The Virgin and the Whore:Looking at the Good and the Bad Woman in Thai folktalesPlease contact xingledout[at]gmail.com if ...
CONTENTSINTRODUCTION ........................................................................................................
Introduction       Good and evil, heaven and hell, beauty and beast, angel and demon, virgin andwhore – the oppositional t...
female characters contributes to the way Thai women view themselves and theirrelations with men.Definition of “good” and “...
disobeyed her husband. Whatever she does or say, it is intended to       please her husband (National Identity Board 1992:...
His work upholds the clear distinctions between the “good” and the “bad” woman”. A“good” woman should be chaste:       A b...
good, maintain morality, uphold truth. This didactic literature defines expectations forwomen in Thai society – the expect...
possess a naturalistic, “found” quality because they are not created for the purpose ofstudy. Second, they are non-interac...
Data analysisPhysical traits       The good woman is more likely to be beautiful than a bad woman. Out of the14 good women...
the time. Their figure and complexion is as beautiful as that of a       16-year-old maiden. They never become old, and al...
General behaviour and special abilities       The good woman in the folktale is generally kind-hearted, gentle, obedient t...
continued to plod on faithfully, as in the case of Kanitha in A Golden Goby. If theyoriginate an action, it tends to be co...
to a sad end, with extreme examples of one being turned in a gibbon and anotherreborn in hell. Although most of the bad wo...
being worse than a prostitute because even such a “bad” woman has one man at a timewhile Wanthong wanted both husbands at ...
It is interesting to observe that Laveng’s turning point came about because ofreligion. It suggests that a woman needs rel...
I have always wondered why Kaew did not immediately show her new,improved self to the prince after the hermit helped her t...
Despite her submission and obedience to her parents – qualities found in“good” women –Kanthathewee was also a strong and r...
that incline him or her to see the opposite sex as having conventional attributes,qualities or failings. Thus, young child...
“Their cheeks are creamy-white and are as smooth as if they were carefullypowdered.”       It is commonly thought that bea...
Hence, the importance of dressing up is evident from the endless stalls ofmake-up and jewellery in shopping malls or along...
4. Before going to bed, women must salute their husbands by       putting both hands together to the forehead and bending ...
avoidance index which indicates the society’s low level of tolerance for uncertainty.In an effort to minimise or reduce th...
is a go-getter and uses all means, even unsavoury ones, to achieve her ends, does thatthen make her a “bad” woman?Conclusi...
REFERENCESCheuacheun Siiyaaphai and Non Noraakorn (eds) (1971) Sunthorn Phu sorn ying.   Sawadiraksa lae saalaakawii (Sunt...
Thanapol Chadchaidee (2004) Fascinating Folktales of Thailand. Bangkok: D.K.   TodayThe Committee for the Dissemination of...
Appendix 1Data Analysis          24
Appendix 1Data Analysis          25
Appendix 1Data Analysis          26
Appendix 1Data Analysis          27
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The Virgin and the Whore: Looking at the Good and the Bad Woman in Thai folktales

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Good and evil, heaven and hell, beauty and beast, angel and demon, virgin and whore – the oppositional thinking dominating gender debates in Thailand today can be traced back to the country’s literary and artistic traditions. This paper looks at how Thai folktales portray the good woman and the bad woman by examining their traits and their relations with the men in their life. Conversely, it also examines how the depiction of female characters contributes to the way Thai women view themselves and their relations with men.

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The Virgin and the Whore: Looking at the Good and the Bad Woman in Thai folktales

  1. 1. The Virgin and the Whore:Looking at the Good and the Bad Woman in Thai folktalesPlease contact xingledout[at]gmail.com if you’d like to use any information from this paper.
