Just a lady – Part II

Minorities2.1.

This is the second in a series of two articles discussing Aung San Suu Kyi (henceforth ASSK) – the person, politician and sanctified symbol of democracy – as represented in French director Luc Besson’s biographical film The Lady (2011).  The first article focused on ASSK in contemporary Myanmar and criticised The Lady for its simplified renderings of that nation’s history and politics and can be viewed here.  The second article below more specifically analyses The Lady through Orientalist and feminist frameworks and concludes the series with thoughts on cinema’s importance in truth and storytelling.

Whose Lady?

Ella Shohat builds on the traditions of Said’s Orientalism1 and feminist film theory2 to argue convincingly that Western cinema’s Oriental constructs are imbued with colonialist imagery that rely on gendered metaphors, and as such are products of a gendered Western point of view3.   She notes that in this tradition the entire Orient is rendered as feminine, as opposed to the West, with its masculine and colonialist desire of mastering a new land.  This feminine Orient is in turn often seen as in need of rescue from disorder, evidenced quite literally in the rescue narratives that dominate Orientalist films.  The Lady’s Orientalised subjects are seen through, framed and subjugated by a similar colonialist, male, Western gaze.

The character and gaze of Michael Aris personifies this.  The Lady’s meandering, time-shifting narrative constantly shifts between Aris and ASSK, almost exclusively depicting ASSK as the subject and Aris as the spectator.  Aris’ gaze upon ASSK and Myanmar represents the colonial power’s guilt and hubris at her (the nation’s) plight, and his actions clearly echo Shohat’s rescue narrative4 and the British fantasy of “fixing Burma”.  We see Aris time and time again attempting to contact ASSK and learn about her activities as her struggle is seen only piecemeal, from afar.  This is encapsulated by Aris’ discussion with a student leader in her home, a line aptly delivered while gazing upon ASSK:  “a quarter of a century of brutal oppression will not be undone in one day, there is still a great deal to do”.

No-one can doubt that ASSK exudes real agency in the film, but it is equally clear that she is crucially enabled in her political endeavours by Michael Aris and consistently defers to him.  For example, Aris is shown communicating ASSK’s political ascendance to the Myanmar people when he photocopies pamphlets in the U.K. Embassy.  He is also the driving force behind ASSK’s Nobel Peace Prize and literally saves ASSK’s life when she attempts to fast as a method of protest.  Therefore ASSK is represented as essentially under Michael Aris’ and by extension the United Kingdom’s ongoing masculine protection.

This approach is directly signified in the film’s opening when Aung San narrates to ASSK the “Burma story”.  This nurturing gesture establishes Aung San’s protection of ASSK, and in the proceeding scene after he is murdered, the camera again lingers on ASSK sleeping form – now without a male figure, outdoors, alone and vulnerable in the Yangon heat.  Her future is seen to be momentarily hanging in the balance – she has lost her patriarch – but not for long.  The film fades to black and directly opens once more on Aris and ASSK – now an adult, safely outside of the dangerous Orient and away from assassins, under the protection of the ultimate patriarch, the United Kingdom.  Orientalism rides high as The Lady empowers the masculine West and rationalises authority over the feminine, lost Asian other.

Indeed Aris is shown as wielding tremendous power over ASSK, though this is disguised somewhat by his portrayal as a stiff, fuddy-duddy English gentleman.  When ASSK decides to leave the U.K. for Myanmar, for instance, Aris immediately replies “I’ll sort you out a flight” – perhaps an endearing gesture from one’s true love, but just as much a reflection of the financial power Aris holds over ASSK, and by extension the film’s colonial fantasy of Western agency in Myanmar.  When Aris lectures ASSK on how to acquit herself in Myanmar he directly refers to his own power:  “If I have any authority left at all as your very loving husband, please listen to me … be as gentle with yourself as I would be if I were there.”  In light of these words it is easy to read the pair’s separation as an allegory for the U.K.’s separation from colonial domination in Myanmar told through the clearly fantastical colonial gaze.

