On women’s laughter in Malay horror (Part 1)

This is an edited version of a conference paper presented at the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies conference in Seoul, South Korea in July 2017

The meaning of laughter, seen as springing from humour and moral degradation, has been a matter of philosophical preoccupation with human morality since the ancient time of Aristotle. And for much of the history of laughter, it is often interpreted with grim judgment. For all its suddenness and ephemerality, laughter can leave in its wake a lingering tenor of lightness and ambivalence, but also a countervailing darkness not far behind.

For some reason, women’s laughter is especially ugly and because of that it resides comfortably in the horror genre. In this post I’ll focus on the iconic laugh of the pontianak, the female vampire of Malay legend. Her laugh is a cornerstone of Malay-language horror and functions to elicit fear in men. There is a term in Bahasa Melayu, ‘mengilai’, that is specific only to women’s excessive, high-pitched laughter. The term is mobilised both in a context of supernatural horror but also as a way to undermine women’s pleasure of laughter. ‘Mengilai’ is associated with the grotesque and excess, a woman who laughs too much and too loudly, without shielding her gaping, convulsive mouth. Hags, witches, and evil women are represented to laugh in this manner. They are emblematic of undesirable Malay femininity, degraded simply by age and pleasure.

Why does the pontianak laugh and what does it mean? Why is her laugh a fixture in horror and why is it so threatening? And can women’s excessive laughter generate a powerful expression of feminist critique of patriarchy?

In scenes where the pontianak’s exaggerated shrieks of laughter fill the audiosphere of the victim and audience, we find that the point of origin of the laughter itself is immaterial. Her pale visage, hidden partially by a curtain of long hair, may be expressionless but her laugh is heard and very frequently not seen; we do not see her physically laughing. At times the laugh reappears as the closing credits roll when the film ends. I’d like to argue that her sonic subjectivity is formed through the play on physical absence and vocal presence – desynchronisation. According to feminist film theorist Kaja Silverman, desynchronisation counts as a strategy that disrupts cinematic conventions of gender.

The pontianak’s laughter anticipates the terror and painful death of male victims, setting the stage for the collapse of desire and patriarchal order, forcing open potentialities for feminist affective knowledge. Seemingly transcendental across time and place, the pontianak’s laugh signifies the transgressions of modern Malay femininity and the interruption to patriarchal control. Rather than an inexplicable outburst or an attempt at supernatural mimesis, the laugh of the birth demon in Malay language cinema indexes the boundaries of gendered Malay embodiment and anxiety of the modern Malay woman.

The laughing woman as grotesque

If the polite way for women to laugh is the inoffensive giggle, shielded with a hand to cover the aperture of laughter, then the wild shrieks of a woman’s laughter is truly grotesque. The female grotesque presents a challenge to patriarchal visual culture, as Mary Russo argues, because she assaults the male gaze thanks to the ‘destabilisation of female beauty’ and the realignment of the mechanism of (male) desire’. The laughing woman makes herself a different, subversive kind of spectacle that shatters her passivity and compliance to the male gaze. As a female grotesque par excellence, the pontianak belongs to the pantheon of Malay grotesquerie not simply through her status as visual spectacle (from which one may wish to look away) but also through her sonic excesses.

Women’s laughter in film especially in non-western cinema is under-appreciated. But attention to it illuminates powerfully aspects that make the convergence of film and gender so unsettling and subversive. The function of women’s laughter in film compared to that of men, though the latter certainly deserves separate attention, provides much food for thought. Scenes of women’s anti-patriarchal collective laughter are rare. The Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris’s 1982 film, A Question of Silence, is exemplary for its rare use of women’s collective laughter as an expression of power.

In the film’s ending, three women are in court for murdering a man in a boutique. A motive behind the murder proves elusive. The film’s protagonist, a feminist psychiatrist, provides a defense but the proceedings are interrupted when one by one, every woman in the court including the defendants themselves, inexplicably break out in loud uncontrollable laughter. The men remain unmoved, perhaps perplexed by the show of solidarity. They watch the women laugh as they walk out the courtroom. Even the psychiatrist herself walks out of the trial laughing and the film ends there. Unsurprisingly, the film’s anarchic ending drew unfavourable reviews from critics who were incredulous of women’s ability to derive sadistic pleasure from the destruction of men. Reviewers of the film have stated that the film’s feminist message ‘will not be served well’ and it is the ‘most ferociously anti-male feminist movie’ they had ever seen. So what makes women’s laughter in film so threatening? Can it be even more ominous when situated within a humourless (or even horrific) context?

When her uncanny self emerges to terrorise the living, the pontianak’s laugh cracks through the cinematic frame. In many instances, the disembodied laugh of the pontianak occurs when she is pursued by men of a village who act as guardians of moral order. She laughs during scenes depicting her as a direct threat to the living, whether physically or psychologically. Before a stake is driven through her body, she laughs at her imminent annihilation. Her laugh dominates the audiosphere when she defiantly demonstrates her supernatural abilities, whether to fly (Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, 2004), to effortlessly decapitate her head (Pontianak Menjerit, 2005), or paralyse men into submission by immediately transforming into a horrifying demonic spirit (Pontianak, 1956; Anak Pontianak, 1958; Gergasi, 1958).

As she leaps from tree to tree from her male pursuers, she laughs at their humanly limitations and mortality. Her laugh that shoots through the film’s soundtrack is one of defiance that the men cannot apprehend and destroy her, a mission that combines male desire and dread. Often only audible, her laughter further underscores her uncanny capacity to defy all that is humanly possible. We can declare that the pontianak’s high pitched laughter pierces through an unwitting man’s soul like a claw that rips through the soul of patriarchy.

