Some notes on sluttiness in Jalang

The best part about being a researcher in film and media is the joy of discovering half-forgotten ‘gems’, like the Malaysian film called Jalang (2009). Jalang (Malay for slut, whore, wayward butterfly, you get the idea) is the ground-breaking cinematic masterpiece by Nazir Jamaluddin about a high-flying young woman Maria who apparently sleeps her way to getting business deals and eventually gets her fatal comeuppance for her indiscreet love for sex.

Just so audiences don’t get their moral wires mixed up, the film begins with a handy prologue about the loathsomeness of the jalang and that good Muslims should steer clear away from them. But it’s likely that most people won’t come across the jalang, because they’re usually killed off, on screen and sadly sometimes off screen as well. Since our film of interest aims to be didactic in character, let’s see one can be learned from Maria’s slutty ways:

INTERIOR SHOT: Protagonist of the movie, driving a sportscar. Background is blurred due to motion of car. Protagonist is a dressed in white blouse with black cravat, wearing makeup, sunglasses and expensive jewelry.

Flashy cars, stylish clothes; the material perks of a jalang are pretty good.

  • Sluts are successful businesswomen who drive expensive cars with their top down on a bright sunny day in Malaysia.
  • Sluts have Mariah Carey-inspired butterfly tattoos

That's the business meeting etiquette out the window

  • Sluts are touchy feely and affectionate to a point of excess with every male sleaze-bag in the boardroom during a business meeting.
  • Sluts care a lot about other women, especially if other women are their struggling younger sisters.
  • Sluts are made into sex objects to be passed around between ugly, middle-aged men.
  • Sluts are fine as non-committal sex partners, but are an unthinkable no-no’s as daughter-in-laws, especially if they’ve slept with you.
  • Sluts are despised by other women who want to tie them up and blow their slutty bodies into a million slutty pieces.

As if being mad isn't enough, there is also the unflattering tank top to contend with

  • Sluts turn men into psychotic and violent stalkers.
  • Sluts also make men bad at lying about their extra-marital affairs.
  • Sluts somehow deserve to be sexually harassed at work because of their exceedingly relaxed office etiquette with their male employers.
  • Sluts can be desirable to nice men but they must repent, cover up and start praying again.
  • Sluts are actually not entitled to a fresh start in life. When they’re honest about their sexual past they will be shamed for it. Worse, they will be beaten for their honesty.

An obligatory visit to the village as part of one's soul-searching expedition

  • Sluts remove their butterfly tattoos, wear the baju kurung, and experience life in the village in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ their body and spirit.
  • Sluts are made to be subjected to violent assault by men
  • Sluts die a horrible death in front of a mosque, Mastika-style.

Lesson: It doesn’t matter what you wear, what your sexual history is, how pure and golden your heart is, or your sincerity to “change your ways”, if you’ve had plenty of enjoyable pre-marital sex you will be punished for it. Above all, you are a slut or jalang in spite of all the above.

You will be punished even more when you have a desire to get married to a man. Sexual morality dictates that many men will hate to marry women who have had an illustrious history of relationships, because men will insist on being the first and the only one who’s been to a woman’s sweet spot. Being the second or the fifty-third man isn’t going to cut it.

As a woman in a male-dominated environment, one is expected to kow-tow to the sexist assumption that a woman is successful because she uses her sexual capital – her body, not her talent or intelligence. The success a woman enjoys in a high-powered job is linked to her moral inadequacies; when Maria falls for the man who accepts her for who she is Maria gives up her job to be “a woman in love” i.e. a woman who would rather be dependent on a man.

Most damning of all, there is no way for a woman to be free from shame and insult no matter what she says and does. Meanwhile, men can get away unscathed from whatever sexual improprieties while women suffer, are silenced, and chastised. Worse, men often get away with committing sexual assault scot-free.

Why is a discussion on this film even necessary when we can all predict the brutal end that awaits Maria? First, a Malay film-maker must be audacious enough to make a film about a so-called jalang to want to send some kind of message on how story about a jalang should be told. That message as we all now learn is unfair and irredeemably simplistic.

Second, being a jalang is supposedly the lowest of the low for Malay women. Without an examination what jalang means, the clouded nature of the insult can have power over all Malay women. When we rethink and re-examine our assumptions about what makes a jalang, particularly when we see how a jalang is represented for us, we will discover many loopholes that mitigate and even subvert what jalang means.

For instance, Jalang could be read as a story about a kind-hearted and caring woman who has sexual agency, but then is played out by evil men who abuse her good nature, talent, and relaxed attitudes to sex. Reading the film this way does not mitigate against how her character is punished in the end, but proposes that being a jalang is not a ticket to earthly damnation and that the problem are the men in the film.

I strongly believe that a continuous reassessment on what a jalang means, how much a woman is entitled to her sexuality, and the expression of jalang-ness that is free from violence, abuse, and shame can subvert and neutralise the toxic power of gendered insults and the laws of sexual morality. Perhaps this is one of the many ways we can reclaim the liberated, considerate, business savvy, and talented jalang.

