Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002

Abusing Images:
Domestic Violence in Thai Cartoon Books

LeeRay M. Costa and Andrew Matzner

How we are seen determines in part how we are treated, how we treat others is based on how we see them; such seeing comes from representation.

Richard Dyer[1]

  1. Any resident in Thailand cannot help noticing the small, colourful comic books found in book stores, small shops, beauty salons, and doctors' offices across the country.[2] Their covers are eye-catching, a combination of bright hues and risque images of women with tiny waists and bountiful breasts (see Figure 1). Although statistics suggest that these books are indeed read mostly by children,[3] we have seen them in the hands of Thais of every age and gender, heads pressed to their humorous pages. While conducting research in Thailand in the late 1990s, we both became interested in what appeared to be a popular form of entertainment and leisure. We began to purchase these books regularly at a small pharmacy located in Chiang Mai's major shopping mall. Our interest piqued, we started visiting local night markets in search of back issues, carefully and gingerly inspecting pile after pile of old, dusty, moth-eaten texts. We knew our sideline interest had become a minor obsession when we began to organise trips

    around the possibility of locating new comic books. Our collection grew with each visit: Bangkok, Ayuthaya, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, and Lamphun. But it was not mainly the humour that begged our attention. Rather, it was the way that these representations conveyed in direct and symbolic form, many aspects of culture typically of interest to anthropologists. On these rough, eggshell-brown pages we saw depicted images of spirits interacting with humans, Buddhist and secular ceremonies, political dramas, market locales and farmers working. Many of the scenes represented aspects of everyday life, especially interpersonal relations. And it was precisely representations of male-female interaction within the context of marriage that held our analytical gaze.

    Figure 1. Khai Hua Raw #589, November 15-21, 2000.

  2. After perusing so many books over an extended period of time, we began to notice patterns in the ways that women and men are portrayed. Particularly striking are the images of violence occurring in the context of heterosexual, marital relations. Over and over again are depicted strong and sometimes enormous women beating, or threatening to beat, their apparently weak and emasculated husbands. This emasculation is symbolically represented by the ever-present sak [pestle] which the angry wife uses to strike her husband's head (see Figure 2).[4] Indeed, in colloquial Thai speech the sak and khrok [mortar] may be used to represent the male and female sex organs respectively. Hence, an angry woman holding a pestle as a weapon may suggest a 'phallus-wielding female'.[5] These images are not necessarily an 'accurate' reflection of reality. Rather they depict a reversal of the expected, an incongruity. These popular comic book images thus raise questions about how we are to understand gender, marital relations and ultimately women's rights within the Thai context and their connection to popular culture artefacts.
  3. Domestic violence is a significant social problem in Thailand which has only begun to be documented both by Thai and non-Thai observers and researchers, including representatives of governmental agencies, non-governmental organisations, and the United Nations. In particular, a great deal of attention has been paid to the high rates of physical abuse which men perpetrate against their female partners and the causes of such violence. However, little attention has been paid to representations of domestic violence in Thai popular culture or to the potential impact such images might have on human behaviour and understanding. This essay seeks to redress this lacuna by examining the ways in which domestic violence is represented in Thai comic books. By identifying and analysing recurrent discursive patterns in Thai comic books and exploring linkages and divergences between these themes and statistical information about domestic abuse in Thailand, we aim to highlight potential connections between women's rights, gender inequality and popular culture in Thailand. At the same time, by acknowledging human agency in the interpretation of such images, we suggest several readings of these images, focusing on an outsider interpretation of these texts, that, rather than coming to any final conclusion about Thai cartoons, beg further empirical research into the production and especially reception of Thai comic books.
  4. In this essay we have several goals. The first is to draw attention to Thai popular culture in general as a worthy area of study. While research on popular culture has grown rapidly since the work of the Frankfurt School in the 1960s,[6] examinations of this topic within the field of Thai studies have only recently gathered pace.[7] In particular, we are interested in exploring the ways that various forms of popular culture represent gender relations in Thailand. Our second goal is to argue that as a more than three billion baht per year industry,[8] and as products consumed by both male and female readers of all ages, comic books in Thailand deserve analytical scrutiny.[9] Our third goal is to identify and problematise the relationship between patterns of domestic violence found in Thai comic books, discourses of gender and sexuality, and the realities of domestic violence as indicated by research undertaken by Thai women's organisations and scholars. As stated above, it is noteworthy that the images of domestic abuse, which frequently appear in comic books generally, feature wives physically assaulting their husbands. In light of research that indicates that women, not men, are the primary victims of domestic violence in Thai households, we argue that the images found in comic books are themselves abusive in their further misrepresentation and silencing of violence against women. Comic book images also make violence in the family a topic of humour, which likely has contradictory effects. The presence of cartoons featuring spouse abuse raises questions regarding the role which popular culture plays in disseminating and reproducing gender ideology,[10] and how such images might be implicated in the perpetuation of domestic violence and gender inequality. At the same time, we do not deny that such images may operate as a medium of resistance by women who interpret them in alternative ways. Thus, we also critically assess the possibility that cartoon images might provide a productive arena for challenging and helping to eliminate domestic abuse against women.
  5. The essay begins with a brief discussion of those theories that inform our study of popular culture. In the next section we argue that Thai cartoon books are worthy of scholarly analysis precisely because of their central place in Thai popular culture. To this end, we situate Thai comic books and the images of marital antagonism they portray in their specific cultural, and political economic context. This section is followed by an analysis of the dominant patterns of spouse abuse found in Thai comics supported by representative examples. We then juxtapose these representations against data provided by studies of domestic abuse in Thailand. In the final portion of this essay we argue that, from a critical feminist viewpoint, the particular patterns of spouse abuse found in Thai cartoons hold serious consequences for the struggle for women's rights in Thailand. Admittedly, these images can be read both as further entrenching an already patriarchal system of female subordination and gendered violence, and providing possibilities for resistance and liberation as women take on dominant roles in marital contexts. However, the extent to which the latter interpretation might be understood as truly liberating is further called into question by the forms of violence upon which women's 'equality' apparently depends.

    Studying Popular Culture
  6. In delimiting our object of study we begin with historian Craig A. Lockard's definition of popular culture. He writes that popular culture is

      a 'majority' culture involving aspects of culture (ideological, material, social) that are widely spread, believed in, or consumed by large numbers of people (generally on a leisure basis). ... this variety [of popular cultural forms] has been created and distributed chiefly by the mass media of communications, which include both electronic and print categories. ...hence popular culture consists of both spoken and printed words, pictures, activities, and the like.[11]

