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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.