Two steps forward, one step back: On Dalam Botol, Malaysia’s first ‘gay’ film

Written for the LSE equality and diversity blog

For a country keen on displaying its hyper-modernity, Malaysian law and social attitudes on sexual morality in general have always had a conservative bent. While there are pockets of change, much of the public discourse on sex and morality are dominated by sexist and homophobic language. A blanket government control on discussion and representations of sexuality in the media regularly results in sensationalism, misinformation, and the deepening of greater confusion about sexual and gender diversity. This confusion is reflected in the new film by Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, Dalam Botol (In a bottle). While the film signals a small but momentous phase in the country’s censorship laws on the depiction of homosexual characters in the media, the film itself stands as an intriguing cinematic object of fascination and curiosity as it secured 1 million ringgit ($330,000) at Malaysian cinemas.

Dalam Botol tells the story of a man who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to please his male lover, stores his severed penis in the eponymous bottle, only to be rejected by his lover. Dejected, the transsexual man/woman returns to his village and falls for a woman. Although based on the experiences of the producer’s friend who regretted having a sex-reassignment procedure, the film has been pointed out as misleading by Malaysian LGBT activists as it conflates gay with transgender identities.

While Raja Azmi claims to tell a love story with a cautionary twist, its narrative is not easily separated from how alternative sexualities and genders are perceived in Malaysia where gay men are sometimes confused for trans women who need to undergo sex reassignment surgery to become female, while both transgender women and gay men are sometimes subsumed under the category ‘effeminate’ men. Furthermore, Raja Azmi’s insistence that the film’s moral subtext should function as a deterrent against sex reassignment surgery serves only to reinforce the assumption that transgender and homosexual identities are not only temporary but a deplorable state of affairs to be rejected.

To be fair to Malaysia’s cultural genealogy of genders and sexualities, the conception of gay identities did not come into public currency until the 1980s. Even then, the term closest to the Western understanding of the word ‘gay’ is pondan, a derogatory word used for effeminate men or transwomen. The term ‘homosexual’ has different connotations in different cultural and economic contexts. But with the expansion of the ‘global gay’ emanating from the ‘Anglophone’ world reaching the industrialised capitals of the developing world, Malaysia included, we find localised conceptions of the ‘global gay’ in hybridised gay identities. Malaysian gay identities are savvy consumers of Western LGBT media and have close ties with human rights organisations, but they are also concentrated in the urban centres of the country. How the LGBT community in Malaysia perceive Raja Azmi’s film is very much a product of this global cultural exchange and local politics.

The conflict in conceptions of transgender and homosexual identities exist between Malaysian LGBT groups and the cinematic vision of producer and scriptwriter Raja Azmi may arise from linguistic and class differences. Many middle-class Malaysian gay and lesbians adopt the epistemological separation of gender and biological sex developed by Western sociologists and sexologists and understand their work in English, while most working class Malaysians do not have access to knowing much gender theory.

The fact that media attention on alternative genders and sexualities in recent Malaysian films have only come to the fore in recent years with films like Dalam Botol, 2 Alam (Two Worlds), Bukak Api (Open Fire), Pecah Lobang (Broken Hole), and numerous Malay television dramas with transgender characters demonstrates a new but limited awareness about non-normative gender and sexuality. Lesbian characters in films such as Rozana Cinta ’87 (Rozana Love) did not court great controversy in 1987. It was only during the public humiliation of the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 when the country’s dominant discourse on homosexuality was re-established with a politically homophobic turn and pushed gay identities in the spotlight. Last December, Awzan Ismail, an openly gay Malay Muslim man received death threats after posting a Youtube video for a gay youth acceptance campaign ‘It Gets Better’.

The level of negative attention targeted at Awzan Ismail was significantly disproportionate compared to the videos posted by his fellow gay and lesbian Chinese Malaysians. The hostility and misinformation on sexual and gender minorities in Malaysia appear to boil down to much of the attitudes and social and religio-political hegemony of the majority Malay Muslims.

Historically, Malaysia’s social fabric has been shaped by racial politics under the paternalistic thumb of largely Malay Muslim politicians. While the country is on the surface a peaceful multi-ethnic nation, underneath the veneer lie racial tensions arising from the constitutionally-sanctioned superiority of the Malays and indigenous groups, termed the bumiputera, which make sensitive issues such as race, sexuality, and religion a minefield for those who challenge the conservative status quo.

Small social transformations are constantly afoot in Malaysia and the country’s increasingly politicised youth appear to set the wheels of change into motion. Independent films by Malaysian film makers engage more positively with LGBT issues than films that grab national headlines like Dalam Botol. It will, however, still take time when a critical mass for change is reached in the country’s seats of power to witness a greater level of social acceptance of trans and gay people in Malaysia.

Dahulukala – Sebuah manifesta berangkap

Dahulu kala
saya pernah percaya
tudung itu bukan sahaja
harus bagi wanita solehah
tapi juga bagi awek lelaki
soleh dan yang memejam sebelah mata.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah dituduh
kurang ajar dan lemah pedoman
jika mencabar kepimpinan lelaki
yang tidak berbeza rupa dan sifat
kepimpinan seorang perempuan.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah percaya
kewanitaan itu lumrah
yang disempurnakan jodoh
dan cahaya mata.
Cita-cita dan kerjaya hanyalah
lamunan anak mentah.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah dituduh
penyibuk dan lantang
jika bersuara tentang
penindasan harian kecil dan besar.
Jangan persoalkan kuasa,
salah maupun yang benar.

