Busking = Begging?

Just this Monday (16 April), I submitted a sociology honours thesis on young music buskers in Singapore. A day later, a forum post entitled “Do not allow busking as a day job” was published on The Straits Times and it caught the attention of plenty. I feel emotionally compelled to give my two cents on it, especially having befriended so many buskers through this thesis journey.

My first instinct was the same as most people – to dismiss Susan Tan as an uneducated narrow-minded prick and scorn The Straits Times for publishing such a “skewed and biased” viewpoint. But upon some contemplation, I figure that the point is really not to throw shade at Susan Tan, but to get to the core of the matter.

I base my discussion below on my interviews with 24 young music buskers, academic readings on busking in Singapore and other countries, and newspaper articles on busking that dates back to the ‘90s. I do have to make a disclaimer that as all my interviewees are music buskers, I cannot speak for other buskers like magicians or mime artists. But National Arts Council (NAC) also states that music busking is the most common form of busking in Singapore, so I believe that my findings would still be relevant for this discussion.

First, I would like to clarify some factual and logical lapses Susan made in her forum post. This is only to form a better foundation for my discussion later.

(1) Young vs. Elderly Buskers 

In the post, Susan did not distinguish young abled buskers from elderly/disabled buskers. This distinction is crucial. It is not my intention to imply that elderly/disabled buskers are any less competent, but these two groups of buskers are likely to be busking for entirely different reasons. A discussion that conflates them would not be a productive one. Since NAC statistics show that over half of the estimated 300 buskers are below the age of 35, I use that as a rough guide to define young buskers as those below the age of 35.

If Susan was writing this forum post primarily in response to The Straits Times article entitled “On song and coining it” (April 15), which features several young buskers who busk for university or their music endeavours, then I believe it is reasonable to assume that Susan was referring largely to the young buskers when she used the term “buskers”. She started the post with the observation that the numbers of buskers are increasing in Singapore. It is more accurate to state that the number of (young) buskers have increased starkly in Singapore.

Following that, her statement that buskers busk “at certain places every day and for most of the day, suggesting that this is their permanent day job” becomes questionable. It is unclear if her observations relate to the young buskers or the elderly buskers. From my interviews, none of the young buskers treat busking as their sole source of income. Rather, busking is better described as a form of leisure that they take very seriously. Undeniably, busking is also their part-time job, in the same way that other students give private tuition as a part-time job. What ought to be noted is that the significance that buskers place on their earnings differs based on their own economic conditions. But even if the buskers come from a less well-to-do background, their earnings are spent on endeavours which are meaningful to them such as supporting the family and funding their education, which by no means reduces them to “beggars” who perform for the sole sake of soliciting money from the crowd. This is also because busking requires a sizeable amount of competence and skill sets that I will further elaborate on later.

(2) International Students and Foreigners 

On Susan’s concern about foreign students who are allowed to busk, I would like to make a clarification on the eligibility criteria for busking applications. According to the NAC Busking Scheme, all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents are free to apply to busk. International students need to obtain a letter of recommendation from their school, while foreigners have to obtain a written consent from Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before they can apply. Thus, there is already an additional layer of administrative hurdle that foreigners need to overcome before they can busk. Hence, my findings show that a larger percentage of young buskers are locals. Of course, I am aware that not all buskers are legal and these buskers save themselves the trouble of going through applications and auditions. But these buskers do not form the majority of young buskers.

Additionally, Susan maintains, “Foreign students should have the sufficient funds to finance their studies”. For one, as mentioned above, foreign students who busk are not only busking for earnings, but also as a form of serious leisure. For another, on a more sympathetic note, I contend that just because these students may not have sufficient finances to fund their education doesn’t make them unworthy of pursuing an education or future career in Singapore. What matters more is their merit, be it in terms of educational or musical capabilities.

Lastly, Susan makes the further claim that allowing foreign students to busk would encourage more foreigners to come to Singapore to earn an income through busking. This is a logical leap on her part. My findings show that as a gauge, buskers may earn about 15-50 SGD per hour (subjected to occasions e.g. festive seasons like Christmas). This means that busking pays relatively well compared to other part-time jobs, which is one of the reasons that incentivises young buskers to busk as well. However, the earnings are certainly not substantial or stable enough to attract foreigners to come to Singapore just to busk for a living.

Having clarified the factual and logical lapses in the forum post, I will now delve into an analysis of Susan’s main assertion. Stripped down to its core, the forum post implies that busking = begging. I’m sure she’s not the only one who thinks this way. Some of the buskers’ parents also had the same sentiments. I do feel disappointed by such an opinion, but I don’t blame them for thinking this way because I know that there are historical and social origins to this opinion.

In 1991, the Home Affairs Ministry stated that busking is illegal. At the time, the common discourse is that busking is a form of street performance that aimed to induce the giving of cash (i.e. begging). As official statements about the ministry’s rationale for framing busking as begging are limited, I turned to literature about busking in other countries. They illustrate that the state regulates the busking scene closely because an increase in the number of buskers who take it upon themselves to busk for money seems to reflect economic hardship in the country and the inadequacy of welfare programmes. This is applicable to the context in Singapore then, when economic growth is a real priority. Moreover, in the spirit of pragmatism, the public typecast busking as an activity left for those who are too incompetent or lazy to find a “proper” job.

This mentality permeates through the subsequent revisions in the NAC Busking Scheme. In 1992, busking was allowed but money had to be donated to charity. The rationale was to encourage buskers to busk for altruism and passion, rather than for earnings. In 1994, busking was banned yet again when buskers allegedly busked at undesignated spots and solicited money through their performances (which makes busking appear as a “disguised form of begging”). The Busking Scheme was reintroduced in 1997. This is possibly the result of an initiative to develop Singapore into a ‘global city of the arts’ proposed by then Ministry of Information and the Arts’ (MITA) and Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) in 1995. However, the fear that busking would “degenerate” into begging persisted. Earnings still had to be donated to charity after buskers offset their expenses. It was not until 2001 when buskers were exempted from licensing and only needed a letter of endorsement from NAC to busk, and until NAC allowed buskers to keep their earnings in 2003 that the number of buskers shot up. Seeing that the increase in young buskers is a relatively new phenomenon, it is of no surprise that there are Singaporeans, possibly those of the older generation, who still have the idea of busking = begging ingrained in them. As my findings show, the younger generation of Singaporeans may also have had the privilege of being exposed to vibrant busking scenes in other countries and have developed a different conception of busking as a result.

I do not wish to make presumptions about Susan’s age though. Regardless of her age, I would now like to make a case to defend the young buskers in Singapore. I wish to convince people who hold similar viewpoints as her that buskers are not “beggars” because of the skills and competencies that are demanded of buskers on the streets. As mentioned before, many young buskers treat busking fairly seriously and every act in busking requires much deliberation and learning. For the record, audiences on the street are said to be the harshest critics. One of my interviewees candidly said, “The crowd doesn’t lie. If they think you suck, they’re just not going to give you money.” A lot of skills are required to captivate a passer-by in the instant that he or she walks by.

In terms of musical competencies, buskers need to build stamina to sing for hours straight with little breaks in between. They often need to learn a huge range of repertoire so they can tailor their songs to passers-by that walk past at each moment. In terms of locations, buskers learn how to find a location that suit them best in terms of the crowd it draws (e.g. Orchard Road draws more youths who appeal to English music, while heartlands draw more elderly who appeal to Chinese music). They also need to work with other buskers to make sure that their busking locations and schedules do not clash, so that they can maintain amicable relationships with them. Lastly, equipment is a huge investment in itself but many buskers still pay a hefty amount of money to get the best equipment they can possibly afford because they understand how poor equipment can greatly impede the quality of their performances.

