SEMINAR ON GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN POPULAR CULTURE:
VOICES FROM SOUTHEAST ASIA, UKM, 4-5 SEPTEMBER 2007

Arrived in Malaysia at 10.40 am, I found things weren’t really comfortable to deal with. From the cynical faces of the airport officers and the ‘jealousy’ for comparing the Malaysia with Indonesia, I was stunned for seconds. Landing down the LCCT actually grants many transportations to the downtown.
Voices from Southeast Asia
Arrived in Kajang (this place was chosen due to its easy direction, either to KL or UKM. The place was near with all public facilities: malls, plazas, cybercafe, Rumah Makan Padang, movie; everything could be reached on foot. Checking in the New City hotel for RM80/night, nothing should be worried about. UKM can be reached easily using the cheap bus. I really had to prepare for the workshop; the power point was all too simple, and I still had no idea where the exact place of the conference. Mdm Noraini had already emailed me that the first session would be started at 08.00 am.

Here it was! I was mistaken when I thought that the conference was held in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities. In fact, the committee had arranged a place in the school of language studies and linguistics. And it took another fifteen minutes to reach the place. Oh dear! The school of Language and Linguistics was covered with the brownish maroon paint, making the building looked fresh and friendly. I kept comparing it with my faculty in Andalas, whose walls were all dead-grey, covered with the reckless ‘unsympathetic’ green algae here, there, and everywhere. The banner was too small for such an international event. But that was the way things should be arranged. Nothing needed to be over-exposed; the quality of the event mattered more. While we used to wall up big banners and ads for a small event, they stayed cool with a few words and simple color.

Enough comparing! I would not let myself bothered with those things that kept my feeling away from my own country. Malaysia had just celebrated their 50th independence day on August 31. No wonder they ‘tidied up’ their country; I saw flags everywhere. Clean. Discipline. The workshop register only took a few minutes; the committee welcomed me to the conference room with some papers, schedule, and a nice hand bag (just to mention how impressed I was with their friendliness). The hot issue dealing with our karate referee being severely punched some days ago didn’t touch the workshop’s atmosphere. They didn’t take it seriously, while we do many protests with burning logos and flags.

I stumbled my knees upon seeing the schedule, which was distributed before the conference. There were Ph.Ds and Doctors, not to mention a bunch of masters in various fields, such as Anthropology, Sociology, Gender studies, even author and art director. While I was a mere fresh graduate: it was my first international conference. But later I found out that there were two more final year students, but they had their own companions from the respective universities. Nervous, for sure. But it was all gone with the wind when I witnessed their appearance on stage. Their presentations, PowerPoints, ideas, and English ability were not the best in the world, I should say. At least, I could make myself comfortable with this no-win situation. I would not take profit from their ackward styles, for example, but only to provide an inner convenience for myself. I would present on the second day of the workshop, so there would be enough time to learn some tricks to win the audience’s attention. It would be pretty silly if you came across the island only to know that people just threw their attention to somewhere else, while you were giving your best in a presentation.

The first panel was the Contemporary Film and Music. I found the themes of the workshop interesting, so to speak. From the analysis of Indonesian film Berbagi Suami and its intricate relationship with polygamy to the analysis of female images in Malay songs, I really wish the same workshop be held in my university. However, tones of disappointment were heard, of course, due to their undiscipline time management. The first two speakers spent an hour, to consider 40 more speakers on the queue. The movie analysis, for me, wasn’t quite satisfying; there were too much theories and methodolgies, while he missed the point of the movie itself, the cultural context, and marketting strategy behind the production. I didn’t even remember that he mentioned the name Nia Dinata, who had both produced and written the film.

The next panel for the first section was Contemporary Fictions. Here, the analysis focused on the Chick Lit, because the author of the books emphasized the relationship between man and woman. Another interesting presentation was from Prof. Zalina Lazim, who discussed about ghost things in Malay fiction. Ghosts, ghouls, satans, vampires, witches, and their scepter fellows are always ‘created’ female. And the surprising fact is that the victims are always mostly male. Stereotypes are, thus, made that female is closed to evil. The end of the presentation saw the participants having tea break at 10 am. Because there was no much time to discuss in the seminar room, the participants took the advantage to discuss and talked about the aforementioned themes in the break room. People from the same interests would be seen gathering, talking, and debating, while having their tea and cakes.

The third panel was for Comic and Anime. The workshop featured a speaker, who was the expert in this theme. Datuk Lat provided a long and profound analysis of cartoon and its relation to gender and sexuality. A mere slip of humor was attached to catch our attention, and of course, he was the man for it. Another speaker presented the analysis of cartoon as bringing the patriarchal ideology in daily newspapers and magazines. The other explained the Japanise anime in through gender perspectives. The stunningly beautiful girls and the macho boys were all the productions of the cartoons to construct an ideology of their own.