“Itulah ragam manusia”
“Jangan kerana mulut badan binasa”

Dahulu kala
Saya pernah percaya
manusia banyak kelemahan.
Yang perempuan berakal satu.
Lemah lelaki lemah lagi perempuan
yang dihambai
gergasi ghaib bernama patriarki.

Tetapi kini
saya bangkit dari lamunan dan kritikan.
Seribu satu keraguan ditepis.
Dari kelemahan timbul satu kekuatan
yang menumbang seribu satu ego.

Saya percaya
feminisme bukan nilaian KPI
dimana segalanya mesti dicapai:
Badan ramping, suami yang kacak.
Anak yang comel, cerdas, dan bijak.

Saya masih percaya
kepada harapan dan daya
kaum hawa dan adam
dalam perjuangan bersama.

Jiwa dan raga yang ingin menyala -
Itu dahulu kala.
Semangat yang berbuak-buak -
Sekaranglah waktunya!

Judge a book by its cover?: Women and sex on retro Malay book covers

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But you might well be able to sell a book based on its cover. The world of Malay book jackets of the past (circa 1960′s to mid 1970′s) was a different place then, where nude women as decorative elements were apparently no big deal. Nowadays, more chaste illustrations of women in the tudung (headscarves) are de rigeur and few publishers would venture anywhere above the (arbitrary) knee-length axis of morality. Somehow I don’t think the reasons for the change were motivated by aesthetics or feminist consciousness.

The following books were discovered in my library and it is my (dis)pleasure to share with you some recurring themes, both illustrated and suggested in the titles. Because they’re potentially Not Safe For Work, I’ve posted them after the jump:

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Introducing Privilege-denying Malay guy. Patriarchy-apologists be damned!

UPDATE: PDMG has moved to a more inclusive space – Privilege-denying Malaysian guy

In the spirit of the hugely popular Privilege-denying Dude meme that’s been circulating the feminist blogosphere, my fellow feminist compadres Tariq and Munira, have started the long overdue Privilege-denying Malay guy. Of course there is no denying that Malay privilege is enshrined in Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution and has long since become the chest-beating mantra of many Malay Malaysians, but other privileges ensconced by being born male, middle-class, able-bodied and straight remain sorely overlooked and the source of much annoyance to many.

Sometimes a humorous and subversive reaction to annoyance is more productive than a frothy-mouthed post on the failures of Malaysian politics, Islam in Malaysian, and Malay men in general. A few pithy words can capture the multifarious nature of the privilege-driven ecstasy that is the Malay guy:

More on Privilege-denying Malay Guy

Pain and pleasures of the look: Desire, identification, and the female gaze in Malaysian horror

A key way to understanding the pleasures of cinema is through the analysis of the gaze. In her groundbreaking critique of classic Hollywood cinema, Laura Mulvey arrived at the conclusion that the pleasures of cinema is offered only to a ‘masculine’ spectator. She makes a distinction between men as the active “bearer of the look” and “women as image” to be looked at and fetishised as the object of male heterosexual desire (Mulvey 1975:9). The power of the look is facilitated by point-of-view shots and shot/reverse-shot editing techniques that achieve the effect of seeing female characters as objects of desire through the eyes of the male characters. Attained from these structures of looking in the cinema is voyeuristic pleasure; the spectator has the privilege of ‘invisibility’ – ‘he’ can look without being looked back (Stacey 1994:21).

Mulvey applies Freudian psychoanalytic models to demonstrate that popular cinema does not only offer voyeuristic pleasures of looking, but also fetishistic ones. Oedipal and castration complexes developed from the discovery of sexual differences as children results in unconscious desires and fears that find expression in popular cinematic forms. As voyeuristic looking allows control over the image, fetishistic pleasures enables the male spectator to disavow the threat of castration by denying the sexual difference the woman signifies, objectifying her instead as a fetishised image (ibid:22). The narcissistic drives of the male viewer motivates him to identify with the male protagonist in the screen, making the concerns of the male protagonist the male spectator’s concerns. Building on Lacan’s theory of ‘the mirror phase’, Mulvey locates the unconscious origins of pleasure in identification (Mulvey 1975:10). For Lacan, the early stages of identity formation can be described the moment a child finds her/his image in the mirror (or mother) ‘reflected’ back, and senses a pleasing unity with the image, even when this initial recognition of the self is a misrecognition (Lacan 1977:93-7). Lacan argues that this process of identification will continue as the child grows up and that this how the ego is constituted (Stacey 1994:22).

