Women, Food, Sex and Death : Feminism in ‘La Grande Bouffe’

By Lupiloo

At the 1973 Cannes film festival, Ingrid Bergman pronounced ‘La Grande Bouffe’ the most ‘sordid’ movie she had ever watched.  Some reports even claim that she vomited after watching it; and who can blame her? The movie, written and directed by Marco Ferreri centres around four men who decide to collectively eat themselves to death in a desolate mansion.

Throughout the film, the audience is privy to nonstop gorging, belching, flatulence, faeces and other vulgarity. The four friends, Marcello, Michel, Philippe and Ugo, are clearly from the upper classes of society and for some reason are disillusioned by their wealth, privileges and ability to have anything and anyone they want (go figure!). In any case, they choose to end their meaningless lives in decadence, indulging in enormous feasts and nightly orgies until one by one they begin to pass away. It’s a pretty sick and shocking film but to some extent, it had to be in order to make its point.

Numerous reviews have been written about the film, alluding to the the futility of life and the corruption of the human body. Few reviews have dealt solely with the feminist angle of the film and that is what I hope to examine in this article.

Despite its vulgarity, the film does have some interesting themes, particularly, its portrayal of women. The main female character in the film is Andrea, a school teacher who is invited by the men to join them for dinner one night. Andrea is a corpulent woman who as the movie progresses shows that she has an appetite that surpasses that of the men, both for food and for sex. By the second half of the movie, she is engaged to Philippe, but is sharing a bed with all four men. We regularly see her lying naked in bed stuffing her face with chicken legs or clawing at one of the men, begging for sex.

In addition to Andrea, we briefly meet Nicole at the start of the movie, a much older, and also plump, female relative of Philippe. We are not told what their relationship is but it is clear that she has been Philippe’s caregiver since his parents passed away. Shockingly, at the end of the scene we witness her engaging in sexual activity with him. She attempts to seduce Philippe by unbuttoning her blouse, he attempts to fend off the seduction by buttoning it up again, only to give in at the end. Here we see the classic imagery of the woman as the temptress and the man, as helpless and giving in to his desires. Forbidden fruit anyone?

It’s no accident that Andrea, the schoolteacher and Nicole the caregiver, are both portrayed as loose women who clearly defy the conventional characteristics of their formal roles to engage in unconventional sexual activity with the male characters. Teachers and caregivers are usually associated with morality, while Andrea and Nicole are clearly associated with the opposite of that. This is one of the clearest and most interesting ‘feminist’ features of the film – the way in which women’s roles, associated stereotypes and traditional expectations are subverted.

Enter the prostitutes, three girls who are also invited by the men to share in their feasting and orgies. Prostitutes are generally associated with decadence, vice and immorality, yet in this film, the prostitutes decide to leave the house after one night with the men as they do not want to continue to engage in the decadence. This is in contrast to the teacher who decides to stay on and indulge. Also, in contrast to Nicole and Andrea, the prostitutes are thin. Arguably,  Ferreri is trying to draw a link between the corpulence of women and the voracious appetite for vice and decadence.

The link between corpulence and sexuality in art dates back to the stone ages with discoveries of clay, limestone and even woolly mammoth tusk figurines of corpulent women with massive breasts, large stomachs, wide hips and generous thighs. However, it was with the introduction of gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins in Christianity, that medieval art began depicting corpulent men and women as sinners and slender people as pious disciples of Christ.

That said, it is difficult to get a sense of the message intended in this film (if any) because Ferreri ‘matches’  the corrupt depiction of corpulent women with the ‘noble’ occupation of teaching and caregiving and then throws a spanner in the works with the image of ‘morally superior’ prostitutes who (if we make comparisons to traditional historical representations) are more akin to symbols of ascetic life.

In one scene, the men are seated at the dinner table, gorging and watching a pornographic slideshow. The addition of naked women to this feasting debases the female characters further. In another scene, Michel throws food on the naked body of one of the prostitutes and repeatedly says “the body of woman is vanity”. To me, it seems that he was saying that the body of woman is futile, purely there for pleasure. This also has biblical references; apart from the woman as the Eve-like temptress, the body of a woman is for sin and pleasure, serving no other real purpose. Or alternatively, the ‘vanity’ he was referring to could have been the vanity of men in the conquest of the female body.

I do understand that that the roles of the women in this film serve to support the main themes of the movie (namely that of surrealism, mortality and corruption). The film is undoubtedly thought-provoking and discusses many of the social and moral concerns of the time. However, the important question for this article is, are these types of films a step forward for feminism or a step backward?

Some may argue that giving women sexually progressive roles and roles that break the boundaries of teacher or caregiver or prostitute support feminism. Others may argue that these roles could also be seen as very negative and derogatory, while perpetuating the image that women hide their ‘immorality’ behind the facade of conventional roles. A large extent of how one sees feminism in these movies depends on how one defines feminism. The truth is, it’s difficult for me to support either position, because I haven’t been able to define feminism for myself.

It’s certainly shocking though, and somewhat offensive, to see that every woman in the film is portrayed in a sexual manner. One may argue that the men too are portrayed sexually, but somehow the male characters are perceived as tragic. Having realized the fruitlessness of life, they decide to take their own lives, living their last days in pleasure. In the end, they die and that makes the audience sorry for them to some extent. The main female character on the other hand, indulges in pleasure for the sake of it and one isn’t able to feel sorry for her. She acts as both caregiver and lover to the men, sure of her place in the house, of her importance and her purpose of being there. In fact, I think many male viewers, and possibly female ones as well, would just label her a slut and be done with it.