A ‘monstrous maternal’ of Malay folklore, the pontianak is a symbol of thwarted motherhood. Having died at childbirth, she turns into a vengeful spirit who wreaks terror on the living. Her spectre can be seen at night in quiet graveyards or sitting on tree branches, sometimes accompanied by a ghostly infant in her arms. In the presence of people unfortunate enough to encounter the pontianak, she willfully transforms from a beautiful young woman into terrifying 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 a stake is struck to subdue and destroy her. In cinematic representations, the pontianak returns from the grave to kill the men who have wronged her.

Women make the minority of casualties and do not count as the pontianak’s main victims. Instead, women serve as a conduit into the mortal world who provide access to its men. They become bewitched under the spell of the pontianak and transform into femme fatales themselves, attacking men on the pontianak’s behalf. Pregnant women, however, a target of vengeance fueled by maternal jealousy, are vulnerable to supernatural attacks. Murderous attacks on pregnant women is a motif in films featuring the ‘monstrous feminine’ (An especially grisly example is the 2007 French film Inside). As Erin Harrington argues in Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, it is a scenario whereby a ‘mirror-framing of victim and villain pits one expression of maternal drive against another, and asks us to consider how each woman might be an extension, or alternative resonance, of the other’.

But the pontianak is not always so fearsome. Her gentler side as either loving wife, mother, or lover is constitutive of the Asian monstrous/feminine that stalks Asian horror narratives. She is also a sympathetic figure who displays a range of emotions and when she has a back story that embellishes the aforementioned myth of her origins, she plays parts other than the villainous undead. Switching between beauty and monstrosity, affectionate and murderous, the pontianak makes for an ambivalent spectre who, in a few films, is not vanquished but rather is subdued by her role as wife and mother. The open laughter of the pontianak in Gergasi (1958) precedes the uncanny oscillating display of grotesque monstrosity and conventional feminine beauty. Here, the male hero and love interest does not fear the pontianak but appears determined to love and transform her monstrosity into a romantic and reproductive potential. It is the romance of Beauty and the Beast in reverse: a man’s love tames the grotesque behaviour and physicality of a woman, a woman who has all the beastly means to destroy him.

The meaning of the pontianak’s laugh

The pontianak’s laugh alone signifies the intangible and non-visual excesses of the monstrous feminine, a figure who traffics in both desire and repulsion. In her text that has redefined gender in horror cinema, Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine draws our attention away from the female victim in horror to the female monster – monstrous feminine – a cinematic phenomenon that takes its cue from the tradition of male unease with female reproductive abilities. In spite of its expansive parameters ranging from witches, virginal women with deadly vaginas (vagina dentata), vampires, to the rape-revenge femme castratrice, the monstrous feminine implies that there is something always-already monstrous about the female body.

We may also argue that women’s bodies are always-already grotesque. They are more easily subjected to a diminished or degraded status than men because of cultural taboos and other sensitive meanings associated with various openings, orifices, and matter that leak out of the female body. As women are culturally defined by their bodies, women’s physical expression that exaggerate elements of the grotesque body will be met with derision and censure. From a cynical feminist perspective, these stock female monsters along with the all-encompassing categories of the monstrous feminine and gynaehorror reinforce the conflation of femininity with female reproductive function, and making women synonymous with slits, openings, cavities, cracks, and orifices. In short, in the horror genre, women are yet again defined by their bodies. Thus some attention away from these reductive metaphors is perhaps overdue.

To fully appreciate the cultural significance of the pontianak, she has to be understood as a reconstruction within a dynamic socio-cultural space, standing in as a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence of being women. She is imagined as a figure who indexes the dark half of modernity and its moral antagonisms about women. The pontianak no longer lurks the village but haunts the underbelly of cityscapes. In the latter, the murderous streak of the pontianak appears less to do with revenge than as supernatural vigilantism, going after unwitting wayward men who use women’s bodies for instant sexual gratification. Through the erotic cum fatal entrapment of men the pontianak becomes instrumental in a cautionary tale that implicates the minefield of male-female relations in modern Malay society (Pontianak, 1975). Representations of the pontianak are replete with symbolic contradictions. Torn between tradition and modernity, she is emblematic of birth and destruction, sonic presence and physical absence, and what Kristeva calls the ‘abject’.

When denied the traditional aspects of femininity and dignity, Malay women will turn (in)to spirits as their means of resistance. But such forms of resistance takes advantage of sexist conception of women as the weaker sex. Inspired by Islamic belief, the integrity of Malay women’s constitution – body, mind, and spirit – is traditionally thought to be more vulnerable to a range of moral and spiritual deviations. The spirit world consisting of benign and malevolent unseen beings (makhluk halus) is central to the Malay-Muslim cosmology and summoned, involuntarily and otherwise, during moments of distress.

Accounts of spirit possession and mass hysteria, the latter of which only women are susceptible, connect extreme impurity (toilets and menstrual blood) with the spirit world. Those who appear to succumb to these phenomena are reported to cry and laugh uncontrollably, display superhuman strength, and speak in a disturbingly strange voice. Women and girls have been reported to fall under the spell of a mass hysteria in manufacturing factories where they are overworked or in boarding schools where the rigidness of the Malaysian education system proves too much to bear. Explanations for spirit possession and mass hysteria often are caught between a belief in supernatural interlopers and ‘rationalist’ interpretation of mental illness with neither prevailing in public discourse.

The pontianak’s laughter is located in the extreme end on the register of Malay embodiment. Modulations of embodiment between halus (refined) and kasar (coarse) are part of the everyday reproduction of bodies and values consonant with a transcendental order that pervades the lifeworlds of certain peoples in the Malay archipelago. Seen as central concepts in the aristocratic Javanese worldview, halus is all that is sophisticated, polished, and restrained in contrast to the disorderly, rough, and bawdy which register as kasar. Behaviour understood as kasar, from everyday informal and intimate speech to loud laughter is unevenly sanctioned across age, gender, and kinship lines. Socially permissible forms of laughing for women are limited to barely audible giggles. Loud and unrestrained laughter for all women is dishonourable although a degree of transgression by some women is given more leeway than others. Older women, unburdened by the restrictions of feminine youth, have the tacit permission to laugh openly and tease men. By contrast, Malay men’s laughter further reinforces his dominance over others present around him.