    Yet popular culture is not composed only of 'cultural texts' or 'signifying practices,' it also includes the 'cultural practices,' through which we make meaning in and of the world.[12] It is in this last aspect of popular culture that an anthropological perspective is most relevant.
  7. The academic literature on popular culture is incredibly diverse, both in content and theoretical approach. What was once a field of study dominated by scholars of the Frankfurt School has become more theoretically sophisticated and methodologically nuanced with contributions by scholars in the disciplines of cultural studies, sociology, communication, and more recently, anthropology. In our review of this literature we have identified several themes in the study of popular culture which all, in different ways, influence our interpretation of Thai comic books and their representations of domestic violence.
  8. First, popular culture is understood within the context of capitalist hegemony as a tool for the perpetuation of class ideology and the accumulation of capital.[13] Thus, the primary goal of popular culture and media forms is the reproduction of ideology which serves the interests of capitalists and other powerful institutions (the state) and groups (the bourgeoisie). As Spitulnik argues, growing out of this critical Marxist/historical materialist approach is a more functionalist approach which interprets popular culture as a mechanism for socialisation.[14] Similar to the first orientation, this approach reads popular culture as uniformly reproducing certain social arrangements and ideas, as well as 'dramatis[ing] cultural myths.'[15] The functionalist approach sees popular culture as a form of communication that at once represents and expresses social ideologies and practices. Putting a feminist spin on these two approaches allows us to see patriarchy (and hence gender inequality) as another crucial ideology disseminated through and entrenched by popular cultural forms.[16] Both of these perspectives thus interpret popular culture and the mass media 'as a monolithic and ultimately alienating, "culture industry"'.[17]
  9. An alternative approach to popular culture recognises it as a process and field of struggle. Popular culture is not just given, but must be actively interpreted and engaged with by social actors. Thus, popular culture cannot be solely oppressive and homogenising, but in fact intrinsically provides spaces for resistance and individual interpretation. Indeed, such a perspective is enriched by Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony which holds that power is neither unitary nor absolute, but must be constantly renewed and recreated in social life.[18] From this point of view popular culture is not simply a 'text' to be read singularly and authoritatively by the analyst or social actor. Rather, popular cultural forms must be understood as sites for struggles over meaning, identity and representation.[19] Such a perspective has many affinities with that of contemporary feminist theories and their interpretation of culture[20] and practice theory—a diverse body of theory now popular among anthropologists[21] which draws from many of the same theorists as does the work on popular culture such as Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault.[22]
  10. In our analysis of Thai cartoon books we attempt to negotiate the boundaries between structure and agency complexly drawn by these various approaches to popular culture. Following Spitulnik, we agree that mass media (and popular culture more generally) 'are at once cultural products and social processes, as well as extremely potent arenas of political struggle.'[23] Analysis demands a 'double focus' which acknowledges that popular cultural artifacts both embody and communicate structures, discourses and ideologies, and provide spaces for active interpretation and contestation.[24] Indeed, it is only in recognising the latter that the activist goals of our essay have any meaning at all. Our approach to popular culture is therefore also inflected by a feminist sensibility that places gender and power relations at the core of analysis in an effort to eliminate gender inequality.
  11. While we focus mainly upon the representations of domestic violence and gender relations portrayed in Thai cartoon books, we do so reflexively with the awareness that our interpretations are not the only ones available. Because our main intention here is to raise both scholarly and public awareness about the types of representations depicted in Thai comic books, and the potential gender ideologies they convey, we spend little time examining the reception of comic books by Thai consumers; indeed, and as mentioned earlier, such issues will have to await further research. Nevertheless, we hope that this essay will provide the impetus for others to pursue studies which investigate in more detail how individuals 'read' and make meaning of Thai comic book images and what relationships such readings might have to instances of domestic violence and the transformation of gender relations in Thailand.

    Contextualising Thai Cartoon Books
  12. Thai cartoon books fall into two general categories: those written and produced locally in Thailand, and translated versions of Japanese manga comic books. This paper is concerned only with the former.[25] Cartoon books of Thai origin can be divided into two types based on the kinds of material each carries: dramatic versus humour-oriented. The first are pocket books (measuring approximately 18 centimetres by 13 centimetres) which tell a story in serial form, usually about ghosts or other supernatural phenomena. Some appear weekly, others at irregular intervals. The quality of the printing, artwork and paper is typically quite low, reflected by their very affordable price—five baht (11 cents) per book. These cartoon books are not as widely available as are their counterparts, humour comics. Retailing at twelve baht (26 cents) per book, these are also pocket size books and are ubiquitous. They are sold at newsstands, bookstores, and general stores, and are available for rental at the scores of comic book libraries found all over Thailand and especially near universities. They are frequently available for perusal by customers waiting at restaurants, hair salons, copy shops, and the like.
  13. These humour-oriented comic books, of which there are several titles, generally have over one hundred pages per issue and are published weekly.[26] The books analysed here include Selling Laughter [Khai Hua Raw],[27] Super Fun [Mahasanuk],[28] and Buying Laughter [Su' Hua Raw],[29] which are the most widely purchased.[30] Although these comic books do contain several short serialised stories (running between five and ten pages each), they consist primarily of individual, self-contained one-frame cartoons. Each page typically includes two separate one-frame cartoons, although occasionally a single page may have one large frame, or three or four smaller frames which form the parts to a single cartoon. These comic books are first and foremost intended to amuse and are composed mostly of 'very simple gags.'[31] They feature stock human characters (rather than animal or superhero characters) involved in humorous situations in everyday life. Unlike in the United States, where comic book reading is limited to certain age groups, or in Japan where comic books are marketed specifically to either men or women, in Thailand humorous comic books are read by a wide range of people, including men and women, children, teenagers, university students, and adults.[32] This broad audience was confirmed in our discussions with comic book rental shop owners both in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, and in Bangkok, the nation's capital. Vithit Utsahajit, managing director and comic editor of Bun Lour Sarn, the company that publishes Selling Laughter and Super Fun, says 'from the highest ranking government official or top businessman, to children who have just learned to read—all are readers of comics.'[33]
  14. As we learned from Khun Warawijya,[34] the Thai cartoon books we examine herein are produced entirely by Thai men.[35] This is confirmed by Vithit Utsahajit who says that Bun Lour Sarn does not employ women because 'it is very difficult. I don't know why there are no women cartoonists. There are some applications from women, but the work is not up to standard.'[36] We believe that the gendering of Thai comic book production is not insignificant, especially since the images we seek to analyse are representations of gender relations, marital relations and violence created entirely by men. Since men maintain absolute control over the production of cartoon book images, we might ask what types of gender ideology are embedded in them and to whose benefit. In fact, answering this question may in turn explain why so few women work in the Thai cartoon industry, which in many ways appears to create an environment that is literally and figuratively hostile towards women. Moreover, we might consider how cartoon books operate in the first instance as a location for the entrenchment of male power in a society where gender relations are undergoing rapid change and secondly a means of silencing what is statistically a growing and dangerous social problem—domestic violence. Thus, it seems necessary to provide the reader with some preliminary information concerning gender relations in Thailand.[37]
  15. Historically, Thailand was primarily an agricultural society and both women and men worked alongside each other in the fields. Based on this apparently equal division of labour, social scientists have argued that gender relations were marked by a high degree of complementarity and relative equality.[38] This is despite the fact that women had a heavier burden within the domestic sphere, that women had the legal status of water buffalo until 1868,[39] that women in Siam like women in many kingdoms, functioned as objects of exchange and treaty consolidation,[40] that women were barred from becoming Buddhist monks because of their sex, and that women played little if any primary role in local and national level politics.[41] With the spread of development and 'modernisation' throughout Thailand, especially since the 1960s, the roles and expectations of women and men have shifted dramatically to accommodate both the needs of capital and the state. This has had contradictory effects on women, allowing them new work opportunities in the industrial sector yet burdening them even further with a 'double shift' and the pain of violence as men face new challenges in a shifting labour market.[42] As a result of these myriad changes, there are signs of increasing inequality between the genders in terms of income, access to resources, human rights, and sexual and verbal expression. That Thais themselves are aware such a gap exists between the genders is evidenced in the growing efforts of women's organisations for gender equality at all levels—in the home and labour force, according to the law, within the Buddhist sangha, and in politics.[43] Yet, women have made significant inroads in the struggle for equality, particularly in the areas of education and the civil service.[44] Women are getting married later or not at all, travelling, and obtaining varied life experiences, and exploring their sexuality in new ways.[45] As women transform themselves, so too are the relations between men and women transformed.
  16. Thus it is important to keep in mind that we read these cartoon images within a cultural, political and economic context undergoing rapid and dramatic change. In the past fifty years, with the spread of television, radio, feature film and print media in Thailand, Thais have been exposed to mass media with an intensity and rapidity that was previously unknown.[46] Locally produced television soap operas, Thai popular music and glossy fashion magazines have become widely consumed. Foreign media has also made an impact on Thai society, as American and Hong Kong films dominate while Japanese cartoon characters have claimed the affection of young Thais. This rapidly expanding cultural literacy is reinforced by the spread of public education; by law, all Thai citizens are now required to attend twelve years of school. Moreover, with a literacy rate of 94 percent, there are few people who are excluded from enjoying mass print media. Such media forms have taken root in a political climate that has been volatile at worst, yet increasingly democratic at best, and in which more and more of the general population is finding an arena in which to voice their concerns about the environment, AIDS, political corruption, human rights, and women's rights.[47] Nevertheless, cartoon books are ultimately a profit-generating business. Thus they can never be entirely divorced from the capitalist climate of production, distribution and consumption in which they exist, or from the cultural ideologies which sustain such a state of affairs.
  17. In the following sections we examine these comic books in more detail in light of Thai gender relations and empirical data on domestic violence. We hope to tease out some of the multiple readings of cartoon images and the troubling implications they hold for women's rights, and thereby draw attention to what we believe are abusive images in more ways than one.

