‘Bitch!’ scream the trolls, ‘catfight!’ shouts the media, and we all lose (Opinion)

 

Above: Future Forward member Pannika Wanich wears what’s been deemed the most sinister pantsuit, ever, June 5 in a parliamentary session in Bangkok. Photo: Pannika_FWP/ Twitter

It was “too revealing” and maybe “lame” or perhaps “not black enough.” Whatever is being said about one woman’s pantsuit, Thailand’s media can’t seem to stop talking about it.

In the aftermath of last week’s controversial prime minister vote, debate over what happened and discussions of substantive issues have been sidelined by headlines all but screaming “catfight!” over a progressive woman politician’s wardrobe choice and the ensuing ugliness.

“Looking into Chor’s THB25,790 (US$823) outfit” read one headline after a pro-junta politico ripped Future Forward’s Pannika “Chor” Wanich for what she wore to parliament last week. Smelling red meat, people on social media were quick to follow.

“Chor’s dress is so lame. I’ve never seen such color before. It makes the person wearing it look so grey,” tweeted user TigerYellowLive on Saturday.

'Who me?' Palang Pracharath's Parina Kraikup in a photo posted Tuesday. Photo: Parina Kraikup / Facebook
‘Who me?’ Palang Pracharath’s Parina Kraikup in a photo posted Tuesday. Photo: Parina Kraikup / Facebook

Thus a backward debate over “ladylike behavior” became cocaine to distract a very culpable media and populace from the real issues facing the country. And those doling out it out in fat lines are relying on centuries of misogyny to keep everyone hooked.

This week’s oxygen has been taken up by dueling hashtags of #SavePannika and #EChorNukPaenDin, the latter of which calls Pannika a bitch and a dehumanizing term reserved for communists during the Cold War.

Pulling the pin on this grenade was Parina Kraikup, a firebrand member of the junta-aligned Palang Pracharath Party who ignited a one-sided feud with Pannika both the media and public have propelled into the spotlight.

From the sidelines, however, it’s sad to see Parina so gleefully take up tactics used to discredit outspoken young women. All the #shade thrown may make for gripping tabloid fodder, but it sets back women like Parina herself with the same force she tries to slime her opponent.

And, again, it all keeps us from the things that truly matter and must be debated to fix this country.

What’s in a Pantsuit?

The drama started when Porntip Rojanasunand, the flamboyant purple-haired senator, took to social media during last Wednesday’s epic debate to allege that Pannika’s two-toned outfit broke the code of conduct and dissed the late chief royal adviser Prem Tinsulanonda, who had just died.

Pornthip’s now-deleted comment that Pannika went “against tradition” spawned a flurry of online comments from the pro-establishment camp, including a few from Parina testing out her trolling chops.

“Your outfit is pretty, but if I wore it, I would probably be a million times prettier because I actually have a neck. But I wouldn’t wear it to parliament, because I’m not an ‘E Chor,’” Parina wrote online last week, using coarse slang for “bitch,” though she later denied it in terms convincing no one.

Nowhere near as much was said of the male MPs who also did not don all black. Where was the furor over Future Forward member Rangsiman Rome’s dark blue suit?

Then there was another guy slouching in the back in a grey suit and mauve tie. Who was he? I’m not sure – it never came up as no one made it a thing.

MP Rangsiman Rome's blue suit, above, and that other guy's dapper grey number ignited equally fierce firestorms over their ... nah no one cared. Images from live parliamentary feeds.
MP Rangsiman Rome’s blue suit, above, and that other guy’s dapper grey number ignited equally fierce firestorms over their … nah no one cared. Images from live parliamentary feeds.

Attempts to reach Pannika were unsuccessful. Though she’s avoided taking the bait and striking back, she has made clear we should all be talking about things that actually matter.

She told Thairath her outfit was appropriate and the commotion over it a big red herring.

“I don’t think trying to discredit me this way is productive for [Pornthip] nor the citizens on this very important day when we are meeting to choose the new prime minister,” she said. “We haven’t had a democratically elected prime minister in five years, why can’t we focus on that rather than who’s wearing what?”

Sufficiently chastised, the media returned its attention to the host of challenges facing the kingdom. As if.

Instead the attention fed Parina’s trolling, which escalated into attacks on Pannika’s “unladylike” behavior in dramatic fashion the lakorn-loving masses love to eat up. This while Parina violates all the graces she accuses her rival of lacking.

And it’s since moved into much more fraught territory with accusations Pannika defamed the monarchy – a serious crime – in some old college photos.

Just ‘pretty faces’

It is disheartening to see Pannika, Parina and Pornthip – who represent a good part of the mere 5 percent of the parliament that is female – fight among themselves about something so irrelevant to running the country and, frankly, senselessly petty.

Even the most controversial male politicians in recent memory, such as former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra or junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha never had to defend their outfit choice.

It’s even more disheartening when you consider that the kingdom’s female representation in politics ranked 182nd of 191 nations in this year’s UN Women report.

It’s an issue Pannika expressed her frustration about back in March. Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, she laid out the glass ceiling confronting young female politicians, who are patronizingly treated by the media as “pretty faces,” “flowers” and “angels.”

“When you enter politics as a young female, people will look at you and think, ‘Who are you? ‘You must be the daughter or wife of something important,’” she said, adding that discrimination flowed from an obsession with “our dress, our earrings and our looks.”

It’s not the first time a woman has been cut into pieces for her sartorial decisions; it’s not even the first pantsuit to be obsessed over. But it’s even more fabric stretching a political landscape where what a woman is wearing is more widely discussed than her ideas. It casts down the women struggling to find their voice in a society that doesn’t take them seriously. And it thrives by relying on that worst trope that women should remain shy, soft spoken and pretty.

An attempt to damage one woman damages all women, and brings us collectively no closer to talking about education, health issues and women’s rights.

And it shows how we can be architects of our own repression. Instead of going to parliament to promote feminism, advancement and sisterhood, some opt to tear others down rather than lift them up.

Until we decide that what female politicians look like and wear matters as little as what junta leader-cum-PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha had for breakfast, the sexes will never truly be equal. Until men learn to listen when we say don’t tell me how to dress, women will be denied respect.

With all that said, I ask again: what’s in a pantsuit?

Related stories:

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Pain to Power: Thai feminists march to end violence against women (Video)

#DontTellMeHowToDress: Thai women clap back at govt advice to cover up at Songkran

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