The Malaysian society is typically believed to carry the culture of malas membaca (laziness to read). While this may have been a cause for concern for the longest time, a seemingly scarier question seemed to have emerged in the recent years – are Malaysians consuming proper content when we do read?
According to reports by the National Library of Malaysia, Malaysians read an average of 8 – 12 books a year. The government and the education ministry seem have done their parts to increase these numbers with programs such as program Nilam, to instill a reading habit in students from as early as standard 1 to providing Baucar Buku 1 Malaysia (BB1M), in hopes to make books more accessible to students regardless of their financial status. However, what kind of reading materials will youths turn to and how will their choices affect their worldview?
Popular Fiction: A Worrying Trend?
There has been a spike in the number of local romance novels around recently, especially since titles such as Suamiku Encik Perfect 10, Suamiku Ustaz and Ombak Rindu were adapted into films, while plenty other novels like Suamiku Encik Sotong and Suri Hati Mr Pilot were adapted into television dramas. This has caused the local fiction shelf in bookstores to be gloriously filled with romance novels and a lot less of materials of other genres, and two factors may have contributed to this: 1) There is a large (and growing) market for this genre; or 2) The trend of adapting novels into films and television drama has motivated more new writers to delve into genre, regardless of whether they truly believe in what they write. While the motives of the writers should be out of our judgement, the questions are, however – should we be worried about the lack of other genres in modern publications? And more importantly, do these materials represent their characters well, especially in the bigger picture?
Portrayal of Women
One similarity that can be found across these modern day romance novels is the use of women as their main character and protagonist. Despite the difference in storylines, these women are usually depicted to share similar traits: Kindness, faithfulness and more often than not, they happen to be helplessly in love with their male counterparts who are usually less than kind and/or do not appreciate them at the beginning of the story. Easiest example, and one that perhaps does not get old, would be the character of Izzah in Ombak Rindu: A beaten and battered wife who faithfully fulfills her obligations to a violent rapist husband, Hariz.
Despite how unbelievable this may sound to some, the majority of those who read and watched the movie still considered their relationship as “romantic” instead of problematic or abusive. This is because even though her character as well as many other female characters in modern romance novels may portray women to appear as weak or inept, we cannot run away from the fact that these traits come from our sociocultural influences. These women are portrayed to be the “exemplary” Muslim women – the patient, loving, faithful wife, daughter or mother. These traits have been embedded into the minds of both men and women as positive and ideal, while completely disregarding the negative implications of being submissive to abuse.
Entertainment as a Medium for Social Commentary
Having presented the points above, where does that leave the readers and cinema-goers who genuinely enjoy reading these novels and watching these films? Does consuming and enjoying these works without talking about the issues presented make them ignorant and/or impartial to abuse? And more importantly, how do these characters affect society’s views and expectations of women in real life?
However, regardless of how these novels may (mis)represent women, it is undeniable that their presence in the market provides a platform for social awareness and discourse. Without first identifying the issues and problems that exist within the characters and the traits that they carry, we will not be able to find the solutions which we could try to implement to educate the public on certain topics, in this case, social expectations of women and the presence of abuse, whether physical or mental, in modern-day relationships.
At the end of the day, consumers of art are given the freedom and space to understand and interpret what they consume, be it romance novels, films or television dramas. While it is true that the market is overflowing with one particular genre and somewhat similar storylines, perhaps it is best that we try to understand the reasons why they exist and what we can use from their presence instead of condemning this phenomenon and worrying for their consumers.
This article is written by one of our contributors, Dhabitah Zainal. To find out more about her, follow her on Twitter @DhabitahZainal.