In Part 2, I’ll continue with the feminist commentary on the role of women’s laughter in subverting patriarchy and the reconceptualisation of the pontianak’s laugh as feminist resistance

Free hair as critical subjectivity

Something exciting is afoot in Iran. Since 2014, women have been wanting to throw off their hijab and live more authentic lives. Led by journalist Masih Alinejad, many have taken to social media to protest against compulsory hijab. Using the slogan ‘My stealthy freedom’, they post photos and videos of themselves defiantly unveiled. In response more than 7000 undercover police officers were deployed to apprehend women in ‘bad hijab’ and for the removal of hijab inside private vehicles.

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Source: The Guardian

The Guardian has published photos of Iranian women throwing off their hijab as an expression of their desire for liberty and equality. Their faces are obscured by the hijab flying in mid-air but they are not voiceless. Each has a powerful critique of body policing and religious hypocrisy. One of them raises our attention to the limits and doublespeak of ‘equality’:

From the time I went to school I always heard that we all are brothers and sisters, that we are all equal. But in real life there was no equality – I had to cover up for the men. How is that equal? How come they didn’t have to cover up for me?

Perhaps the tide of dissent was too hard to quell. In late 2017, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced that the moral police can no longer arrest women for ‘violating the Islamic dress code’ which includes using nail polish, heavy make-up and loose headscarves. This sounds like a step forward since the heavy-handed imposition of the hijab in 1979. However, violators of ‘bad hijab’ are ordered to take lessons from the police on ‘good Islamic’ behaviour. Hardly a feminist progress.

The ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ movement is particularly poignantly resonant to me and my own research on unveiling in Malaysia. While women in Iran cannot as yet live their lives unveiled in public, they can find solidarity with Malay-Muslim women in Malaysia who also desire to unveil, succeeded to do so, and live the rest of their lives without the hijab.

In my research, I am interested in what motivates every individual to remove the hijab. The hijab is not enforced in toto in Malaysia however young girls are introduced to it in school as part of the school uniform. If we regard schooling as a systematic process of socialisation and discipline to produce docile bodies, then the hijab-as-uniform is incorporated to such bodies making its removal difficult. Although the state and its institutions (the school and religious bodies) impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ Muslim identity – one that is ethnocentric, anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-diversity – women who turn their backs to the hijab each have different, complex reasons to unveil.

‘Free hair’ is the term used to describe a Malay-Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the hijab. It’s a great term with a double meaning; ‘free’ as in the absence of the hijab but also free to mean liberation from imposition. ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ also uses the adjective ‘free’ in both meanings constituted in ‘free hair’. It also articulates a liberal ethos of equality with men. Men do not need to cover, so why do women? I have developed ‘free hair’ as a concept to be used for more universal reflection in my forthcoming article, ‘Free hair: Unveiling and the reconstruction of self’ (2018):

It can be argued here that ‘free hair’ is more than simply about being non-veiled and in opposition to the hijab as it often is in popular representations. ‘Free hair’ constitutes a personal aesthetics and ethics that is in such an intimate reflexive relationship with the hijab as to redefine the privileged meanings of veiling. Put another way, ‘free hair’ is the materialisation of a subjectivity that re-orders the prestigious associations with veiling in order to construct a more harmonious non-veiled self.

However, I would be hard-pressed to argue that the removal of the tudung and being ‘free hair’ comes from a critical rejection of Islamic consumer culture and capitalism. Women may replace one idealised femininity with another version of femininity with its own accoutrements of consumer beautification.

‘Free hair’ as a critical subjectivity that aspires for authenticity and perfection of personal aesthetics is conceived not simply as a practice of self but also as operating in an affective economy that processes feelings of failure and negativity into radical expressions of liberation.

 

Not all women who take off the tudung feel completely liberated initially. Being free hair is a process, it takes time to come to terms with a new identity and status. Women who choose to remain free hair will be beset with perpetual internal and external conflict. Their lives become open-ended, a series of acts and articulation of both joyful defiance and dispiriting negotiation. ‘Free hair’ is indeed a style of life, a life as an obstacle course for women who dare to dissent and live more authentically.

On being like Robyn Penrose

Robyn Penrose is a newly minted lecturer in women’s studies and English literature who specialises in the ‘industrial novel’, fiction written in the mid-1800’s that reflected the values and anxieties of the British industrial revolution. She is a feminist academic with an unflagging belief in uprooting social injustice inside and outside the classroom. She joins anti-nuclear marches and strikes against cuts to university funding. Ever the empowered woman of the 1980s, she is also assertive and confident and is clear about what she wants. Somehow the ‘imposter syndrome’ endemic in higher education does not exist in her dictionary.

She is a fictional character after all and springs from David Lodge’s classic 1988 campus novel, Nice Work, in which our academic heroine is pressured by her dean into shadowing a factory manager at work in a higher education-meets-industry programme. Although a character from the Thatcherite 1980s, she is a figure of our times. As an early career researcher who came to a full-time teaching position from a fixed-term research fellowship in a prestigious research university, Robyn does not know if she can keep her job when the next national budget looms. Universities across the UK since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership have faced inexorable cuts to research, teaching, and upkeep. New appointments are frozen and people lose their jobs.

