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Essay History Humanities Nonfiction Social Sciences

Orientalist Obsessions: Fabricating Hyper-Reality and Performing Hyperfemininity in Thailand’s Kathoey Tourism

By Qian Hui Tan, 2014

Depictions of servile and hypersexual transwomen have come to reinforce Thailand’s reputation as an exotic and erotic playground. Despite their almost ubiquitious presence in tourist spaces, the theorization of transgender subjectivities from a localized Asian perspective tends to be glossed over in the literature on leisure and recreation, perhaps due to their complex position within a Western-centric, binary model of gender and sexuality. This paper attempts to fill this lacuna by mobilizing the concept of Orientalism and relatedly, the Orientalist tourist gaze. In so doing, it argues that colonial mythologies of the Orient are writ large in the commodification of transgendered bodies and the evocation of hyper-realities. In this manner, even as kathoeys (Thai vernacular for male to female transpeople) are capable of manipulating tourists in artful ways, I contend that postcolonial power asymmetries are systematically perpetuated through the ‘libidinization’ of Thailand.

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