  2. 2. CONTENTSINTRODUCTION ................................................................................................................................... 1DEFINITION OF “GOOD” AND “BAD” ............................................................................................ 2DISSECTING THE FOLKTALES........................................................................................................ 4 RESEARCH QUESTIONS ........................................................................................................................ 5 RESEARCH DATA AND METHODOLOGY ............................................................................................... 5 DATA ANALYSIS .................................................................................................................................... 7 Physical traits .................................................................................................................................. 7 General behaviour and special abilities .......................................................................................... 9 Gender relations .............................................................................................................................. 9 Story endings .................................................................................................................................. 10 CASE STUDIES ..................................................................................................................................... 11 From “good” to “bad” .................................................................................................................. 11 From “bad” to “good” .................................................................................................................. 12 The feminist prototype.................................................................................................................... 13 The ideal woman with a modern mind ........................................................................................... 14IMPLICATIONS FOR THAI WOMEN TODAY ............................................................................. 15 ATTITUDE TO BEAUTY ....................................................................................................................... 16 MODES OF PROPER CONDUCT ............................................................................................................ 18CONCLUSION ...................................................................................................................................... 21REFERENCES ...................................................................................................................................... 22APPENDIX 1: DATA ANALYSIS....................................... ERROR! BOOKMARK NOT DEFINED. ii
  3. 3. Introduction Good and evil, heaven and hell, beauty and beast, angel and demon, virgin andwhore – the oppositional thinking dominating gender debates in Thailand today canbe traced back to the country’s literary and artistic traditions. Thai dance-dramas,narrative poetry, puppet shows, folklore and other literary expressions emphasise allthese oppositions, especially the opposition between women as beautiful temptressesand women as dutiful wives and mothers. The Virgin – or the ideal woman – is not difficult to find in Thailand. You cansee her on glossy tourist posters, invariably beautifully and neatly dressed whilesmiling charmingly at you posed in a gentle wai. Likewise the Whore – synonymouswith the bad woman – is just as easy to spot. She is almost always sexily dressed andsmiling seductively at you from the streets of Patpong and Pattaya. This division ofwomen into “good” and “bad” is deeply embedded in the Thai consciousness and hasbeen reinforced by the law and other ideological institutions such as religion,education, literature and language. This paper looks at how Thai folktales portray the good woman and the badwoman by examining their traits and their relations with the men in their life. Thispaper also argues that the good/bad status of a woman is not necessarily static. InKhun Chang and Khun Phaen, Wanthong fell from being a woman with a lot of meritto one who was executed for fickleness in love. On the other hand, Laveng in PhraAphaimanee started out as a devious murderess and ended up as a nun. I will also payspecial attention to Kaew Naamaa in A Horse-faced Woman because she is atypical ofthe female leads in Thai folktales. Finally, the paper examines how the depiction of 1
  4. 4. female characters contributes to the way Thai women view themselves and theirrelations with men.Definition of “good” and “bad” In the literature on the conduct of women, the three texts that crop uprepeatedly are the Traiphummikatha, the Three Seals Law and Sunthorn Phu’sSuphasit Son Ying (Words of Wisdom for Women). The Traiphummikatha, which was composed by King Thammaracha Lithaiaround AD 1345 during the Sukhothai era, outlined the principles according to whichall existence was structured and offered concrete illustrations of the abstract idea ofDhamma. There are four references to women in the Buddhist cosmological text – the“female Peta” (miserable spirits), the women of the Utarakuru continent, the PerfectWoman of the Righteous Sovereign, and Queen Asandhimitta, consort of King Asokathe Great. The Perfect Woman is described as being “glowingly beautiful” and“endowed with all the good qualities pleasing to everyone on earth”. She is alsoadmired for her submissiveness to the Righteous Sovereign: When the Great Cakravarti King comes to see her, she never waits for him to approach her but moves forward to greet him. Seated on a golden pillow before him, she will fan him and pleasingly massage his feet and his hands. She never lies on the royal bed before the Emperor does, nor does she ever leave it after him. Before she does anything, she will inform her husband first and when given permission, she will then proceed. Never has she ever 2