The precarious nature of academic employment, then as now, involving applying to diminishing jobs and accepting them anywhere in the country and beyond has hampered any attempts at a typical romantic or marital relationship. Robyn’s boyfriend whom she’s been with since they were undergraduates at Sussex has accepted a job a great distance away. They see each other every other weekend and the arrangement feels more like a long-distance relationship. But it works for her as she doesn’t believe in marriage and the bourgeois idea of romantic love. Her boyfriend agrees with her as he is slow to develop his own opinion. She does develop meaningful relationships with others, namely with a female colleague and fellow feminist. Though her greatest triumph is her intellectual and sexual conquest of one Vic Wilcox, the middle-aged factory manager whom she is assigned to shadow.

There are many instances in the novel which suggest that Robyn Penrose is a caricature of a feminist academic, all righteous and dominating. Her ability to transform Vic Wilcox from a boring and predictable family man life who sneers at women’s studies into an effortless enunciator of Tennyson and Saussurean semiotics is the stuff of fairy tales for academics. But she is nonetheless an admirable woman of intellectual ambition whose work is admired by established figures in the field. Who wouldn’t want to be offered a tenure-track job in an elite US university based on the strength of an unpublished book manuscript? She speaks and acts in the manner of her thinking and beliefs; unpretentiously provocative, bold, and forthright. She can talk about her sex life in the same breath as structuralism and metonymy. A sapiosexual’s idea of a really sexy pillow talk.

As a caricature, albeit lifted from the lived experience of the author who was an academic himself, Robyn Penrose ticks many of the identifiable and aspirational boxes. As a feminist academic, the boundary that separates professional and personal life is never really clear. She defines the morality that gives shape to her vocation and sexuality rather than having it imposed by others, not least prudes, anti-intellectual people, and sexist men. It makes me wonder how many women out there harbor a fantasy to be like Robyn Penrose whose mind challenges and ignites desire in the most unlikeliest of people. Because I do.

Just two foreign single women getting drunk in Paris: femininity adrift in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and The Dud Avocado (1958)

Photo 30-06-2017, 1 41 08 PM
Source: author’s own copies 2017

Sasha Jansen and Sally Jay Gorce are the quintessential flâneuse in the birth city of the flânerie, Paris. They represent two sides of the flâneuse’s emotional inner landscape; aimless, lonely, and morally suspect on the one hand, freewheeling and liberated on the other. As single women, they defy the expectations of women in the city of love. They are elusive to love; Sally Jay is a happy bed-hopper, Sasha walks listlessly into crummy hotel rooms with shady men who promise only temporary love. They are a few decades late after the first generation of flânerie but they cannot escape the mark of marginality that comes with walking in Paris free from matrimony or responsibility as Hannah Arendt describes succinctly:

What all other cities seem to permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society – strolling, idling, flânerie – Paris streets actually invite everyone to do. Thus, ever since the Second Empire the city has been the paradise of all those who need to chase after no livelihood, pursue no career, reach no goal – the paradise, then, of bohemians, and not only of artists and writers but of all those who have gather about them because they could not be integrated either politically – being homeless or stateless – or socially. Pg. 174, Men in Dark Times

The two women are the semi-autobiographical protagonists of two novels, Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys and Sally Jay Gorce in The Dud Avocado (1958) by Elaine Dundy, who undertake events drawn from the novelists’ lives, created from a place of ‘write what you know’. Both women are not natives to the city. Sasha is English but has become estranged from her origins in England by virtue of a divorce and death of her child. In Paris, she can reinvent herself, gaining employment as a sales assistant. Like Sasha, Sally Jay seeks fame and fortune in Paris through establishing a career in film and theatre. Paris is also an escape for Sally Jay from a protective family in provincial America.

Born Elaine Rita Brimberg in New York City in 1921, Elaine Dundy grew up under the thumb of her tyrannical father who forbade her to leave New York. Undeterred, she saved enough money for a trip to Paris where she hoped to start her acting career. When the career was not to be she moves to London where she watched others rise to great cultural heights and, for the men she knew, become the iconic Young Angry Men of the 1950s. After the birth of her daughter Tracy (who has recently published a book on her parents) Dundy’s ambitions in film and television were finished. Then a career in writing came a-calling.

Dundy and Rhys were born into affluence and whose creative lives were significantly shaped by highly influential male literary types; Dundy by her husband the leading theatre critic of the day Kenneth Tynan and Rhys by her erstwhile lover and benefactor Ford Madox Ford. In fact, their literary careers were said to be spurred by the men. The Dud Avocado, Dundy’s first novel, was written at the behest of her husband. Typical of sexist assumptions about women’s creative abilities, he didn’t think it would amount to much beyond being written. For Tynan would be deeply resentful of Dundy’s critical success following the publication of the novel. ‘You weren’t a writer when I married you, you were an actress’ he said to her angrily. Yet appraisals from other famous men flowed in, the great comic Groucho Marx said it made him ‘laugh, scream and guffaw’. Who said women couldn’t do comedy? Gore Vidal offered his word of encouragement, “You’ve got one thing a writer needs: You’ve got your own voice. Now go” while Ernest Hemingway praised her book for having characters who “all speak differently” unlike, self-deprecatingly, his own.

When we are introduced to Sally Jay Gorce, pink-haired and dressed in an evening dress in the morning because all of her day wear is in the laundry, it is too easy to think: quirky and adorkable. Easily compared to Holly Golightly, Sally Jay embarks on a metropolitan adventure to run away from a dull American life and a mission to be an actress. Her French is good enough and she gravitates towards other elite Americans in Paris. The meaning of ‘dud avocado’ only becomes apparent in the end of the novel when [spoiler alert!], our witty heroine corrects a would-be paramour on the nature of the ‘Typical American Woman’. Full of misfired charm, he creepily described the typical American woman as having ‘a hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing’ like an avocado and ‘so green – so eternally green’. Well, having a mind of her own she won’t meet his expectations then. She resigns to simply being a dud avocado as she sips her cocktail.

