Review of Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America and Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure

Reviewed by Jarret Keene

 Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America. Padoongpatt, Mark. University of California Press, 2017. 270 pages. 978-0520293748

Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. Comella, Lynn. Duke University Press, 2018. 294 pages. ASIN: B074TCX2HZ


I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to say that the Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, offers one of the most progressive and productive collections of cultural scholars and social historians in all of higher education. From Dr. Erika Abad (who teaches a class on the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton with an eye toward Latinx presence in pop culture) to professor Tim Gauthier (currently writing a book and publishing articles devoted to issues of community and immunity in the Robert Kirkman graphic-novel series The Walking Dead) to three-time National Poetry Slam champion and creative scholar Javon Johnson (co-editor of The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape, just out from Northwestern University Press), the list of accomplishments by these writers and thinkers leaves me in awe and suffering from a case of impostor syndrome mixed with, well, envy.

And then there’s the outstanding quality of the research itself, as confirmed in two recent books. First, Professor Mark Padoongpatt tells, for the very first time, the fascinating story of how Thai food gradually spiced up the limited culinary options in the suburbs with Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America (University of California Press, 2017). Beginning with an examination of the U.S. empire in Cold War Thailand, Padoongpatt relates how “foodways emerged as the key site for constructing Thais as an exotic neocolonial subject.” It all began, naturally, with the efforts of federally funded social scientists, assigned the task of calculating the country’s potential in benefiting Western interests. Indeed, no stone is left unturned, Padoongpatt noting the Stateside impact of the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, arguably the most serious postwar representation of Thailand, which arrived in the form of a Twentieth Century Fox movie starring Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence. Moreover, there’s no shying away from transactions involving Thai sex workers and U.S. servicemen in Bangkok, conducted under the guise of “R&R trips,” or from patriarchal exploitation of women’s bodies, which were deemed “beautiful” and “exotic”:

Journalist Lloyd Shearer expressed these views in the 1968 Parade Magazine article, “Thailand is a Man’s World—and the G.I.’s Like It.” Shearer described Thai women to readers as “in the main, lovely creatures of delicate beauty.” He also said Thailand’s Queen Sirikit and her physical beauty was a prime “reflection of the country’s enchanting young women” because she was “petite, demure, shapely, reserved.”

When the young men left the military to join the workforce, they needed a place to vacation. Thus, the Thai tourist infrastructure got underway. But Padoongpatt isn’t content to make this simply a story of a nation -mining another, more feminized (and exotic) country; he has a sensitive, nuanced touch, especially when articulating the influence of, say, forgotten cookbook author Marie Wilson. It was Wilson, along with fellow culinary adventurer Jennifer Brennan, who, as Western women, “became experts on Thai ingredients, cooking methods, equipment, and the kitchen.” In their cookbooks, they presented a fantasy of Thailand to U.S. consumers—an extension of colonial behavior that enabled white women to establish culinary authority. Still, Wilson and Brennan encouraged readers to superficially acknowledge the beauty of another country, another culture, a food different from American (and Anglo) fare.

Even more fascinating is Padoongpatt’s telling of how the Bangkok Market in Los Angeles introduced Thai foodstuffs to the U.S. His description of Thai immigration to the States, in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act, informs us that Thais in L.A. adopted the slang term “Robin Hoods,” referring to those outside of legal status as being noble outlaws. Padoongpatt doesn’t sugarcoat the reason why the illegal immigration of Thais was often overlooked; he cites a U.S. consular official who told the L.A. Times: “Why worry about 10,000 Thais when there are 600,000 Hispanics coming across the border?” Chapter Three (“Too Hot to Handle?: Restaurants and Thai American Identity”), meanwhile, digs deeply—and throughly—into the journalistic coverage and culinary criticism aimed at Thai restaurants and food festivals, and how these intersected with the white imagination and its inherent biases. Finally, Padoongpatt delves into the delicious history of Thai Town, the “77th Province, and how culinary tourism works in the (late-)capitalist forge of the City of Los Angeles. He examines everything: menus, ribbon-cutting brochures, city-planning agendas. After sopping up the concluding chapter (“Beyond Cooking and Eating”), one is left with an obvious, unresolved question: Why doesn’t Padoongpatt have a Netflix series where he takes viewers on a real (and visual) tour of the impact of Thai people and culture in America?

