Reel Review: Reading Beautiful Boxer - Yuen-Mei Wong
Beautiful Boxer1 is adopted from a true life story of Parinya Charoenphol and told through the personal narrative of its main protagonist, Nong Toom. The film appears to be an autobiography that implies a transparent account of Parinya’s personal history. However, my reading does not intend to deal with the question of transparency, rather to foreground the film’s textuality and its representation.
Often, the question of selfhood and identity in an autobiographical film is assumed to be narrated with a coherent and unitary closure. Instead of presenting Nong Toom’s personal journey of self realization and subject/identity formation in a successive linear model, this film rather delicately demonstrated the dynamic and dialogic encounters between the evolving self and the situated societal discourses and ideologies. For Nong Toom, recognizing the self is, from the start, fraught with uncertainty and prohibition.
Bodies as Gender Markers
In many ways language orders and deflects body experience. Our passions, desires and behaviours – indeed our sense of self – assume meaning within historically specific discourses and ideologies. In recounting Nong Toom’s desires for a sex / body-transformation, his personal narrative began with his childhood experience. This is set against a backdrop of poor rural lives and familial relationship. He selectively highlighted his first self-identification with the tenderness and beauty embodied by the female Likay dancer (Thai folk opera) and his dislike against the aggression and violence demonstrated in the male-oriented Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing).
However, Nong Toom’s response to these gendered body expressions later became his major source of tension and contestation. The Likay and Muay Thai identities not only endowed him with sex/body meanings, but also engaged him in the binary gendered web of metaphors. Being born with a male body, the prevailing binary gender categories are limited and thus limiting his choices of body appearance, behaviours, experience and indeed self-identity. Obviously, Nong Toom’s fancy for self-decoration and beauty had challenged the social cultural system of sex/body and gender.
The predominant gender discourses and ideologies rendered the body as the site of demarcations, with the expectation that the visible appearance of sex/body ‘naturally’ led to a corresponding gender. This had hindered Nong Toom from acquiring a transgressive body without resorting to re-negotiating his/her maleness and male identity. Therefore, s/he had to endure years of torment dealing with these reified binary gender identities. Further more, s/he had to battle with the disciplinary and punitive power of the hegemonic gender system in striving for a space to live his/her sex/body experience.
Kathoey as a Space for Slippage
Growing up in Thai culture wherein the Buddhist system of belief prevails, Nong Toom eventually encountered a space for slippage in the discourses of Kathoey2. Apprehending Kathoey identity in Thai culture would possibly generate a better understanding of Nong Toom’s subjectivity, his/her psyche and his/her self3. The culturally rooted discourse of Kathoey for an indeterminate gender enabled Nong Toom to acquire a sex/gender identity beyond the binary gender system although not without anxieties and contestation.
In the film, there were conflicting discourses of Kathoey. The predominant religious institutions prohibited Kathoey practices and regarded it as sinful or a misdeed that will cause suffering. Nonetheless, there was a marginal discourse in the Kathoey tradition4 that was tolerant towards or accepting of the Kathoeys’ existence. Indeed, Nong Toom discovered the gaps for growth among the competing discourses of Kathoey and karma (suffering). Eventually, identifying him/herself as a Kathoey allowed him/her to claim the marginal discourse to make sense of his/her own subjectivity. It especially helped to justify Nong Toom’s personal agenda in becoming a successful Muay Thai boxer.
Subverting the Gendered Muay Thai
The sex/body is not only a text of culture but also is a direct locus of social control. Motivated by his/her deliberation to improve the economic condition of his/her parents Nong Toom joined the male-oriented Muay Thai and consequently, had to immerse him/herself in the male/masculine social space. This prompts us to wonder how s/he as a self-identified Kathoey in hiding would survive within the assumed normative male territory.
