Gender: What Being Called a Man Means in Muay Thai
I’ve been called a man twice in the past month – something I’ve experienced many times in Thailand and in the past largely read as a mixed insult or at best a backhanded compliment. It’s not unusual in Thailand for people to make blunt comments about your appearance. But these two have been some of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. I’m not ashamed to be a woman, so what’s with the pride in these two instances, what made the difference? And why were these important to me?
The first occasion was at Thapae Stadium in Chiang Mai. The night before I’d arrived at the stadium earlier than Chocolate, who I was cornering for. A lot of the gamblers and merchants at the stadium got excited to see me and asked if I was fighting, so I told everyone, “no, tomorrow.” That stadium is this huge, open space that becomes completely cluttered with the presence of people, so you have to kind of wind your way through a maze of spectators, fighters, folks running the restaurants, and the gamblers all stand to one side near the little musician’s tower, where live music is played during the fights. My moment on this night was when the trainer of one of my former (and repeated) opponent’s looked at me with shock and then quickly studied the program he was holding in his hand, trying to see who I was fighting and perhaps thinking he’d not been informed that I was fighting one of his – late minute changes on cards are not uncommon. I smiled and told him that tonight I was “peeleeang,” or a cornerman, and he gave me this huge, relieved smile and put his big hand on my shoulder before saying the Thai equivalent of, “oh, thank God.” It was a funny moment. So I sat down on my mat and waited for Chocolate and Jack, from the Onyx MMA Gym in Singapore (my sponsors), and for Kevin who was grabbing something out of the car. I was alone, sitting happily because I enjoyed being in that space and seeing all these familiar and excited faces without any of the pressure of fighting, but still kind of excited because of Chocolate’s fight and knowing I’d be back for my own the next night. As I was sitting and smiling to myself this Thai guy came up and squatted down next to my mat. He started chatting to me about having seen my YouTube channel, which is something that only one other Thai has ever said to me and that’s 12-year-old Podee at my gym, who is like an expert in YouTube. This guy and I started talking about my channel, my fights, and Muay Thai in general. It was one of the more relaxed and fluent conversations in Thai I’ve ever had with a stranger, which I credit entirely to how good and relaxed I was feeling in that space. I once accidentally got a little drunk in Germany by ordering a beer I’d assumed would be low alcohol but was, in fact, hefty, and about 2/3 into that glass my German became really, really good. Because I wasn’t self-conscious of making a mistake. Maybe this was a little like that.
This guy was surprised by a lot of things I said, mostly when I recognized and appreciated the superlative IQ and technical skill of Thai fighters. At one point later in the night I was standing behind him, watching a female bout in the ring. The gamblers were all riled up, turning to banter with each other and then occasionally one would run over to the corner of the fighter he was backing and demand more clinching, or for the other one to kick left. Every now and again one of them would spot me and start asking everyone except me where I was on the card. Going into round 5 the guy I’d been chatting with turned and asked me who was winning the fight. I laughed and told him the red corner was ahead by a mile, to which he nodded and confirmed to me that was correct, maybe slightly impressed that I do, in fact, understand scoring. As a gambler himself, it’s possible his interactions have largely been with drunk westerner tourists who he’s betting against, folks who probably do not have any idea how to score a Muay Thai fight and just put their money on the one swinging harder and raging forward. The reason this was important was that, of the two fighters, my style is much closer to the one who lost.