  5. 5. disobeyed her husband. Whatever she does or say, it is intended to please her husband (National Identity Board 1992:28). Next came the Three Seals Law, which was codified in 1805 during the reignof King Rama I and represented the height of women’s subordination. It consideredwomen as property and gave fathers and husbands the right to sell or give them away.The law legalised polygamous marriage and allowed husbands to mete out corporalpunishment on their wives, to the point of killing them if they were caught in the actof adultery (Suwadee 1999:8). According to this law, a good woman should not letmore than one man gain access to her body. As a result “good” Thai women remain,broadly speaking, those who perform their roles as dutiful daughters and faithfulwives and whose concern with sexuality focuses on their aspirations of motherhoodand their fulfilment of their husband’s desires; while the “bad” are those whose sexualcontact outside the institution of marriage are automatically equated with prostitution(Sukanya 1988:118). The last text, Suphasit Son Ying, was written around 1837 – 1840 by renownedpoet Sunthorn Phu during the reign of King Rama III and was used for decades as aschool text for Thai students. His advice to women covers many aspects of femalemanners, from tending to one’s husband to “correct” modes of eating, speaking andwalking as illustrated by the following stanza: Do not allow your breasts to swing or raise your shawl as you go. Do not run your hands through your hair while you walk. Do not talk nonsense. And do not linger outside once your business is done. (Cheuacheun and Non 1971:8) 3
  6. 6. His work upholds the clear distinctions between the “good” and the “bad” woman”. A“good” woman should be chaste: A beautiful young virgin can Be compared to a precious stone. Should the precious stone break, its worth would fall; Should the maiden be defiled, her value would decrease. (Suwadee 1999:17)On the other hand, “bad” behaviour is exemplified in the following stanza: Do not associate with women of ill repute Who dress in unfortunate ways Wandering aimlessly in the late afternoon With their seductive and tricky airs (Prakaaitham 1996:172)It is worthy to note that the authors of these texts were all men, revealing men’sconcerns about female roles and behaviour to the extent that they had to set up thecriteria of “proper” conduct in various versions. Moreover it reflected men’sconviction that they had the right to define women’s roles and behaviour. Accordingto these texts, a “good” woman is imbued with grace, beauty and self-control, andwaits upon her husband. And a “bad” woman is just one who perhaps does not do oreven goes against what is prescribed to her.Dissecting the folktales Classical Thai literature services the Buddhist dhamma and is didactic in form.Representations of women in literature and theatre exemplify obedient sacrifice: do 4
  7. 7. good, maintain morality, uphold truth. This didactic literature defines expectations forwomen in Thai society – the expectation that women should remain virgins untilmarriage, serve their husbands faithfully, keep house, and work longer and harderthan their husbands. Yet the sexual double standard was elaborately emphasised inliterature. Women were taught to accept polygamy because it signified theirhusbands’ superior status. In contrast, married women were forbidden fromcommitting adultery or even paying attention to other men.Research questions1. With a clearer picture of how “good” and “bad” conduct has been definedhistorically, I want to know how Thai folktales disseminate this code of behaviour.What are the physical traits of the women in the stories? Do they have special abilities?2. Given the didactic nature of the folktales, I want to examine how the “good” and“bad” women end up. Does doing good always lead to reaping good or vice versa?3. Because a lot of the expected proper conduct for a woman centres on her relationswith men, I want to study how the women in the folktales – both good and bad –conduct themselves towards men. On the other hand, I also want to look at how men,in turn, conduct themselves towards the women.Research data and methodology I decided to rely on cultural artefacts, i.e. folktales, to study the lives ofwomen in the past. Cultural artefacts have two distinctive properties. First they 5
