When Watsons Malaysia dropped Legenda Cun Raya, an ad for the upcoming festivities, I didn’t think much of it though I was intrigued as it was 15 minutes long. It looked expensive so I gave it shot. A few moments into the ad, a woman in a selendang goes into the palace singing so beautifully to see if she is the one the Orang Kaya is dreaming of. She pulls away her shawl to reveal herself to the hero and everyone else at the court. Harum Senandung’s face was painted pitch black and the everyone in the commercial reacted in disgust and shock. There’s nothing else to describe what’s going on here. It’s not been a year since a comedian parodied Usher using blackface and here’s Watsons doing the exact same thing.
“Adinda hanya mahu uji ketulusan hati kanda. Adinda tidak hitam, adinda flawless lagi!” she says shyly while courting the Orang Kaya after revealing her true self. Fair skin and made up faces are ‘flawless’ faces according to Watsons and this is my issue with the ad other than the blackface. That dark skin is ‘ugly’ and fair skin is the ideal and apparently only way to win a man’s heart.
Watsons has since issued an apology and justified that the ad took inspiration from the old folktale of Dayang Senandung. Her story was that she was shunned as she was cursed to have dark skin but her kindness and beautiful voice prevailed and triumphs in the end and her curse was broken. While they claim it was to highlight inner beauty, such a depiction was as unnecessary as it was distasteful.
As a girl, being a raised in a Malay family didn’t exempt me from being criticised for how I appeared. Once, I overheard that my grandmother talking to my mother on how much I took after my father and it was unfortunate that I did not get her fair skin. Now at that age I wasn’t unaware that fair skin was the ideal and better one to have but why was it unfortunate to have darker skin? And I also remembered racking my brain but I didn’t even remember any notable seeing a darker skinned character in local media.
For the longest time, only black characters and Bollywood heroes and heroines are the only darker skinned people I see on television and movies. Malay characters everywhere, especially female ones were always so fair and pretty. This was so strange to me when I see so many of my friends not actually having such fair skin tones. And good lord did they despise the fact that their skin is not as light. My teenage years were filled with girls complaining about the hot sun tanning them as well as discussions on whitening products because they’d rather look like Lisa Surihani or Fasha Sandha.
This is a problem. There’s nowhere to go about this very trend of only featuring fair skinned people in the media. It’s bad enough that racial representation in our local media is poor, colourism is also just as bad. Take the ad again as an example, the only Indian princess featured was very very light skinned while most of the Indians that share our homeland are almost always much darker and they are just as beautiful as any of us can be.
Art is meant to be a reflection of real life. It is meant to show stories in all the creative ways possible. But is opting out of showing or berating several shades of life a wise and harmless creative decision to make? In J Revolusi, our lead’s best friend Skodeng is a man from the North and has Tamil Muslim origins. Throughout the action film, characters were serious and brooding except for him with his witty punchlines and funny remarks. Brown and tanner actors are almost always typecasted as the uber macho guy, the evil and wild character or the comic relief. This gives out the image that darker skinned people are either bad or not worth being taken seriously. And this preference of producers towards the fairer skin makes it impossible not to perpetuate the racial issues that are already present.
Colourism is most definitely racist. And to have the artists and media in a multiracial country that practices this so widely is worrying. This transcends the things that we see on screens. I often hear my friends who act giving certain auditions a pass just because it was specified in the poster that they preferred ‘kulit cerah’ actresses for the lead. Why should actors and actresses look a certain type of way to be given a chance to succeed? It’s incredibly unfair and hypocritical as we boast this country to be diverse and multiracial while our media only shows us very few shades in such a broad spectrum.
This issue goes beyond than just showing lighter skinned people of each race in our media. It’s also casting actors to play characters that correspond with their ethnicity. Racial representation is already so scarce in our arts, misrepresentation is not going benefit anyone especially the people who barely see their people and stories on screens. A recent example is Ola Bola where a Sikh character named Sanjeet Singh is played by Haris Mohd Zainuddin, a Sarawakian born Malay. For a film that was promoting unity and featured main characters of various races, they could’ve afforded an actual Sikh actor to fill in the role, not a Malay. This occurrence happens more often than we think and it is a form of microaggression to marginalised communities like the Sikhs and East Malaysians. As Malaysians their stories and culture deserves to be told as closely and accurate as possible just as much as other Malaysians.
Reality is definitely not just one dimensional. If art is meant to imitate or showcase life, how are these instances fair reflections of the lives of Malaysians that consume these artforms. We live in a nation where, due to its geographical location and other factors, there are more people whose dark skin is not properly shown on the screens that they consume. This definitely needs to change. There’s nothing fair and lovely about a story that does not reflect and involve everyone. Colour is culture and while it seems like a lot of people may not get that, the arts and media are definitely powerful enough to change that.
Written by Nadya Zahirah.