Accepted paper:

Appropriating modernity: beauty pageants and spectacle in a Thai Buddhist monastery


Joanna Cook (UCL)

Paper short abstract:

Based on anthropological research in northern Thailand, this ethnographic study of a religious festival investigates questions of gendered performance, spectacle and modernity in the context of beauty pageants and monastic practice.

Paper long abstract:

Analyzing a three-day religious festival held in a Buddhist monastery in northern Thailand, I examine contrastive performances of gendered modernity and religious spectacle. I focus on two events: a 'Miss Buddha Dhamma Beauty Pageant' and a chorus-line watched by monastics and laity within the monastic compound. I argue that such spectacles appropriate the standards of modernity linked to cosmopolitan experience and national progress. The chorus-line and beauty contest present the images of sexualized and independent modern women in command of the concomitant joys of autonomy and independence.

The location of the chorus-line and beauty pageant in the monastery, a sacred space home to 200 celibate renouncers, raises important questions about appropriate display, spectacle and appropriation. The images that they present are in stark contrast to the principles of renunciatory self-fashioning embodied by monastics. What are the implications of celibate monks and nuns witnessing such a display of sexualized and gendered modernity so often appropriated in the presentation of national development, cosmopolitanism and commodity promotion? Is it the case that, in more ways than one, monastics are left on the outskirts, to view from afar a process of modernization in which they can hope to have no part? I argue that monastics' passive viewing of the spectacle of festivities may itself be viewed as a performance of appropriate modernity, one that has strong resonance with Thai national identity, albeit in direct contrast to those displayed through the performances of the dancers.

panel P14
Appropriating the (in)appropriate: rethinking pageants, contests and the anthropology of emblems