The skills that I have briefly described are only the tip of the iceberg. There are so much more competencies required that remain out of sight from the public, but they are what many buskers consistently seek to develop to become better performers. Through their efforts, I am certain that many Singaporeans no longer perceive busking as begging anymore, as seen in the comments section of the forum post. For that I am very glad, and I hope that more people would acknowledge the efforts of buskers, especially those that persistently seek to produce high quality acts.

Susan was right about one thing though. It may not have been fully explicated, but her forum suggests that buskers are busking because of a lack, be it in money or in performance opportunities. In recent years, newspaper articles about the busking scene have mostly depicted busking in a benign and almost angelic manner – busking enlivens the streets and provides a platform for young musicians to showcase their talents!!! But this forum post exposes the undercurrents that run deep in a discussion about busking. I aim to further demystify these issues here.

Evidently, busking is not all glitz and glamour. If it requires so much skill, effort and hard work to busk, then why do buskers still busk? As the article “On song & coining it” shows, many buskers do love performing, but they also use busking in an instrumental way. And there is something about doing art for an instrumental reason that sits uncomfortably with people in general. It’s the kind of irksomeness we feel when we witness an artist (a.k.a. sell-out) sacrificing his or her artistic integrity for commercial success. Where does that nagging feeling of annoyance stem from? It stems from the prized notion of doing “arts for arts sake”. It appears that if an artist is making art for a reason other than art, then they must not be “true” or “pure” artists.

But truth is – doing “arts for art’s sake” is a luxury some can never afford. In my own thesis, I further narrowed in on buskers who intend to use busking as a platform to enter the music industry. The buskers I have interviewed reveal their lack in one or more of these forms: money, connections and opportunities to perform or record their works. For some of them, busking is not just a good way, but the only way for them to showcase their works. Other trajectories include signing with a record label (which may be out of reach for them) and posting their works online (which is already way too saturated as a platform).

And how effective is busking as a platform to help them gain recognition as musicians in the music industry? I hate to say this but my findings show me … not quite effective. This finding would not be new to experienced buskers. In terms of money, buskers may earn quite a bit, but it is still not substantial enough for the production of singles/ EPs (extended play records) and the marketing efforts that follow. In terms of connections, the most common networks that buskers forge are connections with event companies that provide freelance gigs. But it is still difficult to break into the inner circle of the music industry. Buskers find it difficult to get connections with industry experts that can provide them with higher profile performance opportunities. Lastly, in terms of performance opportunities, buskers do have the potential to become excellent performers because of the sheer amount of training they gain from busking. But even as buskers shed off the label of “beggars”, there is still a stigma that they are not “proper musicians” or that they are “just another cover musician”. I asked one of the buskers if he considers himself a busker, and he replied, “I’m a performer. I entertain. But I am not an artist. Because artists have their own work.” The irony lies in the fact several buskers do have their own work. But busking as a platform encourages buskers to perform more covers that resonate more with the crowd.

That is not to say that busking does not help aspiring musicians enter the music industry at all. Another busker shared that busking is not easy, but one can “still get somewhere with busking”. Some buskers proclaimed that they started out with little cash, connections and experience. But I’ve witnessed for myself how they became polished musicians and even move on to produce their own singles and EPs. Some people say that the essence of busking lies in its spontaneity. But if you asked me, I’d say that the spirit of busking is not that, but sheer grit. I will never cease to be inspired by these buskers who try, try, and try, the best way they know how to.

What I do want to say is that these buskers are likely to face a considerable amount of challenges if they were to solely depend on busking to enter the music industry. This is why there is still a need for more opportunities that enable aspiring musicians in Singapore to showcase their music. But I definitely don’t agree with Susan that it should come in the form of “monthly events at major parks where local and foreign talents can freely perform” “for exposure”. Remuneration is a must for aspiring musicians to view music not just as a form of serious leisure, but also viable career. More importantly, as with every performance, busking is a two-way street. Members of the public deserves the chance to judge for themselves the worth of an act.

I quote my favourite excerpt from one of my interviewees:

There was this article in 2007 about Joshua Bell, a crazily cool violinist. The night before he played in Carnegie Hall, did his thing and people paid hundreds of dollars per ticket. The next day he played the exact same recital at the subway and got like (thirty) dollars. So then you know that that society doesn’t understand art. That society doesn’t understand quality. That society understands marketing. That society understands being seen where everybody wants to be seen. And that’s not good enough as a society.    

In my opinion, busking leads to the point when more Singaporeans walk past something, they are willing to stop, and having stopped, they have a deeper appreciation that the performance required skill and time to prepare and they are therefore willing to take out a note from their wallet and put it into the bag. (…) So how do you get a level when there is enough audience appreciation of not just what happens in the concert hall, but what happens on the streets? That people will understand quality wherever they see it? That’s the ultimate goal.

This is what I hope for as well. Busking is not just about buskers. Art is not just about artists. It is about Singapore as a society. Susan’s forum post suggests that there are still Singaporeans who view buskers as beggars. But the comments section heartens me as I find more people who believe that buskers can be excellent performers as well. Even then, that is not enough for me. My greatest wish is that in the future, all aspiring artists can find their place and be recognised for their talents, regardless of their backgrounds and limitations, wherever they may be.

(Note: Many details from my paper are intentionally left out in this post. I have also removed all academic jargons/ citations in hopes of putting across my points to the layman. If you would like to see my paper in its full form, feel free to drop me a comment or email me!)

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Alien Tongues, Brilliant Minds

One year ago, during one of my tutorial classes, I met a classmate from China, J, who was on exchange in Singapore then. The professor split all of us up into small groups to discuss answers for the tutorial questions. J ended up in the same discussion group as me.

As soon as we settled into our groups, J began flipping through his stack of assigned readings which were filled with boundless highlights, underlines and scribbles. He also brought along two pieces of foolscap paper, in which the answers to the tutorial questions had already been written down neatly.

Peculiarly, even though he had evidently prepared for the questions, he did not speak much during our discussion at all. When he did, he always stumbled over his words, and we always end up finishing all his sentences, or worse, making up new sentences for him.

To be very honest, in a curious way, I had felt a inexplicable sense of superiority over him there and then. That was despite the fact that I knew I had come to class half as prepared as he was. I was leading the discussion; I was expressing (his) ideas to the group confidently; I was speaking fluently in English.

After the tutorial, we chatted a little, and I found out surprisingly that he came from Fudan University, the university that I was about to go for student exchange the following semester! We exchanged contacts excitedly, and headed off to our next classes.

Fast forward one semester later, I realised that not only was I in the same university as him, we were taking the same course too. That course required us to do a group project, and J was kind enough to approach me to join his project group, considering that I did not know anyone there, and that local students tend not to group with students on exchange for fear that they will slack off.

On my way to our first meeting, I remember being rather nervous. I had done some research prior to the meeting, and I wished I would come off as helpful during the meeting – just not some slacker on exchange basically.

Upon the arrival of other group mates, J enthusiastically introduced me to them as “the new singaporean exchanger in school”. As we started our meeting, there were two things that struck me immediately. First, J was clearly the unofficial leader of the group. He shared with us the outline of the project that he had in mind, and asked for our opinions. He was SO confident, so in control, so different from the person I had known in the classroom just one semester ago.

Second, amidst streams of Chinese sociology terminologies, I was clearly … lost. Sure, J made the effort to pause time to time to explain what the terms meant to me, but I felt a little more embarrassed than comforted because I felt that I was wasting my group mates’ time. I later tried to express my project ideas to them in choppy Singaporean Chinese, and was not the least surprised that none of my ideas were adopted eventually.

I left the meeting feeling extremely shi*ty about myself.

