Research and discussion paper: The kathoey as a product

Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayuttaya, University of Chiangmai, Chiangmai, Thailand.

Translated from the original Thai 30 January 2003 by P.L.  Copyright Prempreeda Pramoj na Ayuttaya (original article) and TransgenderASIA (translation).

Copyright author and translator, to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

Uploaded 2/2/03

These days, Thai kathoeys have become a main topic in television, newspapers, and even the everyday conversation between friends.  We can see kathoeys in films, game shows (as participants or hosts), talk shows, newspapers, and magasines.  In the past, there have been controversies about the discrimination of kathoeys - such as their proposed ban in television, prohibition from studying at university or even from having health insurance.  There have been more claiming that being kathoey is something against human nature and culture.  Kathoeys have been claimed to be sexually abnormal, sexually debauched, fashionably 'over the top', bad tempered, criminal, and of being sex machines.  Kathoey stories are increasingly revealed in so many ways - which suggest that there is something behind these stories.

It is clear that such controversies always have positive and negative aspects.  It is inevitable that kathoeys become popularised and often become the best selling point for any story.  Some people are open-minded, but others are not.  For example, there was once a controversy about kathoey university students who dress in women's uniforms.  Even the so-called 'pundits' who were open-minded about many things, were not so enough for kathoeys.  Even though kathoeys may be intelligent, talented, and be good students, they are still held in lower regard than other students who do not care much about their study. Many kathoey students dress in women's uniforms until they graduate (sometimes with first-class honours degrees).  But then they have to contend with the societal pressure for conformity once they leave university.

When the story of kathoeys dressing in women's uniforms became well-known, there was much discussion.  At the same time, one Thai kathoey won the internationally reknowned transgender beauty contest 'Miss Queen Universe'.  She was surprised that overnight she became so well-regarded and accepted as a part of her country of which she had been waiting for more than 20 years of her life.

Since a few years ago, kathoeys began to have chances playing roles in television and films.  And this year, we have been learning about kathoey life in different careers including the one we can see in our daily life - or the one in which it would not have been previously possible for kathoeys to 'come out'.  There is indeed a potential to see more kathoeys in television and films.  Many kathoeys might be happy for this change and appreciate that they are becoming more equal with other genders.  But we should not overestimate Thai society.  Likely, they are just made to be a product to sell.  When they become not so useful, they are abandoned.  Then, they will have to reclaim their existence again.

How does a kathoey become a product?  Just think about what idea does a kathoey story suggest when appearing in any media.  It is the marketing ploy of 'sensationalism'.  And it is the selling point for commercialism.  Even though kathoeys are not new, their story remains always sensational.  For example, in one televised film, the actor, who was physically unlikely to be a kathoey, played the role of a sweet, high-class woman.  Why did not this movie find some real, beautiful, talented kathoeys who can play this role so that the audience can obtain a better understanding about the other side of kathoey life which is not just a freak show?  What is more, the real kathoey remains only allowed to play supporting roles.  At the same time, in another television channel, an actress played a role in which she disguised herself as a kathoey.  Even though kathoeys now have more chances to appear in television, they must continue to play the roles expected of them.  In a film, a kathoey can play a role with sweetness and calm character.  And it is possible for supporting kathoey actresses to not overact, scream hysterics in order to be comic, or do a freak show.  In fact, in real life, the image of kathoeys is not just of comedy.  In the film, when the main actress (real woman) played a kathoey role, she had to talk with a falsetto voice, with heavy make up on the face, and with super-large breasts.  The main actor in the film had never even looked at or cared about her until he found out that she was indeed a real woman.

This film is similar to another before it which also portrayed real and unreal 'men-women'.  Kathoeys exist only when they do not interfere with the real relations between men and women.  Thus, it is apparent that kathoey existence is created or made by some 'other' but themselves. It is questionable whether kathoeys really co-exist with other genders in society.  Nonetheless, one can be grateful that kathoeys have a chance to do such roles than other even less pleasant roles.  But it would be better to have diversity in films which allows kathoeys to demonstrate their natural talent better than a freak show.  They should show the image of kathoeys which is not so different from the one that people see in daily life.  Thus, kathoeys can be compatible with the society in which they live and not just be a machine of sensationalism.  One academic woman who had an interview with a television talk show said: "Please know that you will always have us".  It seems like it could work.  But it is interesting to know what will be the effect when the political and legal 'new social order' commences given that kathoeys are already overcontrolled by society.  But if they will downgrade and suppress kathoeys further yet, we must beg the media and especially kathoeys to think twice before being entrapped by business interests which use them as a disposable product.

Overall, it is not unusual for people to talk about 'the kathoey story'.  And it cannot be judged whose idea is better than that of others.  That is for the rival 'experts' to contend about kathoeys.  And this is unessential to the pride (dignity) of being human or of using language without prejudice or of not prohibiting kathoeys from playing virtuous women's roles in media and ceasing to use real men to play kathoey women's roles for comic effect.   There should not be such a 'free-for-all' for us to better understand kathoeys in our society.

Thai version