“Can you tell me why we have to cut our hair short?”
“Can you tell me why we have to dress in a uniform to school?”
One might be surprised to learn that these questions are frequently asked by high school students in Thailand, the country where most school students have to conform to rigid rules of dress code and hairstyle. Moreover, one might be even more surprised to learn that these questions, in fact, come from a character on television, despite heavy surveillance by the state authorities. What I have been referring to here is a recent and controversial television series, Hormones (or in Thai Hormone WaiWaWun, 2013). The series just finished its first season in mid-August. Unlike other television shows, the emergence of this series was highly influential. There have been many debates about its content and on the state’s censorship of the show. In this piece, I make a critical review of the sociocultural significance of Hormones. This is done through conceptualising the reactions the series receives from Thai authorities, critics and audiences.
Hormones is a recent attempt by a famous film studio GTH to penetrate the Thai television market. The studio has already been successful in the film industry from the top box offices like My Girl (2003), Dear Dakanda (2005), Season change (2006), Dear Galileo (2009), Bangkok Traffic Love Story (2009), and Pee Mak (2013). Directed by Songyod Sukmakanan, Hormones could be seen as targeting the young generation, who are already the fans of GTH films, as well as their parents. Set in Bangkok, Hormones follows the lives of year 10 (mattayom 5) students from a fictional school called Nadao Bangkok. These students are ‘Win’ (Patchara Jiratiwat), ‘Tar’ (Kan Chunhawat), ‘Moak’ (Sirachat Jiaratawon), ‘Phai’ (Tanapop Leeratanakajon), ‘Phoo’ (Jutawut Patarakumpol), ‘Sprite’ (Supassara Tanachat) ‘Kwan’ (Angsumalin Sirapatanasakmetha), ‘Dao’ (Sanatachat Tanapatpisan), and ‘Toey’ (Sutata Udomsilp), all of whom possess different personalities and face different conflicts in their lives.
Hormones has become a new phenomenon for Thai television. In the past, television shows about teenagers were usually presented as situation comedy. The classic and long-running Nong Mai Rai Borisud (“the innocent troublemaker fresher”), aired on Channel 3, changes its situation and conflict every week, allowing the producer to continue making the show endlessly. The audience can also skip watching any of its episodes without missing the overall story. In contrast,
Hormones borrows the convention of the western-style series, which has a complete laid-out plot, compelling one to follow it from the beginning to the end. From the first episode, the audience of Hormones gets to see the conflicts facing each main character. These conflicts, later on, evolve and get resolved through a variety of incidents. Some of the conflicts include the intimate relationships among the characters, the violence between rival student groups, and the gender identity of the male characters.
Hormones became the ‘talk of the town’ not only due to its western-styled series convention, but also through its explicit portrayals of social issues that can be found in actual Thai high school life. These issues include, for example: sexual desire among students (especially through Sprite, a female character who is portrayed as sexually open-minded); the discovery of homosexual desire (through a character called Phoo); and the challenge to the school’s authority of Win, a male character who is depicted as having a critical mind, and to whom I would like to put most of the focus on in the following discussion.
Since the first episode, Hormones made Thai audiences uneasy by showing Win rebelling against the school’s authority in front of other students and teachers. On the first day at the school, Kru Nipon, the school’s discipline administrator, checks the male students’ haircuts. Win feels annoyed and bluntly asks Kru Nipon why the male students must have short hair. Feeling the challenge, Kru Nipon replies that it is the rule and the tradition that has long been practiced. Win does not believe that this answer makes any sense; he does not think the hair-style and education can complement each other. On the next day, Win is caught again by Kru Nipon for dressing in his uniform too loosely. While Kru Nipon insists that a student has to dress the uniform neatly as long as he or she is wearing it, Win disagrees, claiming that school time is already over, so he can dress the way he likes.
The eventual contestation of Win against the school authority goes further than verbal expressions. On the following day at the school, Win refuses to wear a student uniform, putting on jeans and a shirt instead. Inevitably, he gets called into the guidance room (Hong Pokkroang) and gets scolded by Kru Nipon. This time, while listening to Kru Nipon, Win asks again why students have to wear the school uniform. Unable to give a logical reason, Kru Nipon ends up yelling at him with the same old assertion that it is something that has been practiced for a long time. Win does not put himself in this situation for nothing. He actually uses his iPhone to record Kru Nipon’s illogical answer, and later on disseminates it on the student’s community Facebook page. In the leaked clip, Win also adds that even the teacher cannot answer how the student uniform will help students study. As a consequence of this leaked clip, on the next day, many students dress for school in colorful shirts, jeans, and dresses. This makes Win feel accomplished.