That module was my hardest module that semester in Fudan University. I spent a lot of time in class getting awed at just how brilliant my classmates were, and getting upset at just how inferior I was to them. I spent a week ploughing through Chinese articles for our project, and only managed to churn out a page or two out of our twelve page report.

In spite of all of that, I must say that this experience was such a humbling one. The stark contrast between the sense of superiority I had felt back home and the sense of inferiority I had felt in a foreign land taught me this – to never judge the mind of a person by his or her language (or the lack thereof).

In my Cultural Anthropology class, we learnt that language is an integral part of one’s cultural capital. It signifies your class and group membership. As a result, we often mistake one’s inadequacy in language for one’s stupidity (sorry for the lack of a better word), and one’s proficiency in language for one’s brilliance.

For example, in the case of foreign workers in Singapore, many would perceive them as less educated, or worse – less than human – simply because they engage in low-paying jobs and speak a language foreign to us. But upon befriending these workers, I realised that their views are much deeper and more profound than I can ever imagine. Some would speak of politics back home in Bangladesh and others would share about their pursuit of further studies in Singapore.

So, I don’t know if intelligence can be objectively measured, but I sure do know that the perception of one’s intelligence is relative, subjective, and perhaps even constructed. You can totally be a genius in one culture, and be an absolute idiot in another.

There is a time, a place, and most importantly, a culture for everyone to shine. And none of us have the right to judge anyone (or ourselves) just when and where that may be.

Treat People as Humans, not Specimens

Today, I decided to head to Shanghai’s People’s Park (人民公园) for a fieldwork for my Marriage and Family module. People’s Park is renowned for its marriage market, where distressed parents put up qualities of their unwed children, in hopes of finding their children suitable partners for marriage. I couldn’t decide on a topic for my final paper, so I thought I’d find some inspiration there.

With my DSLR slung on my neck, and a notebook and a pen in my bag, I was ready to hit the busy crowd of People’s Park. Upon arrival, a swarm of sociologically interesting sights and scenes overwhelmed me – the sheer number of elderly “promoting” their children, their conversations with one another, the umbrellas with the children’s qualifications and the parents’ expectations of their partners attached to them and more. I began snapping away. Ah, an old lady looking for a partner for her child even when she’s wheel chair bound? Take the photo quick. It’d make an interesting photograph (with a story that is).

“小妹!(Miss!), ” someone called out to me. I turned behind, slightly surprised to find an old lady who asked me, “你拍这些照是干什么的?你是记者吗? (Why are you taking these photos? Are you a journalist?)” I thought she looked kind of hostile, probably because she thought I was another journalist, trying to dig some news about unique Chinese traditions, and taking street photos of these elderly without permission. I immediately diffused the tension with an awkward smile, explaining that I’m an exchange student from Singapore who’s just here out of curiosity. To my relief, she let her guards down, and even started chatting with me about her situation, why she was worried that her daughter would not find a partner, the imbalanced gender ratio in China and more. Later, this conversation led to the next, as I spoke to her friend next to her as well.

Not bad, I thought, this fieldwork research was progressing better than I had expected. I had felt rather jittery before coming here, because nothing scares me more than having to approach strangers, and attempting to make conversations that are hopefully sociologically valuable. But there I was, having found someone who resembled the “Doc” in a sociology classic, Street Corner Society. For the benefit of non-sociology readers, this means having found someone who is willing and able to help you infiltrate into a group that you are studying. This is perhaps one of the most crucial steps for a sociologist during fieldwork – to become an insider instead of an outsider.

2 interviewees down. I reviewed the information I received again, and figured that while the old lady and her friend provided me useful details, their circumstances were too similar. I need variety in this sample. So thereafter, I took another stroll around People’s Park. Then, I saw an old man who is advertising for his daughter and son, which was rare since most people in their generation only had one child due to the one child policy. I saw elderly advertising for their children who are studying or working overseas. I also saw a 40 year-old lady advertising for herself, plausibly the only one in the marriage market thus far.

Good. Let me talk to all 3 then. That’ll make the number of interviewees 5. Whole numbers sound good to me anyway. So, having tasted a few successes with my previous “interviewees”, I approached the lady advertising for herself next, with more confidence than I had initially.

“你好勇敢哦。你是我在这里看到的,第一个为自己找伴侣的。(You’re so brave. You are the first person I’ve seen here, who is finding a partner for yourself.)”

She let out an awkward smile.

I started to worry a little. She reacted to my comment, but did not say anything after that. How should I continue this conversation?

“你在这里多久了?(How long have you been here?)”I asked. I considered it quite a basic question to ask, since I had asked the same question to the old lady and her friend before, and this question opened them up to sharing just how worried they are about their children, because they had tried so long but to no avail.

“有一段时间了。(It has been some time.)” This answer left me dissatisfied. ‘Some time’ is too vague. For the research to be more significant, more specific answers are needed.

I knew for a fact that the conversation was going nowhere. She was not open in sharing more information. Was it because she did not trust me, considering that I was just a random stranger? At this point of time, I panicked. It’s a bad habit of mine to slur my words when I feel that I have lost control in a conversation, and especially when I feel that the other party distrusts me or does not feel comfortable around me.

“其实,其实我是个学生。因为好奇,才来这里看看的…… 嗯,我是读社会学的。所以对婚姻与家庭比较感兴趣。(Actually, actually, I’m a student. I’m here only out of curiosity… Erm, I study sociology, so I’m rather interested in issues of marriage and family,)” I explained, as if to justify the slew of questions that might have seemed strange to her.

She simply nodded her head. I immediately knew that I was fighting a losing battle here. Should I let the conversation end? But she’s the only person advertising for herself at People’s Park here. Since it is so rare, I have to put this in my findings. I just have to. How many weeks, days, or months has she been here? Has she tried finding a marriage partner through dating apps instead? Aren’t the chances of finding a marriage partner here much smaller? Why is she still here then? Why is it her but not her parents who are here? I still have so many questions left unanswered. I can’t just stop the conversation here.

I decided to try again, “你想要来这里是你自己的意思吗?还是父母要你来的?你的父母会担心 –?(Did you come here on your own accord? Or were you pressurised by your parents? Are your parents worried – ?)”

She cut me off – not rudely – and said, “你能不能不要问了呀,你问了我心里很难受。(Do you mind if you stopped asking me questions? It is making me feel very upset.)

That was clearly the last straw for her. I halted, expressed my apologies hastily, and walked away.

I couldn’t quite remember where I headed to after that, except that I ended up finding on a rock in the middle of nowhere in the park, and sat there sobbing uncontrollably for god knows how long.

‘WTF were you thinking?’ I asked myself again and again. A pang of guilt hit me real hard, because I suddenly realised how hurtful my questions must have been to her for her to let out such a begging request. What’s worse was that I had not even realised it prior to her stopping me.

It had to take this much for me to start empathising with her. Now, imagine for a moment that you’re unmarried at the age of 40. That’s notwithstanding the fact that you are a female in a culture where women are expected to wed before the age of 30. Here you are at People’s Park, having mustered all your courage to find a partner for yourself. Most people here are desperate parents, and you stick out like a sore thumb. Streams of people walk by, evaluating you from your job, your educational qualifications, your hukou status to your height, your weight, your face… basically everything. You don’t quite like that, but you do it anyway not just because you “have time to spare” but because you buy in the idea that time is running out for you as a woman. Single children are often unhappy when their parents advertise for them. You are different though. You don’t mind it that much. In fact, you choose to find a partner by yourself. Because the one thing that you want more than anything else is to be – happy. The thing is, you have been doing this every week for weeks and months now and still, nothing much has changed.

