Southeast Asia Has a Serious Blackface Problem
What Watsons' latest blackface controversy tells us about racist standards of beauty in Asia.
A star-studded 15-minute Eid al-Fitri advertisement made by the international pharmacy chain Watsons set off a wave of criticism in Malaysia and Singapore after it takes a super racist turn about ten minutes in when a woman competing to be the bride of rich merchant removes her veil to reveal an Asian woman in blackface.
"Oh my gossssh, where are the lights? Is she actually [that] dark," the video's rich merchant Al-Kazam, played by Malaysian actor Kamal Adli, remarks as the crowd murmurs in disappointment. Her voice was so beautiful, how can her face be so dark, the ad wonders.
But when the woman, played Nur Ruhainies, later reappears, the blackface is gone. Her face actually glows—like she's some sort of vision—as she reveals her porcelain white skin. "I just wanted to test your sincerity, I am not black, in fact, I am flawless, I went to wash my face just now," she explains. The whole room cheers. The merchant drops to his knee and asks her to marry him. The story ends happily ever after with a song about how you "must be beautiful" this Eid al-Fitri.
Somehow no one involved in the ad's production noticed how totally racist this whole thing is. But nearly everyone else did. The advertisement immediately went viral as Malaysians and Singaporeans asked what the hell the company was thinking. Both countries are incredibly diverse, and the ad's insane irony, that it was celebrating whiteness as a standard of beauty in an advertisement for a Muslim holiday predominately celebrated by people of color, wasn't lost on anyone.
Watsons quickly pulled the ad and issued a tone-deaf apology saying that the whole thing was supposed to be about "inner beauty," and "true love." The company apologized for causing any offense, saying that it was not their intention. But they then defended the ad by explaining that it had based the plot on an old Malay legend.
"A post on 7th June 2017 regarding a video by Watsons talks about the legend of Dayang Senandong," the apology read. "The Legend of Dayang Senandong is a Malay folklore about a lady who was born cursed with black skin but blessed with a beautiful voice. The legend depicts that a king fell in love with her because of her voice and inner beauty."
So just because a racist folk story existed ages ago, it's OK to replicate it exactly in 2017? Shouldn't we have moved past this outdated colonial-era notion that white skin is beautiful and brown skin something to be ashamed of or bleach away with whitening creams?
Cindy Gallop, an advertising legend and champion of diversity in media, asked the same thing as she slammed the advertisement in an interview with Mumbrella Asia. Gallop, who is half Chinese-Malaysian, wondered why Watsons didn't instead focus on "the wonderfully diverse melting pot that is modern Malaysia."
"Why, in 2017, would you decide to focus your Selamat Hari Raya [Eid al-Fitri] campaign on a traditional folk tale whose out-of-date folk tale tropes mean you end up inevitably deploying sexism, racism and bias to dramatize women competing with each other for a man, women being made to look ridiculous, transgender people and cross-dressers being laughed at, women being judged on their looks alone, and judgement that states that black/dark is ugly and light/pale is beautiful, as evinced by both the blonde Western princess initial winner and the recoil from the black-faced woman?"
The sad reality here is that countries across Southeast Asia have a serious problem with accepting that brown skin is beautiful—despite the fact that literally hundreds of millions of Southeast Asians have darker skin. While in the West a cultural preference for whiter skin has increasingly been criticized, scrutinized, and discussed as a dangerous holdover from a racist past, here in sun-drenched Southeast Asia the notion that white equals beautiful is accepted by many as a statement of fact.
The whole region is still so chronically self-hating and obsessed with what fair skin says about your class, culture, and heritage, that a huge corporation, and a half-dozen or so celebrities thought nothing of creating an ad using blackface to highlight the beauty of whiteness.
This has something to do with the fact that for centuries, only the privileged could afford to not work under the sun in the field. And they, therefore, had a fairer complexion than poor farmers and the rest of the working class. Combine this with a long history of white European colonization, and whiteness has remained a status symbol most people aspire to achieve.
Our education system and the mass media haven't done enough to enlighten the public on how wrong and dangerous this idea really is. People grow up accepting and internalizing the white/black dichotomy as a fact of life. And then people wonder why blackface is so prominent in our media.
Hopefully this is the last time we have to see this kind of skin-tone obsessed message used in an advertisement. Oh wait... what's that you say? Something about a Guardian ad? Dammit.