Iron Ladies is the second highest grossing film in Thailand’s history, sandwiched between the bewildering ghost story/romantic melodrama Nang Nak and the global behemoth of Titanic. And yet, it seems an unlikely hit, given that it’s based on the true story of the Lampang Province men’s volleyball team, which won Thailand’s National Games in 1996 with a squad that was almost entirely made up of queer, transvestite, and transsexual players.
At the same time, given that most of us are not often exposed to feel good tranny sports films from Asia, it’s easy to want to like Iron Ladies, because 1) it’s such an extraordinary story; and 2) you’re not likely to see too many more feel good tranny spots films from Asia this—or any other—year. But once you get past its uniqueness, some difficult problems plague the film, especially in its representations of homosexuality and transgendered individuals. In the end, Iron Ladies is still likable, but while you might be inclined to champion it on principle, you end up enjoying it more as a guilty pleasure.
Thai or not, Iron Ladies‘s narrative is straight out of Hollywood Screenwriting 101. Like almost every sports film made about a team of underdogs, it introduces us to the motley crew of players that will stock the Lampang team, among them, the hot-tempered Mon (Sahaphap Tor); the gorgeous femme Pia (Ekachai Benjathikoon, the only actual queer actor employed in the film); Jung (Chaicharn Nimpulsawasdi), the flaming drama queen; and of course, token het Chai (Jesdaporn Pholdee), the team’s best player whose mild homophobia goes into overdrive when his teammates start to paddle each other’s behinds after scoring a point.
As the team starts to play competitively, they’re derided by nearly everyone—opposing teams, the press, sports officials—yet, as they start to win, they attract a massive fan following that elevates them into divas on and off the court. And the plot follows the rules of all feel good sports films: the team is always one crisis from a meltdown, they appear to lose their edge midway through, etc., etc. But in the end, when the score is tied and one last point will win or lose the game, there’s no real threat that the Iron Ladies, as they’re called, are going to be defeated.
You can get past the sports cliches—Iron Ladies isn’t out to redefine that genre—but it’s harder to wholeheartedly embrace the pool of queer/TG stereotypes in which all the characters are immersed. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference—the U.S. managed to mainstream queerness in film and television at least 20 years back and maybe Thailand is just now coming to terms with folding queerness into their popular culture. Regardless, Iron Ladies is rife with portrayals that seem incredibly dated, at least by American standards. Most of the members of the Iron Ladies are so squealingly effeminate, so coyly flirtatious, so garishly made up that you’d think the screenwriters (Visuthichai Bunyakamjana, Jira Malikul, Yongyooth Thongkonthun) and director Youngyooth Thongkonthun scripted them after watching To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar and a season’s worth of Will & Grace. And let’s not even talk about Coach Bee (Shiriohana Hongsopan) who never declares that she’s a lesbian, but is made so stereotypically “butch” that to out herself would be redundant.
Beyond the underdog narrative, the sugar-coated message of the story is tolerance. Just because the Iron Ladies might wear a pound of foundation caked beneath their fake eyelashes doesn’t mean they can’t play ball or be proud of who they are. With its safely “liberal” politics, the film acknowledges and attacks homophobia (no bigot is left unscathed for his or her remarks), and some of the characters deal with “realistic” issues, such as coming out to their unsuspecting parents or dealing with ex-lovers.
Though it preaches tolerance of all sexual preferences, Iron Ladies is lacking any actual sexuality. There are tons of huggy hugs and kissy kisses to go around, even some saucy dialogue, but there’s actually no sex anywhere in the film, not even a wet kiss on the lips. The movie serves up the surface layer of gay style, with none of the substance, suggesting that while it’s acceptable to viewers to watch a team of queer volleyball players trounce around, god forbid if the team members ever took that physical energy off the court and into bed. In this respect, the Thai film industry isn’t much different from Hollywood at all.
Iron Ladies succeeds to the extent that it presents a team of likable characters whom you’ll want to cheer. And it’s easy to see why the film’s been an audience favorite at various gay/lesbian film festivals: it’s a fun, entertaining movie with an impressive ensemble cast. But its outdated images of queers and drag queens make it hard to critically laud without feeling a twinge of regret that as authentic as this wants to represent its based-on-a-true-story characters, the full truth is still in the closet.