One day, out of the blue, a wide-eyed student approaches you, and commends you for being brave. Should you take that as compliment or mockery? She asks you, “How long have you been here?” Should you tell her you have been here for months and still nobody wants you? She tells you that she’s a sociology major. So she’s speaking to you now because…? Because you’re not ‘normal’ like everyone else in society? How should you feel about that? She asks you why you are here. Is that even a question? If you were happily married like most women of your age, is there a need to be here at all? And the worst of them all – she asks persistently, with an irksome oblivion of the luxury of time she has as a lady right in the dawn of her youth. How small must you have seemed to her?

I imagined how hurt I would have felt had I been in her shoes, and these thoughts crushed me. It might sound a tad too dramatic, but it is close to, or I can say, downright unethical to exploit someone’s pain just for the sake of “research”, not to mention in such an insensitive and crude way. The whole time, I was so caught up with fulfilling my interviewee count and quenching my thirst for answers to “important” questions, that I overlooked the most important but taken for granted fact that here in front of me is a living breathing being with a personal history unbeknownst to anyone but herself.

When I eventually calmed myself down, I tried making up to her the only way I knew how to, which was to write. I took out a piece of paper, wrote her a letter expressing my sincerest apologies, and had just enough courage to hand it to her. I had always known spoken language to be my nemesis, but I had wished then that my written language could heal in someway or another.

Never embarrass your respondent; your respondent is your priority; talk through sensitive topics empathetically so that your respondent will be open to sharing more, my teachers say. Yet, no amount of lessons can prepare anyone for the real deal. I won’t deny that today made me doubt if I can do qualitative research work or just about anything that requires me to speak to people a lot in the future. That to me is quite very tragic because as much as I desire to connect with people and understand the intricacies that come with them, I unfortunately still lack the means to do so. I’m not new to this realisation that has gnawed at me for years and years now, but that’s a topic for another day. Conversing with grace, and above all, tenderness, is an art that I might very well take a lifetime to master, but I’d gladly take today’s encounter as a lesson anyway.

Makeup empowers women? I don’t buy that.

My sister, 23, wears makeup to work or dates sometimes. She first started learning how to do makeup through youtube videos, and started investing more on makeup products when she turned 20. Out of curiosity, I asked her one day, “Why do you want to wear makeup? Isn’t it troublesome?”

“No, I can do it quite fast these days! And if it makes you feel good, and feel more confident, why not?”

That’s definitely not the first time I’m hearing a statement like that. I’ve heard it from female friends who start using makeup for the very first time, and somehow found a need to justify their switch. I’ve heard it from Youtubers who are directly implicated in the process of transmitting knowledge about makeup as a part of their career. Instead of “Why do you put on makeup?”, the question has evolved into, “How do you put on makeup more skilfully, more quickly?”, as though women’s desire and need to put on make up should be taken for granted.

So I can’t help but notice the irony when these females, who are strong and successful in their careers, the people who advocate that ‘Women can be whoever they want to be’, are the same people who conform to societal’s norms of beauty through makeup, and more strikingly, teach other women how to do so through makeup tutorials or advice.

Again, and again, the implicit message tells us that makeup empowers women. It makes women beautiful, even if they are think they are not. It lends support to the age old saying that ‘There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.’

Apart from the fact that putting on makeup essentially conforms to society’s ideals of beauty, there are two other reasons why I don’t buy the idea that makeup empowers women. The first one is deceivingly practical. I think putting on makeup is a waste of time, because the time could have been dedicated to my personal growth instead. When my mother or sister asks me why I don’t put on makeup to university or events, I always brush it aside with “Ah, takes up too much time!”. It’s a lovely way to evade the question, really.

But, what they didn’t realise was that I didn’t say that lightly. A sociologist, Susie Orbach, argues that said that an overemphasis on a women’s body size and shape distracts women from achieving higher positions in society. I find that statement resoundingly true, and often understated. From the time females choose to put on makeup, and buy into the idea that their appearances are not good enough as they are, what they invest in is not just the time taken to put on makeup, but also the time spent on using makeup as erroneous solutions to issues arising primarily from low self-esteem.

For instance, a female who had a bad day at work may spend the time wondering if she messed up because she is not beautiful enough. She might try resolving issues by putting on more makeup. Or perhaps, she didn’t think makeup will solve her issues. She simply thought that makeup would make her feel better about herself. All these thoughts emerge because women have been constantly exposed to the idea that when we feel dissatisfied with ourselves, all we need to do is to make changes to our bodies or our faces.

At this point, I want to highlight that this does not necessarily mean that females who do not put on make up have a higher self-esteem than females who do. What I do not agree with is the idea that make up can lead to higher self-esteem amongst women. Makeup can at best be a make-shift measure, but can never truly make a woman feel more confident about herself.

Secondly, I don’t think makeup can empower women because makeup not only reminds women of societal’s ideals of beauty, but routinises it. We’ve all heard of the word ‘makeup routine’. Makeup, something you put on your face, has a direct impact on a female’s body and by extension her identity. When makeup becomes a daily ritual that is performed everyday, it’s not surprising that women purport feeling ‘naked’ when they don’t put on makeup. When makeup has already become a part and parcel of a woman’s life, norms of beauty are naturalised, so much so that they don’t even realise that they are reinforcing gender norms. Well-meaning Youtubers and friends provide advice on makeup, but fail to recognise that in the process of fulfilling their individual preferences, gender inequality is unintentionally reproduced. In Charles Tilly’s words, “The continuity of inequality is a practical accomplishment of everyday life.”

Thus, I reject the idea that makeup empowers women. On the contrary, I would argue that it is not wearing makeup that is a political act. Just recently, Alicia Keys stopped wearing makeup and for a celebrity, that is a powerful statement to make. Regardless of some online comments about how she can afford to do so because her skin is naturally flawless or whatnot, I resonate with her message and am happy because whenever someone asks me to put on makeup, I can now retort with, “But even Alicia Keys doesn’t wear makeup!”

But having mentioned my stance about makeup, I won’t deny that when it comes down to my personal life, I’m not always sure if I can live up to and act according to my beliefs. This is because, I have a hunch that in theory, everyone loves a misfit, but in reality, nobody wants to be with one.

In my previous relationship, my partner asked me on several occasions why I wouldn’t put on perfume, or carry more mature feminine handbags. I have heard a friend telling me that she ‘wants to buy denim skirts because her partner likes to see her wear it’. I have another friend who ‘puts down her fringe because her partner doesn’t like her putting up her fringe’. I have yet another friend who ‘wants to buy a shirt in green, because her partner likes seeing her wear green’.

All these are not directly related to makeup per se, but there is a common thread here. As a partner, I cannot help sticking to my principles, without feeling a certain sense of guilt. This is especially so when a partner’s demands appear so achievable. As my friend said, “If it only takes me a little change to make him happy, I don’t mind doing that.” But to what extent can we compromise without having these seemingly little changes accumulate and ultimately changing who we are as a person? That is a fine balance I find hard to strike.

Now that I’m single again, I also weirdly think about my appearances more than I had when I was in a relationship. I catch myself asking myself questions such as “Should I throw on some makeup? Should I do up my eyebrows? Should I put on braces and straighten my teeth?” more times than I’m proud of. There is a faint but unmistakeable sense of anxiety that I can never be attractive enough to be desired again if I do not make an effort to change my appearances.

The reason for that anxiety has something to do with age as well. Putting on makeup seems to be an unspoken rite of passage for women, a marker that a girl has finally learnt ‘what it means to be a woman’. I feel it most strongly when my mother exclaims in frustration, “你会不会做女人的!” (Do you know how to be a woman?!), often in the context of me forgetting to put on the skincare products she bought (again). I scroll through photos of seniors on facebook and instagram, people I look up to, people whose lives are those I aspire to lead, see them with their perfect makeup and think to myself, “Maybe it’s time for me to grow up – put on some makeup, buy some new clothes?”

