Like A Woman: Performing Gender Roles

6:54 PM

Here it is - the biggest project I have directed, shot and produced by myself for my final year!

As a final year Fashion Media & Industries student in LASALLE, I've been working on my graduation project over the past couple of months (up until end April) together with my peers. We had the freedom to explore any themes we wanted, so I decided on creating a photo series that could visually explore an issue that I held close to my heart.

Hence, the birth of Like A Woman: Performing Gender Roles, a photography project that queries the multi-faceted roles women play in society.

Project Beginnings

In the recent years, I've had an increasing amount of encounters where I was often told that I should/shouldn't be doing certain things because of my gender. To name a few, I was told how I should "laugh like a woman", get married by 30 or else it will be too late, or that I have it 'easier' because it is a female's prerogative to find a rich husband for life support if all else fails. They were gendered expectations, limitations and assumptions of varying degrees, and while I initially felt a mix of indignation, frustration and amusement at these ideals imposed on me, it eventually developed into a curiosity to find out why these gendered norms exist.

Why are mothers primarily responsible for domestic roles in the way fathers are not? Why is a man, not considered truly a 'man' unless he is the breadwinner of the household? If you think about it, in Singapore's landscape, both genders are brought up and given the same opportunities (compulsory education in primary/secondary/post-secondary etc). But on the account of gender, one is expected to be 'innately' feminine domestically, while the other would require his manhood to be substantiated by his social status in due course.
Why does the term 'ageing gracefully' apply exclusively to women and not men? Why are emotions something men are not socially allowed to express when it's a natural human reaction?

So who assigned us these gendered ideals and who created them? Where did it begin? It was a topic that deeply intrigued me, and so, I thought to look into something long those lines for my final year project.

And so, that's how the photo series Like A Woman: Performing Gender Roles came about.

As a disclaimer, I want to highlight that this project aims to shed light on the gender norms that have been entrenched in our patriarchal culture. I decided to focus on the multi-faceted roles expected of women in society because it was more relatable to me (if I had more time and the budget, I would love to work the male perspective as well).
So while Like A Woman: Performing Gender Roles focuses solely on the roles modern day women have been enforced to play, I am not diminishing the hardships men face today. All genders have their own set of discriminating issues, so not one gender is "better off" than the other and it's not a competition (putting this just in case cause gender [in]equality is a really sensitive topic, you know).

Project Background

Ever since Singapore women were encouraged to extend beyond the domestic sphere to participate in the economy in the 1960s, they played dual roles - as wage earners and homemakers. And over the years, the expectations of women have personified into the 'modern woman', also socially defined as "a superwoman who flawlessly balances her career, household responsibilities, fitness and relationships all at the same time".

To find out if that is true, I conducted surveys with Singaporean women aged 21 to 51 to find out what were some of the struggles or gendered expectations that they have encountered as a 'modern woman'. From having to play dual roles to facing societal pressures to get married because "a women’s lifetime happiness comes from her marriage" or being deemed as "too intimidating" when they put career success as their main priority, these combined experiences reveal a lot about some of the expectations placed on the 'modern woman' in both the private and public spheres.

Further research also attributed these gendered expectations as a consequence of constructed ideals of femininity that has very much been instigated by Singapore's patriarchal culture and perennial narrative that one should "study hard for good grades, find a good job, get married and have children".

So is this 'modern woman' icon (the superwoman who can do everything) actually reflective of Singapore's demographic? Or is she just an epitomised social reality that's furthered by state-controlled media?

Well, I think there is a bit of truth in both. And thus, the photo series seeks to visually explore the roles of the 'modern woman' as an actuality, whilst demystifying her as a feminine ideal that is inherently natural.

Creative Muse

French renaissance art was my main inspiration behind the creative direction for Like A Woman: Performing Gender Roles.

In the 19th century, French Renaissance portraitures were used to depict the ‘idealised French woman’ as the artist often sought to only copy the beautiful and flattering aspects of the subject. That tidbit of information gave me the idea to use elements from the Renaissance period as a way to contemporarise the 'ideal woman' French portraitures to fit today's context. Hence, the stone-cast planters and vintage wares with modern-day clothes and narratives.
On a more personal note, I've always found the art, fashion and architecture of the Victorian era particularly pleasing (some might find it gaudy), so being able to dapple into the Renaissance time period for this project was a dream.

The vibrant colours and somewhat kitschy aesthetic was a deliberate choice to add some element of irony to the imagery; kind of to reduce the modern woman to one-dimensional caricatures that the media sometime portrays.

The Characters

These 10 'women roles' feature the same model against the same backdrop to depict the extent to which women have multiple roles to play in society. Each persona illuminates a particular societal expectation or issue, and I want to give my audience the freedom to interpret the portrayals however they want. Individuals (who had obviously gone through life differently) will pick out different cues and semiotics from the role-playing that relates to their own experiences and ideological perspectives.
I released this photo series to friends and lecturers, and then on my Instagram. Some loved the satire and appreciated the implications, some found it boring because it's just 'pretty photos'. Either way, I loved hearing everyone's take on it! If you'd like to share yours, please do! Or if you'd like to share my work on other platforms, do drop me a message.

