Gender and Class – Muay Thai for the Masses in Thailand
photo credit above: Lindsey Newhall Fightland
There is a great article by Lindsey Newhall “Muay Thai for the Rich” (Fightland) on a trend I’ve been following in thailand of a growing middle-class interest in Muay Thai, largely by women. A little strange that this particular corporate gym is in Isaan but Buriram is seeking to associate itself as a sport destination, so tje stadium and financing makes sense in that light. Do read the original article which spawned some interesting comment from James Gregory on my Facebook Page. He talks about his personal experience of training with Namkabhuan, the trainer featured in the article, and a possible better framework for understanding him.
James Gregory Loved the article, although in retrospect I would have gone with a slightly less restrictive title. Namkabuan is both a wonderful trainer and a true man of the people. When he came to Coban’s this time last year, which I can only imagine helped inspire this model, he taught everyone that would listen, and in detail, from the fighters to the students like the ones mentioned in this article. Something like “Muay Thai for the Masses,” might have been better. While I don’t speak from experience in Thailand, I do know him and understand the sport there is limited to practitioners of a fairly narrow social class, which should strike one as strange in the context of any national sport. I think he loves teaching Muay Thai and loves his home, so this is a natural extension of himself to bring it to as many people as possible. I will get there one day and find out for myself
This caused me to think about the title as well. What I found interesting about the non-specifics of the title is that it’s Muay Thai for rich women more than the more general “the rich” suggestion. I wrote about it as it was happening last year, but when the World Muay Thai Angels (the biggest ever promotion of female fighters in a tournament, which was also a quasi-beauty pageant and had a HUGE purse) show aired on Thai TV the commercials were noticeably aimed at middle-class women: skin creams, makeup, etc. That’s a HUGE difference from the male rural crowd that most fights (and fight television) cater to, often selling farm equipment, seeds, fertilizers and sometimes bug-bite salves or stomach tonics. The image of Muay Thai fighters and gyms in Thailand is vastly different from how it’s seen in the west and women getting involved in the sport for a workout is pretty amazing. I tried to think of an example but don’t have one that’s modern enough – boxing already went through its white-collar evolution and that’s mostly men; and what we call “soccer” was the gutter-trash version of football in America, while the “rugby rules” were picked up by elite Ivy League schools, sometime in the 80’s and 90’s the white middle-class in the US adopted “soccer” and the notion of “soccer moms” became a thing rather than the soccer “hooligans” that preceded the image. This gym in the article is suggesting a similar development in Muay Thai. The change in class from what most non-commercial gyms in Isaan look like and how they operate to what’s described in this article is almost an inverse of “for the masses.” It’s elevating it to the economic exclusion of most but into a social inclusion of a very unlikely group. Maybe slightly akin to if well-off Japanese women picked up Sumo as a fitness program.
What is so interesting is that such a class of women exists in Buriram, enough to fill the gym, and that they are drawn to the sport, a sport whose overt cultural images of brutality, manliness and low-work are often used to stigmatize (and not just valorize) the area of Isaan as a whole. At Lanna in Chiang Mai there were professional women, some over 50, who would come to the gym and work out for fitness. Women practitioners are changing the meaning of the sport in a subtle way.