image of book goes here
Penny Van Esterick

Materializing Thailand

Oxford and New York: Berg, 2000.
pp. xi, 274.
Includes Index ISBN 1 85973 311 5,
paperback, $US19.50

Review essay by Peter Jackson

Thai Genders and the Limits of Western Gender Theory

  1. The central issues that Penny Van Esterik investigates in Materializing Thailand are 'how Thai women have come to bear the burden of signifying Thainess both within the country and globally and … the response of the Thai women's movement to the position and condition of Thai women.'[1] In answering these questions she provides an excellent political history of contemporary Thai culture, detailing the gendered nationalism of a state which in the twentieth century used 'the display of women as icons that express Thai national identity and confirm Thai masculinity.'[2] Van Esterik also has a broader theoretical agenda, arguing that a detailed understanding of 'the Thai sex-gender system has much to contribute to counter Euro-American biases in theorising gender, sexuality and prostitution.'[3] This vision of Thai Area Studies critically engaging the Eurocentric biases of the Western academy is arguably the book's most important contribution.
  2. Van Esterik begins with an account of Thailand as a site of unrationalised contrasts. Under the heading 'Amazing Thailand', borrowed from a Tourism Authority of Thailand promotional campaign in 1998 and 1999, she describes Thai culture as one in which 'the beauty of ascetic simplicity [is] made more striking beside baroque extravagance. Even the dramatic contrasts between wealth and poverty, between Buddhist denial and total indulgence, fascinate rather than repulse.'[4] This is a society that she says resonates with characteristics now identified as postmodern. Indeed, for Van Esterik, 'the Thai were postmodern before they were modern.'[5] Following Featherstone, she defines postmodernity as involving

      the effacement of the boundary between art and everyday life; the collapse of the distinction between high and mass/popular culture; a stylistic promiscuity favouring eclecticism and the mixing of codes: parody, pastiche, irony, playfulness and the celebration of the surface 'depthlessness' of culture; the decline of the originality/genius of the artistic producer; and the assumption that art can only be repetition.[6]

  3. However, Van Esterik selects just a few ideas from postmodernism's tool kit of concepts to elucidate the historical and ethnographic intricacies of Thai gender culture. Her main contentions are that: (1) Thai gender culture is a complex of intersecting patterns; (2) Thai gender norms are highly contextualised within specific 'times and places' [kalathesa] and in daily life Thai men and women are required to move between differently structured gendered contexts; and (3) aesthetic surface effects or gendered presentations are valued more highly than inner 'essences' or ideas of an invariable gender identity.

    Thailand's complex gender culture
  4. Van Esterik describes Thai gender patterns as a 'palimpsest' in which newer discourses are written on top of older ones which have never been fully erased, leading to 'multiple contested gender statuses and ideologies not … a single hegemonic system.'[7] This palimpsest gender culture contains many contradictions, for example, images of Thai women as strong, competent, and independent exist side-by-side partriarchal inequalities and discrimination, 'Women characters are often strong and complex in the classical Thai literature, unlike the characters in more contemporary fiction where women are portrayed as vain and dumb.'[8]
  5. Van Esterik detects three historical layers to Thailand's palimpsest of gender cultures: (1) an indigenous Southeast Asian stream based on gender complementarity; (2) an Indianised Hindu-Buddhist patriarchal culture in which gender is understood as a masculine-feminine hierarchy; and (3) more recent Western influences in which the genders are imagined as equal but opposite zones of difference. In supporting this typology, Van Esterik notes that anthropologists have long described Thailand and Southeast Asia as a whole as 'an area characterised by relative gender complementarity'[9] where '[a]cross vast differences of geography, we find assumptions that males and females are essentially alike or easily transgendered.'[10] However, this picture of gender complementarity needs to be tempered by an understanding of the ways that Hindu-Buddhist religious cultures re-built local gender systems 'more on models of gender hierarchy than gender complementarity.'[11] In the 20th century, Western gender norms were added to this mix. While Siam was not colonised, the country nevertheless borrowed selectively from Western gender understandings. Van Esterik notes how King Vajiravudh (r. 1910-1926) considered Siamese women's appearance -- their teeth blackened from chewing betel; their 'masculine' short-cut hair; their wearing of the trouser-like unisex jongkraben— as contributing to Western perceptions of Siam as barbaric and uncivilised,

      Western travellers to Thailand, used to the extremes of gender opposition in European constructions of masculinity and femininity, were clearly confused by the similarity in appearance between Thai men and women …. Vajiravudh was particularly concerned because Westerners did not view elements of Thai dress simply as examples of cultural differences in fashions, but as deliberate strategies to keep women unattractive, and thus in bondage. [12] This attitude would be particularly anathema to Thai sensibilities because of the importance of aesthetic appearance underlying Thai gender constructions. The King encouraged his women friends and relatives to wear their hair long and wear the more stylish but restrictive skirt-like phaasin..[13]

  6. Westernising trends in Thai gender norms thus became linked with nationalist political projects of civilising, modernising and developing Thailand.