But anyways, just for this blog post (since it is a personal archival), I shall discuss a bit of each role below the images just to flex my considerations and literary thought processes behind the construction of each look (since I did afterall, spend a tedious amount of time developing moodboards and sourcing props for each persona). :P

Like A Woman: Performing Gender Roles

The Undergraduate: A figure that illuminates Singapore's societal emphasis on academic achievements and paper qualifications. In hindsight, this pressure on undergraduates pushed some mostly undergraduates in Singaporean universities to be sugar babies to pay their tuition fees (according to a March 2020 statistic report by Sugar Book).

The Girl Boss: A paradoxical icon that is popularised for being an independent, assertive and economically capable woman that is also on the periphery for being too ‘masculine’ or ‘intimidating’,  if she does not provide an unthreatening assurance of her femininity in other social aspects of her life.

The Wage Earner: A figure that shows the economic role that women play in society while earning enough income at home.

The Bride: A figure that illuminates the societal pressure on women to get married, as a consequence of the conventional paradigm that prescribes a women’s lifetime happiness to her marriage as love is what she is ultimately ‘fit’ for.

The Single Woman: A stereotypical icon that generalises unattached women as unapproaching, self-serving individuals who are also sad and lonely because their ‘flaws’ make them unsuitable for marriage.

The Fitness Junkie: A popularised figure that illuminates the pressure on women to maintain an attractive figure to match body ideals while perpetually exercising body positivity.

The Homemaker: A figure that depicts the longevity of the traditional domesticity expected of women since the pre-war era to modern day.

The Mother: A figure that illuminates the way that mothers are considered primary caregivers in a way fathers are not, even if she has other societal roles to play.

The Wife: A sexualised icon that depicts the extra effort women are expected to put in to maintain sexual appeal in order to be loved, validated or respected even if she were married.

The Grandma: A personification of the feminine ideal that women should ‘age gracefully’ because her sense of self and identity revolves around her physical appearance.

Photography & Art Direction: Mirabelle Koh (@mirabellekoh)
Video Director: Jeremy Tan (@jayforjem)
Assisted by: Yanting Yau (@022.jpg)
Stylists: Hakim Wijaya (@hakwij) & Tay Hui Mei (@not_mei)
Hair & Makeup: Aung Achipai (@aungkeng)
Model: Kaci Beh (@kacibeh)
Model Agency: Basic (@basicmodels)

Special Thanks: Ji Mei Flowers (@jimeiflowers), Momiji Kids (@momiji_kids)

So, that's it for the boring academia stuff!! Kudos if you've read my verbal vomit that I took hours to compose and organise cause I could never get this post to flow the way I wanted it to until today. :')

To me, the hardest part of this entire project was the producing/production part. I spent weeks travelling to secluded locations in Singapore that I didn't even know existed just to get my props. The victorian-style furnitures, the stone cast planters, those avant garde outfits and purple-hued fresh flowers that I spent days drying; gurl they don't all come from the same place yo. I died three times over that week just getting them all together while finding suitable talents, arranging deliveries, getting things made-to-order, testing equipment and being my own PR manager on the side.

That being said, this project also would not have been possible if not for some of my childhood pals that helped me with a bunch of not-so-pretty stuff behind the scenes (like lighting tests, studio set ups, garment fitting etc). Even though most of them don't always understand/work in the creative field, they still helped me with my FYP without reservations during the most pressing times. They are my life support, and never have I been more grateful. And of course, my amazing creative team (in the credits) who made this possible with their respective talents!

Some on-set BTS cause why not? These are the most glamourous ones out of the lot since the rest is basically us perspiring, moving stuff and looking extremely haggard from the two full day shoot.

While I am proud with what I've come up with for my graduation project, I certainly did not feel this way all the time. It was a love-hate relationship that had me thiiiiiis close to giving up. Or rather, I did give up, wallow in self-pity for days questioning my existence and creative capabilities before starting work again. It was a cycle of pain that I'm sure many of my coursemates also went through. But we all survived, barely, but somehow.

So yes, that concludes my three year journey in LASALLE. Every passing semester, I sell a little of my soul to produce what I think is art that when end of submissions came around, I was only left with a husk that is my tangible human form. FYP really took such a toll on me that I had to hikikomori it up just to feel human again lol.
That also explains why I took so long to get back to blogging despite the two-months long circuit breaker. Disassociating myself from the world just became such a compelling prospect that it took me this long. Well, I think that phase is over. Just in time for the second phase of CB too!

To sum up my university years: I would definitely not want to do it all over again, but I do not regret a moment of it. In those years, I've learnt a lot to produce works that I'm proud of (at the expense of my sanity, of course), so I think it's an overall positive experience. Three torturous years to graduate as a non-essential member of society, yay me!! Haha I kid, I'm not at all affected by the ST infographic about artists being non-essential, I just find it humorous yet baffling that a national news platform would even angle an article like that, considering that the point the were trying to make is how some jobs have 'unfair' wages.

Now, time to move on to the next phase. Hopefully, time would bring about some revelations about what to do for the future. Meanwhile, I'll do my best to update this blog with upcoming shenanigans  or old projects. My creative spark has been reignited after the long break.

I hope everyone's doing well during this circuit breaker. And fellow class of covid-19, congrats on graduating!! May the months ahead be better for us all.

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