  8. 8. possess a naturalistic, “found” quality because they are not created for the purpose ofstudy. Second, they are non-interactive, i.e., they do not require asking questions ofrespondents or observing people’s behaviour (Reinharz 1992:147). In all, I looked at 15 stories found in Fascinating Folktales of Thailand whichwere retold and translated in English by Thanapol Chadchaidee (2004). These storiesare chosen because the female characters in them played substantial roles instead ofjust being wallflowers. I am aware that there are different versions of the samefolktale that might highlight different angles of a person’s character. I am also awareof the limitation of gathering data from translated folktales as opposed to reading thefolktale in its original language. Hence I decided to look at stories from only onesource because that would ensure a consistency in the writing and description.However, I will refer to other versions of the folktale when it comes to analysing thedata. From the 15 tales, I picked out 23 female characters whose roles weresignificant enough for analysis. While dividing the women into “good” and “bad”categories, I promptly hit a snag. Initially, I placed Wanthong among the “good”women but I later changed her status to “bad” because that was how she wasperceived by the public. Finally I divided them into 14 good women and nine badwomen. I decided against using quantitative content analysis because of the above-mentioned limitations of using translated stories. So using its qualitative counterpart, Istudied each woman based on the following categories: physical traits, specialabilities, general behaviour, results of goodness/badness, conduct towards men, men’sconduct towards her and her final ending. The tabulated results can be found inAppendix 1. 6
  9. 9. Data analysisPhysical traits The good woman is more likely to be beautiful than a bad woman. Out of the14 good women, nine were specified to be beautiful, compared to four out of nine badwomen. Yet it is important to note that just because it was not specifically mentionedin the book that a woman was beautiful meant that she was ugly. For example, QueenChantrathewee, in this version of the tale, was not described as beautiful, yet onewould find it unbelievable if a queen in those days were anything less than beautiful. Thai ideas about beauty can be traced back to the Traiphummikatha, whichdescribes the gorgeous women of Utarakuru in great detail: Their skin is as perfectly beautiful as burnished gold, and this pleases all the men. Their toes and fingers are quite round and very beautiful; their nails are magnificently red as if they are painted with lacdye. Their cheeks are creamy-white and are as smooth as if they were carefully powdered, their face are clear without any blemishes and look like the moon when it is full. The pupils in their eyes are as black as those of a three-day-old fawn, and the white parts are as white as a newly polished conch; their lips are as red as Momordica, a ripe “white melon” gourd. The strands of their hair are so fine and soft that it takes eight of their hairs to make one the thickness of ours. Their long hair is as black as the wings of a carpenter bee; and when it reaches the lower parts of their shoulders, the tips of each hair curl upward themselves. Whether they sit, stand or walk it looks as if they are smiling all 7
  10. 10. the time. Their figure and complexion is as beautiful as that of a 16-year-old maiden. They never become old, and all of them remain as youthful as that all their lives. (National Identity Board 1992:27)Yet beauty could be a double-edged sword. Of the four bad women who wereportrayed as attractive, it was their beauty that led to their downfall. Think Wanthong,Mora in Chanthakorop, and Kaki in Kaki – men fought over them because of theirloveliness and ended up causing much heartache to the women. And Laveng was seenas a “bad” woman because she slyly used her good looks to seduce men in order totake revenge for her dead father and brother. Another interesting point to note is the mention of body smell. Three of thegood women were said to have a sweet or fragrant smell. In fact, in the folktales, it issometimes the smell that differentiates between a giant and a woman. In PhraSuwannahong, although the female giant disguised herself as Princess Ketsuriyong,Prince Suwannahong still detected the strange body smell from her. Again this idea ofa sweet-scented body probably has its roots in the Perfect Woman of theTraiphummikatha: Her body has a divine scent like that from sandal wood and aloes ground and mixed with the four kinds of fragrant essence. Whenever she speaks or laughs, her breath is scented, like blooming lotuses of the Nilupala and Cankalani kinds. (National Identity Board 1992:29) 8
  11. 11. General behaviour and special abilities The good woman in the folktale is generally kind-hearted, gentle, obedient toauthority (be it husbands or parents), dutiful and faithful. Only three of the charactershad special abilities – Sroisuda in Singhakraiphob and Kaew in A Horse-facedWoman are intelligent while Manora in Prince Suthorn can fly because she is aginaree which is half-bird and half-human. The good woman also seldom uses magicalthough others, such as hermits or giants, who come to their rescue might give themor help them with magic. On the other hand, the bad woman is typically either ajealous and wicked person or a temptress who is not faithful in love. Four of the ninebad women are well-versed in magic, characteristically using spells to get the meninfatuated with them. This seems to indicate that while a good woman would dependon her virtue, merit or goodness to win over supernatural assistance, a bad womanactively turns to magic to manipulate the people around her.Gender relations In the case of both the good and the bad women, the men were the originatorsor initiators of action. They were the ones who actively pursued the women,instructed them, flirted with them, abandoned them or even killed them. They werealso the ones to make decisions. Good women tend to hold a more passive role thantheir bad sisters. Their conduct towards men was often in response to what the menhave initiated. For example, Chalawan in Krai Thong was the one who started flirtingwith Tapaothong and she responded by falling in love with him. In their conduct towards men, the good women usually take a subservientstance to either their father or husband. Even if they were treated badly, they 9