    Contextualised Thai genders
  7. Like many Thai cultural forms, gender norms are highly contextualised within specific 'times and places' [kalathesa], with Thai men and women routinely moving between differently structured gendered contexts. Van Esterik provides an excellent account of the Pali-derived expression kalathesa (literally 'time and place'), which in Thailand now denotes 'contextual sensitivity' or knowing what is proper in each time and place, 'Thais socialise themselves, their children and their visitors to develop contextual sensitivity.'[14] Kalathesa also denotes being able to move with ease between contexts structured by different normative expectations, 'As individuals and shapers of institutions, Thais shift between contexts easily and skilfully, influenced perhaps by Buddhist orientations to impermanence.'[15]

    Valorising gendered surfaces
  8. One of the most fascinating themes of this book is Van Esterik's account of how kalathesa or contextual sensitivity is primarily concerned with surfaces and appearances, and the ways in which Thai society 'give[s] agency to the social cosmetic and elevate[s] it into a significant social form'.[16] Van Esterik describes a society which 'encourages an essentialism of appearances or surfaces'[17] and she shows how these crucially important surfaces are gendered. What she describes is nothing less than a politicised aesthetic regime in which the idealised image of Thai feminine beauty assumes national importance,

      Appearances matter. Beautiful appearances matter even more…. In practice, it is Thai women who are more likely to be affected by judgements about their appearance…. The moral power of beauty, and the extreme objectification of women intersect in contemporary Thailand.[18]

  9. While tracing the origins of this aesthetic regime to Thailand's semi-colonial status in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Van Esterik also detects more ancient influences. She suggests that Buddhist doctrine contributes both to the Thai fascination with gendered surfaces over essences or fixed gender identities, and to a greater fluidity of notions of normative masculinity and femininity, 'Ideological orientations toward non-self and impermanence discourage essentialisms, particularly fixed binary gender identities.'[19]

      Buddhism should not be totally irrelevant to practices such as beauty contests that commodify women's bodies and create the illusion of beauty on the surface of those bodies. In fact, canonical and popular Buddhist texts provide images of beauty that re-emerge in popular practice. Buddhist rationale for appreciation of beauty includes the idea that physical beauty reflects merit store, good deeds in past or present lives, and moral purity. Clarity of complexion, grace and serenity were reflections of moral goodness …. Ugliness, unfortunately, conveyed the opposite [meaning].[20]

    Areas in need of further study
  10. The historically grounded account of Thai gender culture in Materializing Thailand provides a major contribution to debates on the differing forms of gender, modernity, and postmodernity in Western and non-Western societies. However, there are certain lacks in Van Esterik's study, and for that matter in Thai gender studies as a whole. These omissions do not undermine the analytical advances made in Materializing Thailand but rather point to key issues that future research must address.
  11. In Materializing Thailand the term 'gender' typically denotes the femininity of heterosexual Thai women and the 'gendered surfaces'[21] that Van Esterik describes are overwhelmingly feminine. The genders of homosexual women and men, transgenders, and heterosexual men are backgrounded and while heterosexual feminist debates are addressed in nuanced ways, masculinity studies, transgender, and queer studies are all but silent in this text. Van Esterik makes it clear in the opening pages that the focus of her interest is Thai femininity. However, while femininity is presented as a phenomenon to be explained, masculinity is implicitly presented as self-evident and not in need of equally extensive cultural and historical unpacking. Analytically, masculinity and femininity exist as paired categories within an interrelated system of gendered meanings in which neither can be understood as a self-sustaining or independent category. Future research will need to detail the broader intersecting and oppositional meanings of masculinity and femininity in Thailand.
  12. Future integrated studies of Thai masculinity and femininity might consider phenomena such as the fact that amongst many in the West, especially young working class men, the dominant gendered image of Thailand is not of sexotic Siamese feminine beauty but rather the masculinity of the kick boxer. Masculine-identified Muay Thai is an important part of the package of gendered images of Thailand that now circulate globally. Van Esterik's excellent account of feminine gender, nationalism, and modernity could also be complemented by considering the increasing popularity of transvestite beauty contests and 'handsome man' contests in Thailand, and her analysis of female prostitution could be contextualised by comparative accounts of the male homosexual and transgender sex industries, neither of which is discussed in the book.
  13. While Materializing Thailand is a study of Thai gender, discussion of the difficulty of rendering the very concept of 'gender' into Thai language discourses is relegated to a passing comment in a footnote,

      The concept of gender itself is difficult to translate into Thai. Even after the [many] gender training workshops conducted in NGOs and universities throughout the country, participants have had difficulty understanding the concept of gender.[22]