The next night he was there again and I was fighting. I usually give up about 5 kg (11 lbs) to my opponents in this stadium, but this night happened to be a much bigger weight disparity with 13 kg (29 lbs) between us. In the fight gone after her legs and got her flinching, then charged her down and ended up winning on points with a significant lead. After there was a group of people around me, congratulating me on an exciting fight and some westerners taking photos with me. This is always a pleasant, but a bit dizzying experience, as I stand in one spot and try to organize my posing with each person and which camera to look at, which people who are coming up to me know who I am and which are just seeing me for the first time, as I’m still lizard-brained from the fight itself. As I was on the edge of this glob of people, talking to my cornerman Pi Daeng about when I would be returning to Chiang Mai again, this guy from the night before comes practically running up to me, this look of awe on his face and says, very directly (in Thai), “you fight like a man; I don’t think there is any female fighter up here who you could beat you.” I laughed at this, because I do lose, but usually very close fights despite that weight disparity that’s always there. But that wasn’t the point; or that isn’t the point. The words, “you look like a man,” or “are you a man or a woman?” or whatever in that vein have been said about me for a number of years now, very often not directly to me but about me from an announcer as I enter the ring or start my Ram Muay or whatever. Usually I attribute it to my muscles and my tattoos… it’s not really a compliment. It certainly doesn’t feel good. But, it’s not always meant entirely as an insult, it’s like a mixed bag comment. But this statement by this guy, in this context, was 100% praise. He was seriously and enthusiastically awe-struck after a beat an opponent giving up so much weight. I’d been told “you fight like a man” one other time, at Attachai’s gym, and that time was also very much a compliment, although I didn’t interpret it quite the same as I heard it coming out of this guy’s mouth, in his somewhat overly excited tone.
What’s remarkable about this statement is that it felt good when he said it. I have this dream, this goal or aim or whatever you want to call it, to be Yodmuay. That’s the word for legends like Karuhat, Dieselnoi, Kaensak, Namkabuan, Hippy, Jaroenthong, Samart, Burklerk… the best of the best. Yod means the peak, Muay is the fighting arts. I wrote about what yodmuay ambition means and how I’m working on it, but a whole element of that is masculinity. I’ve also written about how masculinity does not belong to men and what an integral part the performance of masculinity plays in Muay Thai, so this is something I’ve meditated on for years. Being called a man – as in, my femininity being challenged by a comment that connotes its absence – has generally not felt good to me in Thailand, but being told outright, “you fight like a man,” in that moment felt like I’d reached into a realm of Muay that I’ve been trying to reach for a long time. I cannot name many female Thai fighters who “fight like a man.” Thanonchanok has very strong masculine performance in her Muay and in her person – I kind of fangirl out when watching her fight anyone other than me, precisely because of that masculine performance – but overall she doesn’t “fight like a man” at all. She composes herself like a man perhaps more than any other fighter I’ve seen and has masculine posturing and charm, but she lacks “teeth,” if that makes sense. Super deep, big dog bark… but no bite. So, for me, to be told that I fight like a man, from a man, who I’d just the night before spent probably 20 minutes discussing Muay Thai with and both of us agreeing on what makes great fighters… this was a huge compliment. And he wasn’t saying I look like a man, but rather that my Muay looks like a man. It was good, only.
The second time I was called a man this month was in a very different context, but also completely coherent with this concept. Years ago when I first went to see my Sak Yant master, Arjan Pi Bangkrating, communication was quite difficult. I barely spoke any Thai and his authoritative manner means you either understand or you don’t. As far as masculinity goes, Arjan Pi is strongly masculine. His specialty is in “sanaeh” wichas, or charm and charisma. These powers can include authority and seduction, which definitely belong on both ends of the masculine—feminine spectrum, but as far as the practice of these wicha go, they’re generally divided between the sexes. Women get charms and Yant to make themselves more attractive, seductive, convincing; men get charms and Yant to make them more authoritative, seductive, and protections from harm. All Yant do pretty much the same things in terms of protection, luck and charm, but the particulars of each “design” do tend to divide down the gender line and far fewer of them are favored by women. So, when I went to Arjan for my second Yant and asked for not only a Sangwan (necklace, and Arjan Pi’s design comes out of the Khun Paen lineage which makes it kind of a seducer-of-women charm) but with a Rahu (a strong, powerful and dark element) at the center, Arjan Pi balked. “Oh! Si-wia!” he protested. When I, with very little Thai to back up my argument, pointed to myself and said, “nakmuay,” he agreed to give me the Yant. As my Thai got better and my relationship as a student of Arjan Pi developed, I started to occupy a