Mulvey’s model of the male gaze generated considerable criticism in the feminist film criticism community, primarily of the essentialist alignment of masculinity with activity and femininity with passivity, presumptions about the spectator’s heterosexuality, and the Mulvey’s neglect of the female spectator’s pleasures of the look. Arguably, the limitations of Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze and heterosexist binary oppositions are a reflection of feminist film theory’s dependence on psychoanalytic models as a whole. Picking up where Mulvey left off, a number of theorists began their search for the female gaze, the antidote to the male gaze and a potential gateway to understanding and reclaiming female pleasures in film. However, there is little consensus on a singular definition of the female gaze, as Barbara Creed points out four different definitions working within feminist film criticism: the gaze from within the diagetic (the woman on the screen), the imaginary (construction of patriarchal ideology), the theorised (in feminist film criticism), and the ‘real’ woman in the audience (Creed 1989:133).

With much of feminist film theory deeply interwoven into psychoanalytic theory, the female gaze is best understood mainly as that of the hypothetical looking subject than an empirical criticism of the male gaze. Indeed, there are limitations in privileging the concept of ‘woman as viewer’ over actual the feelings, desires, and anxieties perceived by the female audience. Psychoanalysis projects an ahistorical framework of understanding desire and pleasure with little account of race, religion, class, sexuality, and (dis)ability (Stacey 1994:27). Nevertheless, the place of psychoanalytic discourse in exploring textualised fears and desires cannot be underestimated, as it can offer a potentially emancipatory agenda for women in what is understood to be a phallogocentric discursive arena. For the sake of brevity, the theorised and diagetic female gaze will be discussed herein.

A departure from Mulvey’s model of the masculinised viewing subject is the idea of the feminine that looks back at herself as image. According to Mary Ann Doane, the female gaze does not have the capacity to participate in voyeuristic and fetishistic pleasures the way the heterosexual male gaze is set up for, mainly because the gap between the female as viewing subject and the female object of the view cannot be psychically located. For the female spectator, there is “a certain over-presence of the image – she is the image”. The closeness of the female viewer’s relationship with the female image on the screen can only offer a narcissistic desire for the female viewing subject: “the female look demands a becoming” (Doane, 1982:78). For Jackie Stacey, the female gaze should constitute a wider range of desires and identifications that extend beyond erotic fetishisation of other women on screen that often colludes with the dominant patriarchal order (Stacey 1994:134). Identification between women whether across the screen or within Stacey suggests, works on different and multiple levels that involve fascination and aspiration among many de-eroticised articulations (ibid:170-3).

The multifarious, ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory nature of the female gaze will be explored in two Malaysian films, Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (Shuhaimi 2004) and Chermin (Zarina 2007). Seeing as horror stands as one of the most popular and lucrative genres in the Malaysian film industry (Aquilia 2006:436), understanding the alternative pleasures derived from the female gaze can provide us with some insight on the enduring fascination with the supernatural and the uncanny. The two films chosen herein share significant similarities: both are made by female film-makers and combine local folk lore and superstitions as central themes of their narrative. Interestingly, both feature female supernatural figures as object and bearer of the gaze. Limited to feminist psychoanalytic framework on the gaze, my focus will be on central female characters and the issue of feminine desire and identification with the hope that my reading of Malaysian horror may have subversive qualities that challenge that dominance of the male gaze.

The supernatural female in Malay film

The horror film has enjoyed a long history in Malaysian cinema. During what was considered the ‘golden age’ of Malaysian film-making, two major film companies, Cathay Keris and Shaw Malay Films produced one horror film every month in the 1950′s, with indigenous supernatural figures such as the pontianak and polong as regular characters of the genre (Aquilia 2006:436). However, a culture of heavy-handed censorship and self-censoring that pervaded the Malaysian film industry from the late 1960′s onwards saw a decline in the number of horror films. A few films containing elements forbidden by the state were nevertheless made past the censors (often straight to video by the 1990′s) in spite of the implementation of various censorship policies banning violence, horror, sex, and counter-culture in all media (Khoo 2006:108-112).

Among the stock characters in Malaysian filmic horror that have made the most reappearances is the pontianak, a ghostly vampire-like banshee (Aquilia 2006:436). She has appeared in Pontianak (Rao 1956), Dendam Pontianak (Rao 1957), Sumpah Pontianak (Rao 1957), Anak Pontianak (Estella 1958), Pontianak Kembali (Estella 1963), Pontianak Gua Musang (Rao 1964), Pusaka Pontianak (Estella 1964) and much later in Pontianak Menjerit (Yusof 2005). According to local folklore, the pontianak is believed to be a ghost of a woman who had died at childbirth, or a vengeful spirit murdered by a lover. Her spectre can be seen at night in quiet graveyards or sitting on tree branches, sometimes accompanied by a baby in her arms. The pontianak usually appears as a beautiful young woman in a long dress or tunic who can transform at will into a hag with claw-like fingernails. Her very long hair that sometimes falls down to her ankles conceals a hole in the back of her neck through which she sucks the blood of children (Skeat and Blagden 1965:325-6).

Needless to say, the pontianak has long captured the Malaysian popular imagination, standing in as a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence of being women. Women’s bodies often become the site of anxieties related to modernity and tradition, and also the focus of politico-religious and cultural control of those anxieties in Malaysia. Caught between “competing state and Islamic resurgent discourses”, women are used as “symbols of motherhood, Malay vulnerability, and as boundary markers in their visions of Malaysian modernity” (Ong 1995:163). Such discursive angst about female cultural transgressions inevitably found expression in Malaysian cultural and artistic discourse (Khoo 2006:126), and maintained in local legends and superstitions, especially in reference to the pontianak (Tucker :155).

The figure of the pontianak will be described here as the ‘monstrous feminine’, an object of both desire and repulsion. Informed by psychoanalytic approaches, Barbara Creed describes the different representations of the monstrous feminine within numerous horror genres as an expression of male unease with women’s sexuality and their reproductive capacities. The monstrous feminine can be understood as more than simply a female version of a masculine monster, because the “reasons why she terrifies her audience are quite different from the reasons why the male monster horrifies his audience” (Creed 1993:3). Furthermore, as female characters are generally represented as sexual stereotypes such as the virgin mother-like figure or the whore in film, one can find an overt sexualisation of female monstrosity that is less common in male monsters (ibid:4). Thus, the fascination with and rejection of the monstrous feminine are likely to raise gender-specific meaning.

Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam: Desires for revenge

The monstrous feminine in Shuhaimi Baba’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (2004) is personified by Meriam who led a successful life as a beautiful court dancer before being brutally murdered while heavily pregnant by a spurned admirer, Marsani, and his henchmen. The men then plunder her home taking with them Meriam’s valuable dance accessories and kelong, a Javanese gamelan gong. In her bid for revenge, Meriam returns as a pontianak to terrorise her murderers, and continues to do for decades following her tragic death. The narrative journeys across time to the site of Meriam’s death in the present day, now a construction site for a new housing development directed by Marsani’s building company. Among the members of the construction company is Maria, who not only looks identical to Meriam, but is also a traditional dancer like her ghostly double. Maria inadvertently revives the spirit of Meriam while dancing, who then possesses Maria’s body to complete her revenge on Marsani. Under Meriam’s ghostly influence, Maria creates a disturbance in the construction site when she begins to seduce Marsani’s visiting grandson, Norman, and threatens to murder his wife, Anna. All order is restored, however, when Marsani surrenders Meriam’s belongings to protect himself and his family.

While the monstrous feminine is generally depicted as the ghoulish female villain in film (Creed 1993:4), Meriam returns as the terrifying pontianak seeking revenge on the real villains, Marsani, his male friends, and their family members. Meriam the pontianak is the protagonist, propelling the narrative by a desire for her stolen possessions and justice. The narrativisation of her desires place her as the central figure for the spectator’s identification: through Meriam’s desire, we seek and find fulfilment in attaining justice. But because Meriam is desired by men and admired by women during her lifetime for her beauty and talent as a professional dancer, she confirms Mary Ann Doane’s template of the female gaze of the overlap between the active look and absorption into the cinematic frame as object of the gaze. However, Meriam’s role as object for viewing pleasure is problematised as she is also a figure to be feared. In relation to most male characters, Maria/Meriam (both played by Maya Karin) is represented as equally sexually seductive and dangerous – the classic femme fatale.

The elements of horror in Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam are executed mostly through Meriam’s extreme physical transformations from conventionally beautiful in human-form to corpse-like pallor with bloodshot eyes as the other-worldly pontianak, and her unnerving ability to perform humanly impossible feats. At different points in the film, Meriam’s transformation is enhanced further by the use of the camera close-up to demonstrate the extent of the pontianak’s physiognomy, filling the cinematic frame with her freakish red eyes in an invitation to the viewer to engage in an extreme psychic intimacy and proximity. She looks back. Confronting the pontianak forces the viewer to deal with its abject nature and to instinctively reject it. Paradoxically, the abject “fascinates desire” but such feelings must be repressed if self-preservation is to be protected (Creed 1993:37). The monstrous feminine is a seductive but intimidating figure, and as I will discuss in further detail below, these contradicting articulations found within the psyche reveal more about the internal conflict within the self than anxieties about what is considered “other”.

Chermin: Pleasure of identification

Zarina Abdullah’s debut film Chermin (2007) tells the story of Nasrin (played by Natasha Hudson) whose life is turned upside down by an automobile accident that leaves her facially scarred. While recovering at home, she unwittingly revives the disturbed spirit that resides in an old dressing table mirror. Soon, Nasrin forms a bond with the spirit, Mastura (played by Deanna Yusoff), talking to the mirror as she admires her own reflection that reveals an accelerated recovery of her facial complexion. The spirit who haunts the mirror is later revealed to be Nasrin’s old female relative who practised black magic to win her polygamous husband’s heart. Seeing that her beauty and magic spells show no effect on her husband, Mastura murders his second wife and then kills herself, and dies in front of the eponymous mirror.

Meanwhile, Nasrin becomes increasingly reclusive after she leaves her fiance, and is seen by her mother to be spending most of her time talking to the mirror. When mysterious deaths begin to occur in Nasrin’s village, suspicions are raised against Nasrin when villagers begin to speculate that her facial disfigurement is connected to her unstable psychological state. Nasrin’s mother soon learns that her daughter’s strange behaviour is instigated by Mastura’s evil spirit, and comes to the conclusion that that Nasrin is possessed. She calls for the village holy man to perform an exorcism on Nasrin’s body in what is a bloody, visually visceral dénouement before restoring the narrative order.