  14. In this footnote Van Esterik describes a workshop on feminism and gender issues held at a Thai university in the 1990s at which the proceedings were conducted in Thai yet the English word 'gender' was used at all times because the participants could not find an appropriate Thai term to translate the nuances of the English expression. This theoretically crucial observation could have been made the central focus of Van Esterik's investigation of the specificity of Thai notions of gender and their inability to be reduced to Western concepts. The languaging of gender in Thai and the many ways that masculinity and femininity are discursively represented, monitored, and policed in different 'time and place' [kalathesa] contexts must be a key topic of future gender research.
  15. Future research also needs to bridge the gulf between studies of heteroerotic and homoerotic genders. Van Esterik's account of Thai homosexual cultures is simplistic, ascribing the growth of Thai gay cultures to the 'institutional structure of the international gay movement.'[23] This misreads the rise of Thai homoerotic cultures as a political act, yet there is no Thai gay movement to speak of. It also represents these cultures as foreign incursions into Thai gender culture, extensions of Western homosexual forms rather than distinctive indigenous phenomena. This is an odd move that stands in contradiction with Van Esteriks' insistence on the need for local readings of heterosexual genders. Van Esterik's discussion of Thailand's gay scenes of bars, discos, saunas, restaurants, fashion outlets, magazines, and more recently web sites, as resulting from 'Western imperialism in the form of sex tourism'[24] reduces these admittedly commercial cultures to a presumed prostitution of Thai male bodies to Western gay desire. This reductionism reflects the heterocentric framework of Van Esterik's version of feminism, which leads her to interpret cross-cultural male homosexual relations as merely mirroring feminist accounts of cross-cultural Asian-Western relationships in which the Asian woman is viewed as victim and the Western man as exploiter. In Van Esterik's account, the position of Thai gay men is equated with that of 'exploited' Thai women, despite the former's masculine privileges in Thailand's patriarchal culture, while Western gay men are positioned as 'exploiters', despite their minoritised position in both Thai and Western heteronormative sexual orders. Van Esterik's account overlooks the fact that Thailand's gay scenes are overwhelmingly populated by Thai men, not foreigners, and that the greatest numbers of gay visitors to Thailand are not Westerners but men from neighbouring Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Taiwan, and Japan. Many of these countries have repressive anti-homosexual regimes, and rather than being a domain defined only by commodified sexual exploitation, Bangkok's commercial gay scene also needs to be seen as a zone of homosexual autonomy and one of the most important hubs for pan-Asian gay networking.

    'Global' gender theory and Thai area studies
  16. Van Esterik concludes with the observation that, 'Thailand has something important to say about gender in Southeast Asia and gender theory'[25] and despite the limitations noted above her text is a convincing argument in support of this claim. However, I wonder who will hear it. This important study could have achieved much more and attained relevance outside the restricted field of Southeast Asian studies if it had included a chapter directly critiquing Western understandings that showed precisely how the patterns of Thailand's palimpsest gender cultures point to limitations in the supposedly universal analyses of Eurocentric gender theories. Because she does not directly engage Western gender theory, I suspect that Van Esterik's aspiration to challenge the Eurocentrism of that body of thought will largely fall on deaf ears. The people who need to hear this vital argument are not other area studies specialists (who by and large are already convinced), but the Eurocentric practitioners of women's studies, sociology, feminist philosophy and cultural studies. People in these 'mainstream' disciplines rarely read anything produced under the rubric of area studies, and the only way that area studies practitioners such as Van Esterik will be heard in the hallowed halls of 'capital 'T'' Theory is to publish in non-area studies journals. To have one's work accepted in those venues will require being accepted on their terms of intellectual engagement—by becoming more theoretically sophisticated. This will not be an easy task. However, area studies will only make a major and lasting mark on the broader Western academy if it aspires to storm the hegemonic bastions of Eurocentric theoretical production. Despite the restricted scope of her analysis of the diversity Thai genders and the limitations of her strategic engagement with Western gender theory, Van Esterik has nevertheless succeeded in launching a powerful volley against Western-centric theorizing.
  17. Materializing Thailand provides much-needed inspiration to area studies practitioners in their important work of expanding the empirical bases of theoretical production beyond the area confines of Euro-America.


    [1] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 6.

    [2] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 7.

    [3] Van Esterik Materializing Thailand, p. 163.

    [4] Van Esterik Materializing Thailand, p. 3.

    [5] Van Esterik Materializing Thailand, p. 96.

    [6] M. Featherstone, Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, London: Sage, 1991, p. 7.

    [7] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 61.

    [8] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 48.

    [9] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 14, citing L. Hanks & J. Hanks, 'Thailand: Equality between the Sexes,' in B. Ward (ed.), Women in the New Asia, Paris: UNESCO, 1963, pp. 423-59.

    [10] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 28.

    [11] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 28.

    [12] Walter Vella, Chaiyo! King Vajiravudh and the Development of Thai Nationalism, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1978, p. 154.

    [13] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, pp. 99-100.

    [14] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 39.

    [15] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 96.

    [16] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 36.

    [17] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 4.

    [18] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 129.

    [19] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 6.

    [20] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 84.

    [21] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 5.

    [22] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 63, n. 8.

    [23] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 179.

    [24] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 179.

    [25] Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, p. 232.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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