It’s bound to happen again – and again. That is, yet another scandal involving tender feminine flesh, in particular publicly bare breasts. Thailand seems to have an endless capacity to be shocked by bare female boobs. In fact, the country has had a seven-decade long of uneasy relationship with female breasts, which I have written about in length on this blog.
My coverage of the most recent manifestation of Thailand’s fear of breasts comes in three parts. This is part 1.
This time the Thai fear (or fixation) of female breasts was stirred by a Thailand’s Got Talent contestant, who stripped and painted with her bare breasts on national television. She definitely shocked the audience and got the lone female judge quite upset.
Given the studio audience’s reactions – a mixture of gasps, giggles and cheers – it was clear the audience was more delighted than not. The two male judges let the contestant go on to the next round, while the female judge was aghast, outraged and walked off the stage in a hissy fit. See for yourself in this YouTube video:
Personally, this bare-boob painting neither tickles my artistic sensory response nor offends me. But who am I to judge? Is it talent? Is it art? Is it a cheap, surefire way to get noticed? I’m not quite sure what to make of it. As it happens it triggered quite passionate reactions among the conservative Thai public (and many chuckles in the not-so-conservative quarters).
Swiftly and unfailingly the Ministry of Culture (also known among Thai twitteratis as MiniCult) came out to express its customary outrage. Culture Minister Ms. Sukumol Khunploem said:
There must be limits on artistic expression. I was shocked when I saw the clip. The ministry will meet the organisers of Thailand’s Got Talent to get an explanation.
Since the show was pre-recorded, the “inappropriate” content should have been edited out, she added.
Then there’s the famous Ms. Rabiabrat Pongpanich, a staunch defender of Thai family values and self-appointed Thai culture watchdog, who growled for the Bangkok Post:
Thai society does not accept this. The police will consider whether this is obscene. This also shows that Thai society is ailing and it’s becoming a sex-consuming society.
Their reactions are all very predictable really. We’ve heard all this before from both MiniCult and Ms. Rabiabrat, whom I myself have honored as one of the leading Thai culturalists (afflicted by a grand delusion of Thai CULTure with accompanying symptoms of historical mammary amnesia.)
Art or obscenity?
What is art is highly subjective, especially when it comes to abstract painting. For instance, which is art to you, among all these silly abstract paintings? I reckon what’s identified as art in this case would be different from one person to the next.
And what’s a paintbrush as artistic tool as opposed to limbs, boobs, or trunks?
Somehow the bare-boob painting brings to my mind Thai elephant paintings, though admittedly the comparison might have worked better if the artist had used her nose instead of her breasts as the painting tool, but then that wouldn’t have been so interesting, would it?
Come to think of it, are elephant-trunk paintings art? Would anyone – human or elephant – complain that this “Foxy Lady” painting is obscene?
The judge vs. the artist
In any case, what’s interesting here isn’t whether or not bare-breast painting is art, or how much talent there is in the artist. (There’s already too much talk about that.) What interests me is the female judge, who to me is a stunningly beautiful woman (even when she cringes). But more than her beauty, I was captivated by her reactions on the show.
The judge, Pornchita Na Songkhla, a well known entertainment personality and a highly versatile talent herself (multiple award-winning actress, model, singer, presenter, spokesperson, cultural ambassador, talk show host, etc., with a long list of accolades on her Wikipedia page) delivered her verdict in a style befitting Thailand’s top talent show judge. Benz (her nickname) told the topless artist at the end of her performance:
I’m not saying it’s bad, but in the context of Thai culture it’s inappropriate. I don’t support this sort of [performance].
Judge Benz’s hauteur was impressive, but the contestant took it admirably well, with a nice smile as you can see.
But Judge Benz didn’t stop there. After her fellow male judges gave the contestant a green light to go on to the next round, both agreeing the performance was art, she cried, “Are you serious!,” maintaining her judgely hauteur. Then after a few more expressions of incredulity, she swung her axe with a no less impressive theatrical flare:
Incidentally I’m not artistic. So no go from me!
And some more:
I really don’t get it! I don’t get it! I don’t like it!
And then she stormed off stage. Boy, did I enjoy her theatrics!
The master vs. the apprentice
Judge Benz’s outrage was delicious. Almost as delicious as (what looked like) a chocolate-covered body of hers – beautifully, artistically photographed less than two years ago. No wonder she was outraged! (Look at the bare-breast artist on the right. What a haphazard, unpolished way to make art with a woman’s body, Benz must have thought. Not to mention one can’t eat paint!)
It must have been painful for Benz to watch the girl’s inexperienced attempt at sauciness. For this Benz has my sympathy. The aspiring artist definitely could learn from the master like Benz. I am inclined to think that Benz must have just used MiniCult’s “inappropriate in Thai culture” reason as an excuse to cover the fact that she couldn’t bear watching such ineptness in an amateur. It would explain why she was so angry.
I imagine, while Benz was wincing, several glorious images of herself were passing through her mind. If she was so inclined, she might have snapped at the contestant, “Watch and learn, girl!”
It’s undeniable, the skills of the apprentice are light years away from those of the master. There is absolutely no doubt that there is much Judge Benz could teach the bare-breast painter, if she would ever be inclined to accept an apprentice. (Here are more glimpses of Judge Benz’s masterly skills.)
Just one small question clings to my mind though: How would the talented Judge Benz explain to the Ministry of Culture (which once employed her as its spokesperson) how the bare-breast painting on her show was inappropriate in Thai culture, and how her modeling for IMAGE Magazine in 2010 was not?
Would her explanation be “some breasts are more artistically equal than others”?
… UPDATE (21 June 2012) …
The question remains: Are all Thai breasts equal?
We will probably never get a truthful answer as to whether the bare-breast painting was a PR stunt or not from the producer. But stunt or no, TGT has certainly got publicity and interest. Even realizing the stunt possibility and the show being staged, I still couldn’t resist.
Whether or not Judge Benz’s outrage was an act or for real, the TGT topless performance and the reactions it has garnered have given much for the Thai public to discuss. Thailand does need more discussion on sexuality and could loosen up a lot, especially concerning the female sex.
This morning, a Twitter friend shared a YouTube video of another topless TGT contestant from last year, a young man who showed a lot more than bare breasts. See Judge Benz’s reactions to the male contestant’s nudity.
The gender reversal of the contestant and the reversed reactions of the one female and two male judges give some food for thought. Staged or not, it’d appear that not all Thai breasts are equal, and some breasts are viewed and treated as artistically more equal than others, depending on gender, timing, and perhaps whether the show needs a scandal to boost its ratings. And when it comes to outrage, women can be counted on to bear the brunt and show expected contempt for “culturally inappropriate” display of bare breasts.
Note: This article was first published for SiamVoices on Asian Correspondent on 19 June 2012.