Again, this metaphor is perpetuated in the hunger strike sequence, when Aris sighs and asks “what on earth am I going to do with you?”  In this way ASSK’s rationalised political methods are reduced to simple recalcitrance.  By extension, if ASSK is read as Myanmar, her petulant hunger strike also represents the disorder of the symbolic Myanmar state.  The colonialist rescue narrative comes full circle when Aris takes it upon himself to interrupt ASSK’s hunger strike and “save her”, therefore again “bringing order” to Myanmar.

Although Aris is shown assisting ASSK time and time again, the opposite is never true.  Even worse, ASSK’s activities in Myanmar are even hinted at being at least partly responsible for Aris’ death, in that he resumes smoking directly after hearing news of ASSK‘s attempted assassination – linking worry with habit.  This downward spiral continues with more and more cigarettes causing a marked physical degeneration on-screen until Aris’ ultimate death by bowel cancer (a disease linked to smoking5).  This painstakingly implies the patriarchal device of the errant wife “killing” her husband with her behaviour.  The film’s slightly overbearing punctuation of the fact that ASSK is not in attendance for either of her son’s or her husband’s many birthdays is another example of “letting the boys down”, as is the breakdown in her family’s routine in her absence due to Aris’ ineptitude at domestic matters (he can’t even cook porridge).

This state of affairs is all the more unfortunate in a film entitled The Lady, a choice of title obviously inviting gender readings.  Indeed, a calculation of screen time betrays the fact that in The Lady ASSK is on-screen for a mere four minutes more than her colonial husband/patron, lending credence to criticism that the film should have been title The Husband6 or at least The Lady and Her Husband.  Alarmingly, the film could easily have disempowered and reduced ASSK to an even greater degree, as apparently the original script’s story was told entirely from Aris’ point of view and was only later changed to accommodate ASSK’s perspective7.   One wonders about this, for if The Lady was entirely told through Aris’ viewpoint then one assumes it would likely have consisted primarily of Aris groaning at his kids, watching TV and listening to the radio – not the most scintillating of The Lady’s existing scenes.

But the radio and TV scenes do serve a point, for the western broadcast media, exclusively in the guise of the BBC, is shown in The Lady to be omniscient in its understanding of Myanmar and the only truthful means of information dissemination within and outside the country.  Michael Aris, ASSK and others all rely on it for current events, as does the film itself for progressing its narrative.  The BBC features considerably in The Lady: in total there are four instances of BBC television news and four instances of BBC radio.  That the BBC refers to ASSK as an “Oxford housewife” and the film includes only British media further betrays the film’s colonial and patriarchal agenda (The Lady has no representations of Indigenous media in any form whatsoever).

The BBC is also shown to be a means of communication for both Aris and ASSK – they both speak to and through their radios (Aris: “Jesus Christ Suu!” when he hears the report on her near-death experience, ASSK: “I miss you too” when she hears the family’s press conference).  In this way the BBC is represented as a bridge between cultures and the dominant objective news source, with the authority to put Myanmar’s current events into narrative and relay ASSK’s struggles to the outside world.

In a reflexive indulgence The Lady actually depicts Aris and ASSK discussing how the popular media idolises her.  “I don’t care much for that cult of personality”, ASSK says, before listing her sinful qualities that the media does not routinely show: her terrible temper, stubbornness and impatience.  In this odd moment the audience sees an idealised representation of ASSK, who is shown to be neither tempestuous nor impatient, claiming exactly that representations of her do not show these qualities.  In this moment therefore she is drawing attention to the fact that she is also a superficial representation, to no discernible end other than to imply that all representations of ASSK are hostage to the same problems – but then these seem as easily avoidable as they are enunciated.  Aris goes on to list some of the titles being attributed to ASSK in the media: “the female Mandela”, “the Star of Burma” and “the Steel Orchid”, and she replies simply, “Is that how you see me?”, implying that for ASSK the only opinion of her that matters – of course – is that of her patriarchal possessor, Britain.