particular position in Arjan’s practice. He refers to me as his nakmuay, which makes me very happy. I’ ve been to three or four of the wai kru ceremonies each year that honor Arjan Pi and his own teacher, Arjan O. Each year our Yant are “recharged” and each follower is given a small set of amulets, takrut and a prayer bead. Every year these little gifts are divided by gender – men get one amulet, women get another. Because the protections and charms fall down that divided line. But this year is the first year I went in alone, without Kevin – because we go together we always get two sets of the amulets and so we can see the difference between the gendered gifts. But this year Kevin had to wait with Jaidee and I went to the ceremony alone. I sat under the graph of white string that works like a geometric spider-web, connecting every devotee to the string in Arjan’s hands as he chants, so we all receive a charge through the webbing. It was hot and I had to keep creeping my chair deeper into the shade of the canopy as the sun moved, the men next to me politely adjusting their chairs to make room for me in centimeters. Arjan chanted, non-stop, into a microphone while facing this enormous and elaborate shrine, his voice slowly starting to rasp and strain from the constant vocalization. Every now and again we would, as a group of maybe 100 or more, repeat the abbreviated words of one segment after Arjan voiced them. After hours of chanting and removing of bad luck, bringing of good luck, all of that wonderful stuff, we all line up to go one-by-one in front of Arjan Pi in his office for a moment, where he charges us and we receive our amulets from an assistant and file out. There were numerous followers this year, so this procession was quite long. It’s the only part of the ceremony that’s gendered at all, just that one moment of having one packet placed in your hands rather than the other. But they make up each little packet while you’re being blessed, this assistant picking out of one bowl or the other, based on the visible gender of the follower.
At my turn, I shuffled on my knees up to Arjan Pi and wai-ed to him, he said in his very authoritative but somewhat informal tone, directed at his assistant, “ah, Si-wia, she’s a man.” I smiled, the assistant laughed, and Arjan went on with his blessing, drawing some symbols on my forehead with clay and then putting a mask over my head for an incantation. It wasn’t until I had left his office and gotten to the car to inspect my packet that I realized what Arjan was saying. I had thought that he was making a humorous comment about my masculine qualities, but he’d actually directed the assistant to give me the male amulet, a Khun Paen, as it were. I have a few “only for men” Yant. And I’m a nakmuay; in fact, I’m “his” nakmuay, as he calls me, despite him having tattooed a great number of (mostly male) fighters. Arjan does not add the “ying” part at the end of that statement to indicate a female fighter. That’s unusual, as far as Thai speakers go. At the moment that I heard Arjan say “Sylvie is a man,” I smiled and chuckled because he’s kind of teased me about asking for heavily masculine tattoos in the past. But he’s also bragged about me, in front of me, to other followers waiting for their Yant as I’m getting tattoed that I could “win a man.” (He said that one in English, hence the somewhat strange but also wonderful phrasing.) What was so powerful about my realization of what Arjan was saying in that moment, even though I didn’t recognize it at the time he said it, was that he was indicating to his assistant which power to give me: the power you give a man. The protections and charms required by a man because I do the things that require protections and charms of the masculine sort. That is profoundly meaningful to me. Because that’s my whole f***ing argument about masculinity not belonging to men, or why I, as a woman doing Muay Thai, am still reaching for performances of masculinity without wanting to be a man nor in any way desiring not to be a woman. I’ve written many times about Sak Yant and even more than that I’ve received messages from people asking me what my Sak Yant “mean.” I write and explain over and over again that they don’t “mean” much, it’s what they do. They’re machines, they make, they do, they produce. For years Arjan Pi has been making exceptions for me, to give me these meditative tools and machines to protect me in exceptional circumstances. And in this moment at his wai kru ceremony, at the exact moment that I was crawling forward to pay my respects for his teachings (which are the things I’m writing about right now), he extended that to me, as a person, as an entity and a machine that makes, and does, and produces on the opposite side of this imaginary line dividing the sexes. If you do nakmuay, you need the protections for that state of being. Your gender doesn’t mean anything, but what you do means reaching into one bowl of amulets over the other. And to Arjan Pi, I am a man. Not at the expense of being a woman. But if women are to fight at Lumpinee, to cross over the lines of things that are traditionally and ceremonially divided by hard lines, we – as women – have to be men to do it. And it’s being done. In these two moments I am profoundly proud to be considered and called a man.
You can read what I’ve written about the Gendered Experience in Muay Thai in Thailand.
You can read my posts on Sak Yant.
A good article on how the Muay Thai fighter is positioned between the Monk and the Nakleng.