However, Andrea could also be perceived as a very strong character, who knows what she wants, feels free to choose and do as she pleases, without concern for convention, morality or judgement. Andrea could be construed of as incredibly progressive for a woman, even in today’s context. However, it would be difficult to say with certainty that Andrea is a feminist because once again, that would depend largely on how one defines feminism. But this is precisely why the film is so interesting; because it forces one to look at women’s identity and feminism from many angles. The confusion that results from multiple layers and contradictions in the film’s portrayal of women also represents the perplexity of feminism and the struggle with pinning down an accurate description of the term.

Although the film is mired with these feminist contradictions and it’s almost impossible to decipher Ferreri’s intentions with his female characters, it certainly is thought provoking. While not especially  known for the feminist issues it brings to light, it is an interesting film for the women of today to consider. In particular, it would be interesting to compare Andrea and the other female characters we encounter in the film to the representations of feminists we have watched in more modern films. We may be surprised to find that we think Andrea is more of a feminist than the seemingly independent , open-minded female characters we have to come to so conveniently identify with feminism. This film is a must watch simply because it raises the questions about feminism that we have stopped asking. Five stars.

Photo credits: jdm Film Reviews, Movie Mail, improvisedlife.com

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Undressing Society

By Sangeetha Dorairaj

When I was working at a tourism organisation last year, I vividly remember being fascinated by a particular female director. She was always dressed like a femme fatale in her short figure-hugging skirts, cleavage-exposing blouses, shoulder-baring dresses and ‘ball-crushing’ stiletto heels.

I often used to wonder if any of her immediate male subordinates and colleagues could get any work done without being distracted by her outfits and exposed flesh, because I sure as hell was; this led me to ponder the well-worn (no pun intended) notion that in order to get what she wants, a woman has to flash a little skin.

And before the feminists go up in arms and start chanting, “Traitor!” and ‘Burn her at the stake!”, let me make this clear: I’m certain that she was well-qualified and had the skill and experience to survive in the corporate world. I only speculated if her ability to not just survive, but thrive, in an essentially patriarchal environment was in part helped by the way she dressed. And if I was thinking that way, what about potentially impressionable young girls looking to older ‘career women’ as role models?

Surely, in this day and age, where statistics show that female college graduates outnumber male graduates, and opportunities for women in the developed world to further their education abound, we can say that we’ve moved past the superficial and that it’s not (at least partially) about the looks or sex appeal. Or can we?

I frequently noticed how the women who dressed a bit more risqué in every office I’ve ever worked in got treated better by their co-workers, both male and female (what was said behind their backs though may not always have been as complimentary). It was also hardly inescapable to me that the majority of females who held high-ranking positions in the tourism organisation I worked for were also good-looking, dressed to kill and dressed provocatively. Some may argue that this is because tourism is a ‘public-facing’ job, and appearance matters. However, the high value placed on appearance, even in ‘public-facing’ jobs, has come under fire and is still unresolved.

While it could be argued that these women were simply taking pride in their appearance and didn’t want to show up at work looking like slobs who’d just rolled out of bed, my point is that taking pride in one’s appearance and ensuring an appealing ‘public-face’ is not tantamount to wearing revealing and sexually provocative clothing to work.

Some women throughout history have used their looks and sexuality to make social and commercial ‘gains’. What I have found is that today, younger and younger women and girls are turning to these kinds of women as examples of ‘success’ stories and latching on to the idea of baring skin to get what they want.

You see, we’re now living in a society where six-year-olds are wearing miniskirts, nine-year-olds are being sold fishnet stockings, and sixteen-year-olds have taken to wearing skirts that barely cover their buttocks. It seems that today, we’re allowing and perhaps even (unknowingly) influencing our young girls and women to think that it’s normal, appropriate and even empowering to dress in a revealing manner.

Maybe I’m beginning to sound like a massive prude who wears an over-sized poncho everyday. For the record, I do wear skirts and dresses and low-cut tops. The difference is, I’ve learnt when to bare skin, and when to cover up and always feel that I have a choice in the matter. This important distinction, I fear, is something that has escaped our younger generation.

I’m not sure about what girls today are being told, but I clearly remember that as I was growing up, it was explained to me that the impression I gave of myself was a matter of choice that related not only to how I behaved but also how I dressed. I was taught that at work, I should choose to dress smartly and conservatively so that my effort, skill and work ethic (and not my boobs) would be what made a good impression. I grew up being taught that I should choose not to wear a dress so short that my undies could be spotted when I sat down at a desk at university, in the office, or anywhere in public lest this give an impression I did not want people to have of me. When I was younger, I had to be ‘policed’ by my parents and teachers to ensure I kept to these ‘rules’ and was dressing ‘appropriately’ because I was too young to make learned and educated choices. When I became older, I could choose what impression I wanted to give  and mediate my behaviour and dressing accordingly.  But these days, with the younger generation, it seems that very little of this explaining or ‘policing’ seems to be taking place.

