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Review: Seeing beauty, sensing race

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This book, authored by Indonesian scholar L. Ayu Saraswati, has made a significant contribution to the representation of emotions about people of different race, gender, and skin color in beauty advertising, in which the construction of the ‘other’ is produced. Saraswati cites the idea of Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth, 1992) that through the unconscious process, beauty has become an ideology that has indeed been used to keep modern women in their subordinate place.

Saraswati contextualises ‘rasa’, from the perspective of the Indian epic poem of Ramayana, where during the late 9th and early 10th century in pre-European colonial Java the discourses of gender, skin color and ‘race’ are shaped and adapted from the Indian epic poem of Ramayana. In Ramayana, the moon is often evoked to represent women’s complexional beauty, because the moon is white, bright and shining (p. 27). Evil characters are described as having dark skin color and are represented through objective correlatives that symbolize darkness and suggest some negative rasa (p. 30). Yet, during precolonial times, the links with lightness (of skin color) and whiteness (of race) had not yet been established because race as we refer to it today did not exist (p. 34) until the Dutch colonial period introduced the meaning of light skin color as the beauty ideal. The author discloses some facts that throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, European testimonies stereotyped dark-skinned natives in the Indies as ‘lazy’, ‘ignorant’, and ‘promiscuous’, while light-skinned people received a higher status in society. This process was transferred not only by the Dutch, but also by the native (particularly Javanese) scholars who had studied in the Netherlands (p. 47). To interpret this process, Saraswati uses the term ‘colonial emotionology’, describing the ways in which ideologically permitted emotions served the interests of the colonial empire.

When Japan occupied Indonesia, the conditions were slightly different. Within this new racial order, Asians were considered superior (at the top of the hierarchy were Japanese; second were Indonesians, Chinese, Arabs, and Indians) (p. 53). Some examples of the propaganda include the way in which the Pandawa (the heroes in the Mahabharata), representing Indonesia, were helped by the Sun God, representing the Japanese, in winning the war (p. 54); and the Indonesian male nationalist, Soewandhie in Almanak Asia Raya (1943), who wrote that the Indonesians needed to happily embrace the change brought about by the Japanese presence in the Indies (p. 54).

Entering the era of independence of Indonesia, Saraswati shows how Indonesian nationalists had a vision to create a nation that was not racialized. Under Soekarno’s presidency, there were fewer products advertised for whitening one’s skin than during the colonial period or during the Soeharto era (p. 63). Paradoxically, although Soekarno’s policy was anti-Western and there were fewer products that claimed to ‘whiten’ one’s skin, the images of women in magazines, for example in the Indonesian Pantjawarna [Five colors] and the Dutch De Huisvrouw [The housewife], were still mostly from European-descent Indo (p. 65). According to Saraswati, it was related to the nationalization of private corporations throughout 1957 and 1958 where the Dutch continued to play a significant role in Indonesia’s economy (p. 66). In line with that perspective, Saraswati developed the term ‘emotionscape’ to highlight the relationship between space, race, and emotion. During that time, Europe and the United States continued to be represented not only as the land of the beautiful, but also as the land from which authentic beauty comes (p. 71). After the Cold War, whiteness was naturalized and became the ‘norm’ on television (p. 75). While whiteness became the norm, there was a need to define an Indonesian version of whiteness (p. 76).

An Indonesian version of whiteness is presented as ‘cosmopolitan whiteness’. As a cosmopolitanism concept, whiteness is represented as the embodiment of the affective and virtual quality of cosmopolitanism: transnational mobility (pp. 84-5). Saraswati positions the ads as socially productive sites where the affective qualities of white-skinned women are reproduced, represented, and circulated (p. 85). Saraswati observes the shift from influences during the Dutch and Japanese occupations, to influences coming from the United States. By dint of globalization, US popular culture has become one of the most powerful ‘nodes’ shaping the terrain of contemporary Indonesian pop culture (p. 86) and at the same time, the United States has also played a significant role in Indonesian politics, particularly after Indonesia’s formation as a nation state in 1945 (p. 86). In this regard, Saraswati looked at the whitening ads published in the Cosmopolitan magazine (Indonesian version). From her observations, Indonesian Cosmo expressed women’s bodies to use various products from whitening cleansing milk and toner, whitening masks, or whitening cream, every night and day (p. 90). In other words, Indonesian women’s ‘beauty practice’ equated Michel Foucault’s ‘docile bodies’ (p. 90). Saraswati concludes that gender, race, and skin color are ‘affectively’ constructed. Cosmopolitan whiteness illustrates that whiteness works in hegemonic ways. That is, whiteness adapts, mutates, and co-opts new forms of whiteness to maintain its supremacy (p. 107).

In order to establish her study, Saraswati situated the whitening practices within a transnational context, by interviewing 46 Indonesian women about the concept of malu [shame] as her point of departure. She concluded that essentially the ‘feeling of belonging’ is pivotal for her interlocutors. Saraswati revealed that when women feel good about themselves, the tendency to practice lightening routines is lessened (p. 127), but still some of her informants feel that a good wife (or a good woman) should have a beautiful light skin (p. 127). This book shows us how the issue of skin color can be a very global issue and socially contribute to the problem of discrimination. It is pivotal to translate this book into the Indonesian language in order to deliver the message to audiences, in particular to Indonesian audiences, that the skin color issue is also a social issue within the society.

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