The Lady’s representation of ASSK can be further illuminated by Lisa Brooten’s argument8 that U.S.A. print media commonly represents ASSK as a powerful feminine personification of besieged democracy.   She claims that these representations conjure up a “protection scenario” which colours the United States as a “comparatively mature, masculine form of democracy” working to promote freedom world wide9, a scenario having more than a little in common with the colonial rescue narrative.  Brooten’s conclusions – reached by analyses of reports from Time, Newsweek and the U.S. News & World Report – offer suggestive parallels for The Lady, where the United Kingdom is rendered as the masculine, mature democracy, promoting freedom through the work of Michael Aris and the Oxford-educated ASSK.  In this pattern we see that although the Western power is easily substituted (though to one of the U.S.A.’s key allies), democracy remains masculine, and the beleaguered subject remains feminine and disempowered.

This feminisation of democracy under siege in The Lady is concisely encapsulated by the film’s final scene in which monks approach ASSK’s house during the 2007 Saffron Revolution.  ASSK appears at her front gate, accompanied by the ubiquitous slow motion and soaring string soundtrack, and waves to the crowd of repressed, daring citizen monks.  It is here, after the finalisation of her sacrifice narrative, that The Lady’s ASSK best represents the mantle of democracy figuratively handed over to her when her father died.  Here, she best represents the feminisation of that democracy, with the larger-than-usual number of flowers in her hair and hands.  And here, at film’s end, where she is shown to be still held hostage under house arrest after two decades, she best represents what it is to be under siege.

Brooten claims her case study demonstrates that by enacting a “protection scenario” the United States can flexibly encode the present geopolitical environment to reflect its own interests10.  And because of the mutually supportive relationship between the U.S. media and the U.S. state, the coverage of Myanmar in the mainstream U.S. media functions as much to define the United States as it does to enlighten readers about Burma11.  We can see a clear parallel here with Western Orientalist cinema.  For example, the geopolitical coding of Raiders of the Lost Ark12 has been outed, betraying how the American archaeologist hero “liberates the ark from illegal Egyptian possession while also rescuing it from immoral Nazi control, subliminally reinforcing the American and Jewish solidarity vis-à-vis the Nazis and their Arab assistants”13.

Likewise, through its colonial, masculine gaze The Lady betrays the United Kingdom’s paternalism towards Myanmar.  In its simplistic representation of military authority figures and their persecution of both ASSK and the Myanmar people The Lady reinforces the justification for treating Myanmar as an international pariah, a geopolitical norm of the past two decades that has only recently been complicated or abolished in certain corners.  Finally, The Lady’s focus on ASSK and the National League for Democracy as sole representatives of Burmese democracy in conjunction with its tokenistic portrayal of Myanmar’s non-Burman peoples marginalises other democratic players in the country, and reduces the importance of the struggle of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, highlighting the accuracy and universality of Brooten’s findings14.

Colonialist, gendered, patriarchal … so normal, so what?

Our analysis of The Lady is important given the extent to which films influence their audiences.  Whole subdisciplines of cinema studies such as reception studies wrestle with the how and why this occurs15.  One Burma scholar has drawn attention to how films admix with representations, images and information from other sources in the cultural sphere (such as news media) to create what Seamus Heaney calls “cultural depth-charges”, networks of subliminal associations that influence audience members on an unconscious level16The Lady, with its skewed representation of ASSK and Myanmar, must be influencing its audience – but how?  To begin more fundamentally, who is being influenced – i.e. who is consuming the film, and where?

Previous films painting Myanmar’s leadership in a negative light were routinely banned in the country, but this hasn’t prevented people from inside Burma viewing them17 and indeed both Thai and Burmese versions of The Lady are available online18Rambo in particular has been taken up as a resistance film by some Karen groups outside Myanmar19 and The Lady seems headed in a similar direction according to the author’s field research undertaken on the northern Thailand/Myanmar border in 2012.

At one of many temporary settlements in Thailand close to the Myanmar border hundreds of Tai Yai (Shan) displaced people are eking out a living in agriculture.  Students in the camp attend Thai school and language classes and regular English classes in the evenings.  It was during these classes earlier this year that both Tai Yai and foreign volunteer teachers began screening The Lady to their students20.  “The movie is really popular around here”, one Tai Yai teacher educated at Taunggyi University told the author, “the reason that we screened it for the students is because they should know what is happening in Burma and about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”.  Here we see that The Lady is being appropriated for educational purposes amongst at least one exile community with the justification that what it purports to show is “actually happening”, or rather, that it is “the truth”.