Good Morning, Midnight also makes a reference to the protagonist’s state of being although in Sasha’s case it is derived from a poem by fellow depressive Emily Dickinson:

Good morning, Midnight!
I’m coming home,
Day got tired of me –
How could I of him?

Sunshine was a sweet place,
I liked to stay –
But Morn didn’t want me – now –
So good night, Day!

We first meet Sasha in her crummy hotel room in Paris, a new base from which to rebuild her life. Curtains are always drawn and she needs sleeping tablets to sleep. The streets of Paris and her daily routine of regular places to eat for lunch, dine, and then have a drink provide a much needed respite. In Paris, she is ‘saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set…’ (pg. 4), an image of a woman who has pulled herself out of a wreckage of a failed marriage and death of a child and struggling with mental health.

Regarded as ‘too depressing’ when it was first published, Good Morning, Midnight had been her fifth novel and precedes Rhys’s best known work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), the radical prequel to Jane Eyre’s ‘mad woman in the attic’. Before the fame of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys lived in obscurity but with an ambition to belong to the upper echelons of literary society. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in Dominica, a tiny Caribbean island in what was then the British West Indies, Rhys is now known primarily as a ‘postcolonial’ writer before such a term was de rigueur, before notions of class, race, and gender became an inescapable framework from which to intellectually appreciate her output.

A white creole who schooled in Cambridge where she was an alleged victim of racism, Rhys lived a life troubled by alcohol abuse and financial difficulty. Biographers and critics have noted with surprise that Rhys was able to gather the discipline to write fine books despite her chaotic life without emphasising that many men in literature lived similarly precarious lives. That Rhys was a woman, somehow not white enough, a single mother, and that she clung to men for monetary support (a biographical detail that seems to suggest feminist failure) meant that her literary output seemed improbable and against the odds. Like many women after her up to this contemporary moment, her novels mirrored her life. As writers of semi-autobiographical fiction, they enjoy the privilege of (re)writing the self yet cursed by voyeuristic prurience of readers who seek out thinly-veiled self-confessionals of troubled women.

Paris eventually gets the better of Sally Jay who, by the end of the novel, grows to despise the city after she loses her passport and failing to make a breakthrough in film or stage; ‘God, how I hated Paris. Paris was one big flea bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough’ (pg. 234). She had indeed looked at it long enough and decides to pack up and return home where she becomes a librarian and meets her happy-ever-after lover. But Sasha Jansen does not leave Paris, not least physically. She exits the buoyant promise and ebullience of the city and retreats psychologically into herself and submits yet to another man who will dominate and perhaps rape her. In fact in the closing pages of the novel, we are not certain that an actual man has come for her in her hotel bedroom or the ghost of past lovers who haunt her desolate inner chamber.

Despite her preferred theme of downtrodden women, Rhys, who died in 1979, currently enjoys a feminist literary legacy and fame that came too late for her, as she notes with irritation following the success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The Dud Avocado would live on to be a modern fairy tale for single women long after Kenneth Tynan threatened to divorce Dundy if she wrote another book. She continued to write and divorced him in 1964, Dundy writes victoriously in the 2007 republication of the novel one year before her death in 2008. The two novels represent something about women who have not only the privilege to travel abroad but also the relative freedom to become the protagonist – and indeed antagonist – of their life story. Women writers draw from their own lives – as much as men do though they are accused less often of this literary misdemeanor – because writing allows the rewriting of one’s life story when things do not turn out the way we want to.

Lessons learned

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve been appointed Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies, my first real job after the PhD. Unlike my cohort, I hadn’t spent too much time applying for many jobs and had been interviewed for only two. Penniless and exhausted, returning to Malaysia seemed like a good idea. It chimed with my old ambition of teaching Gender Studies – back when I didn’t quite understand what it was – at the University of Malaya. And yes, Dear Reader, I got the job.

Being a full-time academic came with the financial independence that I never really had all throughout my 20s. With financial assistance from my parents and younger sister who helped with the initial down-payment, I finally had my own home and car. Most transformative and powerfully addictive of all, I had a disposable income. Being poor for so long leaves behind a psychological scar tissue; to put more simply, the reversal of fortune did not change my attitude with money. Moreover, I had always been cognisant of the precarious nature of jobs and how the living wage anywhere I lived was never commensurate with the rising cost of living.

It took a bit of time thinking about my research trajectory – which would define my academic profile and employability – and whether I wanted to stay in film and cultural studies. It was important to have a putative cut-off time when I knew what research I wanted to do, stick with it, and let it define me for the next five years (or more). I thought very carefully about why I transitioned from the biological sciences to Gender Studies 8 years ago and reassessed if my work was meaningful to me and others.

There have been a few interrelated challenges during the first two years of my career. The sexual harassment allegations that several women and myself have made against AFR resulted in a significant falling-out with many former friends and allies. I should have not been surprised that outrage against sexual harassment is only lip service, only a crime that occurs to others far away – not something their friends would commit, certainly not men who have made a reputation for themselves as ‘progressive’, ‘feminist’, and ‘intellectual’. I had to watch many ‘friends’ and ‘feminists’ express disbelief and when presented with testimony from victims, vacillate on who they thought were the real perpetrator and victims. Others chose to downplay, deny, and accuse me and other women whom I hardly knew but shared the unfortunate fate of being sexually harassed by AFR of lying and planning his downfall. Of course this should have been hardly surprising but it nonetheless was painful and distressing in lived experience. In cases related to gender-based violence and discrimination, women are first presumed to be liars before they are innocent and vindicated.