So who do we blame for this literal undressing of society? Let’s start with everyone’s favourite scapegoat, the media. One cannot deny that there is a barrage of scantily-clad female celebrities playing the roles of successful career women, ‘in-charge’ dominatrix sorts, ‘MILFs’ (Mother I’d Like to F*ck) and ‘cougars’ paraded on TV, the newspapers and magazines. These women, who seem to be relying largely on their ‘feminine capital’ are portrayed as the epitome of femininity, style and most importantly, emancipation and empowerment, to impressionable girls and teens.

Thanks to the Internet and the ease of access to pornography, even adult-film actresses have entered the mainstream and are being viewed as self-assured style icons; let’s just say that it isn’t exactly mere coincidence that the term ‘CFM (Come F*ck Me) shoes’ has entered every day urban language and become a wardrobe staple for teenage girls and career women alike.

This ‘pornification’ of our society is a worrying trend. Skimpy outfits which would have raised many an eyebrow back in the day are now seen as normal or worse, a sign of empowerment, because ‘successful career women’ and self-assured sorts seem to dress that way and/ or are portrayed in that fashion by the media.

Do we want to be sending the message to girls that baring skin is the way to get ahead? That it’s an easier way to get what you want, or worse, that it is a sign of confidence and empowerment? While I don’t think this message is always being sent consciously, as older career women, we must be conscious that we are role models for younger women; if we are wearing skimpy outfits to work, we’re potentially sending the message that this is how we thrive at work.  It could be misconstrued that this is what women do, or must do, to get ahead and climb the corporate ladder.

This may be a generalisation, but we can’t ‘wear’ our hard work and overtime hours. These girls are not going to see how we spent hours in the university library finishing essays and studying the fine print in academic textbooks, in order to get the degrees that landed us the jobs we’re in now. They’re not going to see how we stay back after work hours to finish up documents for approval, clear emails or prepare notes for the next day’s meetings. They’re only going to see short skirts, plunging necklines and skyscraper heels. If a picture paints a thousand words, shouldn’t we conscious about what’s in that painting?

Again, don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with flashing a little cleavage, or showing a little leg. The difference here is that there’s a time and place for it and young women need to be taught that they always have an active choice in how they portray themselves.

Until they are old or wise enough to make that choice, I worry that they may grow up thinking that dressing scantily is the only way a woman must dress in order to get ahead in life. I worry that they may think that in order to be liked by male employers or colleagues, their hemlines need to be hiked up. I worry that such an impression, at an impressionable age, might cause damage that can’t be undone.

Ultimately, as older women, I strongly feel that we have a duty to educate our younger generation and perhaps even ‘police’ them while they’re young.  All the more now because of how the media draws parallels between success and sexiness and because many career women seem to be ‘commodifying’ their sexuality, or at least, giving the impression that their sexuality could be one of the features that gets them noticed in the workplace. Perhaps we need to go as far as to say to young girls, ” YOU DON’T NEED TO BARE IT ALL TO GET NOTICED, GET A JOB, AND GET AHEAD IN LIFE”.

I’m now left to wonder if anyone told that to the female director. Or whether she feels that she needs to stroll into the boardroom half-dressed in order to get the job done.

[This post was re-edited on 23/11/11]

Photo credits: Flautonfashion, Cartoon Stock

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Threatened by female sexuality?

By Ghui

It never ceases to amaze me that so many allegedly “modern” citizens of Singapore possess such antiquated ideals on women, sexuality and marriage. In many instances, inspirational women have had their achievements overlooked simply because society is unable to see past their sexuality.

Take Dr. Martha Lee for instance (http://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/singaporescene/straight-talk-singapore-sex-doctor-105440214.html).

Being Singapore’s only certified clinical sexologist and sexuality educator, she created a sensation in Singapore when she founded Eros Coaching, which offers sexuality and intimacy counselling.

In a fast paced yet conservative city like Singapore, it is not surprising that some people might have intimacy and sexual issues. For such individuals, there is often no outlet or empathy. In that regard, Dr. Lee’s efforts must be applauded. However, instead of encouragement, she seems to have received a barrage of insults, many of which are sexist, rude and downright lewd.

Examples include:

1. “She coach women how to give handjob and blowjob to man. Can she also coach men how to do oral and handjob fingering and make women squirts?”

2. “Her husband must be a most sexually satisfied man.”

3. “her husband must have a sore back.”

These are but a few small minded comments in a sea of shockingly myopic remarks. Not only are these quips discriminatory but they completely fail to consider Dr. Tan’s courage and accomplishments. She is the only person who has dared to take on our rigidly repressed views on sexuality. Every human being needs intimacy and by confronting intimacy issues, Dr. Tan is providing a very much needed service. Sadly, it appears from the comments, that our society cannot see past the sex and her gender. To compound matters, they seem to view sex as lewd and vulgar.

Had Dr Lee been a man, I daresay the comments would have been far more respectful. While society is prepared to see women as sexual beings, they are not prepared to see women as individuals who have control over their sexuality. This is perhaps why the comments directed at Dr. Lee have been so offensive. A confident woman dishing out advice on sexuality is too much to bear. Our society is threatened by her.

Male sexuality on the other hand, is something that our society can handle. When faced with it, we are not so blinded by it that we are not able to see past it. For instance, we have been able to recognise the Singapore water polo team as “more than brawn” (http://sg.news.yahoo.com/s-pore-s-sea-games-water-polo-men-s-team-more-than-brawns.html). This is despite the racy photos of them that have been splashed across the media.