    Abusing Images
  18. As part of a larger project investigating representations of gender and sexuality in Thai comic books, Andrew purchased humour-oriented comic books every week (or as they were published for those which appeared less often) over a twelve-month period (March 1998 - March 1999) and subsequently a four-month period (September - December 2000). Additionally, both of us systematically perused flea markets and used bookshops in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Ayuthaya to purchase comic books published during the last ten years. Both of us read, write and speak central Thai, while LeeRay also speaks northern dialect [kam mu'ang].[48] All of the cartoons analysed here were discussed with Thai friends and colleagues in order to ascertain the multiple and varied meanings they convey.
  19. We found that the most dominant pattern of domestic violence found in these comic books was that of spouse abuse—specifically, violence by a wife directed unilaterally at her husband. Images were generally of two types: a wife in the process of beating her husband, or the husband after he had already been beaten by his wife. This pattern was striking because of the frequency with which it appeared, both within the pages of a single comic book and across the ten-year time period which we examined.
  20. Below we critically examine seven representative cartoons that portray scenes of domestic abuse and marital antagonism. Our selection reflects the dominant pattern in which domestic abuse by a wife is directed toward her husband, as well as instances where a husband inflicts violence upon his wife. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted by anthropologists and other social scientists, we read these images for their representations of sexuality and gender identities, relations and practices. In doing so, we suggest some of the ways they might be interpreted by the audiences who consume them.

    Figure 2. Khai Hua Raw #483, November 4-10, 1998.

  21. Figure 2 highlights characteristics typically found in the pattern of husband-directed domestic violence portrayed in Thai comics. The wife yells at her flattened husband, 'So ... are you going to talk about divorcing me again?' His answer is a mumbled, 'No, never ...' ending with the familiar and loving Thai particle, 'ja.' By employing a particle not typically used by Thai men the husband attempts to charm his wife and defuse her anger and violence towards him. In addition, the husband's use of this particle further emphasises his effeminisation (and potential emasculation), and highlights the humorous and unexpected gender-reversal occurring in this context. As demonstrated in this image, Thai cartoonists consistently draw wives as short, stocky, unattractive figures with big mouths and/or lips who talk loudly and harshly. Unmarried women on the other hand are drawn in a highly sexualised manner, as tall, slender figures with hourglass shapes and over-sized breasts. These bodily representations are consistent with a Thai sex/gender ideology which desexualises married women while constructing unmarried women as desirable sexual partners (even for already married men).[49] That the husband's body lies flat on the floor with the wife standing over him communicates the husband's submission. The relative arrangement of bodies in space is important in Thai social relations. Not only is the woman's head higher than her husband's (an indicator of relative status in various social contexts), but she has beaten him on the head, held to be the most sacred part of the body. Another important feature related to the head beating is the wife's choice of weapon, the pestle [sak]. This cooking tool is associated with the 'traditional' Thai kitchen, as Thai women use the mortar and pestle for grinding spices and mixing ingredients. In comic images, the pestle appears to represent the power a wife maintains within her home, a power, as illustrated earlier, comparable to men's as indicated by its phallic shape.[50] In many of the scenes in which a wife beats her husband, she uses the sak as a weapon, which in turn leads to the ubiquitous bumps on her husband's head. Such images are funny precisely because they are incongruous; it is not women who hold power in Thai society (although they may in specific situations), but men.[51]

    Figure 3. Khai Hua Raw #579, September 6-12, 2000.

  22. Even if the wife is not present in the cartoon image, these bumps effectively communicate to the reader that the husband has been disciplined by his wife. For example, in Figure 3 the husband is greeted by his pals at the bar with, 'Our friend is here! So, your wife let you go out, eh?' The husband replies with a simple and knowing 'Yeah ...' The bar is a significant location for men in the Thai context, as alcohol is 'one of the three proverbial evils that lead to ruin,' the others being gambling and womanising—symbolic of 'male excesses and indulgences.'[52] In the realm of Thai masculinity, social drinking and drunkenness are associated with visiting prostitutes and other forms of extra-marital sexuality.[53] Yet while a husband frequently socialises outside the home, his wife is expected to remain within it in order to fulfil her domestic responsibilities. Indeed, the fulfilment of these roles marks her femininity. As a result, wives sometimes feel that their husbands do not spend an adequate amount of time with their families. They also worry that income necessary for family finances is instead spent on liquor and entertainment. Such male behaviours often lead to domestic strife.[54] At the same time, husbands disapprove of their wives' nagging when confronted about their drinking and after-work activities.[55] Hence, alcohol use and infidelity are significant sites around which marital conflict is generated and male bonding is enacted in the Thai context.

    Figure 4. Mahasanuk #293, September 13-19, 1996.

  23. Figure 4 portrays a husband talking to his friend on the telephone under the eye of his sak-wielding, angry wife. Female spousal control is indicated in this image by a thick chain attached to the man's ankle, extending in the direction of his wife. The husband sits on a chair in an almost foetal-like (and thus infantilising) position, one arm clasped tightly between his legs. That the woman has already beaten him is again represented by the three bumps on his head. Sweating and in tears, he talks into the mouthpiece 'Hey guys, I really can't go out. It so happens that I have business to take care of ... it's a relative's wedding.' One imagines that the husband's friend expresses disbelief for, after a short pause, the husband continues by insisting, 'I'm not lying!' It is interesting to note that at the top right hand corner of the cartoon appears the face of a man witnessing this scene through a window. His sunglasses make his expression difficult to read. However, whether it is fear, anger, displeasure, disapproval or a combination of all these feelings, his face offers a negative commentary on this domestic situation from the perspective of a male outsider.
  24. We believe images like these are linked to the Thai cultural concept of 'klua mia' which literally means 'to be afraid of one's wife.' This concept is commonly used by men in various social contexts as a joke. Yet, the term is ambiguous and therefore open to multiple meanings—is the man who speaks it really afraid of his wife, or is this sarcastic remark simply meant to amuse? Being afraid of one's wife is so contrary to the expected relationship between a man and woman that it evokes humour. In a discussion of Thai politics as the 'last bastion of male sanctity,' Thai scholar, Juree Vichit-Vadakan, examines the ways that men are indulged in Thai society. Taking a psychoanalytic perspective, she argues that the excesses of male behaviour (i.e. drinking, gambling, and womanising) may reflect an underlying hostility towards women symbolised by the mother, the ultimate disciplinarian and socialiser.[56] Because a male child owes a 'debt of gratitude' [bun khun] to his parents, he cannot challenge his mother in any way. Children of both genders similarly owe this debt of gratitude to their parents. However, Juree is specifically concerned with the psychological impact of the bun khun relationship between mothers and sons on men's future relationships with wives/partners. As a result, hostility and defiance towards the mother are transferred to the wife. Juree states that 'men would insist that 'wives are not mother' which is expressedly a declaration of men's 'absence of fear' of their wives.'[57] Thus, when a man is faced with the 'prying eyes' or 'disapproval' of his wife, or the notion that he is 'klua mia,' he feels a sense of 'overwhelming rage and shame.'[58] Juree argues that to compensate for such feelings of inferiority a man thereby exhibits behaviour flaunting his independence and exercising in indulgences. We suggest that such 'excesses' might also be extended to domestic violence, a topic which Juree unfortunately ignores. Our contention here, which we further elaborate below, is that by framing domestic violence within the cultural concept of klua mia which portrays men as victims, these cartoons effectively erase male dominance and violence.

    Figure 5. Su' Hua Raw #210, October 2000.