The emotional impact of the collective sexual harassment case aside, I began to chart my early phase of my academic career in earnest – determining what and where I should publish (the answer to ‘when’ is always ‘now’ but ends up being deferred thanks to the journal publication cycle), and what conference should I organise and when. Teaching was a given – there was little choice on what I could teach but I have been hugely fortunate to teach courses on subjects I really love – feminist and gender theory – and in something I have past professional experience: gender, science and technology.

It all sounds smooth-sailing for those outside looking in but it isn’t always like that. There seems to be two intellectual time-space trajectories running in parallel in my workplace. When working on my own research and teaching, the intellectual time-space trajectory is stimulating, rapid, and at times, frantic. I design the syllabi and prepare all teaching materials from scratch. Every class feels like a high-wire act. Managing, writing, and revising research becomes (on hindsight) an exhilarating race against time. The other intellectual time-space trajectory relates to the habitus of my workplace. There is less urgency for academic publication and rigour; tenured staff either do not publish or do so collectively in dubious Beall’s list journals. The level of discussion during public seminars is low, meandering, and unchallengingly non-intellectual.

Since starting my academic career, I am beginning to fully appreciate my strengths (integrity and hard graft) and weaknesses (failure at building strategic alliances and undiplomatic honesty). I realise now I cannot do everything but while I’m still in my 30s and able-bodied, I should push my boundaries and step out of my comfort zone. My self-knowledge has made me less anxious about my abilities (I can teach and publish in good journals!) and made me more confident at mapping out a future brimming with ambition. Here’s to several more decades as an academic!

Mummy issues: the reproduction of motherhood in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love

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‘The heritage of motherhood’ (1904) by Gertrude Käsebier. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mother-daughter relationship can be the greatest cause of vexation in a woman’s life. This is a platitude no doubt and a sweeping generalisation as many are lucky to have a really splendid mother-daughter relationship. Happy or not, it is characterised by maternal projections of hope, insecurities, anxiety, and disappointments. A mother conceives not just a daughter but undertakes a vicarious project of constructing a Mini-Me whilst must heroically come to terms with the fact that the daughter is a unique individual. Mothering is thus a projection and project that plays out in proximity and across great distances through hugs and long-distance calls.

A daughter’s greatest fear is that they become their mother. Turning into one’s mother confirms a woman’s destiny and annihilates the notion of self-determination and individuality. All women will be become their mothers, thus all women are the same. In Elena Ferrante’s first novel Troubling Love (1996, Original title in Italian, L’amore Molesto), Delia is every daughter who must resist visible signs of becoming one’s mother, as this particular passage demonstrates:

Now that [my mother] was dead, someone had scraped away her hair and had disfigured her face to fit my body. It had happened after years in which, out of hatred, out of fear, I had wanted to eliminate every root I had in her, even the deepest: her gestures, the inflections of her voice, her way of taking a glass or drinking from a cup, her method of putting on a skirt, as if it were a dress, the arrangement of the objects in her kitchen, in her drawers, how she did her most intimate washing, her taste in food, her dislikes, her enthusiasms, and the language, the city, the rhythms of her breath. All of it remade, so that I could become me and detach myself from her.

On the other hand I hadn’t wanted or been able to root anyone in me. Soon I would lose even the possibility of having children. No human being would ever detach itself from me with the anguish which I had detached myself from her, only because I had never been able to attach myself to her definitely

Ferrante, 64-65

Delia seeks the truth behind the unexplained death of her mother, Amalia. In an attempt to solve the mystery behind Amalia’s death – presumably by drowning – Delia unlocks repressed memories of a childhood scarred by domestic violence and leery male neighbours. Her detective work involves not just discovering startling clues that shed light on her mother’s death but also a woman’s life suppressed by domesticity.

But as Delia makes discoveries of her mother’s identity she never knew, she finds that that they mirror her own repressed desires to be the kind of woman Amalia was. Delia is a disheveled comic strip artist, unmarried but clearly not so young anymore; unlike the glamour of old age eclipsed by the self-abnegating image of Amalia the mother. Amalia had also abandoned a violent marriage and sought to reconstruct herself in middle age as a lover and wearer of sexy underwear. Delia tracks Amalia’s decrepit lover Caserta down, determined to get to the bottom of a possible foul play. However, her confrontation with Caserta would undo the barricade of sexual repression and fantasy that distorted her childhood memories. Who is Caserta in Amalia’s life but simply an unconsummated admirer rather than lover, as it turns out. Still, Delia as a child was jealous and protective of male attention towards her mother. She would tell her father of an imagined affair between her mother and Caserta and unknowingly unleash patriarchal rage. Like the children in The Go-Between and Atonement, Delia would grow up living with the consequences of interfering with the emotional life of adults. It seemed as if Delia would atone by continuing the life of Amalia by being Amalia.

In her classic text, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978), Nancy Chodorow argues that ‘mothering’ is more than a biological reality and continuation of practices after childbirth. Even without biological mothers performing the act of mothering, women in general take up the role in poorly paid or unpaid capacity.

Responding to Freud, Chodorow develops a feminist analysis of psychosocial development and how women become mothers. All babies perceive their mothers as their ‘external ego’ because they have yet to develop their own individuality separate from their primary caregiver. But as they grow into maturity, separation and the development of the ‘self’ set in in different ways for boys and girls. For boys, Freud postulates the necessity of the Oedipal drama and the threat of castration by the father to result in the psychic rejection of the mother. Rather than fearing castration, daughters already see themselves as castrated like their mother. Thus without the threat of castration and urgent need for separation, daughters maintain an undifferentiated connection with their mother, going as far as duplicating ‘many features of their mothers’ psychotic symptoms’ (Chodorow 1978: 100).