Ironically, it was Muay Thai’s aesthetic value and not its maleness that had drawn Nong Toom closer to the ring. His/her mastery of Muay Thai is not an attempt to achieve normative masculinity or male status but to perform a bodily art as his/her passage to difference. His/her enormous victories in the masculine ring enabled him/her to claim a metaphorical space for an exhibition of a Kathoey through the feminine Likay body performance. Nong Toom has indeed opened up new opportunity for marginalized gender subjects to move between different gendered spaces within normative male power networks. The Muay Thai ring temporarily became the nexus of transgressive gender imaginings of bodies, rendering the normative gender subjects at times to be suspended, re-invented and/ or subverted.
In other words, the Muay Thai ring was not merely a site available for the deployment of male-oriented disciplining practices but also a symbolic realm for the invention and perpetration of identities and subjectivities. Nevertheless, due to the astonishing and also exasperating publicity surrounding Nong Toom’s Kathoey identity coupled with the increasing visibility of his/her transforming male/female body, s/he was ostracised by the Muay Thai committee. Undoubtedly Nong Toom’s individuality had not only transgressed the boundaries of normative genders but relentlessly exposed the vulnerability, instability of maleness and fear of the normative male subjects who felt threatened by this transgression.
Self as an Unfinished Project?
In Beautiful Boxer, appearance and body, but not personality symbolize gender change. The body, whether consciously or unconsciously, undergoes deliberate transformation within various situated cultural habitus. Although changes, fluidity and diversity are embedded in culture, nonetheless, when one’s body modifications divert, or transgress the prevailing dominant cultural logics, so many anxieties and contestations appear. Likewise, when its effects correspond with the predominant norms, the underlying social processes are often overlooked and hence are regarded as natural. Nong Toom experienced such irony when s/he exercised self-agency to strive for a desired sex/body-modification that somehow challenged the essentialist binary gender system. Conversely, when Nong Toom received intense training to be moulded, shaped and developed into a Muay Thai body, nobody doubted or questioned such a body modification process.
Ultimately, the film argued that gender is a contested concept, and that gender identities are unstable categories which are only loosely and contingently related to sex/body. In retrospect, Nong Toom viewed the past not as fixed and finished, but as so vitally connected to the present as interweaving and intersecting with continuity and disjuncture. The film illustrated delicately the interweaving of the past and the present, of the discursive identity and the material body, and, of alienation and transformation. However, because the film ended with Nong Toom settled him/herself in a ‘woman’s body’ and identity, this impels us to further contemplate whether this would be considered conforming to or reinforcing the dominant cultural logics, whether transgression is only transitory and would not be able to affect or create an alternative order.
- The film Beautiful Boxer was directed and produced by Ekachai Uekrongtham. It was first released in 2003 and received several international awards in the following years, including The Grand Prix 2004 Award in the
- 1st Brussels International Film Festival and the Silver Peacock Award in the 2004 International Festival of India. For further information visit www.beautifulboxer.com.
- In the film, the term transvestite is used in the English subtitles for Kathoey. A transvestite is a sexual category classified by modern science to refer to a person, often a man who cross-dresses for sexual pleasure; this term is inadequate to capture the nuanced meaning ascribed to Kathoey in Thai culture.
- Kathoey means an indeterminate gender or a combination of masculine and feminine gender that can be found in plants, animals or human beings. The inclusive nature of Kathoey embraces various types of non-heteronormative sex/gender identities including intersex, transvestite, transgender, transsexual or even gay people (Refer to Sinnott, Megan J. Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004, p.5)
- Within Buddhist paradigms of karmic retribution, Kathoey are believed to be predestined from birth as a result of karmic debt in a former life. Being a Kathoey would not further any karmic consequences from desires or actions arising out of the state of being a Kathoey. It is even possible for Kathoey to achieve nibbana (salvation) in this life if they conscientiously apply themselves to prescribed Buddhist principles for attaining spiritual liberation. (Refer to Totman, Richard. The Third Sex: Kathoey – Thailand’s Ladyboys. Chiangmai: Silkworm Books, 2003, p. 68)
Yuen-Mei Wong is a lecturer at the Gender Studies Program, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her research focuses on women’s sexualities, female same-sex sexualities and sexual minorities in Malaysia. Yuen-Mei is interested in the cultural history of sexuality and gender and contemporary issues of media and representation, sexual rights activism, sexual citizenship, transnational movements and migration.