Lunch break was also filled with hot and interesting discussions. This time, the audience got the answers to their questions, which perhaps, could not be answered in the seminar room. The moderator only permitted one question for each speaker. Two, if the presentation was considered really interesting and needed some further explanations. I found it great to know many people from different cultures, religions, countries, interests, habits, and styles. The Philippines, for example, came with their lose-as-a-gose styles; they didn’t care with the dresscodes. They would seemingly be comfortable to anything they wore. In fact, what mattered more was your presentation and the point of your analysis, not the way you dress or how famous the brand of your clothes and shoes were. I also loved the way they pronounced ‘television,’ ‘mission,’ and any other words with –ion suffix, because they articulate the last three alphabets the way they are written. The Singaporeans were a bit conservative. They came with formal coats and blazers; they looked elegant in giving presentations, though I wasn’t really familiar with their ‘Singlish’ accent. It was as if they spoke in Chinese by using English words. The Malaysian were all the same; semi-formal suit with shoes and long sleeve shirts. The women covered themselves with baju kurung a la Malaysia. I did understand all their conversations in English because it was similar to that  of Indonesian, though some pronunciations were a little bit different. What troubled me the most was when they talked to me in Malay language, “Ncik Ivan dah temu bilik?”

The next session was for Masculinity panel. Wan Zawawi Ibrahim was the pointed as featured speaker, who gave the presentation about two tales of Malay women. He explained the dichotomy between ‘The Pure’ and ‘The Whore,’ in every creation of female characaters in fictions. One also talked about gay literature, which was called The Genesis of Ladlad from Philippine. Rumour had it that the speaker himself was a gay. In fact, I was sitting next to him, and nothing weird happened. He was like the ordinary man, I didn’t know; perhaps he would change his attitude with his gay partner. I didn’t care.

The last panel for today was Popular Literature. It was a huge research done by five researchers from Malaysia, who then contributed in this seminar. They mapped the popular literature in Malaysia through feminist perspectives for a period of time. I remembered my Literary Research Method class fondly. Drs. Ferdinal, MA also assigned similar tasks to his students that time. It was a heavy, sistematic, but satisfying research to conduct. Prof. Ruzy herself also presented her paper about women and sexuality in Malay popular fiction. Then, after the high tea, the participants might leave UKM for good.

Some stayed in Puri Pujangga, a dormitory for visitors, in UKM locality. Some lived in hotels, just like me. Living outside campus would grant me a better access to public facilities. I went to the cybercafe, malls, traditional markets, Padang restaurant, and so on; the things I could not afford to do within the campus. It was exhausting a day and I completely fell asleep once arrived in Kajang. The bus in the route was hard to come by though the cost was completely cheap. You can travel anywhere within the Rapid KL’s track area with only a single RM1 ticket for a whole day.

At night, I tried to improve the PowerPoint for my presentation. Adding some slides and information as well as the embedded songs, all preparations had been completed. For dinner, I just went to Padang restaurant because I needed to play a ‘safety first’ game. I could not take the risk of stomachache eating the food I never knew before, because my time here was not very long enough for ‘food traveling.’ I also tried to contact friends and families in Indonesia. The operator in my phone networking had been changed into Maxis from Telkomsel. I was still able to make a phone call or send a text message, but the cost was extremely expensive. One message was charged Rp4,500! Without realizing the charge it costed to me, I had unintentionally spent Rp50,000 of my credits in 10 minutes. Ain’t that a kick in the head?!

Today, I arrived in UKM earlier than yesterday. Even a donkey will not fall down the same hole twice in a row. I took the early Rapid in Kajang and got through the right direction: no more lost. I had asked many people for directions yesterday, and today I walked down the road as if I had known the place for years. Nobody came just yet, when I was entering the gate of the faculty. Thus, I spent some times to make notes on the paper before giving presentation. The rest of the time was used to take photographs of the campus. It was a clean, bright-color, and elegant building. Academic banners stood tidily in the corners, Malaysian national flag hung up in the balcony because they just celebrated their Independence Day four on August 30.

At 08.00 am sharp, the committee asked me to enter the room. Some participants were seen walking down the corridor with each bag. Not until all the participants came, the seminar should be continued. The sixth panel was for Advertisement. Most of the speakers talked about gender persepective in magazine ads. Emily Law started off the topic by identifying gender identities in some Singaporean magazines ads. Jano, from Malaysia discussed Guess ads as bringing gender and capitalist ideology by portraying sexy women. The other speaker, Yuyun, from Thailand exposed the images of urban young people and their sexuality in NGO posters for a period of time in Bangkok. I hardly concentrated to their presentations because, partly, I wasn’t really interested in the theme. It was also because I was about to present after the tea break, so that, reading my paper once again thoroughly would help me much rather than paying attention to the on-going presentations.

