Niamh Griffin (@griffinniamh on Twitter) raises important points about World Muay Thai Angels in her post “Muay Thai Angels – a step forward or backwards”
What I find most interesting is how Muay Thai is being marketed to women in Thailand through the beauty of the fighters. The article includes this quote by Joe Cummings (a noted author on Thailand):
“I was skeptical going in but I think it’s a novel approach that works. It’s reaching an audience that had a hard time accepting female muaythai fighters, including a lot of women, who are being pulled in by the beauty side of it and then are held by the athleticism. I was one of very few farang in the audience, even though the fighters came from 15 countries, and judging from today’s turnout, a majority of the audience were women.”
My husband and I watched the broadcast as it aired on TV in our apartment and we paid attention to the pans of the audience, specifically to see if there were a lot of women in attendance, and we noted that from what we saw there were almost none. But from the above quote Joe saw a majority, perhaps in the less premiere seats. I also paid attention to the commercials (during regular Sunday afternoon broadcasts they are most agricultural products, cement, and energy drinks) in order to see how many were geared toward female viewers, specifically. I only saw two aimed solely at women, for the same cosmetic brand of foundation and pressed powder. But two is notable, given the strong divide in commercials between “male” products and “female” products.
Beauty and Muay Thai
I wrote a little about my thoughts on the complications of untangling female and gendered image and culture from promoting female athletes in this post Female Muay Thai Image, Culture and Market
which included the posting (and translation of) one of the first commercials for Sud Suay Muay Thai on Channel 7 (one of the biggest broadcasters of Muay Thai, with their own – all male – stadium):
I was excited to see this commercial, not only because I’m in it but because it felt strongly (before I’d even understood it through translation) that something was happening. It felt like the start of some kind of heavy promotion of female Muay Thai; or at least, a positive promotion of beautiful women doing Muay Thai and how that could be a model for Thai women to aspire to. Athletic female bodies are really not advocated in Thai media, which favors a soft, though slim physique. Female Muay Thai fighters (nakmuay ying) are also not aesthetically muscled, not those being advertised and promoted here, but the fact that they’re also fighting now in this World Muay Thai Angels tournament shows unequivocally that they are strong.
Niamh Griffin’s post highlights that this is not a title tournament, but rather a show first and a cash-prize fighting tournament second. The argument is made that these women might have been chosen for their looks in addition to, or even over, their fighting abilities. In fairness, I’ve watched my share of Muay Thai Max and Thai Fight and, while I can’t say much about how attractive the men are, I can safely say that the Falang men are not necessarily chosen for their outstanding abilities. I hate watching those promotions because almost every fight is a blow-out, a cat-and-mouse where the Thai is a barely amused cat batting around a very “game” mouse. Watching World Muay Thai Angels, the fights were fairly well matched. (Also, Peach Purahong, who won a kind of beauty pageant as part of Sud Suay Muay Thai celebrating the 27th Anniversary of Muay Siam magazine, is fighting on the next Muay Thai Max show in Japan, something no female fighter has taken part in prior. That’s exciting!)
There were female referees in the ring for all the World Muay Thai Angels matches, something you don’t see in Thailand. They were also female fighters (Peach was one) and did a great job, plus it’s amazing to see three women in the ring together. As I was watching the show, I did not prioritize these women’s looks over their fighting – it wasn’t brought to my attention other than that their shorts were tailored in a strange way (to be tighter, I reckon) and their fight tops had a little cut-out action on the sides – but it wasn’t obtuse. Their hair was all done by a professional and was all similar (except for two), but I only notice because I’m also a woman and pay attention to how female fighters put up their hair for fights. In photos prior to the event everyone seemed to be in full make-up and I suspect there was a little make-up done to be worn inside the ring (as was my experience in Isaan), but it wasn’t obvious or highlighted in any way. And some women wear make-up in the ring of their own volition.
In short, I was excited to see a production of this magnitude for an all-female card. I want opportunities like this to be available to all women, regardless of weight class (this was only 57 kg, as it’s a tournament), nationality, or perceived level of physical “beauty.” But the fact of the world is that attractive women are presented opportunities that other women aren’t. It’s whether or not we all get the chance to walk through those same doors – whether the first women through hold open the doors for others to follow – that makes the biggest difference in the long run. In the context of Thai culture that I’ve witnessed in my 1.5 years living here, highlighting beautiful women as fighters is an intentional contradiction to the unfair assumption of many that only “tomboys” or “butch” women do Muay Thai. It’s an intentional attempt to make female Muay Thai sexy and appealing to women who don’t identify with that stereotype at a time when Muay Thai for fitness is becoming more popular among a growing middle-class. I don’t want to leave out the tomboys – they’re equally important in paving the way for all female Muay Thai. I don’t think the issue is uncomplicated and I certainly don’t want female Muay Thai and the male gaze to be inextricably linked. But I do want to see women fighting on TV, in big shows, with big productions and a fan base that includes women. That goal will require a number of steps, the first of which might be what we’re seeing here. There is definitely a similar thing happening in the US right now with women’s MMA, pretty faces and body gazing ushering in the female era – but as problematic and complicated as it is, I’m excited. It’s exciting. Just hold the door open.
The First Round of Fights
If you missed the fights, here are 6 of the 8 thanks to AppleBeeAppleLovell (results posted in the bottom graphic):
Wendy Jessica Talbot, New Zealand vs Duannapa, Thailand
Sandra Mandret, Luxemburg vs Johanna Jedrcejcz, Poland
Part 1 (above)
Part 2 (above)
Shelomentseva Aysa, Russia vs Sindy Huyer, Italy
Sin Yi Tang, China (Hong Kong) vs Chommanee sor taehiran, Thailand
Su Jin Lee, Korea vs Iman Ghbalou Chairi, Morocco
Jessica Sanchez, Spain vs Teresa Sinbi Muay Thai, Sweden
Two fights were not televised:
Ilona Yakubovich, Belarus vs Laurene Pumphanmuang, France
Ilinca Lucia Serbu, Romania vs Zahrah Memon, England
You can follow the World Muay Thai Angels happenings on their Facebook Page. The next fights will be on November 7th. The results bracket below: