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Perceptions of Gender in Thailand 

 

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Perceptions of Gender in Thailand 

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Women are the hind legs of the elephant while the men are the forelegs leading the way goes a  traditional Thai saying. However within the past thirty years, there’s been a dramatic change and the hind legs are doing a lot more work.  
Education is one of the great things that has put more women on an equal standing with the men. The income gap between Thai males and females is steadily closing  in the big cities but if you drive 500 km north or south towards more rural areas, the traditional male superiority and domination over dependant females remains. 
The financial independence  of working women has made a tremendous impact on consumer products and services be it property, automobiles, food and beverages, cosmetics and household items  and this can be seen clearly in Thai television advertising.   
For the past twenty or thirty years, a great deal of advertising has been directed at the emerging young and independent female consumer. Companies spend millions to custom design their products for these consumers whether they be skin whitening creams, under-arm deodorants,  condos, motor scooters and cars.
If you look at TV advertising characters, you’ll see a few basic types for women – the house wife who is portrayed in the home, the service staff in the work place and the glamorous model outside the home.
In one TV advertisement, a husband is reading the newspaper while a disheveled wife mops the floor. With a new cleaning agent, the housework gets done in no time and the floor gleams. With time saved, the wife has time to glam herself up and the husband puts the newspaper down and gives her affection.
“The idea is that if you consume a certain product, you’ll make your man happy,” said Douglas Rhein, a gender issues researcher, Mahidol University. “Advertising agencies do not intentionally create inaccurate characterizations of girls and women but while persuading an audience to use the products, they entice women to feel satisfied with pleasing their men. Secondly the TV scenarios try to convince us to believe that a woman’s goal is to be beautiful,” he said.
In all, TV advertising presents women as caregivers of their men and children and/or as objects of sexual beauty. Unfortunately Thai society has been framed in this either/ or mentality.  Thai women need inspiring  messages  such as:  “You can be successful and be a leader too” or “You can be happy and independent.” In other words, the male gender is not the essential ingredient of women’s happiness.
The message to Thai women is, to borrow Virginia Slims’ 1968 advertising campaign for cigarettes:  “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Surely it is a long way from the days of the early 1900’s when some Thai women had to live in the same household with their husbands’ minor wives and their offspring or even today when Thai women of all income groups have to live with the uncertainty that their husbands could be cheating on them.
Thai culture has gone through some dramatic changes in the past 100 years. From the end of absolute monarchy to numerous shifts in power, mostly due to military dictatorships or coup d’états, to the outlawing of polygamy and prostitution, the implementation of various women’s suffrage laws and access to education. 
A large number of Chinese immigrants settled in the kingdom since the Ayutthaya period. In the early 1900s, many ethnic Chinese gained King Chulalongkorn’s trust and were appointed in key government positions. The Chinese had through the years, brought their Confucian concept of hierarchy along with them thereby strengthening the Thai concept of the superiority of the male gender and emphasizing the traditional female role of mother and care-giver. 
 Divorce was impossible in those days especially when women married and bore children at an early age. Today with accessible education more women are working and capable of supporting themselves and their families. If their husbands have no emotional attachment, are abusive or have extramarital affairs, they have the option of divorce. While conservative Thai families may frown on divorce, the rise in divorce rates among Thai couples can also be viewed positively in that education and better jobs empower women. 
“This is a time of great social change,” Rhein said, “where men and women are working well into their twenties, delaying marriage and child birth.” Couples are raising children at an older age when they have better decisions and are more secure financially. Women are no longer forced into marriage and can be selective about choosing a mate, he added. 
Following the trend in Europe and Japan, Thailand’s fertility rate has dropped significantly with statistics of 2,730 in the 1985-1986 period and 2,022 in the 1995-96 (Report on The 1995 -1996 Survey of Population Change, National Statistical Office).  Jobs now take precedence over starting a family or having fewer children or no children at all.
A partner in the work force and emerging as leaders in the business world, Thai women have worked their way to the fore. “Now why is this historic issue not being discussed or even addressed in Thai society?” Rhein asks. “Are they threatening the conservative male-oriented society?  TV ads are stuck with the theme of women placing the men’s happiness and pleasure before their own development even though many Thai women have already crossed that boundary.”
A 2003 survey of university students in Bangkok (Vitartas and Sangkamanee) found that 71 percent of the respondents watched one to four hours per day while 40 percent reported watching three to four hours of television per day. Other studies noted the recent trend in web-TV, mobile TV and YouTube. 
We see advertisements nearly everywhere we go. From the moment we wake up in the morning, we are surrounded by these persuasive messages and are, sometimes unwittingly taught about what is acceptable in our environment. When exposed to TV at an early age, we’re more likely to accept as the norm, the speech and behavior of the characters as well as the messages they   convey. Through repetition, children (as well as some  adults for that matter)  develop a concept of how gender fits into Thai society. 
The way we dress, our mannerism, the toys our children play with, appropriate social etiquette, mating rituals and much more are communicated through viewing gender portrayals in the media. Often stereotypes are reinforced, some positive and some negative. Women have not been portrayed as breadwinners in TV ads; rather they have been depicted in subordinate roles.
We hardly ever see a woman over 60 in Thai TV ads unless she’s promoting geriatric products. The women we are accustomed to on the screen are young, beautiful, have symmetrical features and a Hollywood waist to hip ratio. 
By bombarding the TV screen with porcelain-complexioned young Eurasian and ethnic Chinese girls, the advertising companies have already set the concept for what a beautiful Thai woman is expected to look like. To meet these beauty standards, women will buy skin whiteners, slimming food products and go for plastic surgery and Botox injections.
Rhein pointed out that while Thai women outnumber Thai men in society, the percentage of narrators in the surveyed prime time advertising is predominantly male even though the products are for use by women. Surprisingly however, he found that women were more commonly portrayed as main characters. Thirty eight point five percent of the ads selected for research counted women as the main character compared to 24.8 percent male.
Women were twice as likely to appear in a home or domestic setting and twice as likely to be indoors. This is another area of interest as women were also over-represented in this category. Again, women were almost twice as likely to be cast as secondary characters.
However the differences in the portrayal of men and women were not surprising. Women were more likely to be celebrities while men who were cast as main characters were more likely to be portrayed as experts. When main characters were over 35 years, men were more often represented than women.
Male TV advertising characters are strong and independent and like the women, the average age was 20 to 35.  The Axe body spray advertisement though not made in Thailand certainly captivates Thai audiences. Here sensuous angels forsake their heavenly abode for the sake of a guy’s body spray; an example of women as rewards for male mortals if they choose the right scent.
Youngsters watching TV may have preconceived ideas of what it is to be male by watching the stereotype of the successful macho man in the ads. When the young boy grows up and starts his own family, he may avoid the responsibilities of  caring for children or the elderly in his family. 
Thai audiences are presented with stereotypes so that they can quickly make sense of it and be convinced to buy products. They only get the chance to see things in black and white and cannot  see the nuances of grey in between. “Assuming that audiences are naïve creates unintelligent media,” Rhein said. “We’re