Photographs of our water polo team players clad in nothing but teeny tiny swimming trunks, revealing muscular bare torsos, leave little to the imagination. Yet, despite the fact that these pictures present “in your face” sexuality, online commentators are able to see past this and offer the encouragement that was denied to Dr. Lee.

These two examples lead me to draw the only conclusion possible – that Singaporean society is threatened by female sexuality. Men have traditionally been viewed and seen as sexual beings. They are entitled to sex and they are entitled to control sex. In short, a male’s sexuality will never cloud his achievements because to be male is to be sexual. Women, on the other hand, are still viewed as sexual objects – people to have sex with but who have no control over their sexuality.

On paper of course, this is not the case. Singapore is fairly modern and women have careers but the truth is, deep down, deep seated prejudices on sexuality still permeate every aspect of our society.

Why is society threatened by female sexuality anyway? Both men and women are sexual beings so why the taboo? Society has to understand that by being in control of her sexuality, a woman is not attempting to dominate her male partners. She is simply seeking to be in charge of her own sexuality. Society need not take the word “control” out of context. By “control”, women only mean control over themselves. Men are not in the equation – unless of course, Singaporeans are happy with a society which allows men to control women sexually?

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The White Boy and the Dragon Lady

by Aneeta H

Mixed race relationships have long been a social ‘issue’ that has for better or worse been fodder for public debate. Two weeks ago, the BBC piloted the first of a 3 part documentary series entitled ‘Mixed Britannia’. It reveals what’s plugged to be the untold history of the mixed race community in Britain. George Alagiah, a Sri Lankan born Tamil who became a British citizen and news presenter, hosts it. Alagiah is married to a Caucasian woman and the program is refreshingly interleaved with personal anecdotes and reflections. Evidently, mixed race couples come in countless racial or ethnic permutations but the documentary, thus far, focuses on the experiences of British Caucasian women married to men of another race and the sorts of obstacles and social stigmas they have had to cope with and overcome.

Being a mixed race couple (but of ‘opposite’ pairing to those mainly featured in the program), my husband and I took a special interest in watching Mixed Britannia. The fact that I am from Singapore and he is English and we now live in the United Kingdom has been offering us new perspectives on the trials and tribulations of being an Asian woman married to a Caucasian man living in a ‘Western’ country. We were keen to compare notes with those couples sharing their stories in the program and understand the social history behind attitudes that the people in the UK have towards our relationship.

Our discussions thus far seem to suggest that while there are clearly some differences in the experiences of couples that comprise of the Asian man and Caucasian woman pairing and the Asian woman and Caucasian man pairing, what isn’t very different – nor very surprising – is the fact that a great deal of prejudice relating to mixed race coupling is more often than not targeted at the woman, regardless of whether she is Asian or Caucasian. And even less surprising is that it tends to take her sexuality as its point of contention.

Caucasian women married to Black or Asian men in the 1930s who were interviewed in Mixed Britannia claimed that they were commonly accused of sexual promiscuity; because they had chosen to marry ‘outside their own kind’, they were written off by their families, society and even the country, as ‘trollops’ or ‘prostitutes’ unworthy of British citizenship. While these sorts of accusations aren’t made as blatantly in this day and age, the attitudes still persist and manifest themselves in more nuanced forms of prejudice which continue to victimize women more than men.

To be clear, this prejudice doesn’t exist only in Britain; it affects all ‘permutations’ of mixed race couples everywhere, but our main focus was the fact that these days, it seems to happen more to Asian women partnering Caucasian men than to Caucasian women partnering Asian men.

From observation, personal experience and experiences shared by other Asian women coupled with Caucasian men, my husband and I came to the conclusion that the impressions, judgments, stigmas, stereotypes and difficulties that stem from the pairing of Asian women and Caucasian men, are generally the same regardless of where in the world – Asia or ‘The West’ – one finds this pairing.

To be blunt, but without wanting to over-generalize, many of the very first judgments, where there are specifically race related ones, are often about the Asian woman. She is usually thought to be socially, intellectually and financially inferior and therefore very likely to be an opportunist who uses her sexuality to ‘trap’ men. Either that or she is a strong but deceitful and domineering gold-digger.

Judgment of the Caucasian male partner sometimes follows. He is deemed either an unfortunate guileless soul spellbound by the exotic,wily ‘Dragon Lady’; a (secret) chauvinist; or an opportunistic but stupid sexual pervert.

There are certainly cases where it is true that Asian women look to acquire financial security or a ‘cushier’ life by marrying a Caucasian man. One need only spot a nubile young Asian thing in hot pants hanging off the arm of an aged, over-weight Caucasian to (sometimes rightly) jump to the conclusion that she’s using her youth, attractiveness and sexual wiles to make financial gains. The man needn’t even be ‘rich’ by ‘developed country’ standards because it will likely be the case that whatever he earns in Pounds or Euros is more than she could hope for, should she have married a young and handsome man from her village.