The challenge of Win against the rules of Nadao Bangkok School is part of the sensitive content in the series. Along with the presentation of the student’s intimate relationships, these were seen ‘inappropriate’ by some authorities. This caused the series to be at risk of being banned. In Thailand, the censorship law has played a significant role in controlling the content in mass media, judging what is ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’, and allowing limited content to be released to the public. In the past, films consisting of images identified by the authorities as contradicting the beautiful image of the Thai nation could be prohibited from release. Tayawarin’s Insect in the Backyard (2010) was banned due to the presence of sexual organs and acts that would make Buddhism look bad. Samanrat’s Shakespeare Must Die (2012) and Nontawat’s Boundary (2013) were banned because of the strong political messages the films covey (Boundary’s ban was later changed to “18+” after some re-editing). Yuthlert’s Fatherland (2013) was self-censored from release as the filmmaker saw the film’s sensitive political and religious contents to be detrimental to the situation in the South. On television, the latter part of an action-drama series Nua Meak 2 was withdrawn while being on-air without a clear explanation.
Academics have explained the way in which the censorship by Thai state works. Peter A. Jackson, a professor in Thai cultural studies at the Australian National University, explains that what determines the censorship’s classification of ‘what is and is not appropriate’ is how the state itself wants to position the country to be seen by the world. And this could be changed depending on global cultural trends. For example, Jackson once observed that the allowance of the increasing presence of homosexuals in Thai cinema in early 21th century could be seen as the result of the adaptation of the Thai authorities to the increasing global concern of gay and human rights.[i]
When Hormones had been on-air for about half the series, there was an attempt by a committee of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBCT or KorSor Tor Chor) to demonstrate their concern about the “inappropriate content” in the series, which could become a bad example for Thai youngsters to follow. Subsequently, the producers of the series were called up for a meeting with the NBTC. While no one knew which exact part of the series the NBTC felt worried with, it could be assumed that certain scenes that show the character challenging the school’s authority, and scenes that show the student’s ‘inappropriate’ activities in school (sexual activity, smoking, violence, etc.), would most likely be subject to being censored.
The action of the NBTC irritated the fans of Hormones. In cyberspace, people started to post threads, and write criticisms of the attempt by the NBTC to sanction the show. A critic from Prachachat News argued that the series deserves to be on-air without any censorship as it would be useful for the youngsters and their parents to learn what really happens in school today. On his Facebook page, a very famous writer whose pen-name is ‘Round Finger’ recognised the attempt to ban the series as showing that the state authority still wants the society to ‘aan’ (literally means to ‘read,’ but in this context, it refers to ‘learn’) only what the state wants. Round Finger disagreed with the NBTC’s sanction and encouraged the authority to allow the people, especially the youngsters, to aan the series for their own understanding of teenager life. Eventually, the NBTC decided against doing anything with the series. Hormones managed to end its first season on the night of 17 August 2013. Could this imply that the Thai authority has become more tolerant or accustomed to the radical expressions or extremeness in Thai media? The answer is quite complicated. This is because, as Film Sick (an online film critic) suggested, looking at the overall content of the series, it is still doubtful whether Hormones is a non-conservative Thai TV show.
When the first season of Hormones finished, Film Sick wrote a comment on the series, sharing a different perspective about the content of the series. Film Sick contended that, despite the presence of radical expressions, at the end of the day, Hormones is nothing but the series about the young conservative Thai middle class who just want to show that they can rebel. “The series is not rebellious. But it questions whether the rebelliousness can explain the new conservativeness”, he argued. His perception comes from the fact that the series puts a high emphasis on the importance of the family institution in helping the youngsters in the series get out troubles. For instance, when Sprite, the sexually open-minded person who likes to fool around with boys, learns that her mother is pregnant, she becomes a completely different person by staying at home and help taking care of her mother. Phoo, who becomes so confused with his gender identity, is understood by his mother and his younger brother, and can live happily at the end.