  25. Another related theme commonly found in Thai cartoons is mutual violence between husband and wife. What makes Figure 5 distinct is the presence of children as an audience for the domestic quarrel. In this image, two daughters watch as their father beats up their mother. The older child says to the younger, 'Dad is a man. Mom can't win against him. Just look! A woman's strength can't beat the strength of a man!' However, by the second frame the tide has turned. 'Older sister, you're wrong!' says the younger child. 'What do you have to say now?' Taking the upper hand, the wife does not just knee her husband (as he does her in the first frame), she stands on him and kicks him in the head. Again, bodily arrangement is important in this image because the wife literally stands atop her husband, her victory symbolically reinforced by having her man under foot (the dirtiest and least sacred part of the body). Moreover, she kicks him in the head (an action typically used against animals like dogs, or to express intense anger). Such behaviour is not only extreme, it is outrageous given Thai parameters of emotional and violent expression and bodily symbolics. While most of the cartoons we found portray spousal abuse as one-sided, with female violence unreciprocated by the husband, this cartoon shows each gender fully engaging in violent behaviour. However, the result, and hence the joke, is the typical one: the wife is physically (and perhaps ideologically) more powerful than her husband.

    Figure 6. Khai Hua Raw #558, April 12-18, 2000.

  26. Like Figure 5, Figure 6 also includes the presence of children. But what makes this cartoon particularly notable is that it suggests the wife enjoys engaging in violence with her husband. In the first two images of this four-frame cartoon, a husband brutally attacks his wife with blows to the head and face. In frame three the couple's children appear on the scene, which has the effect of momentarily halting the husband's violence. However, after the children have departed and the wife has had time to catch her breath, it is she who becomes the violent one. Punching her husband in the face she cries out, 'Why did you stop?! I'm just getting into it! Let's start [fighting] again!' The patterns of mutual aggression portrayed in Figures 5 and 6 are notable because it is the wife who ends up gaining the upper hand. Thus, although both spouses enthusiastically trade blows, it is the wife who ultimately outfights her husband. Moreover, both Figures 5 and 6 depict the woman's pleasure in beating and defeating her husband.

    Figure 7. Khai Hua Raw #473, September 26-October 1, 1998.

  27. This pattern of marital antagonism is linked to the construction of marriage as an institution characterised by mutual dislike and distrust. This idea is communicated well in Figure 7 even without the presence of the unhappy couple. In this image two servants are cleaning a bedroom. Finding a pistol under each of the spouse's pillows, the servant says, 'Do you believe it? The man and woman of this house really don't trust each other at all!' This cartoon, like the others, plays on a popular discourse of marriage in which the harmony between spouses breaks down after the marriage ceremony. That is, as time passes a husband and wife become increasingly bored and even fed up with one another.[59] This is in direct contrast to the relationship between a man and woman prior to marriage; a relationship characterised by romance, sincerity, sexual tension and desire, and fuelled by popular images of romance found in soap operas, popular songs, movies and comic books. [60]
  28. Despite the two examples just discussed, it is rare to find a cartoon image in which a husband physically assaults his wife. Such images prove to be exceptions to a more common scenario in which the husband is on the receiving end of spousal violence. This is, we contend, because such realism hits too close to home, implicating men in ways they are not ready to accept. Nevertheless, such images do occur.

    Figure 8. Khai Hua Raw #579, September 6-12, 2000.

  29. For example, Figure 8 is a cartoon made up of three parts. In the first frame a woman yells loudly and rudely at a man. The words she screeches, and their size indicated by a large font, suggest their 'inappropriate,' un-lady-like nature. Behind the woman is her husband, who looks quite upset. In the first frame he says, 'You talk too much and then you get into trouble!' Then, seeing that the target of his wife's insults is preparing to hit her, he utters 'Oh, great' [i.e. 'Uh-oh'].[61] In the second frame the offended man brutally punches the woman in the face. Rather than watch, her husband covers his eyes. In the final frame the assailant states politely, 'I'm finished. Now she's beautiful.' The husband, obviously satisfied with what he sees, cries out, 'Do it again! Do it again!' The onomatopoeic words which now emerge from his wife's dainty mouth indicate delicateness and femininity, that is, the way Thai women are 'supposed' to speak. That the words she utters are very small in font size also indicate that she is speaking softly and politely. The posture, facial expression and statement of the assailant indicate that he has done the wife a favour. In the background are several other women, notable because of their huge mouths and lips. The implication is that these women also need to be beaten into the 'proper' form. This cartoon, while portraying male violence against a woman, suggests that such violence is only for her own good. Not only is the assailant happy, but so is the woman's husband. His wife has been disciplined and moulded into a desirable woman. Not only has her loud mouth been virtually silenced, but the size of her body has been altered to further reflect her increased desirability and femininity. Indeed, this is one of the ideologies of gender which we argue Thai cartoonists—intentionally or not—disseminate to their readers.
  30. Given the images of domestic violence found in Thai cartoon books of which these are just a small sample, what is the reality? To what extent is domestic violence a practice engaged in by wives against husbands, and husbands against wives? Are these images of husband abuse funny precisely because they are a reversal of reality, or because they hold some grain of truth? And in what ways might these seemingly innocuous images perpetuate discourses and ideologies of gender which reinforce women's subordinate position relative to men? In the next section we examine the statistical and human reality of domestic violence in Thailand as a counterpoint to the images found in Thai cartoon books before returning to the representations and their interpretations once again.

    Domestic Violence in Thailand
  31. In Thailand, the silence surrounding domestic violence is deafening. Only very recently has discussion about domestic violence, and wife abuse in particular, become public. This is evident for example, in the airing on Thai television of a public service commercial about domestic violence in the fall of 2000. Numerous scholars and women's organisations have identified domestic violence as a severe problem in the country. The United Nations Development Program 2000 Country Report for Thailand states unequivocally that 'There has been growing concern about the problem of domestic violence and the recognition that women are subject to domestic violence, including physical, sexual, and mental abuse by their husbands.'[62] Several studies of domestic violence in Thailand corroborate this claim with statistical evidence.[63] According to data collected by the United Nations Statistical Office, 'one in four women in industrialised countries has been hit by a husband or lover.'[64] Statistics for Thailand revealed that 'more than half of all murders of women were committed by present or former partners.'[65] Despite the mounting evidence, 'no comprehensive study on the incidence of domestic assault in Thailand has been undertaken.'[66]
  32. The most reliable information concerning spouse abuse in Thailand comes from women's organisations that work most closely with the victims of domestic violence.[67] During the first half of 1997, the Friends of Women Foundation located in Bangkok dealt with five hundred cases, four hundred of which involved domestic violence.[68] The Centre for the Protection of Women's Rights states that in 1997, among a total of 1054 cases, 80 percent were cases of domestic violence.[69] The Centre also conducted a small study and found that of 35 cases, 88 percent included domestic violence. Drawing from a range of statistics and reports, Chotima and Sansanee include the following as forms of domestic violence: 'women being abused by husbands or lovers, being raped within marriage or by a friend, being beaten, being abused with a weapon, being poked [burned] with cigarettes, or candle drippings on the body until they are murdered.'[70] Thanawadee Thajeen from the Friends of Women Foundation states

      So many women from wide ranging professions and social background are suffering from domestic violence - physical as well as mental abuses - in silence. For that reason, we have no way to estimate the scale and intensity of this problem. As far as we know, however, the number of cases of this nature is on the rise. They also show a tendency to be more intense and complicated.[71]

    Until more comprehensive studies of domestic violence in Thailand are conducted, the actual scale and intensity of the problem will remain unknown. Nevertheless, the little information that does exist clearly indicates that domestic violence against women in Thailand is a problem that demands more attention.
  33. Given the emerging evidence of wife abuse in Thailand, we might ask how this problem has remained silenced. Answering this question may help us to understand why images of domestic violence in Thai (as opposed to Japanese) cartoon books remain unremarkable at the same time that they work to perpetuate the very silence that surrounds violence against women.
  34. In Thailand, domestic violence is commonly viewed as a 'family affair' and therefore, private.[72] Defining domestic violence in this way makes it virtually impossible for women to address the problem publicly, further driving it underground. Domestic violence is a matter for the family only, and outsiders, including police, lawyers, doctors and even local officials, should not be involved. This belief is reinforced in the Thai proverb 'The inside should not be taken out, the outside should not be brought in' [fai nai mai hai nam o'k, fai n'ok mai hai nam khao] suggesting that family matters should remain within the family.[73] Exposing such family problems may result in 'loss of face' and therefore should be avoided at all costs.
  35. Such an interpretation puts the onus of domestic violence on women and provides neither moral support nor legal redress. Moreover, this perspective also abrogates state institutions and agencies of any culpability, despite the fact that by definition, it is the state's responsibility to protect the legal rights and physical bodies of its citizens. This state obligation is reiterated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Thailand is a signatory. For example, relevant articles read:

      Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
      Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
      Article 7: All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.[74]

  36. More specific to local Thai contexts, the right to protection from violence is also guaranteed in the most recent Thai constitution (1997), the first to be drafted by a committee of peoples' representatives. Article 53 states: 'Children, youth, and family members shall have the right to be protected by the state against violence and unfair treatment.'[75] Yet despite these legal guarantees, violence against women persists. Because state institutions and representatives have taken little if any role in responding to domestic violence, non-governmental organisations, and women's organisations in particular, have been forced to fulfil an absence left by the state. Like many interpersonal conflicts in Thailand, domestic problems are understood as being appropriately solved within the immediate social group (e.g. the family or village community) and not within the formal legal system.[76] Thus, declarations like those of the United Nations, while symbolically significant, appear to face obstacles as they are applied within various cultural contexts with have their own processes for dealing with interpersonal conflict.
  37. Because domestic violence in Thailand is defined as a private matter, a certain amount of shame is attached to it, further inhibiting its discussion. Many women, both in Thailand and around the globe, interpret domestic violence against themselves as a result of something they have done. Turning inward rather than outward, many women are unable to see the larger structures of inequality which make such violence both systemic and acceptable. According to one Thai women's group many women fail to report abuse because 'they fear reprisal, shame, social isolation and poverty. They are afraid of being alone or not being believed.'[77]
  38. Thais also offer other explanations for why domestic violence remains silenced. First, many Thais—both male and female—take an essentialist approach to gender, claiming that 'men cannot help themselves.' Men's violent acts against their wives and partners is interpreted as a result of 'loss of control'[78] and excused as part of their maleness.[79] Second, there is a certain level of tolerance for violence against wives, confirming a belief in the essential unequal relation between husbands and wives, and a husband's prerogative to discipline his wife.[80] As mentioned above, Thai women were once considered the legal equivalent of water buffalo [khwai] or property according to Thai law. Viewed as objects to be exchanged and possessed by men, women had less individual rights than men. Moreover, not until 1935 was the Thai law abolished which allowed a husband to beat his wife. While Thai women have in the twentieth century gained 'equal rights' with men in many respects, at least on paper, they continue to be treated as inferior to men in practice.[81] Thus, male violence against women is only to be expected and evidence of the 'natural' order of things. As a result, the so-called 'disciplining' of wives becomes unremarkable as cultural myths which emphasise women's inclination to 'provoke, tease and taunt men' continue to hold sway.[82] Finally, domestic violence is often attributed to the Buddhist concept of karma [kam]. Women therefore believe that such violence must be endured so that they might be reborn into a better life the next time around. As Dr. Preecha Upayokin of Mahidol University put it, 'they feel ... they must clench their teeth and tolerate their past sins in this life.'[83]
  39. Currently there are few legal mechanisms or social recourses for dealing with the problem of domestic violence should women decide they would like to confront the issue in this way. Women have little protection and few solutions to this growing social problem. Women's organisations cite a need for a Centre to Help Women in Crisis and campaigns to help change social attitudes towards domestic violence so that women will not be afraid to speak up.[84] The 1995 Beijing Women's Conference was an important event in helping to break the silence surrounding domestic violence in Thailand. Similarly the annual commemoration of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25) has helped raise awareness about domestic violence in Thailand. Most recently, the Gender and Development Research Institute and the Office of the National Commission on Women's Affairs undertook a series of meetings on domestic violence in order to assess state and private agency data collection methods, to develop an information base, and to work towards new solutions.[85]
  40. Certainly, drawing a direct causal link between images of domestic violence in Thai cartoon books and the increasing rates of reported cases of domestic violence in Thai society would be overstating the case. These images, however, legitimate or excuse a culture of violence against women. In this context, given the critiques by Thai parents, educators and government officials of explicit violence and sexuality in Japanese comics and their negative influence on the behaviour of Thai youth we must ask why Thai cartoon books have not generated the same level of concern.[86] Is it because these cartoons are seen primarily as innocent expressions of humour, or because they are so incongruous that they are thought unrealistic? Or is it simply because no one has bothered to look at Thai cartoons with the same critical eye that they have used to examine foreign comics?
  41. By juxtaposing Thai cartoons against information about the actual occurrence of domestic violence in Thailand, we hope to reorient the questions people are asking about various forms of popular culture and the ways that they potentially impact human thought and behaviour. In the following section we examine more closely the multiple readings of these cartoon images. We consider such images as both generators of a patriarchal gender ideology and as potential provocateurs of shifts in gender and power relations before offering some preliminary conclusions about the linkages between Thai comic books, gender and human rights in Thailand.