There is undoubtedly evidence from the thriving mail order bride industry that makes millions from providing men from ‘The West’ with women from ‘The East’ that these stereotypes aren’t conjured up from thin air. The fact that these ‘brides’ are from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds to their prospective husbands, and that the content of many of these sites is aimed at Caucasian men who clearly have preferences for women who pander to this time worn stereotype of the Asian woman as youthful, sexy and subservient, does suggest that there is a market primed for manipulation out there.

However, there are also many Asian women and Caucasian men, who, like ‘purely’ Asian and ‘purely’ ‘Caucasian couples, meet, fall in love and don’t treat each other like commodities. Yet, we gather that the instant impression of Asian women (and sometimes, their Caucasian partners) by far too many people (otherwise open-minded, educated and morally good people at that) is one of unsubstantiated suspicion or disrespectful dismissiveness and disregard.

Unfortunately, it is true that there’s a much stronger stigma (one that is arguably grounded in common experience and observation) for the nubile Asian girl and the aged paunchy Caucasian man to fight than there is for the more ‘matched’ mixed race couple. By ‘matched’, I mostly mean mixed race couples of similar age. But this is not to suggest that the latter have an easy time of it.

George Alagiah shares the response his wife Frances’ grandfather had when he heard about his granddaughter’s Sri Lankan boyfriend – “Is this Ala-what’s-it educated?” George and Frances were of similar age and George had studied politics at the University of Durham. It remains to be seen what the grandfather might have assumed had George been George Smith rather than Alagiah.

One might not be surprised to learn that many Caucasian parents and grandparents who first hear about their son or grandson’s Asian girlfriend instinctively assume that she is not as well educated, not as well-off and probably not very morally upright. They think it wise and discerning to ‘warn’ their son or grandson of the chance that girl may be a manipulative gold-digger and that he should be careful.

Likewise, there are Asian parents who might warn their daughters that Caucasian men take Asian brides because they want a subservient woman to do their bidding. Fortunately for me, the first thing my parents said when I told them about my Caucasian boyfriend (now husband) was, “You sound like you really like him, hopefully we’ll get to meet him soon”. It was similar to the sort of thing they had said when I told them about my ex-boyfriend – an Asian – and I would like to think it is because they saw beyond race and perhaps more importantly, trusted that they raised me well enough to make my own good judgments.

The gist of my gripe here is hardly new. To suggest that prejudice against Asian women who partner Caucasian men has existed for a while would be an understatement. The term ‘Dragon Lady’, for example, was coined in 1930 after it appeared in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates. Popular Western media has constantly played to this ‘Dragon Lady’ stereotype and other stereotypes of the Asian woman as hyper-sexual, cunning and deceitful or simple-minded and lacking self-respect.

The list of accused popular culture includes: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly; the film The World of Suzie Wong; musicals South Pacific and Miss Saigon; the TV series Ally McBeal, which featured the cold, fierce and over-sexualized dominatrix character Ling Woo; literary works such as Michel Houellebecq’s Platform about the Thai sex trade; Graham Greenes’ The Quiet American; W. Somerset Maugham’s short story The Letter, which portrays the Asian woman as ‘Dragon Lady’; Roland Meyer’s Saramani, Cambodian Dancer , which suggests that Asian women are Eve-like temptresses; and even paintings by Gauguin, which arguably ‘fetishize’ young Polynesian women.

Singaporeans would be familiar with the descriptor ‘Sarong Party Girl (SPG)’ –  a derogatory term referring to Asian women partnering Caucasian men. Jim Aitchison and Theseus Chan popularized the term in a collection of ‘humorous’ books and the stereotype flourished in the 1970s after novels and films like Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack. The SPG is written off by many Singaporean men (and women) as a desperate gold digging, marriage-wrecking ‘siren’ sort who frequents nightclubs and bars that Caucasian men are known to patronize so that she can use her sexual prowess and cunning to snag them. As a point of note, there aren’t any popular terms used to describe Asian men who partner Caucasian women.

It is not just popular culture that is responsible though. History too, has had a part to play in solidifying the stereotypes and sustaining the preconceptions. The consequences of the colonization of ‘The East’ by ‘The West’ is an area that I am incredibly wary of venturing into in this article for the fact that it is the sort of topic people have written volumes of books about. Yet the fact that some of my husband’s ancestors would have colonized some of mine in the (long gone) days of yore remains true. At times, my husband and I have observed that the delicate socio-historical fabric of many of the once colonized Asian countries is treated roughly by the persistent attitudes of cultural, social, economic and political superiority and glorification that some of the older generation of ‘The West’ have yet to leave behind.  Casual and careless comments at the mixed-race family dinner table about the ‘glory days’ of ‘The Empire’; or anecdotes that drag up examples of Asian subservience to Caucasians, while not necessarily racist, do show up some uncomfortable signs of possibly latent prejudice or at least (and at best) indefensible insensitivity.

In line with this, those familiar with Madame Butterfly might be aware of the phenomenon called ‘Pinkerton Syndrome’, which is the bias towards Caucasians by Asians based on the erroneous belief that Caucasians are superior to them. It is a phenomenon which is arguably a post-colonial effect. It wouldn’t be uncommon for Singaporeans and other Asians to quite automatically suspect and typecast an Asian woman who dates Caucasian men, and even such a woman’s family, as suffering from this syndrome.

