Thai TV Show Blasted for Lead Character in Brownface

A fair-skinned actress plays a woman who pretends to be from the rural Thai region of Isaan, where people typically have darker skin tones.
Images via Mook's Instagram.

It’s 2019 and yet, apparently, TV producers in Thailand still think brownface is acceptable. Case in point: actress Worranit “Mook” Thawornwong, who appears several shades darker than her natural complexion in a new TV show.

Now woke Thai netizens are asking: Why is this still happening?

In the drama series Pla La Song Kreung (loosely translated: Seasoned Fermented Fish), Mook plays Woon, a woman who has to live with her mother after her father dies. Her mother forces her to marry and in order to escape this, she disguises herself as a dark-skinned maid in the hopes of earning enough money to win back her deceased father’s home.


She takes on the persona of a woman from Thailand’s northeastern Isaan district, where people typically have darker skin tones. In the trailer released earlier this month, Mook can even be seen faking the Isaan dialect.

The Isaan people are distinct from the central Thai people and identify themselves as Thai Isaan. Their language and culture are more closely related to Laos’, which the region shares a border with.

GMM25, the channel where Mook’s show airs, immediately faced backlash after the trailer was released.

Twitter users took to the platform to condemn how Mook and GMM chose to depict an Isaan woman. One netizen wrote “Shameful! #culturalgarbage” above a retweet of the show’s trailer.

Some also complained about the forced dialect, which seemed to mock Isaan more than portray it.

“Racial discrimination is a big problem in Thai society that has not been debated or understood,” another Twitter user wrote, in Thai.

Following the negative response, Mook released a statement on Instagram on Aug. 14 where she defended her use of brownface, curly wig, and forced accent. She said that they were necessary in order for her to authentically play a woman from Isaan.

This is far from the only instance of brownface or blackface in Thailand.

In 2013, a local Dunkin Donuts campaign for a chocolate-flavoured donut featured a woman in blackface. The incident sparked conversations about racial discrimination in the country and the Thai’s obsession with light-skin.


“A distaste for dark skin seems innocuous to some Thais,” wrote Newley Purnell for The New Yorker in 2013. “This is, of course, deeply offensive to darker-skinned Thais, not to mention people of color and other non-Thais.”

In 2016, a skin-whitening pill advertisement showed a white model in blackface looking stern and somber. After a transformation, she is again shown with fair skin and smiling. “White makes you win,” the ad’s slogan went.

A fascination for white skin runs across Asia, where many countries still casually depict blackface and brownface in the media.

In July 2019, a Singapore advertisement for electronic payment service provider NETS E-Pay sparked outrage for casting Chinese actor Dennis Chew to play characters of different races, including a Malay woman wearing a hijab and an Indian man.

Havas, the creative agency behind the ad, and Mediacorp which represents Chew, issued an apology following the backlash.

Similar controversies have also sprung up in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Pakistan in the past year.

Find Meera on Twitter and Instagram.