    Thai Cartoons and Women's Rights
  42. Thus far we have focused on images of domestic violence in Thai cartoons and their constructions of gender ideology—constructions which call forth and privilege men's power over women. [87] We have suggested that through the representational mechanisms of reversal, incongruity and satire, male cartoonists effectively silence the actual forms of domestic violence occurring throughout Thai society, and thereby play a partial role in perpetuating it. By depicting images of women beating their husbands, Thai cartoons play upon the salient cultural concept of klua mia and in turn reinforce notions of male physical (and representational) power. Even though in the majority of images the woman gains the upper hand, the joke lies in the cartoon's humorous ridicule which, argues Craig, 'is based in feelings of hostility on the part of the joker,'—the male cartoonist.[88] So although these images are intended to amuse, they should not be excused for their disparagement of women or from ideological culpability. For as the opening quote to our essay states 'how we are seen determines in part how we are treated, how we treat others is based on how we see them; such seeing comes from representation.'[89] Thus, while it is difficult if not impossible to claim that such images directly produce or provoke such violence, it is valid to argue that such cartoons legitimate and/or excuse a culture of violence.
  43. Yet these images may also be read in alternative ways as popular culture is always a field of struggle. Therefore, it is possible to read these cartoons as spaces of resistance utilised by both men and women to challenge hegemonic and undesirable forms of gender relations. For example, perhaps the depiction of male-directed female violence operates as a fantasy for men whereby men willingly and physically submit themselves to their wives. Tired of playing the role of master dictated by an increasingly heteronormative society and demanded by capitalism, men may feel liberated by momentarily relinquishing power (especially sexual power) to their wives.[90] If these comics are primarily a location for male (as opposed to female) pleasure, then such a reading is certainly possible, the incongruity of a man voluntarily giving up power making it all the more funny.[91] However, that this pleasure depends upon violence is not unproblematic and opens up another set of issues which we cannot explore here.
  44. Alternatively, these cartoons could be read as spaces of female pleasure in which women throw off the yoke of patriarchy and give men their comeuppance. Rather than (or in addition to) serving the fantasies of men, these cartoons could potentially serve the fantasies of women seeking revenge on their irresponsible, indulgent and violent husbands. By imagining themselves in the role of the violent wife, women are able to symbolically release tensions fostered by what is otherwise an unsatisfactory marital relationship. Thus, cartoons may have a dual functional value which allows women a momentarily release while simultaneously maintaining a larger system of patriarchy. That such revenge fantasies are not so far fetched is corroborated by research which indicates that some Thai women do engage in violence against their husbands.[92] This is an area of domestic abuse that is even more silenced than that directed against wives.[93] Viewed within the context of human rights, violence enacted by and against either gender is unacceptable. Thus, while such imaginings may seem liberatory, they too contain the seeds for the germination of inequality. At the same time they also conform to an existing logic of gender whereby systems of both patriarchy and capitalism are reproduced.[94]
  45. Approaching the images from yet another perspective—the perspective of a conservative Thai reader—the comics discussed here may operate as a satire on women's struggles for equality. For those men and women resistant to the dramatic changes taking place within Thai society and unhappy with the gains women have made in various areas, cartoons which portray women beating their husbands are just one more indication of the perceived ridiculousness of the struggle for women's rights. 'Why do women want equal rights?' So that they can drink, gamble, commit adultery and beat their spouses just like men? Despite the increase in human rights activism over the last twenty years, many Thais remain indifferent to the struggle for women's rights. They are satisfied with the way things are.
  46. For conservative men, the cartoon images we have featured play on notions of male power and a fear of losing that power as gender relations in Thailand undergo change. As women increasingly enter into domains previously closed to them—politics, the civil service, and even the military—men attempt to re-establish the boundaries between the genders. Through reversal, incongruity and satire, Thai cartoon images simultaneously silence the real violence imposed upon women by their male partners at the same time that they re-establish the boundaries of masculinity, femininity and appropriate gender relations. And therein lies another pleasure for men, as they resist larger social change as well as the specific social changes now expected of them. Ultimately then, we argue that these cartoons serve to challenge rather than support women's struggles for equal, human rights in Thailand, and justify the status quo. Not only to they attempt to subvert attempts at equality, but the representations in which male cartoonists trade reflect profound ambiguity over the fate of male-female relations in the twenty-first century.
  47. Recently, there has been a growing backlash against Japanese manga in Thailand, and the purported negative effects it is having on Thai youth. Articles and letters are appearing with increasing regularity in both Thai and English language dailies condemning Japanese comics because of their images of violence and unrestrained sexuality. A study of by Thai Farmers Research Center notes that 47.2 percent of parents surveyed found comic book material inappropriate for children, and concluded that 'prudent censoring would prevent unhealthy influence on impressionable young minds at an age when their values and beliefs are being formed.'[95] Several organisations such as the Foundation for Children, Foundation for Children's Development, and Foundation for a Better Life for Children have even embarked on public campaigns against Japanese comic books. In the early 1980s, Oratii Srisantisuk, Dean of Communications at Thammasat University, investigated Japanese comics and their influence on Thai children. He found that Japanese comics did have effects on the socialisation of Thai children and led them to imitate the violence seen in comic book representations.[96] Although we would be reluctant to attribute a direct causal link between Japanese manga images and Thai children's perpetration of violence, Oratii's research certainly raises issues that demand further consideration and research.
  48. Interestingly enough, Thai cartoon books have not faced the same public scrutiny. While there are likely to be numerous reasons for the attention focused on Japanese as opposed to Thai comic books,[97] it is curious that critics have not bothered to investigate just what sort of images and messages are being conveyed in Thai comic books. Moreover, no one has asked what effects these representations might have on gender relations, physical health and human rights in Thailand. Certainly, based on the violent and problematic images analysed in this essay, Thai cartoon books deserve more attention, including empirical research into their reception by Thai children of various ages and genders.
  49. Women's organisations and individual Thai feminists have worked hard to break the silence concerning violence against women. Each year, their commemorations of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women grow larger and more visible. Yet, there has been little attention paid to the ways that such violence becomes institutionalised and taken for granted through popular culture. As Thai women work to establish 'women's rights as human rights,' and to end the cycle of violence against women, it becomes crucial to work at multiple sites of oppression. The power to represent is, indeed, the power to manifest reality. While images of Thai women beating their husbands may reflect a grain of truth—some women do in fact engage in violence against their spouses—they do at the same time, make light of an issue that is for many, not only painful, but a matter of life and death.


    [1] Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 1.

    [2] We use the terms cartoon books and comic books interchangeably throughout the essay. In Thai, the term used to refer to these books is nangsu' katun, or literally 'cartoon book.' However, it should be noted that such books in Thailand do not correspond identically to the comic books found in the United States. Thus, the terms cartoon books and comic books should be understood as necessary substitutes rather than perfect cultural and linguistic translations.

    [3] Thai Farmer's Research Center, Co. Ltd. (TFRC), 'Cartoon Books: Creative Media or Corrupting Influence?', Electronic document (1997), accessed June 20, 2002.

    [4] That the woman hits the man in the head as opposed to another part of the body is important, as in Thailand the head is considered the highest and most sacred part of the body. To touch or injure another's head may be interpreted as a grave insult. We return to this issue later in the essay.

    [5] Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for help in clarifying this point.

    [6] Some varied examples of work on popular culture include Debra Spitulnik, 'Anthropology and Mass Media,' in Annual Review of Anthropology 22, (1993):293-315; John Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, London: Prentice Hall Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997; Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson, Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991; Stuart Hall, 'Culture, the media and the "ideological effect",' in Mass Communication and Society, ed. J. Curran, M. Gurevitch, J. Woollacot, London: Edward Arnold, 1977, pp. 315-48; John Fiske, Reading Popular Culture, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989 and Understanding Popular Culture, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

    [7] However, see for example: on Thai comic books, John A. Lent, 'The Uphill Climb of Thai Cartooning,' in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 25, 1, (1997): 93-109, and Pachanee Cheuyjanya and Manisa Pisalbuk, 'Patterns of Images of Women Appearing in Humorous Cartoons,' in Images of Women in the Mass Media [Paplak ko'ng phuying nai su'muanchon], ed. Kanjana Kaewthep, Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 1992; on television, Sara Van Fleet, Television and Modern Thai Women, Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington. 1998; on music, Craig A. Lockard, Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. Other relevant texts include Kanjana Kaewthep (ed.), Images of Women in the Mass Media [Paplak ko'ng phuying nai su'muanchon], Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 1992; Hong Lysa, 'Of Consorts and Harlots in Thai Popular History,' in The Journal of Asian Studies 57, 2 (1998): 333-53; Scot Barme, Woman, Man, Bangkok: Love, Sex, and Popular Culture in Thailand, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002; Penny Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, New York University Press, 2000; and Peter Jackson, Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand, Bangkok: Bua Luang Books, 1995.

    [8] TFRC, 'Cartoon Books: Creative Media or Corrupting Influence?' This figure includes both Japanese and Thai comic books. Before the Asian economic crisis which hit Thailand in 1997, the Thai currency was pegged to the US dollar at $1 to 25 baht. As a result of the crisis the baht was floated and since then its value has been extremely volatile. While writing this piece, the baht was valued at approximately 45 baht to $US1.

    [9] TFRC, 'Cartoon Books: Creative Media or Corrupting Influence?'

    [10] Following Williams we define ideology as 'a relatively formal and articulated system of meanings, values, and beliefs, of a kind that can be abstracted as a "worldview" or a "class outlook"'. See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 109.

    [11] Lockard, Dance of Life, p. 3.

    [12] Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, p. 2; Raymond Williams, Keywords, London: Fontana, 1983).

    [13] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. J. Cumming, New York: Seabury, 1947 [1972], pp. 120-67; Spitulnik, 'Anthropology and Mass Media,' pp. 295-96; Hall, 'Culture, Media and the "Ideological Effect"'.

    [14] Spitulnik, 'Anthropology and the Mass Media,' p. 296.

    [15] Lockard, Dance of Life, p. 5.

    [16] See for example Sarah Franklin, Celia Lury and Jackie Stacey, 'Feminism and Cultural Studies,' in From Culture to Power: A Media, Culture and Society Reader, ed. Paddy Scannell, Philip Schlesinger and Colin Sparks, London: Sage, 1994.

    [17] Spitulnik, 'Anthropology and the Mass Media,' p. 296.

    [18] Williams, Marxism and Literature.

    [19] Spitulnik, 'Anthropology and the Mass Media'; Dick Hebdidge, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Methuen, 1979; Fiske, Reading Popular Culture and Understanding Popular Culture.

    [20] See for example Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz (eds), Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; Jane Monnig Atkinson and Shelly Errington (eds), Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990; Faye D. Ginsburg, Contested Lives, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989; Aihwa Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

    [21] Sherry Ortner, 'Making Gender' in Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 1-20.

    [22] Michel de Certeau,The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984; Pierre Bourdieu,Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984 and Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977; Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. An Introduction, trans. R. Hurley, New York: Vintage, 1990 and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

    [23] Spitulnik, 'Anthropology and the Mass Media,' p. 303.

    [24] Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, p. 105.

    [25] Unlike Thai cartoon books, Japanese manga have received a great deal of scholarly attention because of their global popularity. See for example Frederik L. Schodt and Osamu Tezuka, Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1986; Frederik L. Schodt, Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, California: Stone Bridge Press, 1996; Anne Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics and Censorship in Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000; Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japan, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000.

    [26] Some appear only once a month while others appear several times a month.

    [27] Selling Laughter [Khai Hua Raw], Bun Lour Sarn Publishers.

    [28] Super Fun [Mahasanuk], Bun Lour Sarn Publishers. Maha (as in Mahasanuk) is a Sanskrit prefix meaning 'great' or 'mighty,' hence our translation 'Super Fun.' John Lent translates Kai Hua Raw as Laugher for Sale. His article, 'The Uphill Climb of Thai Cartooning,' provides useful information about the history of Selling Laughter and Super Fun and the company which produces them.

    [29] Buying Laughter [Su' Hua Raw], Prachachang Publishers Limited.

    [30] In this article our transliteration of Thai words follows a modified form of the Thai Royal Institute system. Vowel lengths and tones are not indicated. In a few cases proper names follow previously published transliterations.

    [31] Lent, 'The Uphill Climb of Thai Cartooning,' p. 104.

    [32] TFRC, 'Cartoon Books: Creative Media or Corrupting Influence?'

    [33] Quoted in Lent, 'The Uphill Climb of Thai Cartooning,' p. 105.

    [34] Khun is a Thai honorific similar to Mr. In November 2000, we interviewed Warawijya Wejnukroh, the director of the Thai Comic Book Library Project and Thailand's premier collector of comic books. He is also the author of a soon-to-be-published book on comics in Thailand. Notable however, is his lack of interest in the particular three cartoon books we analyse here.

    [35] We attempted on several occasions to meet the editor of one of these production companies. We were granted neither an interview nor any information about circulation figures. Even with the assistance of a Thai friend, the three production companies we contacted were reluctant to give out any information at all. Lent too, was faced with ambiguity about circulation figures, though he was told that publication was 'in the hundreds of thousands'. See 'The Uphill Climb of Thai Cartooning,' p. 106.

    [36] Quoted in Lent, 'The Uphill Climb of Thai Cartooning,' p. 107.

    [37] The very brief summary that follows fails to address gender relations in Thailand in the depth that it deserves. Thus, readers are encouraged to explore further the scholarship cited herein.

    [38] Jane Hanks, Maternity and its Rituals in Bang Chan, Southeast Asia Program Data Paper no. 51; Cornell Thailand Project, Interim Reports Series no. 6. Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1963.

    [39] For a discussion of women's legal status before and after 1868 and to what degree this shift in status was reflective of King Chulalongkorn's desire to appear 'modern,' see Junko Koizumi, 'From a Water Buffalo to a Human Being: Women and the Family in Siamese History,' in Other Pasts: Women, Gender, and History in Early Modern Southeast Asia, ed. Barbara Watson Andaya, Honolulu: Center of Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hawaii, 2000, pp. 254-68.

    [40] It is difficult to discuss in general terms the varied status of Thai women from different social strata. It is important to keep in mind that women of different social locations are bound by different expectations, social rules, and discourses. Thus, in some ways women of the peasantry may have been entitled to more freedoms than women of the nobility.

    [41] All of these issues have been examined by scholars. See for example Thomas A. Kirsch, 'Text and Context: Buddhist Sex Roles/Culture of Gender Revisited,' in American Ethnologist 12, 2 (1985):302-20 and 'Buddhism, Sex-Roles and Thai Society,' in Women of Southeast Asia, ed. Penny Van Esterik, Occasional Paper No. 9, Dekalb: Northern Illinois, 1982; Charles Keyes, 'Mother or Mistress but Never a Monk: Buddhist Notions of Female Gender in Rural Thailand,' in American Ethnologist 11 (1984):223-41; Khin Thitsa, 'Nuns, Mediums and Prostitutes in Chiengmai: A study of some marginal categories of women,' Occasional Paper No. 1. Canterbury: Center of South-east Asian Studies, University of Kent at Canterbury, 1983 and Providence and Prostitution: Image and Reality for Women in Buddhist Thailand, London: Change, 1980; Kabilsingh Chatsumarn, Thai Women in Buddhism, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991; LeeRay Costa, 'Women, Gender and Sex in Thailand: A Review and Redress,' paper presented at The Fifth Annual East-West Center Participant Conference, Honolulu, February 6, published in the Proceedings from the Conference, East-West Center, 1996; Vichit-Vadakan Juree, 'Women, Men and Thai Politics,' in Women, Gender Relations and Development in Thai Society, ed. Virada Somswasdi and Sally Theobald, Chiang Mai: Women's Studies Center, Chiang Mai University, 1997, pp. 425-43.

    [42] Mary Beth Mills, Thai Women in the Global Labor Force: Consuming Desires, Contested Selves, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

    [43] See for example Amara Pongsapich, 'Nongovernmental Organizations in Thailand,' in Emerging Civil Society in the Asia Pacific Community, ed. Tadashi Yamamoto, Singapore: ISEAS and Japan: Japan Center for International Exchange, 1995, pp. 245-70; Tantiwiramanond Darunee and Shashi Ranjan Pandey, By Women, For Women: A Study of Women's Organizations in Thailand, Singapore: ISEAS, 1991; LeeRay Costa, Developing Identities: The Production of Gender, Culture and Modernity in a Northern Thai Non-Governmental Organization, Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i, 2001, especially chapter 3.

    [44] LeeRay Costa, 'Exploring the History of Women's Education and Activism in Thailand,' Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies 1, 2 (1997):38-55; Sheila Sukonta Thomson, Thai Women in Local Politics: Democracy in the Making, Bangkok: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Gender and Development Research Institute, 1995.

    [45] John Knodel, Bobbi Low, Chanpen Saengtienchai, Rachel Lucas, 'An Evolutionary Perspective on Thai Sexual Attitudes and Behavior,' in The Journal of Sex Research 34, 3 (1997):292-303; Mary Beth Mills, 'Migrant Labor Takes a Holiday: Reworking modernity and marginality in contemporary Thailand,' Critique of Anthropology 19, 1 (1999):31-51; Meghan Sinnot, 'Masculinity and Tom Identity in Thailand,' in Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand, ed. Peter A. Jackson and Gerard Sullivan, Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1999; Andrew Matzner, 'Bodies, Choices, Rights: A Look at the Thai Lesbian Movement,' in Off Our Backs, March, 1999.

    [46] In 1992 there were 74 newspapers in print and 13 television channels and in 1990, 420 magazines. As of 1999 there were 204 AM and 334 FM radio stations in Thailand. The figures for 1997 indicate the existence of 15.19 million television sets, and 13.96 radios in a population of approximately 60 million. These statistics compiled from Kevin Hewison, 'Emerging Social Forces in Thailand: New political and economic roles,' in The New Rich in Asia: Mobile Phones, McDonalds and Middle-class Revolution, ed. Richard Robison and David S.G. Goodman, London: Routledge, 1996; and, Thailand accessed 26-09-02.

    [47] See for example Hewison, 'Emerging Social Forces in Thailand,' and Phongpaichit Pasuk and Chris Baker, Thailand's Crisis, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2000.

    [48] Central Thai, the language of the state taught to all Thai citizens in government-run schools, is the predominant language used in Thai cartoon books. However, on occasion cartoon artists also use regional dialects and slang.

    [49] Chris Lyttleton, Endangered Relations: Negotiating Sex and AIDS in Thailand, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000, pp.125-30; Mary Packard-Winkler, Knowledge, Sex, and Marriage in Modern Bangkok: Cultural Negotiations in the Time of AIDS, Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, The American University, Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 94-98.

    [50] In Thai, a man's penis is often referred to as 'ruler of the world' [ jao lok].

    [51] Steve Craig, 'More (Male) Power: Humor and Gender in Home Improvement', 1996, Electronic document, accessed April 19, 2001.

    [52] Lyttleton, Endangered Relations, p. 204; Juree, 'Women, Men and Thai Politics,' p. 440.

    [53] Graham Fordham, 'Northern Thai Male Culture and the Assessment of HIV Risk,' in Crossroads 12, 1 (1998):177-64 and 'Whiskey, Women and Song: Men, Alcohol and AIDS in Northern Thailand,' in The Australian Journal of Anthropology 6, 3 (1995):154-77.