  12. 12. continued to plod on faithfully, as in the case of Kanitha in A Golden Goby. If theyoriginate an action, it tends to be confined to an action of speech or an expression ofher emotions, especially unhappiness over the men’s philandering ways. Yet, if thegood woman is hard-pressed enough, she can shake off the shackles that men have puton her and rise up to the occasion, such as Suwanmalee in Phra Aphaimanee who wasbrave enough to lead the army in defence of the city because her husband was toobesotted with Laveng to do so. As for the bad women, while they are also on the receiving end of men’sactions, there are more examples where they are more proactive than the good womenin their dealing with the men. The bad women could be roughly divided into twogroups. One group is made up of women like Wanthong, Kaki and Mora whose fatesare out of their hands while the second group consists women like Ay (Golden Goby),Tasmalee (A Horse-faced Woman), Suwanchampa (Sang Thong) and Laveng whoknow what they want – revenge or a man’s love – and resort to various means toachieve their ends. While the men seemed like powerful agents of action for thewomen in the former group, they in turn looked like easily-swayed puppets in thehands of the latter group.Story endings As with all good didactic tales used to teach moral right and wrong, those whodo good will have good endings while those who do evil will come to a bad end. Thisis borne out strongly in the lives of the female characters in the folktales. Out of the 14 good women, 11 had happy endings where they “lived happilyever after” usually with the prince of their dreams. Expectedly, the bad women came 10
  13. 13. to a sad end, with extreme examples of one being turned in a gibbon and anotherreborn in hell. Although most of the bad women faced the death penalty, they weregenerally pardoned either by the prince or their victim. This is, of course, anotherteaching point to inculcate in children the value of mercy and forgiveness of one’senemies.Case studiesFrom “good” to “bad” Wanthong, or Pimpilalai as she was formerly known, was born into a wealthyfamily and brought up as a proper young lady. She was also known as the local beautyin Suphan Buri at that time. Her “goodness” is evident from her sponsorship of therecital of a chapter from the Maha Chat. Besides, the chapter that she sponsored wasabout Queen Matsi who was a prime example of the ideal self-sacrificial woman.Wanthong then married Khun Phaen but instead of a happily-ever-after ending, shewas soon caught in a tug-of-war between Khun Chang and Khun Phaen, and wasabducted alternately by both. Meanwhile, Wanthong begins to sense the erosion of hergoodness: Already at my age, I have two husbands. Very bad, very wicked, from head to toe, Very shameful and very sad. Even after death, my name will be notorious. (Suwadee 1999:17)When the scandal was brought before the king and Wanthong could not decide oneither of them because she now sees their true nature, the king condemned as her 11
  14. 14. being worse than a prostitute because even such a “bad” woman has one man at a timewhile Wanthong wanted both husbands at the same time. She was then executed andher name became a synonym for a woman with sexual greed and uncertainty in Thaisociety. Contrast this with how Khun Phaen had four wives and was admired for hisgallantry and how the king, while blaming Wanthong, remarked that her son shouldhave at least 10 wives because of his nobleman status (Suwadee 1999:17). AlthoughWanthong did not initiate sexual relations with more than one man, society stillignored the full sequences of events and emphasised only the end result – she allowedmore than one man to have access to her body – and condemned her for suchundesirable behaviour.From “bad” to “good” Young and beautiful, Laveng ruled Lanka City after her father and brotherdied at the hands of Phra Aphaimanee. She wanted revenge. Using a magic spell, shegot various kings infatuated with her portrait and these kings in turn declared war onPhaluek City. She even got Phra Aphaimanee besotted with her twice, mastermindedmass infatuation of his brother and sons and planned to burn her enemy by fire. All inall, she was a nasty piece of work. But Laveng turned over a new leaf when she hearda sermon by a hermit. She held a big peace party and invited her former enemies tohelp themselves to her precious stones. She was even generous enough to give away adiamond from her ancestors. She never went back to her evil ways and tried to stopher son from declaring war on his father. The story ended with her becoming a nun tofollow Phra Aphaimanee, who had become a hermit, to take care of him. 12
