Forget to Keep Hidden: Thai Ladyboys in the Media


Thai Ladyboy

There are at least thousands of transgendered citizens in Thailand. And yes, she’s one of them.

Ikea released a television advertisement that has many transgender Thais upset. Forget to Keep Hidden is an attempt to be funny, but does it succeed at the expense of a minority?

The commercial shows a man and a woman shopping in an Ikea store, and when the woman sees how good a sale is, she momentarily drops her voice, revealing to her partner that she is actually a ladyboy, one of the ubiquitous transgendered members of Thai society. The man runs away at the first opportunity he gets. Yet another relationship bites the dust at Ikea. Here’s the ad:

 

 

I’ll admit that the first time I saw the commercial, I laughed. And the second time, and the third time. It is a funny commercial.

But it’s wrong.

Humour has a long history with cross-dressing going back centuries. Notably, it has been prevalent in the realm of British comedy. Take the following sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus as an example:

 

 

The basis for the humour in this sketch relies on defying expectations of masculinity. A lumberjack is one of the manliest of trades, is it not? When his transvestitism is revealed, those few moments of awkwardness when the singing mounties realize the true nature of the lumberjack’s desires are what makes the sketch work. Expectations of the audience are turned upside down, and the result is a chuckle at the viewer’s willingness to fall into the cliche…until the end.

Ikea’s ad works on the same basic principal, only in reverse. Except in this case, the character of focus is not a transvestite; she is transgendered. And there is a substantial difference. RuPaul, perhaps the world’s most famous cross-dresser, sums of the nature of his profession brilliantly:

Drag is like breaking the fourth wall in theater where we’re letting you know straight up that this is an illusion. People are attracted to that because they know it’s the truth of who they are also. No one is who they think they are. That’s why people are attracted to drag.

RuPaul: Gender as a illusionary performance art.

RuPaul: Gender as a illusionary performance art.

In the case of transgenderism, this is not so. Transgender individuals are not simply putting on an illusion, they are people who permanently identify with the opposite sex. Thailand’s ladyboys have the unshakable conviction that they were born into the wrong gendered body. It is not a switch they can, or wish, to turn on and off. For many, the process of reassigning their physical body to match their mind’s perception of who they are is a complex and often painful process, both physically, mentally, and emotionally.

This is not to say that transvestites should be the target of ridicule. But transvestitism is a performance, a choice made by a gay, or straight, individual to mock social norms. Transgenderism is one’s identity.

This is not a gender performance, it is an identity.

This is not a gender performance, it is an identity.

Thai ladyboys have struggled to get to their place in Thai society. Although transgendered people are widely accepted, they hold a lower place in the social hierarchy, at least until they have become financially successful–starring in major theatre productions, establishing successful singing careers, or opening their own businesses, to name a few examples.

But what this commercial accomplishes is a ha ha, get away from me attitude. Moreover, it implies deception on behalf of our ladyboy. The unspoken suggestion that the commercial makes is that somehow the ladyboy has tricked her partner into the relationship. The Thai Transgender Alliance voiced their objections as such:

“The MTF [male to female] transgender/transwomen character is openly mocked as being ‘deceitful’ … The transgender content of the advertisement is negative and stereotypical in nature, perpetuating misunderstanding transgenderism as human sexuality for ‘deceitful and deviant lifestyle.'”

I’m all for humour. And I frequently enjoy performers who say incredible racist, sexist, and downright offensive things. But context is everything. Monty Python‘s troupe of comedians have a long history of social commentary. Sarah Silverman plays herself as a sweet, innocent girl who suddenly makes awkward, terrible comments about–well, everyone. But a 20 second Ikea commercial isn’t the place for testing the limits of social commentary, especially when the message plays out as simply reinforcing the stigmatization of a group of people who simply want to be accepted for who they are.

Ikea issued an apology for the commercial in response to the Thai Transgender Alliance, saying

“We have carefully considered your concerns expressed in your letter and would like to apologize for any unintended offence created in the TV commercial which featured the surprise of a lady transgender customer who encounters the specials offered in our recent year end sale advertising campaign. IKEA is for the many people, respecting individuals with different views and opinions. We welcome all people to the IKEA stores, independent of religion, political view, ethnic background or sexual preference etc.”

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