In his symbolic penis-baby equation, Freud would see a woman’s desire to be mothers as a substitute for the phallus, resolving her penis envy. Suggesting a more powerful psychic bond between mothers and daughters, Chodorow goes on to say children do want to unite with their mothers and return to that place of safety and bliss:

Children wish to remain with their mother, and expect that she will never have different interests from them; yet they define their development in terms of growing away from her. In the face of their dependence, lack of certainty of her emotional permanence, fear of merging, and overwhelming love and attachment, a mother looms large and powerful

Chodorow, 82

Mothers in Elena Ferrante’s novels are torn in opposing directions; by their asexual domestic calling and raw feminine sexual desire. Somewhere in between this polarity the mother (in Days of Abandonment) at first fumbles, then confidently carves a space for herself to be both mother and sexual being. Mothers die in Ferrante’s work; the death of mothers results in the reconciliation between mother and daughter (My Brilliant Friend) and awakening of a daughter’s femininity (Troubling Love). I do not need to rehearse the tedious assumptions that Ferrante’s novels are somehow mined from her own life. The themes of the ‘personal’ – motherhood, female friendships, divorce – are said to be depicted with such realness that Ferrante could only write from her own life and that of course Ferrante is a woman, a guess that was shattered in 2016 by the expose of Ferrante’s identity.

What is it about Ferrante’s novels, of her incessant focus on the feminine domestic sphere, that pull in millions of readers? As Margaret Drabble states, there is something quite retro and Second Wavey about her novels. I would also add that there are strong hetero psychosocial dynamics of the private sphere that the novels contend with. And yet, they remain as fresh as the morning dew because the vexed question of the feminine, gender inequalities, and male dominance remains unresolved and returns the next day, like the morning dew that greets us.

Pengajian Gender untuk Semua #1: Pengenalan kepada konsep ‘seksualiti’ dan Queer Theory

Seksualiti merupakan satu perkataan yang secara lazimnya dihubungkaitkan dengan hubungan seks antara lelaki dan perempuan. Namun, ini adalah satu pemahaman istilah yang terlalu sempit. Sebaliknya, seksualiti merangkumi segala yang bersangkut-paut dengan perasaan cinta, hasrat (desire), hubungan intim (intimacy), perkahwinan, kawalan sosial, politik, ekonomi, dan agama. Berpegang tangan antara kekasih adalah satu tanda seksualiti seseorang.

Seksualiti sebagai kategori penyelidikan mempunyai sejarah yang bermula dari abad ke-19 dengan penubuhan bidang seksologi yakni bidang saintifik mengenai seksualiti manusia. Dalam kata lain, abad ke-19 merupakan titik permulaan di mana seksualiti dikenalpasti secara saintifik, namun sebagai satu patologi yang boleh diubati.

‘Homoseksualiti’ adalah rekaan sains perubatan semata-mata… 

On Foucault's nexus of power and knowledge, plus some criticisms
Michel Foucault, bapa kajian kritis mengenai teori seksualiti

Sebelum kategori seksualiti yang normatif (heteroseksualiti) diusulkan, kategori homoseksualiti dikaji dahulu. Homoseksualiti dicipta pada tahun 1870-an sebagai satu kategori penyakit minda dan mempunyai sifat-sifat yang hanya boleh dikenalpasti oleh pakar psikiatri.

Mengikut Michel Foucault (1926-1984), seorang homoseksual menjadi satu ‘species’ yang mempunyai ciri-ciri yang boleh dikenalpasti melalui kaedah yang bersifat saintifik. Ini bermakna: melalui wacana perubatan dan penyakit mental, homoseksualiti pertama kali dikenalpasti sebagai satu identiti. Ini tidak bermaksud orang yang bersifat homoseksual tidak pernah wujud sebelum tahun 1870-an, cuma istilah identiti ‘homoseksual’ yang digunakan buat pertama kali diberikan kepada perbuatan dan amalan yang berdasarkan cinta sejenis (same-sex desire).

Mengikut hasil pencarian Foucault dalam History of Sexuality Jilid 1, corak pengaturan dan regulasi sesuatu masyarakat mula berubah daripada regulasi hukum-hakam agama kepada regulasi yang bersifat sekular – melalui sains perubatan. Individu di masyarakat Barat-Kristian beralih daripada membuat pengakuan (confession) dosa seksual di gereja kepada pengakuan mengenai seksualiti mereka kepada para doktor. Perubahan sosial ini sesuai dengan perkembangan sains and teknologi sekitar revolusi pengindustrian dan fahaman humanisme pasca-Pencerahan. Masyakarat pada zaman 1800-an yang mengagungkan sains seperti teori evolusi dan sains genetik disarankan dengan pengaturan sosial yang bersifat saintifik bagi memastikan kemajuan dan kesejahteraan manusia sejagat.

Daripada gagasan Foucault datangnya Queer Theory 

Pendekatan ‘queer’ terbit daripada angkatan aktivis gay dan lesbian yang memperjuangkan hak-hak golongan homoseksual.

Perkataan ‘queer’ yang digunakan dalam aktivisme LGBT di Amerika Syarikat pada akhir dekad 1960-an mempunyai maksud yang bertentangan dengan maksud yang menjelekkan golongan LGBT. Objektif disebalik penggunaan perkataan ‘queer’ yang asalnya digunakan untuk menghina lelaki homoseksual adalah untuk ‘memulihkan’ dan meneutralkan bisa homofobik yang terkandung dalamnya, tidak terlalu berbeza dengan golongan berkulit hitam yang menggunakan perkataan ‘nigger’ sesama mereka atau penggunaan perkataan ‘slut’ dalam gerakan Slutwalk. Ini merupakan satu contoh ‘reverse discourse’ atau wacana berbalik yang diusulkan oleh Foucault.

Sumbangan terbesar Foucault kepada Queer Theory adalah teorinya mengenai cara kuasa (power), wacana (discourse), dan bahasa/ilmu (language/knowledge) saling berinteraksi untuk mencipta realiti. Kuasa yang mengatur sesuatu masyarakat (melalui undang-undang, pihak politik dan agamawan) dikuatkuasakan melalui manipulasi wacana (misalnya melalui propaganda). Wacana yang sempit menghasilkan ruang bicara awam dan persendirian yang sempit.

