In the middle of an empty white space sits a large glass box. Pressed up against this too-pla, or "fishbowl," is a crowd of boys and men ranging from their teens to thirties. Fervently clutching long-lens cameras and smartphones, they stand there watching ... just watching.
Their rapt attention is focused on the members of BNK48, a Thai female "idol" group of singers and dancers based on the franchise from Japan. BNK48 has a total of 53 members, ranging in age from 14 to their early 20s. Ever since their debut in 2017, what has made the girls appealing to the Thai population -- especially males -- is not so much their music but their personalities and looks.
The group has built up popularity through social media, performances and appearances in these fishbowls. The public can meet them by buying access cards for "hand-holding sessions," where fans queue up for hours just for a chance to hold hands with their favorite member for a total of eight seconds. Collectible cards, bearing a band member's photo, can exceed 100,000 baht ($3,000) in bidding wars, according to fans.
Like their Japanese counterparts, there are rules the girls must follow (boyfriends are forbidden, for example), but the Thai idols are not drilled as hard in choreography and vocals. The main focus is on creating the perfect image.
On the surface, BNK48 appears to be a classic case of sexploitation: There are obvious Lolita vibes in the way male fans engage with the girls. But in a society where female sexuality is often regarded as immoral, sexual objectification of female idols is conducted in a subtler way. The group's management and fans insist on the girls being pure and innocent. They are never overtly sexual in the way they dress or dance, and their appeal is rooted in being cute and adorable, not sexy. A fan would never admit to being "turned on" by them; instead, they used words like "refreshed" or "bashful" when talking about their favorite idol -- terms usually associated with puppy love.
When you actually listen to what the fans have to say, it is obvious that their infatuation goes deeper than merely playing out a sexual fantasy. In a short film dedicated to BNK48, a 20-year-old man, while wiping away tears, vows never to forget his favorite idol even when he is married and has children of his own. He says he will never forget the happiness she has given him, and that knowing her has changed his life. She is, he proclaims, a ray of hope that has given meaning to and transformed his lonely life.
Messages from other male fans are similarly emotional and full of reverence and gratitude. The girls' journey to stardom and their music -- which is primarily about romantic love and achieving their dreams -- has inspired fans to pursue their own dreams. There is a sense that, for their fans, BNK48 is not just an obsession, but a source of human connection and motivation.
Yes, the idol formula might be toxic and rooted in misogyny, but on the flipside, what about the idea of exploiting that male loneliness and filling it with fantasies about pretty girls? You cannot help but recognize it as a stroke of marketing genius. After all, we -- especially the young -- are hungry for a sense of purpose and something to strive toward, and we all do things to make ourselves feel less alone in the world.
What these fans seem to have found with BNK48 is not just an escape but a sense of intimacy (however false) that makes them feel understood, and a vessel through which to channel their self-expression. These are not easy things to find when you belong to a fundamentally traditional and repressive society. It is hard to imagine how such a model could ever be as successful in the West, where individualism is largely encouraged and the topics of feminism and mental health are discussed more openly.
Despite the #MeToo movement and conversations about gender inequality that are raging elsewhere, the damage the patriarchy has wrought on Thai women has never been acknowledged.
Misogyny in Thailand is internalized to the point where women see nothing wrong with how men perceive them. Like many other Thai women, the BNK48 girls are burdened with the impossible task of being everything to a man -- from a source of hope and inspiration to an ideal girlfriend. You cannot help but wonder if for them, it is merely another kind of loneliness -- to always be untouchable, worshipped, only seen through a sheet of glass. And beyond that glass, to have those men, always watching.
Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer.