Boyhood: The issue of representations of masculinity in Malaysia
Women being portrayed as frail, vulnerable and a group inferior to the opposite gender in television and films has been a debate for the ages especially since there has been a lack of originality and fair representation of true Malaysian women of all classes and races.
However, it is also a prominent issue to Malaysian men who are of diverse backgrounds compared to the collective group of middle upper class, employed and macho men in fictional dramas and films. There is also the constant presentation of male characters as being individuals who are independent and the decision-maker especially those who play the roles of the stern father with the prestigious title of Dato and the young man married in his twenties and had everything considered and figured out.
Masculinity is an anomaly and the perception changes throughout the years of what is considered to be the epitome of machismo i.e. five years ago, men rocking buns and eccentric facial hair might not be viewed as the embodiment of manliness (or accepted as fashionable). This is prominent in the development of male characters from the 50’s until recent roles which seem to be in observance of the decline of colourful and vivid characters from the era of black and white films.
More than macho
Suamiku Encik Sotong, the series based on the novel written by Syikin Zainal of the same name takes on a unique main character who is an effeminate man and a heterosexual which is a rare representation in local TV and films. The drama that centres on Erica () who was arranged to be married to Farish () known for wearing pink coloured apparels and acting more feminine than what Erica was used to; the series did have its humorous moments but more importantly, it started a conversation that an individual’s personality is not a representation of his or her sexuality and further making viewers more open-minded to the topic of gender and sex. It’s not a necessity to break down the image of macho men though; it would be preferable to portray male characters in more than one dimension as the majority personalities depicted are mainly arrogant, egoistic and wealthy men with established careers even before they reached their 30’s which is quite unrealistic to the varied and complicated milennials.
Middle aged and older men are also rarely portrayed realistically with the public as their characters are of those from well-being families and are mainly strict father figures who have to decide on all their familial matters. It’s uncommon for single fathers to be represented compared to fictional mothers who have to take responsibility in caring for their children after the demise of their husbands (precisely for the development of the plot) with the exception of films like Anak-ku Sazali and Papa I Love you. The former film is iconic for its plot about the struggles of a father as a sole parent in raising his spoiled son amidst his only child’s involvement in a gang and a forbidden affair with a childhood friend. The latter has the same dilemma but tells of a father working hard to give his young daughter a proper and comfortable life in spite of the death of the mother. These stories are significant to shed light on the paternal figure who would take on the role of the mother and father, the carer and the breadwinner thus, eliminating the notion that single fathers are unusual.
There is also the issue of lack of diversity in male casts for TV and films as the majority of the characters are Muslim and Malay hence, limiting the exposé to a specific religion and race and disregarding the celebrated identity of Malaysia being multicultural. The exclusion of this recurring theme is the widely-successful and renowned Ola Bola where it featured the historical moment of Malaysia’s national football players during the match prior to the entry of the 1980 Summer Olympics. The film concentrated on the assorted characters and their lives off the field including Muth Kumar (Sarankumar A/L Manokaran) and his complex relationship with his father who was immersed in their business of delivering coconuts and team captain, Chow Kwok Keong () torn between his responsibility to his family and his passion for the sport. Ola Bola served as a looking-glass to the stories of characters other than the ordinary Malay community which is needed as there is an absence of refreshing and sundry performers in the entertainment industry that would reflect the uniqueness of the conventional Malaysians.
It is time for the entertainment industry to comprehend that like women, men should not be depicted in a singular nature and of an explicit class or status that would ignore the existence of ‘real men’ in the real world. It would be invigorating to see a young man as a student and working part-time while realising his dreams, or a middle aged male lawyer working through a case or a father staying home and making dinner for his family; it would be a simple turn, a few typed words and the creation of a character against the system that will make progress in the already mundane slew of repeated personalities.