On the other hand, comments by Asians that implicitly suggest that ‘Ang Mohs’ are necessarily pompous slave drivers who think they are entitled to take what they wish from Asia (including its women) is simply rude, presumptuous and callous. Furthermore, the idea of women as things to be ‘taken’ by men (Caucasian or otherwise) reeks of the sort of sexism that ironically, seems to transcend all racial and ethic boundaries.

The world has definitely come a long way from banning mixed race marriage or measuring the IQs of mixed race children in eugenics experiments. The sight of mixed race couples holding hands, kissing and supermarketing together with children in tow is so common in Singapore, London and just about every major city in the world that most people don’t normally pay attention to it. This doesn’t mean prejudice has faded into oblivion though. There are still many people who would say they have absolutely no issues with mixed race couples or children but they would prefer that their own children stick to their own race.  The justification for this is varied but a concern often raised is “It will make their lives and those of their children harder.” Sadly, this comment only reveals that the acceptance and embracing of others regardless of race, creed or religion that is taken for granted as the norm in this day and age is at best a veneer; and as a society, we still have a long way to go in terms of genuine race and colour blindness.

I have essentially raised two issues in this article – one of inherent racial prejudice and the other, of particular prejudice against the women in mixed relationships – both of which I feel are tightly connected and at least in the case of mixed race relationships, feed dangerously off each other. The fact that people seem to rebuke the women in mixed race relationships more than the men is a sad indication that apart from racial discrimination tied to mixed race relationships, women who genuinely fall in love with men outside their race have to fight that much harder against sexual prejudice and preconceptions as well. As Alagiah suggests in Mixed Britannia, these women – and perhaps even myself,  for the simple reason that I fell in love with a ‘white’ man –  are nothing short of heroines.

You can watch Mixed Britannia on BBC at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b015qms8/Mixed_Britannia_19101939/

Aneeta H is an architect. Her biggest regret is not eating the Boat Quay Bak Chor Mee on her last trip back to Singapore.

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Women, feminists and misogynists

by Ghui

When one thinks of the term “misogynist”, one conjures up the image of a chauvinistic man with outdated ideas of women and sexuality. While this may be true to some extent, it is not entirely accurate. Although I loathe admitting it, it appears that women are equally guilty (if not more guilty) of misogyny.

Women are the harshest critics of themselves and of each other. Far from a sisterhood of nurturing support, women are very often their own worst enemies when it comes to the advancement of women’s rights.

Take the recent tragedy of housewife Tan Sze Sze’s suicide for example (http://sg.news.yahoo.com/mother-and-son-found-dead-in-bedok-reservoir.html). In a final act of desperation, Tan drowned herself and her son. It was speculated widely by the press that she was facing marital problems and feared losing her son in a legal battle with her husband. She was not well educated and the complicated court system bewildered her.

In a black and white world, her actions are of course reprehensible. In her bid for death, she should not have dragged in her three year old son.

In the aftermath of this incident, people have been quick to judge. Many have called her selfish while others have denounced her as a murderer and an unfit mother. Few took the time to see the sheer desperation she must have been feeling. Her family and friends have said she lived for her son. She loved him more than anything in the world but in her depression, she feared that if her husband won custody, his new girlfriend would ill-treat her son. This woman needed help but in a society that was more ready to condemn than understand, she didn’t stand a chance. In a society that refuses to openly acknowledge mental illness, Tan did not get the treatment she so obviously needed. She may not even have been aware of her growing symptoms of depression. However, instead of recognising our collective failure as a society, we have chosen to label and blame the poor unfortunate woman.

It is sobering to note that other women pronounced the most severe judgments on Tan. What a travesty! Despite how women have fought for equal rights, we are still stuck in the mindset of blaming the woman when things go wrong! How about Tan’s husband? How about the allegation that he ran off with another woman and threatened his increasing fragile wife with taking her son away from her? Surely, he had a role to play in this tragedy? Of course, I am not blaming him for this unfortunate incident. But I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to every story and we should not be too hasty to judge. As women, we should also seek to be more empathetic to the struggles that other women go through.

It is ironic that while clamouring for more rights, women are still unconsciously displaying the very same stereotyping we profess to fight against!

Abortion is another issue where women take one step forward but two steps back. Women have abortions for a myriad of reasons. Some have financial difficulties; some are emotionally and mentally not ready for a child. Others are students or are unmarried without family support and fear the stigma of having a child out of wedlock. Some may even be victims of rape or incest. In some cases, there may be health reasons involved.

Whatever the case, the whole thrust of the feminist movement is the freedom of choice for women and this includes a woman’s right over her body. If she does not want to have a baby, she should not be judged for it. But yet, the staunchest critics of women who have had abortions are other women!

It never ceases to shock me that modern women who have had the privilege of choice in so many areas of their lives are denying other women the very same freedom of choice on the basis that some choices are less moral than others. To me, that simply reeks of hypocrisy. The fundamental principle behind feminism is the right for a woman to choose the direction of her life and that choice should be equally applied, be it to pursue a corporate career, to be a stripper, to be a stepford wife, to have a baby or to have an abortion.

Even women who have chosen not to have an abortion have faced stern judgment from other women. It appears to be a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Remember Maia Lee, that Singapore Idol contestant? When she first rose to fame in Singapore, more attention was placed on the fact that she was a single mother than her singing abilities. As expected, society rushed to judge her; criticising her for not having had an abortion and labeling her, wait, can you guess? Yes, you got it “UNFIT MOTHER”. Again, much of the bitching has come from other women.