All these prove to me again and again that gender is “done”, and choosing how to “do it” day by day is not a simple task, especially when the options don’t seem to be that aplenty in the first place. But nevertheless, when I catch myself wanting to change my appearances for any reason at all, I remind myself with one of the most famous quotes by Roald Dahl.

a-person-who-has-good-thoughts

So when my mother complains about the condition of my sister’s face, and my sister turns to ask me, “Is my face really that bad??”, I always say, “Your face is fine. You are already very very pretty.”

The American Election – An Emotional Rollercoaster for All

The past few days have been nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster as I ploughed through countless articles, videos and commentaries on the Internet, as the American election unfolds. This post is an attempt to make sense of the situation thus far and pen down all the thoughts that crystallised in a mind of a Singaporean Sociology student.

Gender 

“America is in labour now…In 24 hours we shall know if it’s a *BOY* or *GIRL*.!!” says one trending post on subreddit before the election. Gender is obviously one of the most salient themes that sets the background for this election. I was never the kind of person that into politics, but the reports of sexual assaults and the insults that Donald Trump hurled at women first stirred something in me and made me interested in the election. As a woman, these comments cut very deeply and personally. An article by telegraph, “Donald Trump sexism tracker: Every offensive comment in one place” left me feeling humiliated, angry and I found it incomprehensible how a person of such moral standards can run for presidency.

Then, another thread of articles focused on the elephant in the room – how Hillary Clinton’s gender itself makes her unlikeable for many reasons. These articles epitomise the kinds of dilemma that a woman of power faces. On one hand, articles such as “Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know” highlights Clinton’s feminine characteristics such as great listening skills that do not appeal to the electorate that is used to charismatic leadership. Some articles even explain that men’s dislike for Clinton is visceral, and part of it is because she “reminds them of their nagging wives”. On another hand, articles such as “Hillary Clinton: I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions” paradoxically shows how Clinton’s efforts in suppressing “negative” feminine characteristics such as being too emotional did not gain the support of the electorate either. Instead, she is accused of being too cold and unauthentic.

By far, the most heartbreaking articles picked up on the effects of Bill Clinton’s infidelity on Clinton’s run for presidency. Some argued that while it would be expected that women would support Clinton after Trump’s sexual assault saga, many women did not in fact support Clinton. Articles such as “Enabler or family defender? How Hillary Clinton responded to husband’s accusers” show that one of the reasons is because Clinton was seen to have “enabled” her husband’s actions by managing the female accusers, thus tacitly implying that such behaviours were acceptable. These articles can’t help but make me think how confusing it is that conflicting demands are always casted on women. In such a situation, I thought, what could she have done? File for a divorce, and she might be seen as sacrificing the political career of her husband, and worse, the future of America, in the process of fulfilling her personal wishes? Choose to stay in the marriage, and she risks being called passive and conforming to the stereotype of women as docile and forgiving? It is also pretty disturbing that blame for Bill Clinton’s infidelity is casted on Hillary Clinton and not on himself, while Bill Clinton still manages to retain his popularity for being the well-loved “first black American president” that he is. Why are men (both Bill Clinton and Trump) more easily forgiven, and women more harshly judged when it comes to issues that involve gender and sexuality?

My theatre professor once made a sobering statement after Obama was elected as President in 2008 that, “This shows that America would rather vote a Black man in, than to vote for a White woman.” This is an extremely disheartening thought. But beyond anger, one article finely conveyed my feelings towards Clinton now. This article, “A Lament for Hillary Clinton, The Woman” writes, “The shattering of one woman’s career aspirations are no tragedy compared with the globally catastrophic effects of a Trump presidency or even just the awful knowledge that half of the American people are on his side. But I can’t help thinking right now about Hillary Clinton as a person, rather than a symbol. She’s a woman who stayed so strong for so many years, but who is, after all, only human. And she’s a woman who many of us have grown to love.”

It’s a feeling of quiet heartache, but also of quiet admiration. While the results may have shattered not just the dreams of one woman, but the dreams of a woman too many, it reveals a lot about the salience of the status quo, and reminds women that our fight for equality has far from ended, and it is of utmost importance to lean in on opportunities with even more grit and perseverance.

To quote Clinton herself, “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.

Race

Another theme that was just as important was race. A moving excerpt from CNN showed Van Jones, a political commentator, commenting that this election was a “white-lash against a changing country, against a black president”. This point of view corroborates with other articles such as “Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they’re actually saying” which rightly point out that it would be a blatant mistake to disregard the decisive role that race played, and muddle it with economic issues. These perspectives are backed by evidences from exit polls, which clearly showed that Donald Trump won because of the overwhelming support he gained from working class white men.

While I do not wish to under-estimate the effects of race on this election, I do not wish to over-estimate its influence either. After all, other post-election analysis such as “How Trump Won the Election According to Exit Polls” showed that while a majority of minorities continue to vote for Democrats, their votes actually fell compared to previous elections. This appears surprising in light of all the racist comments that Trump made.

At this point, I would like to bring in a concept that my sociology professor quoted from works of other sociologists on race, “Race is a smoke screen for what is essentially a class difference.” The salience of race comes from the fact that people of different races obtained differential material resources. If more minorities are supporting Donald Trump than before, then it becomes clear that the issue transcends race. Yet, the discourse surrounding race in this election has often been about the symbolic differences of race. For example, emotions run high on how Donald Trump’s racist comments are morally distasteful, simply because it’s racist. While nobody would disregard these comments as untrue, they seem to be missing the core of the issue – that what the minorities needed were not lofty concepts of respect, love, freedom and more, but concrete jobs and income.

Class

Unfortunately, I find that the issue of class was only brought to the forefront after the election, as many try to justify the triumph of Trump. One such article that has only gained further attention after the election is “Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why“. I think this article is important at so many levels because of the 3 important issues that it covers – Trade, Globalisation and the Media.

First, globalisation and free trade has had a toll on the lower-income or unemployed Americans who suffered when American companies moved to other countries with lower production costs. Additionally, migration has also led to loss of jobs for locals. The article writes that “A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

From an outsider point of view, and from the point of view of the educated class, it is often taken for granted that free trade is obviously beneficial, and taking in migrants is obviously the most noble thing a country that hinges upon the concept of diversity can do.

But who are we? Along the way, we’ve stopped questioning that. If we take a moment to reflect, it is true in some sense that we could have been speaking from an ivory tower. We are the educated class, the ones who are privileged enough to go to universities, the ones who are often socialised to take offence with authoritarianism, racism and sexism. But if we accuse Trump of extremism, I can see how from his supporters and his point of view, it must be equally extreme, or even naive, for the other side to pretend that free trade does not lead to the loss of jobs among locals, or that large-scale immigration does not threaten the social stability of a country. It is not to say that Clinton entirely ignores the negative effects of trade, globalisation or immigration, but the concerns of the affected group are not sufficiently addressed.

And what are we influenced by? Other than our schools, we are also influenced by the media. One thing that constantly baffles me is this – if social media is all that powerful, how did Trump manage to win despite the number of popular celebrities who had come forward to pledge their support for Clinton, and the countless reports from media outlets that have exposed the ugly truths about Trump? The article “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally” hits the nail on the head. Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel provides examples for this, “When (Trump’s supporters) hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’ ‘We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits.’ ”

This situation shows that the media has failed to represent the voices of the working class. Thus, on polls and social media, it might seem that the conditions are favourable for Clinton, when the reality paints a starkly different picture. People who find the results difficult to understand might have been the exact group of people conditioned by the media to similarly undermine Trump just as a racist, misogynic and bigot person, without coming to terms with the fact that his concerns might reflect very real concerns of a significant group of people in America. Trump’s supporters could have very well voted based on daily struggles that most of us are blinded to.