To add to Film Sick, the series also shows how Win, a rebel who does not care about his own family, is to be punished at the end. The downfall of Win starts when he becomes drunk at the place of his teacher – Kru Aor, where he and his friends go for tutoring. Drunken, Win molests Kru Aor in the bathroom while his friend, who is also drunk, records a video and instantly publishes the clip online. The next day, as Win, who used to be admired for his coolness, walks into the school, he is shunned by other students for his immoral act that has gone too far. Win’s downfall is metaphorically played out in the last scene of the series. At the Big Mountain Music Festival where everyone attends to watch Tar perform, Win is ostracised by his friends. And while he seems lost, walking around the festival, he stumbles into other teens. Being a nonconformist, Win refuses to apologise, causing him to be beaten down hard. The first season of Hormones ends with the juxtaposed images of Win lying down on the ground bruised, while other characters stay with their families. This perhaps suggests the bad consequence of being too rebellious.
To understand the conservative mindset embedded in the series, we can also look at the historical development of the GTH studio. GTH originated from a group of the new face film-makers, mainly Jira Malikul and Yongyuth Thongkongthun, who migrated from television to the film industry to establish a film company Hub Ho Hin in early 2000s. At first, Hub Ho Hin became famous through making the top box-office like The Iron Ladies (Yongyuth Thongkongthun, 2000) for Tai Entertainment. It was not until later in 2003 that Hub Ho Hin merged with Tai Entertainment and GMM Picture, one of the biggest entertainment companies in the country, to become ‘GTH’ (stands for Grammy, Tai, and Hub Ho Hin). The main goal of the company since its amalgamation has been to create films that touch the heart of the Thai audience who, I suggest, can be categorised as the urban educated middle class. As Jira said once about the philosophy of his company, “we want to show that we can make films about issues in Thai society enjoyable.” Successful films of GTH like Season Change, Final Score, or Suck Seed, deal with issues found in the lives of the young middle-class Thai living in the city and attending well-established high schools.
Like its previous filmic forerunners, the making of Hormones could be seen as dealing with the same business target. In the series, despite encountering ‘the problems’, the young characters still possess relatively well-to-do family backgrounds. They do not have to worry about financial matters, which is the typical problem of teenagers. Even Moak, a character who does not have a mother, has a father who runs a business at home and can afford him luxuries. In the last episode, we see Moak brings his own car to pick up his friends to go to the concert. The series’ target of the educated middle class could also be seen from the way it was also broadcasted online, at the same time as it was shown on TV, through Youtube Channel, a media outlet that urban dwellers can easily access and have grown accustomed to using. This marketing strategy effected the way in which the series positions itself to be acceptable to its target audience. The rebelliousness expressed by the characters is just a temporary biological effect that makes Hormones different from other dramas. Moreover, it can set out to impress the new generation of the middle class audience who has to be able to demonstrate their possession of a critical mind. Perhaps, the conservative style ending of Hormones was only made to satisfy the authorities, both the state’s and the parent’s, to not call for a ban on the series.
At present, old-fashioned conservatism in Thailand is facing a rough time. We can see how, every time when the political figures like the ex-Senate Rabiebrat Phongphanit came out to promote Thai-ness (in a traditional sense), they were often heavily criticised for their outdated vision. However, this does not, in anyway, suggest that Thai society is becoming more liberal and progressive. Recently, when Netiwit Chotpatpahisan, a progressive minded high school student, stepped up to speak about the abolition of any official Thai cultural practices, including the standing and singing of the national anthem, he was heavily condemned, especially in social networks. The criticism he got ranged from being un-Thai to not understanding Thai society, or just wanting to show-off. Another case is when the talk show Toab Jod (answer the question) on Thai PBS channel invited a historian Somsak Jiamtheerasakul, and an intellectual Surak Siwaluck, to have a public debate on the Thai monarchy, the producer of the show was heavily criticised for making Thai society even more fragile.
Hormones, like Film Sick has argued, represents this mentality among the Thai middle class, particularly young ones. They grew up and live in the Thai society that has evolved though the global cultural trends such as liberalism, radicalism, individualism; all the ‘isms’ that could make one look modernised (than samai). However, giving that Thai society is dominated largely by traditional conservative institutions such as family and religion, one can only be so rebellious to the extent that he or she does not destabilise these institutions. What Hormones represents is this mentality of the young generations who like to act rebellious in order to receive attention from the public, while they are in fact very conservative. Hormones can still be watched online on YouTube. The series has also announced its second season.
Pasoot Lasuka is a PhD student in the School of Culture of History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
[i] Jackson, P. A. (2002). Offending images: Gender and sexual minorities, and state control of the media in Thailand. Media fortunes, changing times: ASEAN states in transition, 201-230.