deliberate acts of exposure like beauty contests can be good girl affairs. Indeed, the organisers of the Miss Thailand contest worked hard to achieve a good-girl image. Winners are bound by strict rules of what they cannot do. The deep and important issue whether wearing bikinis was non-Thai had to be aired and resolved by public debate. The event is staged with lashings of prestige and decorum.
For young female entertainers, the dividing line between good and bad is especially tricky. They are expected to be sexy. But they risk disaster if they cross an invisible line. A few years ago, risky pictures of the singer Mai Charoenpura appeared on the same Thai Rath front page. She was converted instantly from good girl to bad. Stories started to circulate about her bad love life. For months afterwards, the rumour-mill spotted her disporting herself in bad-girl ways. She had to disappear from sight, and reappear dressed in white singing soppy songs to earn her rehabilitation.
Recently Dawan Singwi became a bad girl overnight. Nobody found anything wrong with her displaying herself in student beauty contests. But when her pictures appeared in M magazine, all hell broke loose. The pictures were significantly less erotic than an average bus shelter. But she was roundly condemned, almost denied her university degree, and obliged to perform instant penance in rueful TV interviews.
The two cases show the complexity of the code. Actresses, models and beauty-contestants display their bodies as a profession. In these professional roles, the rules are different. But Mai is a singer. Apart from the fact that the pictures were a little over-bold for the time, there was no good reason for a singer to be so revealing. In Dawan’s case, she was still technically a student. Taking part in a university beauty contest was okay. It was amateur and internal. Selling the pictures to M magazine was not okay. It was commercial and public. Most agreed that a month later when she had ceased to be a student, the pictures would have caused no stir. The distinction is subtle and Dawan herself looked genuinely bewildered at the furore. She had threatened to undermine the special magic associated with higher education.
The Mai and Dawan cases help to define the boundary between what good girls and bad girls can display. Luk-Ket is moving those boundaries. She is primarily a model and thus a professional in self-display. She also dresses like a million dollars and behaves without blemish. It is impossible to mistake her for a bad girl. But then she also appears a lot on TV dramas and game-shows. She has acquired the kind of girl-next-door familiarity which attaches to those people who enter our homes every night through the silver screen. She appears in wholesome and educational family entertainment in the evening, and reappears pouting nakedly out of Thai Rath’s front page next morning.
Moreover, Luk-Ket’s latest appearance with Helen is a deliberate move into bad-girl territory. In fact, a take-over bid. Girly calendars are a year-end tradition. The most famous in the past were produced by tyre companies and liquor brands. They deliberately gave an exciting bad-girl image. Recently Mekong whisky announced it would stop producing its famous girly calendars on grounds such bad-girl stuff seemed out-of-date. Luk-Ket and Helen have seen the gap in the market. They are producing their own calendar. By the time this piece appears, its 30,000 copies will have sold out in nanoseconds.
How can they invade this bad-girl territory and still stay good? Maybe three reasons. First, they are presenting themselves not as poor victims of commercial exploitation, but as sharp entrepreneurs. The calendar, we are told, is their own joint investment. Second, their calendar will be more "modern" than the Mekong predecessors. Proof is the fact that it will be featured on the hallmark of modernity, its own website.
Third, they tell us the calendar is a service to the nation and Thai womanhood. Helen said to Thai Rath: "We decided to bring out this sexy calendar to raise Thai modelling to world standards. Thai models are no less beautiful than international ones. Besides Luk-Ket and I both have the Miss Thailand World title as guarantee. We want to help Thai girls to dare come out and show themselves, to be in control of their own lives, and have more confidence in themselves." By coincidence, the Matichon nude columnist ran a piece on Helen in the same week. After slavering over various parts of her body, he commented that "her aggressive nose shows she is clever".
Thai feminism has paid little attention to exploitation of the female image. After all there have been more direct forms of female exploitation to think about. But when the good girl from the game show can take off her clothes repeatedly in the most public space in the kingdom, something is changing. Is this, as Helen claims, just two girls making their independent way in the world, and striking a blow for nation and woman? Or is it opening up a new area of female exploitation?