The most saddening outcome of this is that by extension, people perceive Trump supporters just as racist, misogynic and bigot people as well. Instead of being a voice for all Americans, the media has polarised the views of the population, making it difficult for either side to reconcile with the views of the other. Since the results were released, many netizens have been lashing out on Trump supporters, without recognising that they too are aggravating divisions based on political and class lines, in the process of claiming to promote unity on race and gender.

This is why I refuse to make sweeping allegations like these. And I believe that no one should do so, no matter how upset they are. In a wonderful TED talk “Can a divided America heal?“, social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt talks about the distinction between anger and disgust. There can still be love in anger and disagreements. However, disgust operates at a much deeper and hurtful level. He says, “Disgust paints the person as subhuman, monstrous, morally deformed… As we demonise each other more, as the manichaean worldview that the world is a battle between the good and the evil ramps up, we’re more likely not just to say they’re wrong, I don’t like them, but we say they’re evil, they’re satanic… and then we want nothing to do with them. Thus, it is of utmost importance to view the concerns of Trump supporters as real and legitimate, and not simply sweep it aside as ludicrous or even inhumane.

Singapore

Back at home, I can’t help but reflect on my nation’s obsession with pragmatism. In the previous years of elections in Singapore, I always recall a kind of disdain for bread and barter issues whenever we discuss about the elections in school. We conveniently choose to believe that Singapore has reached a high level of economic prosperity. Thus, it’s time to dwell into deeper issues of sexuality and freedom of speech and more. But we have always been cautioned to never treat our economic prosperity for granted, I think I now understand why. While issues of sexuality and freedom of speech are undeniably important (not just for the rich, but for everyone), I’m also reminded of all the invisible poor who must have felt so left behind when we assume that poverty is an issue of the past.

Another thing that struck me is Singapore’s stubborn stance on authoritarianism. I call it stubborn because the government has consistently reminded us of the possible failings of democracy regardless of how foreigners continue to judge us for being un-democratic in this modern era of democracy. Yet, it is not until now that I have learnt to truly understand the imperfections of democracy. I call it an imperfection, not a failure, because no one would really be able to judge the actual repercussions of this election until much later. After all, who is to say that Americans made a wrong decision? Nevertheless, the election brings up an important question – can the people really be trusted to make a wise decision for the nation? For America, whose “constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power,” as Clinton puts it, the answer has to be yes. Every decision, good or bad, would most definitely be a learning point for America, and for the rest of the world.

One last thing that I have always taken for granted is racial harmony in Singapore. Honestly, I think that race is something that Singaporeans of the younger generation don’t consider very much about. When the government constantly harps on the importance of racial harmony, we dismiss it like a reminder from a naggy parent. But racial tensions can be very real, and it is high time we realise that we do have a lot to reconsider and protect.

Conclusion

I call this election an emotional rollercoaster because of the whole range of emotions I’ve experienced since the very beginning. After the election, I experienced shock, sadness and heartache. But as the day went by, and more introspection kicked in, there was much more sympathy, empathy and peace in my mind.

While others may think that a lot has changed overnight, I beg to differ. For anyone who has a cause to fight for, nothing has changed and nothing should have changed. The societal background may appear different, but efforts ought to continue. For all the young people in the world, Clinton is right to say that we should “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it”regardless of the process and the outcome.

Humanity can be divided along a thousand and one lines, but I would like to end this post with a beautiful quote by a poet, Rumi.

“Out beyond ideas of
wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there. 

The Poor and the Poorer

In one of my sociology of deviance lectures, I learnt about the distinction between two concepts of poverty – absolute deprivation and relative deprivation. 

Instead of telling us what it is directly, Prof Gana shared with us two true stories of three children.


#1

Here’s the story of Bill and Jack. 

One day, Bill and Jack were caught for stealing flowerpots from HDB flats and selling them to the nursery for about $4-5 per pot. The conversation between Prof Gana and the children went as such: 

Bill: Sir, how much you earn?
Prof: (pause) Enough to get by.
Jack: No la, he study very hard one. I’m sure his pay ah, about $800!
Bill: Maybe $1000? Wah.. you earn so much. 

As a matter of fact, they had an elder brother. But he passed away. Cause of death? Falling from a HDB block while trying to steal a bird cage that was hung on the ceiling.

#2

Here’s the story of Anna.

One day, Anna went back home crying.

Father: Dear, why are you crying?
Anna: Papa… why are we so poor??
Father: Poor? What do you mean?
Anna: All my friends’ houses have backyards in their homes, but we don’t have!!

As a matter of fact, they lived in a high-end condominium in Bukit Timah district.


These stories haunt me till today. In my prof’s words, “For Bill and Jack, they were so poor that the limits of their material mind was only at $800-1000. $800 was such a big money, which was why they were willing to go behind bars for selling a potted plant for $4. In contrast, Anna’s story just shows us that the pursuit of material wealth is basically a bottomless pit.”

I wish I could dismiss Anna’s point of view and condemn her as greedy and insatiable as others would. But I have to admit that the feeling of greed, of jealousy, of desire, is very real. I know, because like many others, I’ve experienced it on my own as well.

I recall one night when I went home looking all gloomy and upset. I had caught up with an old friend over lunch that day. During lunch, we talked about where all our classmates are up to these days. Almost all of them are studying overseas, and doing degrees such as medicine and law.

Sure, I’m extremely happy for them. But there was just something gnawing at my guts.

When I went home, my terrible mood was written all over my face. Again, I can’t seem to hide anything from my Mum, so she asked, “What’s wrong?” It wasn’t long before tears starting welling up my eyes and I started breaking down, and sobbing uncontrollably.

I told her about all the great universities my friends are studying at, all the great things they are doing in school, the great life that they are leading. My Mum looked at me in the eye, and said all the things that all mothers would say.

“You can’t compare yourself with others. Everyone can succeed in different fields.

“Studying medicine or law doesn’t make them more successful. It’s what they make of the degree in the future that determines how successful they are.”

Then, she continued quoting stories of her relatives – how they are rich and successful, but lead lonely lives, or are not people worthy of respect, so on and so forth.

She never realised that the whole time, her words were drowned out by my inner dialogue. Till today, I’m not sure whether or not she knew why I cried. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t mention, for fear that she would feel hurt.

I knew that my friends were clever, smart and wonderful people. But the thing is, I never saw myself as a person of any less virtue or stature as them. I knew for a clear fact that, what most of them had that I don’t was a family that could afford to send me abroad for an overseas education, without scholarship that is.

Just as my friend once said, “There comes a point of time when meritocracy ends.” And I think there is some ugly truth to this statement. So, at that moment, there and then, I caught myself asking the same question as Anna did.

“Why am I so poor?”

I asked myself that question, knowing fully well that I am not poor. My family is not struggling to make ends meet. I live comfortably with a shelter over my head. My family owns a car. My family travels to other countries whenever we can.

So maybe, then, the question I should have asked myself is this.

“Why am I poorer than others?”

But at this point I’m sensible enough to be aware that posing a question like this has no end. Other than the richest person on earth, 99.99999999999999999% of the world is poorer than at least one other person. Yet, we continue to strive to climb further and further up.

We have long been taught the “how” to be rich and successful – study your assess off, get a great job (best as a doctor, or lawyer), buy a house, buy a car, marry someone nice, bear two kids, and live happily ever after. Our teachers – parents, friends, and the almighty social media has done a very good job at that.