Challenging the primacy of the male gaze in conventional cinematic narrative, Nasrin and her mother propel the plot, from their discovery of the haunted mirror and its foreboding powers to their collaboration with secondary characters in containing those powers. Nasrin’s mother becomes the first to see the other-worldly qualities of the mirror before Nasrin, who is consumed by spirit’s power that transforms her, psychologically and physically. As one whose purpose is to restore order in a household without the presence of a man or father until the end of the film, Nasrin’s mother assumes the main role of guardian, not just of Nasrin’s wellbeing but also of the forces between good against evil. Moreover, as one of the central female characters, Nasrin’s mother is not constructed (scripted) as an object of sexual desire, while Nasrin’s transformation from disfigured to an attractive woman is complicated by the spirit possession that turns her into an undesirable member of society. Thus, I would argue that we can intimately identify with the female protagonists who will restore order, but such forms of intimacy are not articulations of ‘erotic object choice’.

The use of the mirror in Chermin is a helpful prop in narrativising the desiring, narcissistic gaze of the female protagonist, Nasrin, in her hopes of a speedy return of her unblemished complexion. By looking at herself in the mirror, we see her looking at herself as the object of the gaze. Nasrin is absorbed by in her own reflection or her Lacanian misrecognition of the self, but also acknowledges her femininity as lack. As the bearer of the look, albeit at herself, Nasrin is the subject and the image. Here, Nasrin’s desire to ‘have’ idealised femininity and identification to ‘be’ the image are collapsed into one as narcissism. But Nasrin disrupts her pleasure of identification by surviving the spirit possession initiated by her desire for an idealised femininity, breaking the mirror into pieces and by effect defeating Mastura, the monstrous feminine. Hence, Chermin serves a critique of female vanity, and imposes a visual assault on the female viewer’s senses in the form of the monstrous feminine as punishment for her narcissistic pleasures.

Feminine pain and pleasures of the look

As mentioned earlier, films inspired by local folk tales of female ghosts and other spirits are simply more than popular entertainment amongst Malaysian audience on a superficial level, but suggest widespread fascination with the the uncanny, and to some extent, thinly conceal societal perceptions concerning ‘bad’ female sexuality (Tucker 2000:154). The uncanny, weird, disgusting, and therefore rejected all belong to the realm of the abject in psychoanalysis. In Powers of Horror (1982), Julia Kristeva identifies the female body as the abject because of its capacity to give birth and as the place of undifferentiated identity. As the pre-symbolic site, the reproductive female body signifies the threat of the loss of meaning and identity in the Real, the primordial abyss, but also the blissful unity with the maternal body. In spite of these tensions, the abject nevertheless represents all that “disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 1982:4). In sum, abjection is the horror of physical engulfment, of not recognising the boundaries between self and other, hence its repression from the phallogocentric symbolic order (ibid:9-10).

Kristeva’s notion of the abject and the boundaries that separate the known and ease (self) from the unknown and distress (other) can be seen as implicated within the representations of the monstrous feminine. Situated between the fluid boundaries that divides beauty/horror, victim/victimiser, and alive/dead (active/passive), the monstrous feminine is unsettling because her presence invites both desire and distress. The putative ‘happy’ ending in horror films is simply an expression of relief from establishing a stability of self following a turbulent test of psychodynamic ambiguities (Creed 1993:14).

The monstrous feminine in Chermin and Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam destabilises her construction as an object for the male gaze, by posing sometimes simultaneously as the abject and as well as the fetishised object of desire; Meriam and Mastura were beautiful when alive (both Maya Karin and Deanna Yusoff were formerly fashion models) and terrifying after death. The central ‘good’ female characters, Maria and Nasrin upset their place as straightforward objects of the male gaze by being closely associated on a psychic level with Meriam and Mastura respectively through spirit possession. As both bearers of the gaze and as ‘image’, Maria and Nasrin display qualities of the monstrous feminine when they are possessed, legitimising them to a behaviour considered contrary to ‘proper’ femininity such licentiousness and hysteria (Creed 1993:31).

To further illustrate the gendered nature of monstrosity depicted in the two film is the association with female reproduction, both literal and symbolic, as a force of terror and paradoxically, death. Pregnancy and childbirth mark the turning of events towards the worst for the central female characters: Meriam is murdered while pregnant, while Mastura murders her female rival after the latter had given birth leaving her in a huge pool of blood as Mastura commits suicide. When Mastura’s spirit is provoked by a bomoh’s (witch doctor) spells, a rush of blood is released from the bottom half of Nasrin’s clothing while she is sleeping, similar to stains that occur during childbirth and menstruation. What Meriam, Mastura and Nasrin embody and are associated with at different points of the film is the abject (female womb, the birth canal, and blood) that corresponds to religious, traditional and superstitious beliefs of the female body as polluting and shameful (Creed 1993:10).

The feminine desire of the abject female subject, identification with the abject feminine and indeed desires between ‘problematic’ women on screen, however, have yet to be fully understood in feminist film theory. Other than the work of Barbara Creed on the monstrous feminine in horror film, analysis of female gaze and spectatorship in horror have been largely ignored by feminist theorists because the Freudian and Lacanian models of the female as castrating and lack respectively have proven to be theoretical dead-ends to emancipatory readings (Creed 1993:152). But the place of the abject body as spectacle has been noted by Linda Williams in the way the bodies of women in horror and fantasy have “functioned traditionally as the primary embodiments of pleasure, fear and pain” and depicted as a spectacle of a body gripped by rapturous sensation or emotion (Williams 1995:4).