  15. 15. It is interesting to observe that Laveng’s turning point came about because ofreligion. It suggests that a woman needs religion to convert her from her evil waysand put her on the correct path. Jataka tales often portray women as, by nature, lowerbeings who were tied to the material, illusory world and did not have enough merit toresist temptation, so they need religion to keep them on the straight and narrow path.Her transformation into a “good” woman was further cemented by her decision tobecome a nun. Yet she wanted to become a nun, not because she wanted to be moredevout but because she wanted to take care of Phra Aphaimanee, which then brings usfull circle to what it means to be a good woman – to put the man’s needs before yourown and to take care of him.The feminist prototype The story of Kaew Naamaa is a fascinating study because she is atypical of a“good” woman. She is not pretty, in fact she is horse-faced. But she is very intelligentand is not afraid to insist on her rights and to get what she wants. Looking at the tablein Appendix 1, one can see that Kaew could match the men’s actions towards heralmost one for one, which is rare among the good women who tend to take a passiverole and respond. From the time that she got hold of Prince Pinthong’s kite, Kaew wasvery much in control. Not only did she set all the conditions for meeting the prince,marrying him and fighting the giants, but she also made sure her terms were met andwould not budge from them. In an era where good wives were exhorted to put up withtheir husbands’ infidelity because it is a sign of their prosperity, Kaew dared to getback at her prince. 13
  16. 16. I have always wondered why Kaew did not immediately show her new,improved self to the prince after the hermit helped her to remove her horse face.Surely she must have known that that would be a sure way of winning her shallowhusband’s heart. Yet she chose to remain ugly and put up with the plotting of herfather-in-law and husband. My conjecture is that Kaew, having grown up with astrange appearance, is only too aware that beauty is skin-deep and she wants PrincePinthong to love her for who she is and not what she looks like.The ideal woman with a modern mind Kanthathewee, or Rojana in other versions of Sang Thong, is an intriguingcombination of an “ideal” woman in traditional Thai literature and her independent-minded modern counterpart. She was the most beautiful of her six sisters, with looksrivalling that of celestial ladies. She is portrayed as a dutiful daughter who complieswith her parents’ wishes to choose a husband, and later on as a loyal and faithful wife.In fact when she realised that her husband might be killed if he could not get theanimals for her father, she lamented: Oh, what shall befall you, my beloved husband? Should they take your life, I would follow you, And let them take mine too. No longer do I want to live, and face the world. Never shall I let another man touch me, And be my husband. (National Identity Board 1992:159) 14
  17. 17. Despite her submission and obedience to her parents – qualities found in“good” women –Kanthathewee was also a strong and resolute individual. This isevident from how she stuck to her decision to marry Sangthong although that meantincurring her parents’ wrath and being exiled to live a simple life.Implications for Thai women today Thai folktales do give a glimpse into the life and status of women in thebygone days although it is believed that what women in literature had to suffer wasbut a pale reflection of the onus they had to bear in real life (National Identity Board1992:53). Yet Thai folktales also have important implications for today’s womenbecause literature is one of the most effective mans of communicating standards,values and ideologies. And what people read or listen to as a child would shape theirvalues of what it means to be a “good” or “bad” woman as well as their perspectiveson how to relate and behave towards men. Sexist indoctrination begins with picturebooks designed for pre-school children, before they can read and write. Deeply concerned by the serious problem of the influence exerted bychildren’s books and textbooks on the development of sexist attitudes and behaviourin young people, Unesco embarked on a series of national studies on the portrayal ofmen and of women in textbooks and children’s literature in 1981. And the prevalenceof sexist stereotypes has been confirmed by all the studies carried out under thisproject, in countries throughout the world (Michel 1986:20). Sociologist AndréeMichel argues that sexist stereotypes, themselves a product of the inequality betweenthe sexes, in turn become the source of further discrimination between the sexes. Theyounger the child, the less well equipped he or she is to resist the powerful stereotypes 15