To put things into more specific context, for students, the “how” looks more like this – enrol in a top primary school, go for endless tuition and enrichments classes, excel in PSLE, enter the top secondary school (preferably a school that offers Integrated Programme – so you can skip O levels altogether), enter a top JC … the ultimate dream is of course to enrol in an Ivy League school in the US, or Oxbridge in the UK. And of course, spam your friends’ social media feed with amazing photos of your summer getaways to Niagara Falls or the Antelope Canyon.

But. Why though?

Nobody really teaches us, or tells us the “why”. It’s one thing to desire and pursue all of these, but do we really want to pursue all of these just for the sake of it? Just to check things off our bucket list?

I guess that “why” is something we’ll constantly have to navigate for, and navigate towards for the rest of our lives. We’ll have to roll our sleeves up and get in the dirt. We’ll have to quietly accept the kind of lives and lifestyles we are not endowed with, and make the hard decisions as to how much of ourselves we want to put in to pursue THE life, and if it’s worth pursuing at all.

Most importantly, we need to recognise that we are the poorer, and not the poor. On bad days, I forget that. But on good days, I am reminded that I am luckier than most. I am reminded that while it’s one thing to strive for the best, it’s another to forget about the 10 percent of the world’s population who still live in absolute deprivation today.

Today’s one of those good days.

In Praise of Zootopia: A Sociological Perspective

I went into the cinemas today, not quite sure of what kind of movie to expect. Well, for one, I knew that my friends were raving over it. But about 2 hours later, I left the cinemas, feeling entirely overwhelmed and impressed. That was hands down the best cartoon I have ever watched in my life.

In a short span of 2 hours, the movie encompassed a wide range of themes, ranging from prejudice and racism, to power and deviance. In this article, I will pen down some of the details I had noticed and analyse them in a sociological approach.

Brief introduction of movie

The movie revolves around how a tiny rabbit, Judy Hopps overcomes all the invisible social barriers of stereotypes and prejudices around her size and thus her perceived weakness, to become a top-notch police officer. Later, as she moves to Zootopia and work as a police officer in Zootopia Police Department (ZPD), she is tasked to find a missing otter, which leads her to investigate a queer case of predators turning savages in Zootopia.

Race and Prejudice

When I first saw how Hopps, the rabbit, said, “Only a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’. But when another animals call us cute, it’s a little…”, I knew that I was in for a ride. Even though Zootopia appears to be a place where “anyone can be anything.”, prejudices between the predators and the preys always exist at the background. For example, the assistant mayor, Bellwether, is a sheep that has always been undermined and unappreciated by the mayor who is a Lion. The conflicts are exposed and intensified by the case of predators turning savages as the majority prey population, are quick to assume that only the predator population have the tendency to become savages, and must hence be feared upon and removed from Zootopia.

Sociologically defined, race is a group of people (or animals) who are perceived to share the same biological traits or physical differences. Because of these perceptions, people make oversimplified stereotypes about the characteristics of an entire social group. More significantly, this affects the attitude they have for the other social group and are used to justify discriminatory acts. Zootopia has reflected that stereotype, prejudice and discrimination cut both ways. On one hand, preys are perceived as weak and incapable and preys that are small in size such as rabbits are doubly discriminated. On the other hand, predators are also perceived as dangerous and intimidating.

Yet, we have seen many scenarios when these prejudices and stereotypes continue to be maintained in Zootopia even as they are continually broken. First, the most obvious example is when Hopps became the first rabbit to become a police officer and a valedictorian in her police academy. Next, the Clawhauser is a resident cheetah at ZPD with a jovial and cheerful personality like no other. All these examples show that there are more varieties between social groups.

Lastly, and the most interesting of all, Nick Wilde, a fox who becomes a close friend of Hopps is a loyal, smart and caring character, unlike the typical connotation of foxes as sly and cunning. An interesting excerpt was when Wilde asked Hopps after the press conference if she is afraid of him and if she thinks that he too, is biologically predisposed to become a savage some day. Hopps answered, “No.. you’re not like the others!” It is interesting that people’s prejudice towards a particular social group may contradict with their behaviours toward individual members of that group. These individuals are viewed as exceptions to the rule, thus allowing people to retain their stereotypes despite conflicting situations in reality.

Well, what we realised in the end was that, many a time, race is not a biological construct, but rather a social construct that is maintained through social structures. This is most evident by the revelation at the end that it is not the predators’ genes or DNA that have caused them to become savages, but a planned scheme by Bellwether because of her prejudice and hate towards predators.

Moreover, it is also emphasised that what sets people apart are not their race, but their values and characteristics. Hopps and Nick can both make splendid police officers because they have merits such as quick-wittedness or self-righteousness. At the same time, Bellwether may not be a predator, but may embody a savage nature as she sets out to cause divisions in the society by turning the predators into savage and even kill Hopps.

Well, but on a light-hearted note, the sloth is the only animal in Zootopia which is still seen as biologically slow. That may seem inconsistent with the intentions of the movie, but I believe that some humour is needed to release some of the tensions in the film, and stereotypes are more often than not, the basis of humour.

Race and Deviance

In discussing the issue of race and deviance, I would bring in three sociological theories of deviance, namely the positivist perspective and the labelling theory.

The first theory that was most apparent to me in the movie was the positivist perspective. The positivist standpoint is that criminals are born. This means that they are biologically and physiologically predisposed to commit crimes. Cesare Lombroso, a positivist criminologist even argued that criminals are individuals who are stuck in earlier stages of human evolution and are hence ill-developed humans. This was strikingly similar to how Hopps attributed the possibility of predators turning into savages as their genes, DNA, or that they are returning to their “natural state”, which is their earlier state before evolution and civilisation.

This is dangerous because if one believes in this notion of deviance, it depoliticises the deviant act. People start to believe that predators are inherently savages without identifying the structural causes behind this “deviant” act, thus justifying social control against them. For example, Clawhauser was made to leave for another department because “it was not too good that the first animal other animals see in ZPD is a potential savage.” As mentioned before, as it turns out, the reason why predators became savages is not a biological cause at all.

The second theory, which is the labelling theory, made me feel rather upset in the movie indeed. The labelling theory argues that deviance results not only from the actions of the deviant, but also from the responses of others, who define some actions as deviant and other actions as normal. Over time, the constant labelling of an individual might lead to him or her internalising the deviant behaviour. Eventually, seeing oneself as a deviant becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The story of Nick was what made me recall this theory. When Nick was a child, he aspired to join the local Junior Ranger Scouts. Yet, upon “initiation”, Nick is bullied and muzzled simply for the fact that he is a fox and foxes are considered sly and unreliable by nature. As a result, he decided that “If the whole world is just going to see a fox as untrustworthy, then there is no point in trying to be anything else.” That is how he becomes a successful conman when he grows up. Nick’s story was a heartbreaking story for me because it shows how deviants may not be inherently evil, but are the victims of societal prejudices.

Additionally, this story also demonstrated the importance of analysing the context and biography of an individual before making a judgment on one’s reason of committing crime. That is not to say that every act of deviance is understandable and thus acceptable. But it does bring to light some of the structural reasons that may prompt someone to commit deviant acts.

Media and moral panic

Moral panic is a theory related to deviance. It refers to a mass explosion of fear at a particular time and place about a specific perceived threat. This occurs when many people believe that a form of deviance poses a profound threat to the well being of society. When there is a moral panic, there is often an increased level of hostility to a particular category of people who is perceived to engage in threatening behaviour. Yet, the concern over the phenomenon is also often disproportionate to the nature of the threat. Additionally, one essential component in moral panic is the media. It rapidly spreads concern over the perceived threat, thus heightening the climate of fear.

