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Gender, modernity and the nation in Malaysian literature and film (1980s and 1990s) Khoo, Gaik Cheng

Abstract

This dissertation examines the impact of modernity, in the form of modernization, rapid industrialization and the introduction of Western ideas about nationalism and female emancipation, on gender and gender relations in contemporary Malaysian film and literature. Drawing upon theories ranging from Lacanian psychoanalysis, feminism, postcolonialism, nationalism, existentialism to theories about fascism, I examine and critique the representations of gender from the predominantly middle-class writers and the works of the new wave Malay filmmakers. I make the case that these films and literary works reflect the outcome of the National Economic Policy (1971-1990) and, in my analyses, show that these modernizing imperatives, though received positively, are sometimes greeted with a cautionary ambivalence, depending on one's class, gender, ethnicity, and political and religious beliefs. Such ambivalence towards feminism, for example, appears in K.S. Maniam's portrayal of independent female characters, whom I call "fascist 'feminists'," or in the representations of hypermasculinity or male violence in current Malay cinema. Films and literature by some Malays reflect a desire to recover Malay custom, adat, while forging a unique, modern, postcolonial identity that distinguishes itself from the West, other former British colonies and other Muslim nations. However, this subversive postcolonial move must be treated with caution to ensure that it does not replicate prevalent negative stereotypes of women as sexualised beings. A key distinction in this dissertation is that the representations of the modern Malay woman vary according to the gender of the cultural producer: male writers and filmmakers portray the negative impact of modernity on women, whereas their female counterparts portray women at ease with modernity.

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