Recently, my mother — someone I would call a drama enthusiast (her tastes in drama span multiple countries and genres) — wondered out loud: “Why Malaysian dramas always got abuse one? Is it because it’s their reality there?”
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I am a sucker for romance served on-screen. Yes, even the cliché ones that clearly lack creativity. Malaysian dramas, especially, have no shortage of this. But the last Malaysian drama I watched was probably more than 5 years ago — I can’t even remember the title of it but I do remember it was one of those rich-man-forces-a-poor-woman-into-marriage-to-gain-his-inheritance tropes. However, while it’s one thing to have predictable storylines and cringy titles, it’s another thing to perpetuate damaging ideas of love. I remember the male protagonist constantly putting down the female protagonist, restricting her from going to certain places, and causing her to feel intimidated by him. What exactly are these dramas teaching us about love? Judging from my mum’s comments — and from angry Malaysian Twitter users ranting about why they don’t watch national television — it seems like the Malaysian television drama industry has still not advanced from this toxic idea of love.
True enough, you don’t have to look that far into the past. “Rindu yang Terindah”, a 2020 TV3 drama is proof that misogyny and the normalization of domestic abuse in Malaysian dramas are still alive and kicking. In one scene, when Airas, the female lead, was seeking her husband, Hazil, permission to participate in NGO activities, he hostilely and very rudely refused. When Airas begged her husband again, he exploded with a, “Tak, syurga engkau bawah tapak kaki aku! (No, your paradise lies at the sole of my feet!)”. He effectively ended the conversation by misusing religion. However, that still wasn't the worst part. In another scene, the couple was having a disagreement on the road in the car which started with Hazil accusing Airas of having an affair, another common plot-line. Hazil then threatened to slap her if she kept being “kurang ajar (rude)”, before stopping the car in the middle of the road to drag her out of it, and pushed her onto the ground. But of course, these misogynistic male protagonists were only cruel because they had deep-seated issues of their own. Once they realised how much they loved the female protagonist, they suddenly turned sweet and loving. This trope seems to perpetuate the idea that women, as wives, are meant to struggle, but if they are patient enough with their husbands, if they just tahan (tolerate or hang in there) long enough, and continue being “understanding” (aka tolerating abusive behaviour), they will eventually get their happy ending. This presents a very harmful notion of love to women, where women have to strive and suffer in the name of love, while men can just maintain their problematic ways.
It continues to be worrying how violence against women is being used as a drama trope. In addition to domestic abuse, rape is also another element that is a classic theme of Malaysian dramas. It has always struck me as puzzling for a country with such strict censorship guidelines why rape and attempted rape are permissible to be shown on television in such a nonchalant manner.
A comment by Malaysian filmmaker, Amir Muhammad, on the portrayal of rape in novels (which TV dramas are often based on) offers an interesting perspective: “The Islamic romance trend in books has been going on for many years since it’s “safe”. It’s about love stories, but they have nothing terlanjur (sex out wedlock) like that. When you read about sex, there are only rape scenes because it is considered safe. In old Malay films, almost all of them have attempted rape scenes… yet you can bring kids to that, whereas you won’t have scenes of mutual, consensual sex, that’s transgressing. [With rape], there’s a bad guy, and a good girl.” Rape is then commonly depicted to interweave sex into a plot somehow, because any other hint of sexual relations would be seen as a transgression. Firstly, that is already problematic in itself. But rather than treating rape as an important social issue to be addressed, and portraying it as an insidious act, these dramas are romanticising it instead. There is a bad guy, but he is also usually the male protagonist who eventually repents and asks for redemption (although not brought to justice), and enjoys a happy ending with the leading lady (the victim). These dramas severely fail to depict the distressing effects of rape, much less raise awareness on constructive ways to support victims. Think about it, in how many dramas you’ve watched does the victim actually lodge a police report? This is a concern because the rate of rape cases is rising at an alarming rate in Malaysia and promoting a culture where rape is normalised, and worse, romanticised, only sends out the wrong message to both perpetrators and victims. The truth is, there is no love story between a rapist and the victim, and rape is not how sex should be.
Marital rape, specifically, is another recurring element made popular by the 2011 hit Malaysian film “Ombak Rindu”, as one Twitter user claimed. In a 2019 drama called “Cinta Non Grata” based on contractual marriage, the husband insists on getting intimate because “kan dah halal” (religiously permissible), and eventually drugs his wife when she was still not ready to consummate. Even worse, there are Malay dramas out there that outrightly claim there is no such thing as rape in marriage. Similar to many other Asian countries, marital rape has yet to be criminalised in Malaysia. Singapore though, has moved towards repealing marital rape immunity last year. However, the blatant trivialisation of it in television dramas isn’t helping to change public perceptions and actually downplays the trauma it inflicts on real-life victims. Consent is required in any form of sexual act, even those between husband and wife, because it is an exercise of human agency over one’s body (which doesn’t just disappear when two people “dah halal”).
Another aspect of Malaysian dramas that I find really problematic — stereotypical female characters. It’s like women only exist in a dichotomy — we have the female protagonist, usually kind (read: like a doormat) and dependent on the male lead, and the female antagonist — an ex-fiance/ex-girlfriend/husband-stealer who is also annoying, wears a lot of make-up, dresses in tight-fitting clothes, and well, you fill in the rest. I’m sure your head is already swimming with dramas that present women as such shallow characters. This polarising portrayal of women — as one or the other instead of complex, multi-dimensional characters only reifies how we view women in our society. Furthermore, it only reinforces that women are in constant competition with each other when we should be encouraging women to lift each other up instead.
The nature of television dramas, or other forms of media, has always seemed paradoxical to me — they reflect reality to a certain extent, but also serve as a fantasy, and an escape from the harsh reality we face. However, the media also has another powerful role. On one hand, it can help to shape society’s behaviour for the better but on the other hand, it reinforces harmful stereotypes and attitudes. One can argue that these dramas are only portraying the possible negative realities, but what about using them to instil some positive change in society’s mindsets instead?
I’ve also heard others argue that TV stations only produce what people want to watch. So what I am interested in is who exactly are these dramas’ target audience? We all know that dramas mostly cater to a female-centric audience but which demographic in our Malay-Muslim community is enjoying these plots filled with misogynistic men, submissive women, evil mother-in-laws, and abuse? How can we get them to acknowledge the problematic aspects of these dramas and be critical of it when these beliefs have been so deeply internalised by all of us? Last year, actress Sharifah Amani slammed the stereotypical roles of Malay women as needy damsels in distress. She claimed that there was a dissonance between female characters portrayed in dramas and women in reality: “We have so many independent, hardworking, capable, single Malay-Muslim women out there doing their thing. Where are our stories for these women?”
Well, I’m still looking. It’s 2021 and what we produce and showcase need to progress from rampant and unnecessary depictions of rape and domestic abuse as well as denigrating archetypes of women towards the healthier values we want to impart to our society.