This situation was depicted in Zootopia, after Hopps suggested that the predators became wild because of their DNA. One of the conversations between the predators and Hopps go like this:

Journalists: Who is that fox!
Hopps: He is my friend!
Journalists: Does that mean that we cannot trust our friends too?

In a climate of pressure and fear, the journalists fail to recognise that there are no clear evidence of the real cause behind why all the mammals that have turned savages are predators. Fear clouds logic and this can be seen from how both the journalists and members of the public jump into conclusions too quickly and make sweeping statements of the whole predator community. The effects can be as catastrophic as to cause the whole society to divide. One example is how Clawhauser was forced to go to another department.

Social structure vs individual agency, a.k.a. social reality vs individual dreams

This theme is a recurrent one in the field of sociology. This is also another theme that underlies the movie from the very start since Hopps decides to be the first rabbit police officer. First, she goes against the wishes of her parents to be a typical carrot farmer. Hopps’ father persuades her, “If you don’t try anything new, you will never fail.” In fact, the act of trying convince Hopps that there are no rabbits that have become police officers show that the rabbits have also internalised the prejudices against themselves. Next, Hopps also
 succeeds in cracking the case despite being discriminated by mammals such as Chief Bogo who tells her that “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So, let it go.” 

Yet, while it seems that Hopps is a critical thinker who can make her dreams come true despite public opinion, the interesting fact is that she, too, is not fully free of being influenced by the social prejudices that are deeply embedded in social life. For example, before Hopps left for Zootopia, her parents pass her a fox repellent. Even though Hopps appears to find it unnecessary, she has a subconscious bias for foxes that she constantly tries to fight off. In a brilliantly designed scene, Hopps leaves her room for her first day of work, only to come back to retrieve the fox repellent “just in case”. Additionally, when Nick confronts her after her press conference, she instinctively reaches out for the fox repellant even though she has always thought that she trusts Nick as a friend. This reveals the grim truth that prejudice is not an inherent quality. Instead, it is learnt.

But the film also shows that every cloud has a silver lining because the reality is that individuals do have some degrees of agency. While many individuals in the film has experienced different pressures, but all of them responded differently. The most distinct contrast is between Hopps and Bellwether. While both of them are discriminated as small and weak, Hopps chooses to prove the predators wrong and showcase her ability to make the world a better place, while Bellwether chooses to hurt the predators. Additionally, while both Hopps and Nick have been bullied by a predator and preys respectively, Hopps chooses not to give in to social stigmas, while Nick decides that he can never fight against social opinions. This shows that sometimes, everything is just a matter of perspective and attitude.

Gender

This issue is an implicit one in Zootopia but as always, gender is a background identity that acts on our behaviours and influences how other people evaluate us. Let’s do a mental exercise and imagine how different the movie would be if Hopps is not a female but a male rabbit. For one, scenes such as the one where she is dismissed by Chief Bogo on her first day in ZPD, where large physical size and masculinity is prized, could be very different. When she is assigned as a meter maid, it is not only more salient features, such as her identity as a prey that is at work. Her identity as a female is also working at the background, making her doubly prejudiced.

One thing that I appreciate about the film is also a more nuanced perspective of gender. Females are often stereotyped as more emotional, but the film shows that females and males alike can be emotional. For example, when Hopps was leaving, it was her father and not her mother who starts to sob. In another case, although Nick expresses to Hopps that “you bunnies are so emotional”, he also has an emotional side which he reveals as he recounts his childhood story. His nonchalant and dispassionate attitude is not a result of his gender per se, but a result of his past experiences, which has forced him to “never let them see that they get to (him)”.

Moreover, being emotional should not have negative connotations to it just because it is tied to the concept of femininity and weakness. Sometimes, emotions can guide us towards doing things we feel is right. There are many cases in Zootopia when Hopps is guided by her emotions. For example, she helps Nick at the ice cream shop because she empathises with the feeling of being treated unfairly because of prejudice. She also agrees to help Mrs Otterton at the risk of losing her job because she cannot bear to see her feeling so helpless.

Social capital and networks

This theme is probably less of an excitement for any readers, other than other Sociology geeks like me. I must admit that I have not studied social capital and networks in sufficient detail in school, but as I was watching the show, I can’t help but appreciate the fact that Judy’s whole adventure truly would not have been possible without Nick, the one who “knows everybody in Zootopia”. Social capital refers to networks that one possesses which allow he or she to gain crucial information because of concepts of mutual reciprocity.

The interesting thing is that Nick has contacts from people in both legitimate and illegitimate society. The former would include Flash, the sloth working in Department of Mammal Vehicles who is his good friend, and the latter would include the crime lord, Mr Big.

The American Dream

Zootopia, at its core, seems to address a deep-rooted pursuit for the American Dream, where everyone can be who they are. As a Singaporean viewer, the film embodies many American aspirations. At the same time, it also exposes the less glamorous social reality and contradictions that lie beneath the ideals of equality and peace that comes with the notion of “The American Dream.” Problems such as racism and prejudice continues to plague America’s society. But at the same time, these issues are not unique to America. Every country has its own dreams, just as Singaporeans also have her Singapore dream. But dreams being dreams, are dreams precisely because they are so immensely difficult to achieve.

On this note, I am deeply thankful to Disney for no longer portraying portraying a world in which “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.” Instead, it is the little voice that soothes our harden soul and reminds us that “Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes … But we have to try… Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us.”―Judy Hopps

Conclusion

When I watched “Inside Out” last year, I thought that was the best Disney-Pixar movie I have ever watched. But after I came out of the cinema yesterday, I learnt that I was wrong. Zootopia stood out for me, probably because I am a Sociology student, and seeing how the social interactions between the mammals were so accurately represented made me utterly moved. The level of understanding was incredible and I appreciated how nuanced the movie incorporated all the paramount issues of our generation.

To me, that is not just the power of a movie, but also the power of art. I thought about this when a question popped into my mind yesterday, “What if the creators choose not to represent the subject through animals? What if the movie presented humans instead?” What an outcry it could cause, I thought. But because of the way Disney has chosen to tell the story through the world of animals, people step back and question, “How does this reflect our society?”.

But the more interesting and philosophical question that Zootopia raises is “What differentiates humans from animals?” In one scene of Zootopia, Mr Big responds to the moral panic in Zootopia, “We may have evolved, but deep down we are still animals.” Whether or not humans are really that different from animals is a debate that I will save for another time. But what’s important is, if we are to agree that humans are different because humans have developed morality and consciousness, then how are we going to stay consistent with that and stop causing unnecessary harm to other humans on the basis of differences- in colour, nationality, gender, age etc? These are big questions that emerges from Zootopia and they await inquiry. But I definitely look forward to the next Disney Pixar movie that is as intellectually and emotionally stimulating, as Zootopia has been for me. :’)

References:
1.Brym, Robert J. and Lie, John (2007) Sociology: Your Compass for a New World . 3rd edn. Belmont , CA : Thomson/Wadsworth
2. Cacciopo & Freberg, Discovering Psychology.
3. Roshier, Bob (1989) Controlling Crime: The Classical Perspective in Criminology, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Part One pp 1–39.
4. Ridgeway, Cecilia L. and Shelley J. Correll. 2004. “Unpacking the Gender System: A Theoretical Perspective on Gender Beliefs and Social Relations.” Gender & Society, 18 (4), pp. 510-531.
5. disney.wikia.com

(Disclaimer: (1) The Sociology concepts are based on my understanding through classes. They are not expert opinion and pardon me for any inaccuracies in the explanation of these concepts. (2) Many quotes and excerpts are based on memory or the internet. They are not verbatim quotes. Hence, do correct me if I cited any quotes or described any scenes wrongly.)