  18. 18. that incline him or her to see the opposite sex as having conventional attributes,qualities or failings. Thus, young children are led to attribute mythical qualities toboys and to look down on girls (1986:23). In Thai folktales, the portrayal of the female sex is confined to specificqualities and roles, for example motherhood. So little girls are socialised into the ideathat when they grow up, the most obvious route for them is to marry and havechildren. Not that this is in itself a bad thing, but girls then get used to the thought thatother social (professional and political) roles are closed to them. Yet we have toremember that folklore is not the only tool of socialisation for a child. There are othersocialising agents, such as school, parents, and TV.Attitude to beauty The appreciation of grace and elegance, and the evaluation of beauty aredeeply entrenched in Thai culture. The Thai tends to be aware of physical bearing,beauty, and ugliness, as well as the use of the body as a communicative device(Phillips 1965:45). As has been shown earlier, there are certain defined standards ofbeauty, most of which are laid out in the Traiphummikatha. And these standards ofbeauty are inscribed in the mind of a woman as she grows up. If she falls short ofthese ideals, it might affect her self-esteem and she might take steps to rectify herlooks, such as going for cosmetic surgery. Although Hollywood movies and importedWestern TV shows have been blamed for fostering a “foreign” ideal of beauty, suchas fair-skinned blondes, in Thailand, it is interesting to note that the ideal of fair skinis found in the ancient Traiphummikatha, which describes the women of Utarakuru: 16
  19. 19. “Their cheeks are creamy-white and are as smooth as if they were carefullypowdered.” It is commonly thought that beauty is amoral but this is not the case inThailand where beauty is linked to morality through canonical and popular Buddhismand court literature. Beauty is described in the Buddhist canon as one of the fivepowers of women and reflect the effects of merit collected from past lives (VanEsterik 2000:155). Given the importance of beauty to a Thai woman because of itsreligious link, it follows then that the construction of a woman’s appearance is just asimportant. Sunthorn Phu offers more advice in his Suphasit Son Ying: Ensure your attire befits your person That it may complement your looks. When powdering your face and your body, Consider complexion and be not extreme. Whoever sees you must surely approve – Say you are clever and arrayed like a swan. For though you by young and beautiful, Ignorance of grooming is beauty wasted. (Van Esterik 2000:157)The augmenting of a woman’s natural beauty was even alluded to in a political debateon why “Thai” should be spelt with an “h”. A reason given was that “Thai with an His like a sophisticated girl with her hair set, her lips touched with lipstick and her browarched with eyebrow pencil while Tai without the H is like a girl who is naturallyattractive but without any added beautification” (Thamsook, 1977). 17
  20. 20. Hence, the importance of dressing up is evident from the endless stalls ofmake-up and jewellery in shopping malls or along the streets. Particularly in thestreets of Bangkok, one would be hard-pressed to see a woman who is not neatlydressed and attractively made-up. Other than facial beauty, it is also vital that the Thai woman smells nice.Afterall, in Thai folktales, the ideal woman emanates fragrance. Anthropologist Pennyvan Esterik argues that “the smell of bodies is important to self-identity, both theabsence of offensive smells and the application of soothing and healing perfumes.”(2000:210) Apparently, those working in Bangkok massage parlours devote eight percent of their expenditures to purchasing cosmetics, including perfumes (Wathinee andGuest 1994:77, 292).Modes of proper conduct In Thai folktales, the “good” women are generally gentle, submissive anddutiful wives. They work hard for their husbands, put up with their philandering waysand sometimes even sacrificing their lives for them as in the story of Phra Law.Sunthorn Phu wrote a poem, which all female students had to memorise, to teach thewomen the ways in which they should serve their husbands: 1. Do not go outside the house after sunset. 2. Light up the house. 3. Clean the bed and the pillow, do not let any dust remain on the bed. 18
  21. 21. 4. Before going to bed, women must salute their husbands by putting both hands together to the forehead and bending forward with the hands until they rest upon the floor (The traditional wai) 5. If the husband is tired or stiff, the woman is to massage him with her hands. 6. Wake up before the husband. 7. Prepare water for washing his face 8. Prepare food and water in clean containers 9. Sit by his side when he is eating, for it would be convenient if he needed something 10. After he finished his meal, the woman may eat the leftovers. (Phasuk 1979:23)Although the “modern” middle class Thai woman now pays scant attention to theseverses, it has already inculcated in them a sense of what is “good” and what is “bad”.Even if she does not adhere to all 10 points, she knows that this is considered the“ideal”. In fact, I was quite surprised by the response of one of my Thai femalefriends whom I thought would dismiss the entire poem. She is single, teaches Englishfor a living, 25 years old and is thoroughly modern in all sense of the word. She said:“Of course I won’t eat his leftovers or do the traditional wai but I’d want to doeverything else, such as waking up before my husband and preparing meals for him.” Social scientist Geert Hofstede’s study on national cultures may shed somelight on this. His findings are based on five independent dimensions – power distanceindex, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance index and long-termorientation. According to Hofstede’s ranking, Thailand is high on the uncertainty 19