 

The next panel was Imported Culture. I hardly understood the committee’s decision to choose the theme. The speakers also presented some difficult topics to discuss. No wonder why the audience started to look like they were boring. Tea break finally released me from the unending lacklustre situation. I got acquinted with a participant from West Timor, Dr. Koli Bau. I didn’t think that the people in this seminar were racists, but in fact, it seemed that nobody wanted to talk to this man. I accosted the man, who was drinking his tea, asking where he came from, and what he did for a living. He was a big man, black, his visage was quite hard; it mirrored his experiences in the ups and downs of this life. We talked much and discussed about the presentations. His vision about human beings was great, no wonder, he was a doctor in Sociology. I learned much from him.

The next panel was Popular Music, in which my presentation took place. For this section, I asked Dr Koli Bau to take pictures for me. Collin Jerome from Singapore began the section by revealing the representations of gender identitiy and sexuality in  popular Malay songs. But, I doubted the accuracy of his research, because he also included the singers and bands from Indonesia that didn’t even have the sense of Malay, such as Krisdayanti, Rossa, Peterpan, P-Project. Jean Claire from Phillipine discussed about the construction of masculinity in Pinoy Rock Music, one of the leading programs in her country’s national TV. Again, I thought, her presentation should have been included in the panel of Masculinity yesterday. I didn’t know their consideration.

In a break, Madam Latifah Emir took her chance as the featured speaker during the panel. She was the author of the now-best-selling-novels in Malaysia. Everyone loves the way she blends the plot with the settings, which makes her stories come to real life. But, Collin and I agreed that the woman was only burst in over-pride when she palpably promoted her successful career as a writer. She couldn’t help to give an offensive answer to a question from Miss Arezou, for example, who criticized some of her characters as the ‘dreaming’ ones. We concluded that Madam Emir was never attacked by such a question before she came to the seminar.

My paper itself was entitled “Radja and the Utopian Women: Revisiting Gender Representations through Popular Songs.” It tried to look at some, or half, of Radja’s songs as they have brought gender matters. Works on popular music have had an intricate relationship with gender and sexuality. Debates have been ongoing and the facts that are raised in the early days of popular songs writing leave us questions: Is rock band a male form? And if so, is this achieved through the gender representation of their song lyrics? This paper encompasses a textual analysis of the song lyrics suspected to have brought gender issues. The corpus is from one of now-leading-bands in Indonesia, Radja. Fifteen out of 32 songs are examined as they productively bring the misconception of gender and its stereotypes.

After dealing with the songs, patterns are found in the texts: Women are ‘written’ as objects to men (much dealing with love relationship), and they are left passive; women are ‘associated’ with symbols (flowers, night, moons, stars, etc); women are ‘ambivalent’ creatures (they cannot keep words, maintain relationships, stay on commitment) or the worst, they are ‘pretenders.’ These patterns eventually bring Radja to assess their utopian women. Those pictured in their songs are the ‘girls of their dreams.’ This will lead to the apprehension that pop music is also another comfortable site for women’s subordination. Radja cannot avoid writing the ‘masculine’ lyrics because the society and the market admit them. The patriarchal system has conspired with capitalism upon the ‘objectification’ of women. While, the band, through their songs—with their utopian women—is only the medium to achive it.

I ended the presentation with questions like: “Is feminism fighting ‘a loosing battle’ against the collusion between patriarchy and popular culture?”, “Do feminist fellows have to change direction, or instead, work harder?” Some applause was enough for me to think that my contribution in the seminar was worth its while. Some participants asked me for the copy of the paper. Their fondness for my topic was another private glorious moment.

The ninth panel was Popular Magazines, which was begun after the lunch break. Some presenters from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia took their turns in this panel. Dr. Shanthini started off by analyzing the role of popular magazine in English toward the development of Malaysian identities. Robin from National University of Singapore continued with his research on female bodies exploitation in some Singaporean magazines. Diana from Universitas Indonesia ended the panel with her analysis of the construction of women’s bodies, desire, and sexual relationship in some popular magazines in Indonesia. None of them really attracted my attention because it was another ‘magazine-based’ analysis. The last panel was Femininity, which dealt with the role of the working mother in media, the women in criminal newspaper, and woman politicians.

Two days in UKM were very exhausting, indeed. To count it as an international seminar experience, then, should ease the pain. Thank you to Universitas Andalas’ authority for the financial aid, thank you to all the presenters and the committee. Thanks to Ni Ija, for the corrections, and thanks to everyone who had read the article and gave comments.