Children have long been identified as vulnerable viewers more likely to be affected by what they see on screen, demonstrated by public health research into screen violence and its effect21 and periodic media debates22.  This is also explored in films as diverse as The Fall23 and Dottie Gets Spanked24, both of which reflexively draw attention to the innocence and openness of children to narrative and images.  That The Lady with its problematic representations, paternal Western interests and geopolitical agenda is being screened by authority figures (teachers) to young people (students) in a Myanmar exile community under the guise of a subversive “truth” is intriguing and potentially disconcerting.  The particular instance described here is all the more interesting as the copy of the film being used for screenings was dubbed in Thai – so not only is the context of reception one of exile, education, youth and “truth”, but the critical Western attitude of the film is mediated through the Thai language: the language of the camp’s benefactors and country of refuge.

The Lady: total or partial failure?

As a fictionalised representation, The Lady could never stand up to the kind of factual scrutiny that has been applied to written biographies of ASSK25.  Instead, this series of analyses has focused on historical inaccuracies and The Lady’s gendered, colonial agenda in order to reinforce the fact that Western representations of Asia are often compromised, patriarchal, Othering and Orientalist.  In doing so it overlooks the more blatant strategies which signify the film’s political agenda, i.e. its use of the name Burma over Myanmar, Rangoon over Yangon, its subject of choice and its privileging of the English language (goodies speak English, baddies speak Burmese), in order to demonstrate these themes of a far more insidious nature.

However, problematic as it is, The Lady is still welcome.  The world now has a big-budget, accessible film focusing on ASSK, truly one of the greatest humanitarian figures.  Its timing is prescient, acting as a metaphorical full stop to ASSK’s lionisation.  This full stop may yet turn into a comma, or even the start of a sentence, as Myanmar’s own motion picture industry breaks out of its shackles and seeks to represent ASSK in its own fashion.  Myanmar’s film industry has long been beholden to censorship and lack of funds26, but Myanmar’s reforms are enabling more films to enter production, with a fictionalised biopic of Aung San27 and a documentary about ASSK both presently in the works28.

In other words, the regressive biopic The Lady signifies a new celluloid beginning for Myanmar: a time in which the nation can finally take over from the West to export its own stories about its own heroes.  And ASSK’s story is definitely one to continue watching.

Luke Corbin is a recent graduate from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific

Notes:

  1. Said, Edward (1979).  Orientalism.  New York: Vintage.
  2. Mulvey, Laura (1975), “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16 (3), p6-18.
  3. Shohat, Ella (1997).  “Gender and Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema”, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film ed. Bernstein, Matthew and Studlar, Gaylyn.  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, p19-68.
  4. See note 3.
  5. Cunningham, David et al. (2010).  “Colorectal cancer”, Lancet 375 (9719), p1030-1047.
  6. Hpyo Wai Tha (2012).  “Suu Kyi’s Second Bite at Silver Screen”, The Irrawaddy July 23.  Online at http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/9776, accessed July 1, 2013.
  7. Frater, Patrick (2012).  “Michelle Yeoh Q&A”, Film Business Asia February 4.  Online at http://www.filmbiz.asia/news/michelle-yeoh-qa, accessed August 29, 2012.
  8. Brooten, Lisa (2005).  “The Feminization of Democracy Under Siege: the Media, ‘the Lady’ of Burma, and U.S. Foreign Policy”, NWSA Journal 17 (3), p134-156.
  9. See note 8, p134.
  10. See note 8, p136.
  11. See note 8, p140.
  12. Spielberg, Steven (1981) dir.  Raiders of the Lost Ark.  DVD: Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm.
  13. See note 3, p35.
  14. See note 8.
  15. For more on reception studies and spectatorship theory:
    1. Allan, Richard (1995).  Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    2. Campbell, Jan (2005).  Film and Cinema Spectatorship: Melodrama and Mimesis.  Cambridge: Polity.
    3. Wojcik, Pamela Robertson (2007).  “Spectatorship and Audience Research”.  The Cinema Book ed. Cook, Pam.  London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, p538-545.
  16. Heaney, Seamus (1980).  Preoccupations: Selected prose 1968–1978.  London: Faber.  As cited in:
    1.  Selth, Andrew (2009).  “Burma, Hollywood and the politics of entertainment”, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 23 (3), p332.
  17. As noted by ANU colleague Violet Cho:
    1. Cho, Violet (2008a).  “Heroes Never Die…. They Just Download”, The Irrawaddy February 11.  Online at http://www2.irrawaddy.org/print_article.php?art_id=10256, accessed September 1, 2012.
    2. Cho, Violet (2008b).  “‘Rambo is Hilarious’: Military Mouthpiece “, The Irrawaddy February 19.  Online at http://www2.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=10463, accessed September 1, 2012.
  18. On video sharing website YouTube:
    1. YouTube (2012a).  “อองซาน ซู จีThe Lady ผู้หญิงท้าอำนาจ 1/3”, YouTube May 4.  Online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWT4qOskBfM, accessed July 1, 2013.
    2. YouTube (2012b).  “The Lady (Burmese subtitle)”, YouTube April 19.  Online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7YBDGoTne8, accessed September 1, 2012.
  19. McCartan, Brian (2008).  “Unreal Rambo finds an army of fans”, Asia Times Online March 27.  Online at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/JC27Ae02.html, accessed July 1, 2013.
  20. Personal communication with camp staff, July 17 – August 30.
  21. Johnson, Merrilyn (1996).  “Television violence and its effect on children”, Journal of Pediatric Nursing 11 (2), p94-99.
  22. Examples from the long-running media debate on the impact of screen violence on children:
    1. Bradley, Michael (2003).  “TV drives kids to violence”, Sydney Morning Herald March 11.
    2. Cannon, Carl (2012).  “Screen Violence’s Effects: A Dark Knight Indeed”, Real Clear Politics July 24.  Online at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2012/07/24/screen_violences_effects_a_dark_knight_indeed_114892.html, accessed July 2, 2013.
    3. Galvin, Kevin (1999).  “Clinton calls for less screen violence”, The Register-Guard May 16.
    4. Persaud, Raj (1994).  “Bad vibes from the screen: Media violence does influence aggressive behaviour. But not all children react the same”, The Independent April 5.  Online at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/bad-vibes-from-the-screen-media-violence-does-influence-aggressive-behaviour-but-not-all-children-react-the-same-says-raj-persaud-1368000.html, accessed July 2, 2013.
  23. Singh, Tarsem (2006) dir.  The Fall.  DVD: Radical Media.
  24. Haynes, Todd (1993) dir.  Dottie Gets Spanked.  TV Broadcast: Caboose Productions.  Available online at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL41A2CCCBB49D37CE, accessed July 1, 2013.
  25. Kyaw Yin Hlaing (2007).  “Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar: A Review of the Lady’s Biographies”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 29 (2), p359-376.
  26. See:
    1. Aung Zaw (2004).  “Celluloid Delusions”, The Irrawaddy 12 (3).  Online at http://www2.irrawaddy.org/print_article.php?art_id=924, accessed September 1, 2012.
    2. Ferguson, Jane (2011).  “A History of Burmese Cinema”, Southeast Asian Cinema.  Lyon: Asiexpo, p27-37.
  27. Two articles were published on this last year:
    1. Lawi Weng (2012).  “Who Will Play Aung San?”, The Irrawaddy July 20.  Online at http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/9664/, accessed September 1, 2012.
    2. Nyein Nyein (2012).  “Final Four Chosen for Aung San Biopic”, The Irrawaddy July 26.  Online at http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/10117, accessed July 2, 2013.
  28. Aung San Suu Kyi is providing ten hours of interviews for the documentary:
    1. Hpyo Wai Tha (2012).  “Suu Kyi’s Second Bite at Silver Screen”, The Irrawaddy July 23.  Online at http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/9776, accessed September 1, 2012.
    2. Michael, Samantha (2013).  “Slowly but Surely, Suu Kyi Opens Up for Local Documentary”, The Irrawaddy June 27.  Online at http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/38695, accessed July 1, 2013.