Dr. Lynn Comella is the more polished writer, having slugged it out in the deadline-trenches for print outlets as varied as Forbes and weekly culture magazine Vegas Seven. Her celebrated book, Vibrator Nation: How Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Duke University Press, 2018), is a riveting account of how feminist-owned shops challenged and changed our collective notion of social activism, sex-positive retail, and women’s intimate lives. Twenty years in the making, it’s far and away the best and most important tome devoted to the issues of gender and power and capitalism in recent years. Furthermore, it’s just plain fun to read.

Vibrator Nation opens with a remarkable scene—a 1973 conference on female sexuality organized by NOW, the National Organization for Women, held in a public school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, pioneering sex educator Betty Dodson knocked down the gate that stood between women and their own sexual liberation and pleasure by offering a slide show projecting a diversity of women’s vulvas. But what might have easily been a media circus ended up as something very different—an empowering “speak-out.” As Comella states

Borrowing from the tradition of feminist consciousness-raising, in which women shared their personal experiences as a basis for political analysis, a number of women took turns on the microphone to talk about their sexuality. While Dodson joked about her vibrator, others spoke candidly about open marriage, swinging, bi-sexuality, childhood sexual abuse, and heterosexual power dynamics. They shared stories about sexual exploration and expressed frustration about the sexual double standard. “I am thankful to the people in the women’s movement and in the gay movement who have paved the way to loosening the shackles on sexuality,” said one speaker.

Indeed, how the pins and bolts of those chains were unlocked over time has never been more eloquently and intriguingly recounted as it is in this book. From the early retail efforts of Dell Williams—who founded the first sex-toy business after a disappointing attempt to buy a massage device at Macy’s—to calligraphy project-cum-sex manual, The Playbook for Women About Sex, written and published by Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank, the story of sex toys is far and way more compelling then, for instance, the history of comics shops or “head” (cannabis-culture) shops. Comella is the perfect guide, explaining to readers how feminist sex-toy retailers brand and market their products with an eye toward activism.

The narrative isn’t confined to Pacific Northwest; the author investigates seedier stores, like A-Action Adult Books in Downtown Las Vegas—situated a few blocks from this reviewer’s house and a place too sketchy for me to consider frequenting. In A-Action, Comella articulates the reason why many sex shops, as women-friendly spaces, have a long way to progress:

This was a business that traded in sexual opportunity, not sexual information. The video booths were the main event, the real selling point, and, most likely, big moneymakers. And while the clerk was chatty and friendly—even describing in unsolicited detail his experience using a penis pump—the business’s male customers (and they were all men) gave me quizzical looks, seemingly unsure about to what to make of my presence. Who was I and what was my purpose? Was I sexually available? And if not, why was I there?

Comella contrasts this sleazy Sin City joint with the classier design and progressive credo of respectable retailers like Babeland (Seattle) and Good Vibrations (San Francisco). It’s an approach that has paid off, elevating sex shops—at least in those parts of the larger Trump-ravaged country—from the province of “dirty old men” and making them a comfortable place for landlords, the community, and shoppers themselves. Other absorbing parts of the book—like “Retail-Based Sex Ed,” for example—introduce us to the pioneering roles of Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen, while other sections show us what happens when a feminist sex-toy shop undergoes a change of ownership, moving from co-op status and into a corporate direction. Comella chronicles it all with care and precision; the result is a must-read, a fascinating story about the mainstreaming of women’s sexual pleasure and how feminist sex-positive retailers made the world a better and more informative place for women (and men and everyone else) to live our sexual lives without having to be embarrassed or degraded. Comella (and her department colleague Padoongpatt) deserve serious acclaim for rendering once-hidden struggles to bring exotic and erotic concepts into the suburbs, and to the American public’s attention.