five
Deconstructing Display:
Gender and Beauty

Ranking Gendered Surfaces

Appearance matters. Beautiful appearances matter even more. In Thailand, beauty can override family connections, money or class, as well as other ascribed and achieved attributes of women, and to a lesser degree, men. In practice, it is Thai women who are more likely to be affected by judgements about their appearance. As one Thai graduate student explained to me, ‘I went into graduate school because I was not pretty enough to be a secretary.’ 1 The potential for ranking individuals on the basis of their physical appearance is very strong in Thai society. But the connections between beauty, race, power and rank have not been made in the analysis of gender relations. The moral power of beauty, and the extreme objectification of women intersect in contemporary Thailand, building on the palimpsest of the elite court culture of ‘Old Siam’ (captured in the postcards described in Chapter 2) where the attributes of gentleness, subservience, silence and virtue are intertwined with the attributes of grace, composure and beauty. It is this phuu dii construction of beauty that strengthens the hold of cultural models of the feminine on elite Thai women. Mass media brings these models to rural and minority women throughout the country.

Beauty keeps open the possibility of connections between classes and regions today, as in the past. Movies celebrate the beautiful women of ‘Old Siam’ who could ‘jump the queue’ and be associated with elite men, in spite of sumptuary rules which regulated behavior and the consumption of objects such as textiles which were meant to preserve and display hierarchy. Sumptuary rules 2 which displayed hierarchy continue to influence rural and urban ritual since weddings, ordinations and topknot-cutting ceremonies permit breaking sumptuary rules of the past, and dressing in ‘royal style’ (P. Van Esterik 1980). Even Village

-129-

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Materializing Thailand
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • List of Figures xi
  • Part I - Orientations 1
  • One - Crafting Thailand 3
  • Notes *
  • Two - Ordering the Past: Representations of Thai Women 35
  • Notes *
  • Three - Buddhism and Gender Ideology 65
  • Notes *
  • Part II - Representations 93
  • Four - Representing Thai Culture 95
  • Notes *
  • Five - Deconstructing Display: Gender and Beauty 129
  • Notes 160
  • Six - Prostitution and Foreign Bodies 163
  • Notes *
  • Part III - Interpretations 199
  • Seven - Modelling Thai Gender Relations 201
  • Notes *
  • Eight - Context and Continuity: Grasshoppers, Turtles and Feminists 227
  • Notes *
  • Bibliography 241
  • Index 269
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