It is a bitter pill for feminism indeed that women can embrace certain aspects of choice but deny other women the same right. Isn’t choice simply a right to take charge of your life?

Why is it that women cannot simply be looked at as human beings who can be both bad and good at the same time? Why do we have to be either the madonna or the whore when in truth, we can be both? Men are certainly not pigeon holed to the same extent.

Very often, society recognises men as bad husbands but good fathers. Even Stalin has been recognised as a loving husband! This begs the question, why are women not given the same privilege? Before pointing the finger at men, women have to examine their own conduct for more often than not; it is women who perpetuate these unfair standards.

Women are still being stereotyped by the supposed roles they are meant to play in society and judged for their failures at performing these imposed roles.

However, before we blame the male misogynists, let’s take a long hard look at ourselves. Are we guilty of the same? Let’s be aware of our own shortcomings here and change that disgusting mindset of misogyny. It defeats feminism.

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((Wo)man Overboard – perspectives from a lass who jumped off the family ship.

by Sangeetha Dorairaj

So it was with great interest (and greater trepidation) that I read the latest foot-in-mouth comments made by our former PM Lee.

Mr Lee (I can’t call him Minister Mentor anymore) was at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Ministerial Forum – the type of forum the PAP love to participate in to ‘get in touch’ with our disconnected youth and reach out to the best and brightest our tertiary institutions have to offer; and the type of forum the Singapore media love to attend so that the front page of the Straits Times can report how the PAP member in attendance addressed the ‘key issues and concerns’ of Singaporeans.

One such issue of concern addressed was the influx of foreigners due to our shrinking population – which by the way, has been an ongoing since the 1980s; there’s nothing new about our aging population, and I personally feel that it needs to stop being referred to as an ‘issue’, which has more temporal connotations (and clearly this is not temporal seeing as how they haven’t been able to do anything about it for the past three decades).  But I digress.

Mr Lee was addressing a question posed by a 27-year-old PhD student about the aforementioned ‘issue’, and explained that if Singaporeans replenished the population, then there would not be a pressing need to bring in as many foreigners as currently required to sustain the economy and the workforce. He then asked the student, a young lady, if she had a boyfriend, to which she (bless her, for having to brave this line of questioning in a public forum!) replied no, she did not. Mr Lee then told her (in not so many words) that her childbearing years would be coming to an end soon and advised her not to ‘waste time’, and that procreating would be more important and satisfying than getting her PhD. To be fair, at the end of that nugget of advice, he tagged on a cursory wish that apart from a boyfriend, she would also get her PhD.

Of course the Internet forums, chat rooms and blogs went into full gear, with everyone discussing this latest juicy morsel. The idea that furthering one’s education would be nowhere near as satisfying as bearing children (and by implication, doing one’s bit for the nation) had just been legitimated by none other than our former prime minister, a man credited with steering our country from the third world to the first.

Now as a single female who has recently embarked on a Master of Education, this comment was of particular interest to me. What really made me sit up and pay attention was not the fact that former PM Lee had told the young lady to find a partner on the double, but that he had told her with such conviction that doing her PhD would not bring her the same kind of contentment that raising a family would.

The reason I sat up and paid attention was because of the assumption made (and a rather large one at that) – that academic achievement would not provide satisfaction, in and of itself. Was it because she was a single female? And would he have given the same advice if the question had come from a single male? Of course, I could speculate for hours, and yes, I realise that the comment was made with national agenda undertones, but I suspect that the view held by our former PM is also held by other Singaporeans – and it’s not just the aunties and uncles.

When I was leaving Singapore for Melbourne (where I am currently pursuing my postgraduate degree), an overwhelming number of my friends – when saying their farewells – advised me to “come back with a boyfriend, ah!” and not to come back home still single.  After imparting this advice to me, some would add, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, and study hard!” This was perplexing to me; why wasn’t anyone primarily telling me things like, “Come back valedictorian!” Or why wasn’t their foremost wish that I would come back and tell them that I’d been offered a PhD?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that my friends only had the very best of intentions in saying what they did, and I know that they only want the best for me. Nonetheless, I found it strange. One friend tried to explain it by saying, “Aiyah, we know you will study hard, so no point telling you that! So we told you to go find a husband, so you can be happy.” As it turns out, Mr Lee’s remark seems to be echoed by society in general as well.

This explanation was even more confusing to me. I wasn’t offended; rather, I wondered why these young Singaporeans, all of whom were well-educated and rather liberal in their views, would be making the same assumption as Mr Lee – that I, a single female (apparently doomed to perpetual single-hood, living in a cosy apartment with my fifty cats and labelled spice jars if I didn’t come back with another half), would be better off or happier with a man than a Masters.

Maybe I don’t want a husband; maybe I want to live in an apartment by myself with large numbers of four-legged pets of my choice; maybe the PhD student who asked the question would rather study biological sciences and stare into petri dishes than go to a speed dating event; maybe A LOT of single women pursing further academic qualifications would rather push for doctorates than push out babies. Maybe the lot of us single ladies (put your hands up, oh oh oh…) would rather improve our minds, instead of improve population growth.

