In conjunction with Raya, Watsons did the usual marketing shtick of producing a funny ad to usher in the coming celebrations—but no one is laughing.
The 15-minute video titled Lagenda Cun Raya tells a story inspired from the legend of Dayang Senandong (that was also a 60s film and a TV series at one point).
In the video, Malaysian celebrities acted out the story of royal and high-standing women from all over the world vying for the affections of a rich merchant.
Finally, the character Harum Senandung appeared in blackface, after winning the heart of the aristocrat with her “enchanting” voice.
The ad has also been leveled with some accusations of sexism and racism by netizens on top of the blackface issue (which has some deep connotations internationally).
But it’s not just about pointing fingers.
Watsons have since taken the offending video down and issued an apology. I think that their relatively speedy response shows that this is nothing more than a clueless oversight on their end, instead a video with nefarious motives.
And after the first apology’s wording rubbed people the wrong way, Watsons released another apology with the hashtag #MaafkanWatsons that better expressed sincere remorse.
That being said, as Rafiki has so eloquently put it, I am a firm believer in learning from past mistakes. Taking this as a case study, let’s look at how Watsons could have approached this subject with more delicacy.
1. It Didn’t Have To Be Black
I’ll chalk this up to the initial ignorance in the first place, but if they had made Harum Senandung green instead of black, this would’ve removed the blackface issue altogether.
Either that, or Guardians Of The Galaxy has a lot to answer for.
Sure, the actual legend coloured the girl black too, but judging from this quote by the heroine…
…they’ve taken liberties with the source material anyway. In this update, Harum Senandung was never cursed. She apparently painted herself black to test the merchant’s sincerity towards her.
2. Used A Better-Known Legend
The fact that Watsons even had to clarify that they were inspired from the Dayang Senandung story says it all.
Most Malaysians totally missed the reference, and a lot of the initial outrage thought that the Watsons just made up an offensive, blackface story.
As far as the other allegations go, a lot of legends are pretty sexist. This isn’t even just a Malaysian thing, check out all of those classic Disney fairytales, where many of the women have to wait around to be saved by the prince in shining armour.
The Orang Minyak, while a different vibe from what Watsons was going for, might’ve gotten them a bit more forgiveness from netizens, as it’s a more popular legend.
But honestly, this whole “vying for the king’s affections” trope is a tad sexist.
They could’ve used stories like Puteri Gunung Ledang, Bawang Putih Bawang Merah (with the added family zest for the Raya season) or even the dramatic Mahsuri story, if they wanted to go dark.
We have a rich folklore history, and the added recognition and nostalgia would’ve probably gotten them more attention too.
3. Actually Made A Better Video
So your mileage may vary on this one, but let’s say that they did colour Harum Senandung purple instead of black, I still find the video to be a poor addition to the Raya season.
For one, the video is way too long. At 15-minutes, it’s half an episode of most TV shows. Sure, some Raya ads do run long too, but Dayang Senandung is a simple enough story that it can probably fit into 5 minutes.
There was no need to announce the competition twice (in the beginning of the video, and once again in the marketplace) and they even introduced the “candidates” for the merchant’s affections twice.
Once is enough, so that the story doesn’t feel so draggy, and the story can actually jump straight into the good part. And shorter narration, period. What’s the point of a visual medium if so much of the story still has to be “told”?
And I don’t know about you, but the humour didn’t hit me either.
But I think the worst mistake in the video production, which ties back to the original gaffe, is how the message doesn’t come across.
Sure, Harum Senandung spelled it out to the aristocrat. But all that means is that he fell in love with the equally shallow characteristic of her beautiful voice, instead of her beautiful face.
I’m probably not the only one to make this comparison…
But I think Guardian’s entry into the Raya banquet this year is a better production overall.
It’s only 5 minutes because even though the original lore is long, they only took a small section from it to form a video.
Despite the clearly lower production costs, it’s just really fun to look at. The brand of humour is along the same lines of what Watsons did, but the added touch of the Wayang Kulit element made the video stand out.
Not to mention, in this the message comes across better.
Almost Little Mermaid-ian in its execution, a red-related woman with a beautiful voice saved a royal from drowning, and he fell in love. It feels more like a two-way street.
Like I said, your mileage may vary.
And This Wasn’t The First Time
Just last year, comedy TV show MeleTOP also faced some flak for comedian Shuk SYJ’s donning of blackface to parody Usher in what is now the infamous Usher-Yuna hug.
Yuna expressed her displeasure, and Astro eventually apologised for the gaffe.
Now that the internet has allowed us greater inter-connectivity to the outside world, things that might’ve been seen as okay before are getting put up to more scrutiny.
I’d argue that this is similar as to why Scarlett Johansson got a lot of flak for being cast as a Japanese character in an anime-inspired Ghost In The Shell, whereas Mickey Rooney got off scott-free for the racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
And this leads me back to Lagenda Cun Raya. It might’ve been okay when people didn’t know better, but now that the internet is allowing the marginalised a voice, they’re not standing for it anymore.
Right now, Watsons is that one kid in class who is getting punished publicly as an important lesson for all the other kids in class to hear. And I hope that the other kids are paying attention.