The Beauties of Muay Thai – Female Muay Thai Image, Culture and Market
(aired 4/23/2013 on Thai television – translation & subtitling is mine)
Sud Suay Muay Thai
I first became aware of this video the day after it aired on Channel 7 by a British woman who trains and fights in Bangkok sending me a link on my facebook page, letting me know that I’m in the commercial. The video had been uploaded to the fan page of another fighter in Bangkok, Jade Marrisa Sirisompan who is also featured in the video and has become the first featured fighter in what I understand to be something like a TV program called “Sud Suay Muay Thai,” which I ultimately translated as “The Beauties of Muay Thai,” following female fighters.
When my husband and I first watched this video we were very excited that women are being promoted in a commercial for Channel 7, which is not only a major network in Thailand but also hosts the best Muay Thai fighters (*male only) at Channel 7 Stadium. Just from watching the video and picking out words that I understood, I could tell right away that the commercial was on the subject of women being beautiful and Muay Thai fighters, but it wasn’t clear whether “sud suay” – which means most beautiful – was in reference to the women, the Muay Thai, the Muay Thai of women, or all of it.
We asked our Thai friend Pook who owns the Cafe Mong Pearl where we eat most of our breakfasts to help us translate the commercial and made a rough sketch translation. Then I sent the video to two of my Thai friends in the US who have very good English to double check word choice. My friend Watt (also a fighter in New York) pointed out that our translation “the most beautiful Muay Thai” was not getting the word play correctly because “sud suay” is most often used to refer to women. After much deliberation Kevin and I settled on “The Beauties of Muay Thai” to emphasize the reference to women and have just a little play of words to bring it into the Muay Thai.
This new translation, away from our original guess “most beautiful Muay Thai” shifted the emphasis (and my own excitement) toward the promotion of women as practitioners of beautiful Muay Thai to women as beautiful practitioners of Muay Thai. You’re selling a different point between those two. When Pook helped us translate we asked her what she expected from the commercial and she said it seemed very much like the beginning of a show, meaning she expected there to be follow ups. (There are, episode 1 is linked below – Jade is featured.) I had hoped that maybe the commercial meant that there would be women’s fights on Channel 7, but judging from the altered emphasis (my own understanding, that is; my translation is by no means definitive, although my Thai teacher did give it his approval) and the first episode’s construction, it seems more that the show is aiming to “get to know” beautiful women who are also fighters rather than aiming to promote the fighting of women who are also beautiful. As such it seems to be presenting Muay Thai in a new light, as something “modern” women can participate in while remaining beautiful.
It’s a double-sided coin here. Appearance in Thailand is highly regarded and culturally important, so the “shallowness” of a fighter being beautiful as argued by western informed feminism is not necessarily (or at least not a complete understanding) of what is happening in Thai programming board meetings or in the minds of viewers. When I fought in Isaan I spent time in a beautician’s chair getting my hair and makeup done twice, for a parade the day prior to the fight that would advertise for the event and then again prior to the fight itself – meaning I wore makeup and had my hair professionally done for the fight. This may not sound crazy to some and it may sound ludicrous to others, but the fact of the matter is that young women being gussied up for parade floats, cultural events, holiday celebrations, ceremonies and beauty pageants which often occur side-by-side with festival Muay Thai bouts is absolutely common place in areas of Thailand. It’s part of demonstrating the importance of the fight to put a face of makeup on. It’s just not simple and yeah, it’s also an issue of drawing bold lines around what is acceptable femininity for women in sport.
Watching Tape: What’s the Video Promoting?
In the video you will see first old illustrations of Muay Boran, which is the ancient art of Muay Thai. You then see demonstration Boran with the ropes binding the hands instead of wraps and gloves. Then you see women in photographs, posing with Muay Thai shorts on but in glamor shots, complete with two photos of Lucy Payne in Thai fight gear with a center photo of her working as a beautician, doing another woman’s nails. I appear in the video doing padwork with Den in the ring as the voice-over details the different strikes of Muay Thai. I am, as it were, the only woman in the video actually doing Muay Thai but that’s a matter of available video. The footage was shot for a TV spot prior to my fight in Isaan as a promo; the photographs of a blonde fighter I don’t know (if anyone recognizes her, please let me know!), Lucy Payne, Julie Kitchen and Jade Sirisompan are all taken from facebook and online without coordination with these fighters (as far as my understanding goes right now).
The way the video is edited, there is a definite progression from the roots of Muay Thai to the women of Muay Thai, an evolution which is exciting. But the images chosen for the promo are all western women (or at least toward a western aesthetic), not necessarily pushing the image of women in the act of Muay Thai but rather super-imposing two seemingly contradictory images of women and Muay Thai.
It is still very exciting that women are getting recognition for fighting Muay Thai on national television. The last part of the video does seem to be saying that women are made beautiful by Muay Thai and there is absolutely a positive social image for Thai women watching this commercial that Muay Thai is something they can do. The difficulty is that the compromise for this recognition is that it is at the expense of women fighters being primarily promoted for their looks and even if Thai women are being told that this is a beautiful and (to a degree) acceptable thing for them to take part in, the visual representation of that message is not celebrating Thai women with Thai beauty in the same way that magazines and television don’t either. But hopefully this is only the beginning and the inclusion will be greater, broader and longer as it goes along.
See the first episode below, featuring the fighter/student:
First mini-episode: The Beauties of Muay Thai featuring and found on Jade Marrisa Sirisompan Nakmuayying’s Facebook fan page.