  22. 22. avoidance index which indicates the society’s low level of tolerance for uncertainty.In an effort to minimise or reduce this level of uncertainty, strict rules, laws, policiesand regulations are adopted and implemented. Thailand also has the lowestmasculinity ranking among Asian countries, indicating that the society is lessassertive and competitive. This situation also reinforces more traditional male andfemale roles within the population. Hofstede’s findings perhaps then implies whyThai women are not averse to the rules of behaviour that they have grown up with,rules that govern how they eat, walk and relate to men. It seems too that women inThailand are more likely to take on the roles of wife and mother as depicted in theThai folktales. Besides, the pictures that accompany the folktales usually portray good wivesin the process of making intricate handicrafts, such as weaving or basket-making. Andinterestingly, in modern days, certain rehabilitation programmes for rescued femalesex workers, such as that piloted by Khunying Kanittha Wichiancharoen in DonMuang, have concentrated on teaching women new skills such as weaving and basket-making. In terms of Thai cultural tradition, this can be read as an attempt to convertthe “bad” woman into the “good” (Harrison 2001:156). Apart from portraying womenin the roles of mother and wives, Thai folktales do seem to prescribe how womenshould relate to men. As mentioned earlier, the men were expected to be theoriginators or initiators or action while “good” women just respond accordingly. So it seems that while good women abide by the prescribed code of behaviour– that of allowing the husband to take the lead, to allow themselves to be treated liketheir husband’s appendage – the bad women are not afraid to break the conventionalcodes to get what they want. Conversely, the interesting question to ask is: if a woman 20
  23. 23. is a go-getter and uses all means, even unsavoury ones, to achieve her ends, does thatthen make her a “bad” woman?Conclusion It is difficult to ascertain the extent to which Thai folktales influence women’sperception of beauty, “goodness” and gender relations. This paper draws parallelsbetween what is depicted in the stories and society’s expectations of women.Literature acts as a mirror to society, yet propagates its stereotypes at the same time. In Thailand, there has been a long-standing cultural division of women into“good” and “bad” – the Virgin and the Whore. Local media depicts the “modern”Thai woman as youthful, outgoing, gregarious, fun-loving and often rather “girlishly”cute, yet avoids any suggestion of her sexual agency or availability. Underlying thisconstruction of “modern” Thai womanhood is a much older tradition of the feminine,with its emphasis on grace, beauty, neatness and good manners – an image built uppartly by Thai folktales. 21
  24. 24. REFERENCESCheuacheun Siiyaaphai and Non Noraakorn (eds) (1971) Sunthorn Phu sorn ying. Sawadiraksa lae saalaakawii (Sunthorn Phu Teaches Women. Sawadiraksa and Salakawi). Bangkok: Samnak phim Khlang witthayaa.Harrison, Rachel (2001) “Prostitution, Politics and Power: Issues of the ‘foreign’ in Western television documentaries of female sex workers in Thailand” in: Shoma Munshi (ed.) Images of the ‘Modern Woman’ in Asia: Global media, local meanings. Surrey: Curzon Press.Hofstede, Geert Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions <http://www.geert- hofstede.com/hofstede_thailand.shtml> (16 February 2005)Lorber, Judith (2000) ‘The social construction of gender’ in: Estelle Disch (ed.) Reconstructing Gender: A multicultural anthology. California: Mayfield Publishing Company.Michel, Andrée (1986) Down with Stereotypes! Eliminating sexism from children’s literature and school textbooks. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.Phasuk Aneckvanich (1979) Status of Women in Thailand. Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences of The American University for Master of Arts Sociology.Phillips, Herbert (1987) Modern Thai Literature. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.Prakaaitham (1996) Khom waathii kawii ek khorng lok. Sunthorn Phu – nak kawii omata mahaa nirandornkaan (Sharp words from one of the most renowned poets in the world. Sunthorn Phu – the eternal poet). Bangkok: Thammasaphaa.Reinharz, Shulamit (1992) Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York: Oxford University Press.Sukanya Hantrakul (1988) ‘Prostitution in Thailand’ in: Glen Chandler, Norma Sullivan and Jan Branson (eds) Development and Displacement in Southeast Asia. Monash University: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies.Suwadee T. Patana (1999) ‘Gender relations in the traditional Thai lower class family’. Paper presented at the 7th International Conference on Thai Studies in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 4-8 July.Thamsook Numnonda (1977) ‘When Thailand followed the Leader’ in: A Collection of Articles by Thai Scholars. Bangkok: The Social Science Association of Thailand. 22
  25. 25. Thanapol Chadchaidee (2004) Fascinating Folktales of Thailand. Bangkok: D.K. TodayThe Committee for the Dissemination of Outstanding Thai Literary Works (1992) Women in Thai Literature. Bangkok: The National Identity BoardVan Esterik, Penny (2000) Materializing Thailand. New York: BergWathinee Boonchalaksi and Guest, Philip (1994) Prostitution in Thailand. Salaya, Nakorn Pathom: Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University. 23
  26. 26. Appendix 1Data Analysis 24
  27. 27. Appendix 1Data Analysis 25
  28. 28. Appendix 1Data Analysis 26
  29. 29. Appendix 1Data Analysis 27

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