    [54] Knodel et al., 'An Evolutionary Perspective,' p. 297; Kristi Hoffman, David H. Demo, and John N. Edwards, 'Physical Wife Abuse in a Non-Western Society: An Integrated Theoretical Approach,' in Journal of Marriage and the Family 56 (1994):131-46, p. 143.

    [55] Packard-Winkler, 'Knowledge, Sex, and Marriage,' pp. 245-52; Juree, 'Women, Men and Thai Politics,' pp. 440-41.

    [56] Juree, 'Women, Men and Thai Politics,' p. 440.

    [57] Juree, 'Women, Men and Thai Politics,' p. 440.

    [58] Juree, 'Women, Men and Thai Politics,' p. 441.

    [59] Packard-Winkler, 'Knowledge, Sex, and Marriage,' pp. 244-45.

    [60] In fact another common image found in Thai cartoon books is a comparison of a couple pre- and post-marriage.

    [61] The phrase, suai ro'k, literally means 'beautiful' and can be read as a play on words in light of what happens as a result of the stranger's violence.

    [62] UNDP, 2000 Gender and Development: Facts and Figures in Thailand, Bangkok: United Nations Development Program, 2000, p. 3.

    [63] Sripichyakan Kasara,, Dealing with Wife Abuse: A study from the Women's Perspectives in Thailand, Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Nursing, University of Washington, 1999; Kanjanakul Chotima and Sansanee Ruengson, 'Wife Abuse: A Hidden Domestic Crime,' in Reconstructing the Concept of Women and Health [Ru'sang ongkhwamkit phuying kap sukapap], ed. Pimpawun Boonmongkon, Niporn Sanhajariya, Sansanee Ruengson, Nakhon Pathom, Thailand: The Women's Health Advocacy Network, Mahidol University, 1999; Kristi L. Hoffman, David H. Demo, and John N. Edwards, 'Physical Wife Abuse in a Non-Western Society: An Integrated Theoretical Approach,' in Journal of Marriage and the Family 56 (1994):131-46; John N. Edwards, Theodore D. Fuller, Sairudee Vorakitphokatorn, and Santhat Sermsri, 'Female Employment and Marital Instability: Evidence from Thailand,' in Journal of Marriage and the Family 54 (1992):59-68.

    [64] Voices of Thai Women (VTW), Domestic Violence in Thailand, Voices of Thai Women 15 (1997).

    [65] VTW, Domestic Violence, p. 3.

    [66] VTW, Domestic Violence, p. 3.

    [67] Chotima & Sansanee, 'Wife Abuse,' p. 563.

    [68] Achakulwisut Atiya, 'The Case of Mom Look Pla,' in Bangkok Post, July 30, 1997. For more information on the Friends of Women Foundation and its history, see Tantiwiramanond Darunee and Shashi Ranjan Pandey, By Women, For Women: A Study of Women's Organizations in Thailand, Singapore: ISEAS, 1991.

    [69] Women and Men Go Far, 'Khwam runraeng do' phuying nai sangkhom thai...tang o'k yu thi nai' ['Violence against women in Thai society... What is the way out?'], in Ying chai kao klai [ Women and men go far newsletter], 6, 34 (July-December, 1998).

    [70] Chotima and Sansanee, 'Wife Abuse,' p. 564; (our translation).

    [71] Quoted in Atiya 'The Case of Mom Look Pla.'

    [72] Kasara, Dealing with Wife Abuse, p. 4; Chotima and Sansanee, 'Wife Abuse,' p. 563.

    [73] Women and Men Go Far, 'Violence Against Women.'

    [74] UN 2000, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    [75] Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (1997), English translation by Office of the Council of State.

    [76] See e.g. Jack Bilmes, 'Dividing the Rice: a microanalysis of the mediator's role in a Northern Thai negotiation,' in Language in Society 21 (1992):569-602; David Engel, 'Injury and Identity: The Damaged Self in Three Cultures,' in Between Law and Culture, ed. L. Bower, D. T. Goldberg, and M. Musheno, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, in press.

    [77] VTW, Domestic Violence, p. 4.

    [78] VTW, Domestic Violence, p. 3.

    [79] Kasara, Dealing With Wife Abuse, pp. 98-99.

    [80] VTW, Domestic Violence, p. 4; Kasara, Dealing With Wife Abuse, p. 11.

    [81] In 1997, a new constitution was passed. Section 30 reads 'Men and women shall enjoy equal rights' (Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, Government Gazette, Vol. 114, Part 55a, dated 11 October 2540, Translated by the Office of the Council of State, 1997, p.10). Other sections which address gender related issues include 80, 86, and 190. The constitution can be viewed on the world wide web at Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand.

    [82] VTW, Domestic Violence, p. 4.

    [83] Quoted in Sinlarat Varalee, 'When Women Are Victims,' in Bangkok Post, July 22, 1996; see also Kasara, Dealing With Wife Abuse, pp.12, 14, 189.

    [84] Women & Men Go Far, 'Violence Against Women.'

    [85] Suteera Thomson Vichitranonda and Maytinee Bhongsvej, Violence Against Women in Thailand: Development of Database and Indicators, Bangkok: GDRI and Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, 2000; Maytinee Bhongsvey and Suteera Thomson Vichitranonda, Tunneling the Dead End: Gender Dimensions in Domestic Violence, Bangkok: GDRI and Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, 2000.

    [86] Although homosexual content in Japanese manga was the initial cause of anxiety among Thais, explicit violence and sexual activity (heterosexual as well as homosexual) have more recently become issues of social concern. For example, Kungsawanic (2001) states that complaints about Japanese comics are increasing. He writes, 'Activists say they are concerned about the violence depicted in the comic books, including the brutal combat scenes with weapons like switch-blades, guns and bombs, complete with blood-splattered scenes. They believe these violent comic books might turn petulant teens into killing machines and war-mongers.' Kungsawanic Ukrit, 'Poison Penned,' in Bangkok Post, January 28 2001. See also Lent, 'The Uphill Climb,' p. 104; Khwankhom Arthit, 'Gay Comic Books Stir Controversial Emotions,' Nation, July 19, 1997; TFRC, 'Cartoon Books: Creative Media or Corrupting Influence?'

    [87] We recognise that 'men,' like 'women,' is not a unified category and that not all men have power over all women. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak about the relative power that men have in Thai society.

    [88] Craig, 'More (Male) Power,' n.p.

    [89] Dyer, The Matter of Images, p. 1.

    [90] However, this interpretation is complicated by the fact that Thai men typically view sex with their wives as less desirable than sex with other women. See for example Lyttleton, Endangered Relations.

    [91] See also Mary Douglas' discussion of Freud and the joke as 'an image of the relaxation of conscious control in favour of the subconscious,' in 'Jokes,' in Rethinking Popular Culture, pp. 291-310.

    [92] Chotikud Banchalee, 'Spousal Violence' [Kanchai khwamrunraeng do' khu somrot], Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University, Bangkok, 1998; Kasara, Dealing With Wife Abuse, pp. 57, 83.

    [93] An exception however, is the case of penis-cutting. Both Thai and foreign presses never fail to exploit these titillating and humorous instances of husband abuse.

    [94] Cf. Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, London: Verso, 1987.

    [95] TFRC, 'Cartoon Books: Creative Media or Corrupting Influence?'

    [96] Lent, 'The Uphill Climb,' p. 104. Similarly, Kasara cites a survey in which 89 percent of 100 male incarcerated children (aged 15-18) 'witnessing physical wife abuse in their families reported that they would likely use physical violence towards their wives in solving marital problems'. See Dealing With Wife Abuse, p. 10.

    [97] We believe that the overwhelming attention paid to 'foreign' cartoon books is an effect of processes of globalisation as they are interpreted as a 'threat' to Thai culture. Hence, Japanese comic books endanger Thai culture through their 'foreign' images of violence and sexuality, while Thai comic books, it is assumed, conform to Thai cultural norms. How those cultural norms are defined, by whom and for whom, is not considered. See footnote 86 for several articles on Japanese comic books.


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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