About a year ago I wrote about the mixed blessing of attention that the World Muay Thai Angels show was bringing on female Muay Thai in Thailand: World Muay Thai Angels and the Benefit for Women. At the time, the tournament was brand new and is still to date the biggest production for an all-female tournament.
As I said then, I was concerned that the new “sexy” image of Muay Thai was specifically aimed at erasing the observably pervasive among male Thais’ idea that only Toms or “butch” women fought Muay Thai. (For more on Toms and their counterparts, Dees, see my reading notes from Megan Sinnott’s gender research here.) There was a fear that Tom identity (which indeed makes up a large portion of Thai female fighters) was being left behind:
” 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.”
The World Muay Thai Angels tournament hit a few bumps along its path, which is expected in new brands, but ultimately it crowned its first winner in Chommanee Sor. Taehiran, who won 1 Million Baht and a car. Pretty sweet. Now the promotion is continuing on with many of its original “Angels” but also bringing in new competition for the upcoming October event, which will be televised. The fighters for the card were brought in for a photo shoot that promised full makeup and heels, as that’s part of the image that WMTA sells. I’m friends with some of the women competing on the October 27th card and more than a few of them expressed shyness and embarrassment at the glamor-shot style shoot, but many women who are Muay Thai fighters spend a great deal of our time either in gym clothes or sleeping and don’t have a lot of opportunity, or even the will, to get dolled up.
Kelly Creegan is from Ireland and trains out of Sitmonchai gym. She’ll be fighting an “Angel” named Nong Peach, who was crowned the winner in a Muay Siam (that’s the biggest Muay Thai news publication) beauty contest. Yes, a beauty contest among female fighters. Peach acted as referee in the opening round of last WMTA 57 kg tournament, so this is her first time fighting for the production. Kelly has shared on her Facebook account and blog her excitement about facing her biggest opponent yet for arguably her biggest fight yet in Thailand, but she also was very apprehensive about the photo shoot. She and a few other women posted images from their day at the shoot, as well as leaving with full makeup. Here’s Kelly when she got back home, posting to her Instagram:
I was asked to fight on this show, but unfortunately had to turn down the fight. The promoter was being extremely vague with me when I kept trying to identify who my opponent was (which I wanted in order to be able to announce the fight on my social media) and the weight went up a few kilos without any discussion. It turned out I was being matched against someone I’d fought before but a different name was being used. It felt like I was being purposefully misdirected, whereas a rematch with all the cards on the table is something I’d like to do at some point. I fought Lommanee back in February, a fight that has been immortalized by the bloody images of my elbow-cut face it produced. I would love to rematch her in the future, probably the best fighter I have fought, despite our weight differences. That’s a mountain it would good to climb once more. But when I told the promoter that Lommanee had cut weight for our fight and was still bigger than I am he considered that he should maybe look for a bigger opponent for her, which I reckoned was a better option. When I thought about her doing this photo shoot, however, I felt quite sad about it.
Lommanee and I became friends on Facebook after our fight. She is a Tom, as described in the intro to this post, but unlike many Toms also self-identifies as male. (Many Toms identify themselves as women but take on masculine gender roles in social and sexual relationships with other women.) Lommanee uses the male articles in Thai language (the words for “I” between male and female are different, as well as the polite particles that end sentences), although in Thai language the pronouns that differentiate gender in English – “he” and “she” – are one. So when talking about a third person, there is no difference in Thai language to say “he” or “she.” But to refer to oneself is gendered. This is obviously more complicated when translating these pronouns into English. I’d prefer to call Lommanee “he” because that’s how he self-identifies. But because Lommanee’s body is female and he fights women and is by nearly all social practices still female, using “she” is somehow less confusing for readers. So I’m using “she” out of convenience of understanding but would prefer to use “he” out of respect to Lommanee’s identity.
I was worried that Lommanee would be forced into a dress and heels in order to fit into the World Muay Thai Angels image model. Any government institution in Thailand mandates that women wear skirts and men wear slacks, which is one reason why many Toms end up working retail – so they aren’t forced to wear skirts. Having to be dolled up to a degree that can feel somewhat like cross-dressing even for female identified females (I feel this way) can be downright horrible for persons who truly identify as male gendered. I was absolutely excited and downright impressed when I saw these photos posted to Lommanee’s Facebook page – they’d dressed her in a slick suit, shirt and tie! In the first photo you can see some men’s shoes in the background, meaning her wardrobe was actually provided by the production; and she picked out some awesome silver shoes. I think she looks quite handsome.
It remains to be seen how World Muay Thai Angels will use their images from this photo shoot (the images above appear to be from Lommanee’s cell phone, when at the shoot), but the production gets huge recognition for embracing this non-traditional beauty image to the degree that it has. When I shared one of these pictures to Female Muay Thai on Facebook, Kelly Creegan (same from the Instagram above) lamented that nobody had asked her if she liked wearing dresses. While the huge step that Lommanee’s wardrobe and image represent cannot be overstated for its importance in including different sexualities, different beauties, and different gender identities, I will say that it will be nice down the road somewhere when all the women in the shoot can express their own ideas of beauty along that spectrum. And that goes for fighters the world over, male and female.
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