As mentioned earlier, the use of psychoanalysis as an explanatory model for the female gaze is beset by feminist film theory’s own dependence on Lacanian and Freudian framework of subjectivity and the dichotomies that privilege masculine activity over feminine passivity. It is probable that these limitations attribute to the understanding of the female gaze as ambiguous, contradictory, and even submissive. Thus, it is worth to bear in mind the social and historical processes that converge with the ‘psychic reality’ in subject formation, illuminating the ways we understand the “socialised urge towards identifying” with the image (Kaplan 1989:198). The absence of the socially and historically-situated spectator – class, race, and sexuality-wise – undermines the place contextualisation of the female gaze has in exploring the means in which the phallogocentric narrative cinema is maintained and perpetuated, and as a result can obscure the different ways of disrupting it.

My feminist psychoanalytic reading of the female gaze in Chermin and Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam does not aim to serve as the definitive “progressive” reading of the text, but rather to suggest that the text be read “against the grain” to reclaim certain pleasures for the female viewer and challenge the pervasiveness of the male gaze. Seeing as popular cinema often subordinates women as under-developed characters and places a premium on female beauty and youth, there can be very little room for an emancipatory way of looking by women and indeed deriving pleasure that is emancipatory rather than in terms of passivity (taking pleasure in being desired) or masochism (desire to submit to masculine will). If all fails, one can placing herself outside the dominant structures of looking that objectifies women and develop an oppositional gaze; a gaze that is critical of identifying with both the image and the diagetic onlooker. The oppositional gaze gains pleasure not from participating in the phallogocentric symbolic order of mainstream cinema, but from resistance (hooks 1992:122-3).

Concluding remarks

The female gaze can offer insight into the range of possible cinematic pleasures alternative to patriarchal models of spectatorship and potentially liberatory readings of popular film-making. A dependence on purely psychoanalytic models of the gaze has demonstrated to be immobilising for many feminist film theorists (Stacey 1994:130), and as popular cinema continues to capture the female imagination, a call for diversity in theoretical frameworks of the gaze is long overdue. Despite its popularity amongst Malaysian audiences, the horror genre has yet to been rigorously studied, far less from psychoanalytic and feminist theoretical dimensions. Locating pleasures in identification and desires in specifically Malaysian contexts can provide an explanatory model for understanding horror’s enduring popularity and give depth to the received meanings of the image. The figure of the monstrous feminine in Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam and Chermin on the other hand is a useful model in analysing the place of sexual differences in the psyche and the abject female body. And while this essay does not investigate the nature of the female gaze that is embedded in a specifically Malaysian context, the questions raised here concerning the female viewer’s fascination and identification with the image that is historically and socially-rooted will hopefully inspire future investigations and further insights.


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Feminisme: Antara mitos dan fakta

Ramai yang berpendapat bahawa golongan wanita dan lelaki feminis yang berpegang kepada prinsip “kesamaan” begitu khusyuk dengan isu-isu hak asasi manusia dan anasir-anasir berwajah kebaratan yang lain, seperti sekularisme dan liberalisme. Tidak kurang juga para bijak-pandai yang mendakwa gerakan feminisme sebagai satu-satunya punca keruntuhan akhlak dan rumahtangga. Ada pula yang khuatir feminisme menggalakkan persaingan antara wanita dan lelaki, di mana wanita sebenarnya mahu menguasi lelaki. Dari manakah dakwaan ini timbul? Apakah dakwaan ini bertunjang bukti yang kukuh, ataupun rekaan liar semata-mata?

Ya dan tidak jawabnya. Gerakan feminisme yang dikenali ramai muncul secara besar-besaran pada awal abad ke-20 di United Kingdom dan Amerika Syarikat – di sinilah titik permulaan stereotip atau mitos golongan feminis. Wanita yang menggelar diri feminis (atau suffragette pada waktu itu) tergolong dari kelompok atasan – “elit” – berkulit putih, berpendidikan tinggi, dan tidak berminat pula dalam hal-hal diskriminasi dan prejudis yang dialami oleh wanita lain – yang miskin, tidak berpendidikan tinggi, dan tidak berkulit putih. Beberapa “gelombang” perlu naik dan susut supaya suara wanita yang sudah lama terpinggir (yang miskin, tidak berpelajaran tinggi, dan tidak berkulit putih) didengar dan diambil serius. Tanpa wujudnya kesedaran akan perkauman dan perbezaan latar belakang sosio-ekonomi, gerakan feminisme bagaikan kereta lembu berroda satu (contoh eco-friendly): terbatas gerakan dan serba kekurangan.

Di akar umbi gerakan ini adalah kepercayaan bahawa wanita dan lelaki dicipta dengan kebolehan akal yang sama, dan tubuh badan dan warna kulit bukan penentu hidup – kepercayaan inilah yang menjadi bahan tentangan hebat ramai. Mana tidaknya? Para feminis banyak mempersoalkan budaya yang bersifat patriarki/kiriarki yang wujud hasil daripada corak kuasa dalam politik dan ekonomi, sebuah budaya yang mengagungkan kedudukan sekumpulan kecil yang berpengaruh dalam sesebuah masyarakat. Di Malaysia, kumpulan kecil ini terdiri daripada ahli politik lelaki, golongan lelaki yang kaya raya dan sesetengah para ulama. Warga tua, golongan kurang upaya, orang Asli, golongan Mak Nyah, dan saudara kita yang bukan beragama Islam secara lazimnya di kelaskan dalam kelompok “yang teraniaya” dan “dipinggir”. Pernahkah para bijak-pandai yang mengutuk gerakan feminisme bertanya sama ada sistem perkelasan ini adil?

Ingin dibangkitkan di sini bukannya untuk mempromosikan feminisme semata-mata. Ruang yang dibenarkan untuk mereka yang berlainan pendapat semakin sempit di kampung Malaysia. Tidak kiralah dia seorang feminis Islam ataupun seorang mufti, pendapat mereka yang memperjuangkan keadilan atas nama bagaimanapun tetap digugat. Bagi mereka yang rasa dirinya sahaja yang berhak bersuara mengenai keadilan, mereka harus bertanya kepada diri: apakah penganiayaan itu perhah dirasa dengan tubuh badan sendiri dan dilihat dengan mata kepala sendiri, dan apakah keadilan itu boleh dirasai oleh semua?

Let these songs speak for me for now

[inspired by T-boy's Malay music madness]

I’ll be needing some time to adjust to my new life in London and SOAS at the moment. Some changes can be really overwhelming especially when one has to move into a completely empty house that is also falling to pieces. I hate the city despite being born and raised in one. Being in of the biggest and most expensive cities in the world doesn’t help either, so I’ll be taking a few days off from blogging (but will still respond to comments) to breathe deeply, and exhale.

You can tell that I’m quite the sentimental type :)

Mild toxic waste: Malaysian Women's TV Programmes

Cross-posted from Muslimah Media Watch

As I count the hours to the day I return to Malaysia, I’m compiling my notes and thoughts for a small research project on media images of women in the capital. But I’ve already started collecting preliminary data; my immense curiosity in the representation of Muslim Malay women in the current media took me as far as binging on toxic levels of Malaysian online television recently. So in a way, this post will serve as an introduction to an analysis of the popular trends affecting Muslim Malay women as depicted in the media in Malaysia today.

Far from the most progressive form of mainstream media, Malaysian television plays host to boring gender stereotypes in film, advertising and, most prominently, in women’s programs. Yet, it’s a place where women rule. The majority of programs, whether they’re dramas, sitcoms, or day-time talk shows, are aimed at women. Not only does this suggest that a bigger proportion of the TV audience is female, but also implies the fact that more women spend more time at home than men do.

Further, the growing visibility of women in hijab on television in recent years goes hand in hand with the glamorous and ’sellable’ image of the hijab and the increased religiosity of the mass media. Personally, I find the diversity of Muslim women on TV a positive change, but when I watch two extravagantly-dressed women talking on a half-hour segment about nothing but pillows and mattresses, I begin to feel a disconnect between the image and the message: it’s all looks but zero substance.

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Pink is for tween Muslimahs

Update: An extended version of this post can be found at Muslimah Media Watch

It had to happen sooner or later. With Barbie and now Hannah Montana merchandise dominating the tween to early teenage market in Malaysia, products for young Muslim women in hijab are starting to appear, particularly on the bookshelves. And they look very pink.

Sayalah Puteri Raja (I'm the princess here!)

There are also whiffs of collusion with the Disney conglomerate’s marketing strategies; princesses sell. Now, I’m not the only one who thinks that princesses make one of the worst kind of role models. They’re expected to be beautiful, rescued by Prince Charming, and either acquire or inherit wealth and royal status patrilineally. But then, stories of princesses and other beautiful heroines make an obvious progression towards the Malay novel and its main theme: romance. The contemporary romance novel is pretty much the only form of Malay fiction writing popular today. So pervasive is the Malay romance novel that it’s even taught in schools as ‘Malay literature’.

I’m assuming that this is part of the mainstreaming of ‘Islamic culture’ to reach out to younger Muslim-Malaysians. It’s saying that you can be hip and with the times and still be a good Muslim. But here, to be hip is to be a sad carbon-copy of Disney princesses with blue eyes and fair-skin and colluder of Western gender stereotypes.

Other examples of ‘pink and feminine’ novels for Muslim young women:

Diari Aneesa (Aneesa's Diary)

Kotak Rahsia Ismah (Ismah's Secret Box)

40 Lukisan Hati (40 Drawings of the Heart)

Thank you, Puteriku (Thank you, My Princess)

Dia Ataupun Dia? (Her or Her?)

Dia Ataupun Dia? (Her or Her?)

Balqis dan Pukauan Si Jelita (Balqis and the Spell of the Beautiful One)

Balqis dan Pukauan Si Jelita (Balqis and the Spell of the Beautiful One)