For the past three years, as part of a growing trend which has now hit the international headlines, increasing numbers of what appear to be middle class, reasonably well-educated women have been purchasing ‘luuk thep’ – literally ‘angel children’ – cheap plastic Chinese-manufactured dolls which are then considerably marked up in price and blessed, either by Buddhist monks or spiritualists, to have the spirits of dead foetuses and stillborn children called into them. This is done in order to bring ‘luck’, which an excellent article from the Buddhist Door points out is essentially connected to spiritual materialism, not Buddhism. Is all this a case of societal insanity - a form of collapse of rationality as described by Professor Likhit Dhiravegin last year?
Societal insanity is a loose term which requires a working definition. To paraphrase Einstein, the definition of societal insanity may be large numbers of people repeating the same types of behaviour over and over again and expecting different results. Societal insanity can therefore be an approach, by large numbers of people, to attempt to solve a problem in a way that, based on past results, does not work.
It can also be a perspective. For Thais returning from overseas studies, for people re-joining the world after having been monks in retreats, for foreigners arriving in Thailand, and perhaps even for soldiers who have been in barracks completing their military service, they are suddenly arriving back in ‘this world’ and are confronted with this:
Photo courtesy bangkok.coconuts.co
It’s fair to think that they may feel that their society has gone insane, i.e., a large net reduction in rationality has occurred. This, however, is a form of culture shock. The shock is to the individual who is experiencing a major change in how their society is behaving.
In fact, the use of dolls in different societies worldwide has a long and illustrious history dating back tens of thousands of years to the dawn of human cognition. In some cultures, this has been formalized. For example, in Japan, it used to be that a Japanese girl received two hina dolls when she was born. These went with her when she married and could be passed down in the family. An annual festival on the third day of the third month celebrated these dolls in a festival of dolls, the hina matsuri. At this festival, the dolls of living people entertain the dolls of the dead. An excellent academic summary of dolls from the historical and anthropological perspective, by Anna Chernaya, is available as a PDF here.
A Japanese hinamatsuri set, courtesy Wikipedia
In other cultures, specific, particular dolls have grabbed the public’s imagination. Probably the best example of this phenomenon is the much-loved ‘Raggedy Ann’, an endearing character created by American writer Johnny Gruelle (1880–1938), as introduced in a series of books for young children.
Raggedy Ann meeting Raggedy Andy in 1920, courtesy Wikipedia
The character was created in 1915 as a doll, with the creator canny enough to patent it as US Patent D47789, and was introduced to the public in the 1918 book Raggedy Ann Stories. The combination of the doll and stories were a great success and created a trend of commercializing dolls. Other similar, mass-produced and commercialised dolls important in the Western psyche include Paddington Bear (first created as a toy in 1972), a form of teddy bear (teddy bears were invented only recently, in 1902 after the politician Theodore Roosevelt), and of course Barbie.
Such dolls are seen as important during childhood development. For children, a doll may be the first transferable object – the first transfer of the ego of a child to another object and the development of I – not I, following the establishment of trust in a mother. Within this world, even a stick doll serves for a child to ‘project’ themselves onto the doll or to use it as a friend or prop for playing in a fairy-tale, imaginary world where a child can cognitively develop, especially in terms of understanding symbols, a key to higher abstract cognition. For an academic treatment of this aspect of dolls, see Jasna Gržinić, available as a PDF here.
Moreover, the collection of dolls and the imbuing of human qualities into them by the owner also exists in the West in the form of the collecting of porcelain-head (bisque) dolls. The 2004 work by A. F. Robertson, Life like dolls: The collector doll phenomenon and the women who love them, points out that dolls are collected by tens of thousands of people worldwide in a multi-billion dollar industry, with important features being certificates of authenticity, authors’ signatures, realism, and limited edition numbers.
Collectable German antique porcelain-head (bisque) doll, courtesy Wikipedia
Moreover, Robertson also points out that for many women, these dolls are alive. One of the main reasons attributed by Robertson as to why these women see these dolls as living is a form of transference. Transference, according to the Webster’s eighth edition of the New Collegiate Dictionary is "the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object". Thus, the doll takes on aspects of wish fulfilment.
Or, as Robertson puts it: “To the collectors, the dolls are lifelike, but in the collector’s dreams, life is also doll-like: stable, immortal, perfected.” To that extent, what we are witnessing in the Thai doll phenomena may be a form of escapism, or as Wikipedia puts it, “dissociation from the perceived unpleasant, boring, arduous, scary, or banal aspects of daily life”, including persistent feelings of sadness or depression.
However, it is also relatively clear that elements of projection may be involved. For example, the woman with an angel child in a taxi who asks the taxi driver to slow down because her doll feels travel sick is projecting onto the doll what she may view as a ‘rude’ request because of the inherent complexities in Thailand of a woman asking a man to do something, something related to women’s inherent inferiority in Thai society, as pointed out and justified recently by General Prayut himself.
There is little doubt that the middle class in Thailand is being hurt due to uncertain economic conditions, which result, at least in some degree, from the arbitrariness of a military government. The values of superstition and spiritual materialism embodied in the dolls are a reaction to this in the same vein as fads over amulets, astrology, and the tracking down of lottery number portents. The angel child phenomenon is, in this respect, a response to nautonomy – negative autonomy, as discussed in an earlier article available here. In essence, nautonomy is the opposite of autonomy. Autonomy, as generally understood, means the ability to exercise civil and political rights. However, the civil rights of women in Thailand have always been restricted, while political rights at the moment do not exist. For example, even women assembling to campaign for women’s rights or psychological health to be incorporated into new legislation would at present be seen as illegal public assembly.
The association of the middle-aged Thai woman with the ‘angel child’ doll may for some, as with trends such as buying small foreign dogs such as Chihuahuas, merely be a form of status symbol. However, it may also represent a natural form of auto-regression – a self-healing through attempts at transference, escapism, and projection, resulting from the effects of the imposition of a militarized, masculine nautonomy. To that extent it needs to be respected as a socio-psychological phenomenon.
These women are, in a socio-cultural context within which they are belittled in favour of masculine values driven by notions of rule of law and military domination of society, responding in predictable, explicable ways.
To outsiders, this may appear to be societal insanity. Yet it should be recalled that Thai men also demonstrated signs of socio-psychological desperation back in 2006-2007, with the Jatukam Ramathep amulet fad appearing at the same time as a coup and great uncertainty within Thailand. Amulets are also supposed to enhance ‘luck’ in purely material terms, though in a more masculine way, with some even believed to stop a bullet, as in the art of Thai tattooing.
Interestingly, the reason why Thai women are not purchasing amulets and are instead purchasing dolls illuminates societal stereotypes against Thai women – women are not supposed to wear these emblems of Buddhism, both for the reasons that women are too impure to touch such objects and, paradoxically, because as chaste, virtuous yet child-rearing kulasatrii (ideal females), they are not supposed to need them. The comparison of angel children with amulets is therefore a particularly gendered one.
Within the Thai context whereby an entire country which used to be democratic has become a military camp dominated by masculine values and may well continue to be one for two more years, General Prayut cannot complain about the phenomenon of angel children without turning the spotlight on his own experiment in nautonomy.
To conclude, as we have now entered a period of what should be public consultation on the new constitution, minority groups adversely affected by the coup, which definitely includes women, must be allowed to publicly assemble to organize a response. Not to permit this would be the worst form of paternalism as it would suggest the reduction of the population of an entire country to an infantile state – as reflected by members of Thailand’s press corps dressing as children for General Prayut on this year’s Children’s Day. The socio-psychological sanity of Thai society is at stake.