Beberapa ikhtisar penting dalam Queer Theory: 

Pendekatan ‘queer’ menolak binari gender dan seksualiti yang terdiri daripada homoseksualiti dan heteroseksualiti / maskuliniti dan feminititi.

Identiti ‘queer’ adalah segala perbuatan, pendirian dan gaya hidup yang melanggar norma-norma yang mengongkong individu.

‘Queer’ bersifat subversif dan menyongsang demi mencari jalan yang baru untuk mengekspresi gender dan seksualiti.

Persamaan / perbezaan antara Queer Theory dan teori feminis: 

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Audre Lorde, tokoh teori feminis

Kedua-dua mempunyai pendirian yang kritikal terhadap peranan gender dan seksualiti yang binari, tradisional dan normatif dalam masyarakat. Kedua-dua juga memegang pada pendapat bahawa gender dan jantina adalah konstruksi sosial.

Karya pemikir-pemikir utama Queer Theory juga merupakan tokoh-tokoh feminis – seperti Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis dan Audre Lorde.

Kedua-dua teori feminis radikal dan Queer Theory menolak heteroseksualiti atas dasar penindasannya terhadap wanita dan lelaki gay. Aktivisme feminis dan LGBT muncul bergiat di sekitar tahun 1960 dan 1970-an sewaktu perjuangan hak-hak asasi membasmi perkauman di Amerika Syarikat berlaku.

Namun, terdapat pelbagai perbezaan yang mewujudkan satu jurang antara teori feminis dan Queer Theory.

Misalnya, teori feminis bermula daripada persoalan mengenai perbezaan antara gender dan jantina/seks, manakala tumpuan Queer Theory lebih kepada jantina/seks dan seksualiti. Walaupun teori feminis radikal yang aktif pada zaman 1970-an dan 1980-an adalah sangat kritikal terhadap heteroseksualiti, kini teori feminis kurang memberi perhatian kepada isu homoseksualiti dan heteroseksualiti.

‘Performativiti’ 

Jika gender dianggap satu konstruk sosial – yakni terbentuk daripada proses sosial dan budaya yang boleh dimanipulasi dan berubah mengikut rentak zaman – maka ia tidak timbul secara semulajadi dalam diri seorang perempuan atau lelaki. Sebaliknya, gender harus dipupuk, dipelajari, ditegaskan, dan dikawal sepanjang hayat. Tidak cukup untuk digelar ‘perempuan’ or ‘lelaki’ di saat kelahirannya atau dalam sijil kelahiran, keperempuanan dan kelelakian harus ditonjolkan dan bagi Judith Butler, ia seolah-olah ‘dilakonkan’ di pentas sosial.

Performativiti‘ merupakan konsep yang dikemukakan oleh Judith Butler untuk menunjukkan bahawa gender dan seksualiti bersifat seperti ‘persembahan’ atau lakonan yang mengikuti ‘skrip’ yang ditetapkan oleh norma masyarakat. Bagi Butler, gender seolah-olah satu ‘lakonan’ yang dilakukan oleh individu mengikut syarat-syarat permakaian dan perlakuan. Dalam kata lain, gender bukan sesuatu yang sedia ada tetapi sesuatu yang perlu diusahakan dan diulangi sepanjang hayat.

Dari sisi lain, gender yang bersifat performatif bermaksud gender dibentuk atau dikonstruk melalui tindakan seorang individu yang mengisyaratkan identiti gender beliau. Bagi Butler, gender tidak wujud dalam ‘batin’ atau teras identiti seseorang individu. Gender adalah sesuatu yang dizahirkan sahaja.

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Rupaul, seorang ‘drag queen’ dan penghibur antarabangsa

Drag’ adalah istilah yang digunakan oleh Butler sebagai kiasan atau metafora bagi menerangkan gaya seorang individu memaparkan identiti gendernya. ‘Drag’ merujuk kepada persembahan drag atau permakaian pakaian yang bertentangan dengan identiti gender seseorang. Istilah ‘drag’ digunakan bagi individu biasa kerana gaya pemaparan gender bagi kebanyakan orang sama ada melalui make-up atau memakai tali leher dan business suit adalah sementara dan untuk di ‘pentas’ awam.

Bagi kebanyakan individu, gaya dan bahasa badan, cara permakaian dan pertuturan diatur dan dikawal apabila di tempat awam atau di situasi yang tertentu, seperti acara formal atau temuduga untuk kerja. Mengikut pendapat Judith Butler, kami sentiasa mempersembahkan diri mengikut citarasa diri, norma masyarakat, dan protokol tertentu.

Kesimpulan

Seksualiti – sebagai satu kategori – adalah sesuatu yang bersifat historikal. Ini bermaksud konsep heteroseksualiti dan homoseksualiti hanya boleh digunakan dengan tepat daripada zaman 1870-an. Ini adalah kerana definisi, ciri-ciri dan kategori bagi mengenalpasti heteroseksualiti dan homoseksualiti hanya bermula pada 1870-an

Namun, definisi, ciri-ciri dan kategori heteroseksualiti dan homoseksualiti pada zaman itu menggambarkan kedua-duanya sebagai penyakit mental.

Kecenderungan kita untuk menggunakan binari dan dikotomi untuk klasifikasi gender dan jantina mencerminkan corak bahasa dan logik kita tanpa menyedari bahawa fenomena dan realiti sosial dan biologi adalah lebih kompleks dan bukan hitam-putih. Malah, fenomena dan realiti sosial, biologi, gender dan jantina boleh dilihat sebagai kepelbagaian warna dalam pelangi.