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.
Which brings us neatly to the consumerist and image-centric approach to Malaysian women’s TV programming and definition of modern femininity. To begin with, hotels, cellphone companies, fashion labels, and banks all feature as the major sponsors of such programs, indicating the rise of female purchasing power. Filming sometimes take place at shopping complexes and beauty spas to promote a range of products that stretches the imagination. “Newsworthy” items include a newly opened designer boutique in Kuala Lumpur. There can be no doubt that the love affair between merchandising and women’s programs plays into the beliefs and assumptions that Malay women are constantly preoccupied with shopping and image.
Just as important as shopping is being an amenable, obedient wife. An entire episode on Wanita Hari Ini (Today’s Women) was dedicated to the topic of wives who hold grudges against their husbands. When interviewing a group of elderly women for advice, all of them agreed that being disagreeable with their husbands was an act against the teachings of Islam, while one suggested the consultation of religious texts and rituals to find an “answer” to marital disputes.
The same unproductive, non-confrontational approach to serious matters had also found its way into neutralizing the issue and effects of breast enlargement on Nona some time ago. I remember watching in both disbelief and disgust in the way boob jobs were promoted primarily for the sexual pleasure of married men; not a word about how natural it looks or how safe the procedure is, or a comment on the objectification of female bodies.
One of the main factors contributing to the dumbing-down of women’s programs is the broadcasting companies’ refusal to engage with challenging issues, resulting in half-baked discussions on what women really want to talk about like sex education and contraception, for example. Instead, TV producers make do with “major” topics like different ways to consume nutmeg and the nutritional value of oranges (as shown last week on Wanita Hari Ini).
The overwhelming amount of content viewed as “women’s issues”, which are limited to fashion, shopping, and marital relations, gives the impression that Muslim Malay women care little about the deeper and thought-provoking issues that pertain to their discrimination in the eyes of the law and society. But then, there is the view that Malaysia has achieved gender equality when we see more women with successful, high-flying careers, and a relative freedom to dress as we like.
And so women’s programs are seen as simply an aspirational extension to a material facade of success. But not far beneath all that superficiality, women in Malaysia are still expected to play a secondary role in all institutions – marriage, the family and the workplace. This has come to be reflected and propagated on television, the producer of cultural meanings and dominant images of women.