Which brings me to the entire point of my rambling thus far – I hate that people have made assumptions about us single women. We’re just as happy and as satisfied (and I dare say, looking at the sleep-deprived faces of my friends with children, sometimes even more satisfied) as those women who chose to get married and procreate. Just because more women may choose the path that leads to the husband, condo, kids and dog, it doesn’t mean that all women want to go down that same path. And I’m not knocking the women who chose the former path, either – I’m sure that there is much happiness to be had from marriage and childbirth, but let’s not forget that there is also much happiness to be had from attaining one’s personal academic goals.

At the end of the day, we’d all be better off if we didn’t judge the people who have made a choice to pursue an academic life instead of a family life – those of us who have aren’t judging the others who did the reverse. I say let’s leave people to do what floats their boats, and in the meantime, let’s leave Mr Lee to sail in the ocean of comments he’ll undoubtedly be making at the many NTU forums to come.

Sangeetha is currently pursuing her Master in Education. She enjoys reflecting on the many preposterous comments people make, and enjoys being a swinging single even more. Despite what most people seem to think about single women approaching thirty, she is confident that she will not end up a lonely old spinster living in a flat with fifty cats – she prefers dogs.

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As a feminist, I have a choice.

By Ghui

The term “feminist” often evokes a quagmire. Depending on who you ask, this controversial term takes on different interpretations.

The archetype feminist is a ball crushing careerist, a strong woman who defies the shackles of traditional womanhood. She breaks the age old mould of dutiful wife and mother and forges ahead, shunning bras and hair removal. She ignores conventional stereotypes and hires domestic help. She is a man with a vagina.

Proponents of this idea of feminism will no doubt pour scorn on women who have chosen to take on more conformist roles. A whole repertoire of dismissive terms has been formulated to mock females who have supposedly betrayed the notion of feminism. Entire professions have been trivialised in the name of feminism!

However, in our fixation to take women forward, have we forgotten the essential ingredient in feminism? That concept called choice.

In days of yore, women were relegated to domesticity. They did not have the freedom to choose what they wanted to do with their lives. Their roles were imposed by society and constricted by the social mores of that time. Women were thus subjugated and consigned to the same fate regardless of their individuality, personalities or abilities. In the early days of emancipation, the focus was therefore to push women into new roles they never had the opportunity to explore (such as careers on par with men, the option to have a life apart from husband and children, the right to flaunt their sexuality and above all, their entitlement to take pride in being female)!

As the idea of equality between the sexes took root, women no longer had to perform a role that society dictated for them. They were now free to decide the life they wanted (more or less). In that euphoria of a first taste of freedom, women marched the streets, cutting up their bras as a symbolic gesture of breaking free from convention. Those days have passed and by and large, modern societies accept that women are equal to men.

Be that as it may, the feminism movement is far from dead and is always evolving to take on new challenges that affect women. However, in its quest to promote the cause of women, it has somehow deviated from its original mission – to give women a choice! A trend of reverse feminism seems to have developed such that women are now judged if they choose to wear plunging necklines or stay at home to bake cookies. It is as if the definition of feminism has become so narrow that it cannot accommodate the differing choices of women! Was that ever meant to be true feminism?

Let’s go back to basics and explore what the feminist movement was truly fighting for. It was not fighting for women to overthrow men; it was actually a fight for the freedom to choose. So if a woman chooses to be home maker and mother, she should not be dismissed as a cop out. Similarly, if a woman makes an informed decision to be a stripper or a prostitute, she should not be labelled as a slut promoting the objectification of women. Instead, she should be applauded for bravely exercising her freedom of choice.

When Wendi Deng first married Rupert Murdoch, many flippantly called her a “trophy wife”, a “gold digger” and a “soft touch”. She was either a wily social climber or a bimbo who married for money, depending on who you asked.

All that changed in her valiant defence of her husband when she gave an unsuspecting Jonnie Marbles a taste of her right palm when he threw shaving foam on the elder Murdoch. Jon Snow, Channel 4 anchor described her as a “heroic protector of a fading genius”. Overnight, Wendi Deng’s reputation was transformed. From marriage wrecking whore and ambitious social climber, she became “tiger woman”, a feminist icon and a force to be reckoned with. For the first time in her marriage, she was viewed seriously by the public.

Perhaps Wendi Deng is the living definition of a modern day feminist (morality aside). A woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. A woman who combines the charms of the “fairer sex” with a steely determination.  A woman in control.

Feminism is of course not about bravely standing by your man, nor is it about being able to land a decisive punch on your husband’s assailant. But it is quintessentially about the credo that women should be as free as men. Free to marry whoever they like for whatever reason they like. Free to ruthlessly climb the social or career ladder. Free to choose whether to be a submissive Stepford wife or a goal getting executive. Free to display her body if she so decides without the need to justify and free to wear a burkha if she so chooses.

Bringing back choice into the concept of feminism is going back to the very foundation of the movement itself. In our zest to promote the cause of women’s liberation, we must not exchange one set of stereotypes for another. What women fought so hard for was not for another typecast but for the ability to choose the type of woman they want to be.

Caitlin Moran, a journalist and author once offered an instant guide to interpreting whether one was a feminist.

“Look inside your pants” she counselled. “Do you have a vagina?” “And do you want to be in charge of it? “ If the answer is yes, she suggested, then you are a feminist.

Ghui is a lawyer but should really be Prime Minister.

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