Film & TV

Ethnic Representation: A Race to the Bottom?

Is race a subject of concern in the local entertainment industry?

The internet was disconcerted by the outcries of both Ghost in The Shell fans and film-goers who were shocked by the reveal of Scarlett Johansson in the iconic role of “Major” Motoko Kusanagi in the Hollywood live-action film that will premiere this year. The common fans of the anime were disappointed by the casting of the actress and accused the production of white-washing the character which was not the first time that Hollywood was guilty of especially in their depictions of Japanese anime i.e. Dragonball Evolution. Though it seemed that lack of diversity in the entertainment industry is only a concern in the West – mainly in the land of dreams. Hollywood productions are predominantly sensitive to comments on racism which ranges from white-washing, ‘blackface’ (theatrical make-up primarily used by Caucasians in black roles) and the absence of major representation by other races who are non-white however, this is not the case here in Malaysia.

While driving in your car early in the morning, there is a possibility that you will listen to the radio and tune in to any local stations with the up-beat voices of the DJs capturing your attention amid short minutes of songs and some of the broadcasters would even perform prank calls and comedy skits on air. Some of these radio performances have included the presenters mimicking voices of other races than their own for example, the recent prank call by the morning crew of Hitz.fm when one of the DJs masqueraded himself as Japanese with an exaggerated accent. The segment was executed with spot-on humour and a punch-line that was affected with the broadcasters’ wit though it can’t be denied that several listeners may be uncomfortable by the hyperbolic portrayal of a Japanese man who can’t speak English very well especially in this day and age. This is not an exceptional situation since there have been similar occurrences but involving Indian and Chinese characters played by Malay radio presenters. It is worth mentioning that most Malaysians might not be bothered by these incidents and could be perceived as petty but, it can’t be denied that it could prompt a touchy subject.

Comedian, Jihan Muse acted out three different races in Oh My English: Road to Jogja.
Comedian, Jihan Muse acted out three different races in Oh My English: Road to Jogja.

These representations are not limited by radio frequencies because they were screened on television and films as well (these includes the stereotypical imitations of Bangladesh immigrants as salesmen or waiters). In the two-part telemovie, Oh My English: Road to Jogja; we see the comedian, Jihan Muse playing an Indian and a Chinese as she teaches the main characters on the art of Asian cooking. Jihan Muse has always been a celebrated comic and is known as the Queen of Parodies since she’d imitated various celebrities on the variety show, Meletop though, her interpretation of other races and clad in extensive makeup to make her skin darker for one role and fairer for another could be comprehended as distasteful to the few. The fact that there hadn’t been condemnation or criticism of the representation by the actress can be concluded that the public does not worry about such depictions.

The question that remains is should they?

The society seems to be aware of racism in the entertainment industry after the uproar against a male Malay comedian wearing ‘blackface’ in an infamous parodied performance of an African American singer meaning that Malaysians are not aloof about racial and social issues. But, why is there an exception reserved for portrayals of local races?

Roax Tan as See Yew Soon in Oh My English series.
Roax Tan as See Yew Soon in Oh My English! series.

Zefry Dahalan in an article on Free Malaysia Today has noted that a racial slur that is offensive towards Indians was left uncensored on one of Astro’s comedy programme which questions on whether there should be a concern on this subject in the industry. The lack of non-Malay performers in mainstream media may have contributed to this problem of nonchalance towards these representations by Malay actors in which the entertainment is primarily received by the Malay audience. Roax Tan who played See Yew Soon on Oh My English! series and Alvin Chong of the Malay drama, Suri Hati Mr Pilot have succeeded in breaking into the conventional television and this can encourage more non-Malay artists to take on characters that can promote diversity in the Malaysian showbiz. The matter of racial representation is too communal to be ignored especially by a multi-racial community even though Malaysians are ordinarily lithe on this issue. The almost non-existential conversation on race and entertainment can’t be an obstacle for the masses to initiate the discussion especially in the 21st century when campaigning for range in show business is the norm. There is always prospect for the public to consider a unique representation of the many races in Malaysia through media as this is part of the harmonious relationship the society has with each other.


Featured image: Screenshot from both the live-action and animated Ghost in The Shell.  

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